The Starting Point – Sakari Pälsi
The starting point of Finnish anthropological filming is the film made in Siberia by Sakari Pälsi (1882 - 1965), an archaeologist, folklorist, explorer and author. His film about the Tsukhtsis in north-east Siberia was filmed in 1917-19. As a fresh doctor of archaeology, Pälsi's original intention was to find support for his idea about archaeology of the Stone Age, but after lack of evidence for his theory, he turned to his second possibility, ethnological research. "I'm taking along with ordinary things a cinematographic machine, which makes it possible to preserve technical methods of natives. If I combine primitive tools, half-done and finished products, exact reports on working customs, photos and cinematographic films, we are able to create a valuable collection for a museum, that guarantees, in complete and in living series, reliable and many-sided material for research", Pälsi wrote in his diary.
Pälsi published a book about his travel to four continents in 1919, but his films remained to be unpublished. Three short films were brought to markets as a part of rising ethnographic movement in 1930's, but soon films vanished and were "found" from private apartment's attic only in 1976 and restorated in next decade by the Finnish Film Archive. Landscape pictures taken during the trip from Vladivostok, filming modern fishing methods in Strait of Bering and filmed scenes life of the Tsukhtsis in their everyday lives, in all it makes today 40 minutes of restored film.
Pälsi's films were realist documentaries or from another viewpoint, filmed episodes of non-Western human behaviour, and thus film tells more about "anthropological" subjects than modern anthropological films, that are designed to communicate anthropological insights. But instead of being characterized only an explorer with vague intentions Pälsi was certainly, at least in some degree, also a folklorist, since it is hard to deny his strong interest in native populations, especially their customs, living conditions and art. From his diary we know that he felt sympathy for this strong race, as he described the Tsukhtsis and their lives in hard conditions, and he was interested in film making to preserve the oldest possible customs – especially those already vanishing. He was not only interested in modern times, but wanted to grasp something from the past. His viewpoint was strongly historical.
Theoretically, however, being categorized as an explorer hints that his film is to be considered as travelogue or adventure films, but it is not the only sub-genre of early ethnographic documentary that can be found. We can easily see glimpses of big-game expedition films (modern fishing scenes), and certainly – through his images of race – some of the colonialist film tradition (colonial gaze represented e.g. in wrestling natives and some of the presented portraits).
We don't know much about how these films were used. At the beginning, they were probably meant as entertaining moments for academic guests in Pälsi's home, and maybe films were also some kind of Madeleine Cake's for his personal memorizing. His films are the starting point of anthropological film but not really part of continuum, since these films didn't create any tradition, even if they later became a part of it.
Entertainment is actually one of typical feature of early anthropological film. Being more of a travelogue type of documentary than a serious science film, I have taken with me some shots by American Sunset Motion Picture Film about The Rescue of Stephansson Arctic Expedition in (1914-16) to show some strong example how early ethnographic film was used as an entertainment. Colonial, racist and otherwise problematic scenes are certainly part of this use. Like we now know, e.g. the first long ethnographic documentary, Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North was intentionally made as a narrative form as a result of the needs of film markets. Pälsi didn't use narrative form, but voyage to Siberia and goodbye-gaze from the boat when leaving are signs of understanding Aristotelian law of narrative: beginning, middle part and the end. His film is not as intensive as Flaherty's, but certainly Pälsi understood that with film it is possible to present something that is difficult to communicate to the people living in completely different cultural conditions.
Film became a part of public discussion on scientific practices in 1919, when film company Ab Finsk Filmkonst started its efforts to film Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. The company was not able to fulfil its dreams, but intellectual discussion about filming went on: in the National museum some officials started to think how, I quote; "habits of the people, parties, festivities, magic rites and technical operations" had to be "preserved". Film, they thought, was an instrument for progress in science.
Karelian Wedding in the Land of Poetry (1921) was shot by a scientific expedition of the Kalevala Society to Karelia, where they believed, the ancient poetic tradition was still alive – Kalevala epic had been compiled by Elias Lönnrot, who had used the epic poetry as inspiration only a few generations earlier. The ancient way of life captured by the film-makers in Eastern Karelia was exotic and strange even to then-contemporary Finns. The elaborate wedding ceremonies were, after a thorough training by the scientists, enacted by local people with devotion and charm. Also, the film group organised production design, that is building of set, where the action took place: baking of pies, the virgin bath, the interpretation of dreams, the striking of fire with tinderbox, the holy incense, protection from earth spirits, playing the kantele, loosening of the girl’s braid, blessing with bread, circling the groom’s people with an axe, tossing coins on the oven, and throwing barleycorn for fertility were among the rituals and superstitions portrayed.
