17th Espoo Ciné Film Festival

It’s 7am, I’ve been up all night and I’m out of my face on Finnish vodka. And I’m 20 foot up a pine-tree. Yes, Finland’s 17th Espoo Ciné is the weirdest damn film festival ever.

It begins as soon as I arrive at my hotel, set amongst the aforementioned pine-trees in Espoo, a suburb of Finnish capital Helsinki. “You have two hours,” my festival greeter tells me, speaking, like most Finns, in perfect, but bizarrely flat, English. “And then sauna.”

“Hit me, please,” a man orders, handing me a clump of birch twigs. He is naked. I am naked. The other ten men sweating in the room with me are naked. It’s no big deal. I’m only BRITISH after all. But I do as I’m told and twat him as hard as I can, creating a shower of leaves and droplets of moisture (sweat? Water?). He screams out in pain. Too hard? “No,” he tells me, “just right. Again, please.” So I flail the guy until he tells me to stop. It’s like the scourging scene from The Passion Of The Christ. And then it’s my turn. (Yes, I enjoyed it). My whipping buddy introduces himself afterwards: he’s Timo Kuisman, executive director of the festival. “Welcome to Espoo.”

Showing some 90 films, this year’s Espoo Ciné is particularly special. With its fantasy and horror strand part of the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation (check out the F’s on that) it has the honour of hosting the 10th Méliès d’Or, named after George Méliès, director of 1902’s groundbreaking Le Voyage dans la lune. The winner is selected from a shortlist consisting of one film nominated by each of the EFFFF’s 10 affiliated festivals (the UK represented by Leeds). As every film in the contest is guaranteed a Silver Méliès, the atmosphere at the awards ceremony is understandably celebratory.

And, this being Finland, distinctly strange. It opens with a performance from The Cleaning Women, a band of cross-dressing punks in big boots who play loud, mind-warping rock on homemade instruments. To get us in the fantasy mood, they play against an abridged version of Aelita: Queen Of Mars, a rare example of Soviet sci-fi from 1924 mixing Flash Gordon-style aesthetics with Marxist revolutionary ideals. Mind-blowing. Also shown is the winner of the Méliès d’Or short film competition, Starfly, a wonderful homage to 1950s Americana courtesy of Luxembourg’s Beryl Koltz.

For the main prize, the jury had a hard time picking a winner (indeed, two of its members resigned in protest), but eventually settled on Danish fantasy-parable Adam’s Apples. A truly wonderful film that sees a neo-Nazi sentenced to community service with a maddeningly optimistic priest, producer Mie Andreasen – on hand to collect the award on behalf of director Anders Thomas Jensen – later tells me it’s only getting a DVD release in the UK. Subtitles, you see. Ashamed to hail from such a philistine nation, I fully embrace my European side and drink lots of neat vodka. Which, combined with my British tendency for drunken exuberance, leads to me climbing a tree. Watching the sun rise over the pines, I think how beautiful it all is and how I’m not remotely guilty for having hardly watched any films because I’m in love with the Finns, those crazy