We also get to see views of the magnificent Lake Ladoga and exciting scenes from vanished ways of farming, most notably the kaski, a wildfire or casque, that is to say, clearing a patch of woodland and burning the brush piles for fields of barley. As a work of cinematography The Karelian Wedding is very basic, a simple record rather than film art.
The film was produced during the heyday of folklore. Elias Lönnrot’s feat of compiling the Kalevala was not an end but an inspiring challenge for subsequent generations. Collecting poetry, songs, spells, proverbs, and riddles became a popular movement in which the voluntary contributions of laymen were instrumental. The Finnish collection of ancient folk poetry grew to become one of the richest in any language; the formerly outspoken parts that prudishness formerly censored have been first published in the 1990s.
These early efforts were rather extensive as an enterprise. Film as such leaves lot of space for music. Composer Armas Launis, now famous for his operas, wrote original music for the dance scene and for the incantation scene and arranged the lullaby and the dirge and other tunes from his operas Kullervo and The Seven Brothers. Contemporary reviews praised Launis’s work as the most important Finnish contribution to film music since Armas Järnefelt’s for The Song of the Scarlet Flower.
Today’s viewers can treasure the film for its spontaneity. Although enacted and thoroughly set up, it still has documentary value in showing the way of life in the land of poetry – the life that is outwardly startlingly poor and simple but rich in poetry and music. But high costs of this film were again an obstacle to carry on this combination of scientific and entertaining filming.
The program of ethnographic filming
The foundations of first programme of ethnographical filming are to be found in 1935 when Kansatieteellinen Filmi Oy – Ethnographic Film ltd. was established by doctor Kustaa Vilkuna and his academic friends, including Sakari Pälsi who was working then as a director of prehistoric department of National Museum.
Photographer Eino Mäkinen, master of history and specialist on field, joined the team from the very beginning. He had learned filming in Aho & Soldan, a film company that had produced documentaries, e.g. official propaganda films of Finland for foreign ministery. Together Vilkuna and Mäkinen created a tradition of ethnographic filming that lasted for thirty years, thus teaching to younger generation of researchers the possibilities of filmed anthro- and ethnology. Many young ethnologists learned to use film camera in projects of that film company.
In their grand work "Work of Fathers" in 1943, ethnographer Vilkuna and photographer Mäkinen said in an opening phrase that they "wanted to preserve the beauty of peasant culture and teach to see its hidden values to later generations." It could easily be accepted also as an artistic declaration for their film company. Nothing agrarian was ugly to them, and every trace of peasants work is actually possible to be noticed optically, because "peasant likes to stop to examine, not only his own achievements but his/her neighbours as well".
But professor Vilkuna was not interested only in aesthetics. He created a historically motivated ideology to give credit to the life and works of Finnish landowner peasant. His main ideological idea was one that matched perfectly with the spirit of nationalism in 1930's: the Finnishness is a creation of the practice of everyday life of a Finnish peasant in the flow of time. His idea was not to say that the Finnishness is primordial, born without cultural contacts with the outside world. On the opposite, he understood well that culture is international, but he stressed, that culture or intercultural capital could be used in two different ways: either waste it or accumulate capital. In this ability to adapt and develop lies the ingenuity of Finnish peasant.
My colleague Ilkka Kippola and I have named this as a functional doctrine of material work. It was aimed to be the main ideology of the Finnish ethnological programme. Practical goal was to preserve the working methods of peasants. It was important also in the national ideological context. Ethos and moral of independent landowner cultivator, that they understood had been the foundation pillar of Finnish society for centuries, is laid on base of, at first, on the co-operative spirit; secondly, on the humble functionality of traditional agricultural work; and thirdly, on respect of the results of that work. Vilkuna and Mäkinen understood that old culture is vanishing with modernisation process. That is the reason why for them "to preserve" meant actually preserving of the oldest possible method, especially the ones that where almost lost.
In the next few years Eino Mäkinen realised interpretation of Vilkuna's doctrine in ethnographic films. The first product was A boat out of Single Log, seven minutes long short film concentrating on process of skilled peasant artisans. This ingenious invention came abroad, but was soon developed in a manner that it made possible to conquer the wilderness in North. Vilkuna's code is that in a long evolution peasant tools have been refined to top quality products.
Mäkinen was ready to go under the skin of ethnography to catch the internalized ideals of peasant reality. In his set up these settlers were designed with clean, white linen dress to be able to present in live the doctrine of functional peasant work. All in all, this was needed to affirm for present audiences that with "showing and pulling out the values of ancient work and businesses, this would create in its persistent and functional expediency a background for demanding present." Mäkinen made similar set up later to Nyrki Tapiovaara's film "Juha", that is one of the most appreciated fiction film from 1930's in Finland.
As a production designer of Alvar Aalto, the most famous Finnish architect, Eino Mäkinen was able to create connection points between arts and crafts industry and doctrine of peasant work at the World Fair in Paris in 1937. Consequently, A boat out of Single Log made impact on Aalto, because it presented the roots of modern design. Mutual understanding found two years later a new forum at World Fair in New York, where Mäkinen adapted ethnographic pictures in designing Aalto's Finnish pavilion.
Architect's functionalist thinking, ethnologist's theory about beauty of functional work of peasant and a combining link created by a photographer found each other for a moment at the House of Finland, build to a biggest metropolis of world just before the Winter War started in November 1939.
In next three years Mäkinen had photographed with his Eymon camera with 30 meter cassette five films: Hay making in Hämeenkyrö, Making of tar in Somerniemi and a three parts of casque films about areas, where casque was used as a main cultivation method. These films were equipped with sound before 1938. Mäkinen was an analytic photographer. He did not waste film, he started with essential taking ethnographic photos and only after that he grasped economically the time dimension of ethnography with his film camera. His main idea was to capture "the changes of material in moving photographs." He once said in interview that he was not thinking of filming, but taking movable photographs.
In 1938, the film company was able to expand their repertoire, and Mäkinen went to film the Skolts, an orthodox Sami group, living at the border of Russia in Lappland. Because of the Winter War in 1939, this three-piece film plan was reduced to a single film, but Winter Life in Suonikylä is still an evidence of the possibilities of ethnographic filming. Winter time in Lapland is dark and winter conditions cold but the film group was able to use mobile generators to bring light to the area where electricity otherwise was only wishful thinking. But still the result was exactly how he described his method of photographing years later: "Ruff, strong contrasts, first overall view, then half close-up and the close-up". He understood the techniques of Vertovian montage and black-and-white photographing from his earlier master, Heikki Aho, who had studied in Germany.
Ethnology in Finland was committed to nationalist thinking. But its' core did not last the changes of the war. Ethnic carelianism, way of living as it in reality was, was a disappointment for all ethnologists in all of their idealism of Greater Finland during the Continuation War from 1941 on. Ethnographic programme was annulled to propaganda during the war years. Authors and journalists had their problems in adapting to the reality of life at Eastern Carelia, but the sad fact is that quality gave way to propaganda in those times. In folklore and in architecture some war time works remain valuable and acceptable even today, but in film ethnographic master pieces are very hard to find.
After the war, the ethnographic film programme had gone with the war wind. Documentary filming concentrated on reconstruction and to the housing the refugees. There was no room for ethnographic filming. From 1950's on the National Board of Antiquities began to rebuild a new programme. War time propaganda had been left, but certain nationalism was inherited from old programme. Agrarian working methods were still essential topic, but also milieus and landscapes of cultural scenery were analysed. This change is easily seen in Osmo Vuoristo's and Niilo Heino's film Sompio.
Many of the films were based on Vilkuna's and Mäkinen's texts: functional doctrine of material work was still acceptable. Now it played as an ideological foundation for a better future. This future had already been prepared during the centuries by work and artefact cultures of traditional free peasantry. Ingenuity of these peasant artefacts, practicality and economical thinking of peasantry with its hierarchies, competition and division of the spoils, created something that was crystallized in their work in 1943 and what was taken as such to Niilo Valonen's and Niilo Heino's film Salmon-weir in 1964: these company men who are building a salmon-weir will be, after long-time of collective work and living together "harmonious and decent citizens". This is how the way from centuries old tradition is cleared to everyday citizenship as natural self-evident truth as only an ideology can be.
Original sound films were destroyed at first in 1950's when professor Vilkuna edited original films with film company Suomi-Filmi. Films were turned to short films to be exhibited in cinema before long fiction film. Original sound negatives were destroyed at that process. That was not enough. Eino Mäkinen sold his original negatives to commercial TV-company in 1970's. Film company edited the originals and thus created TV-programmes with quality. But that destroyed what there was left. Mäkinen co-operated with research fellow Lauri Tykkyläinen in the Finnish Film Archive to restore what there remained to be restored.
©Jari Sedergren. Esitelmä Maailman elokuva-arkistojen liiton kongressin tieteellisessä symposiumissa, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 7.6. 2005.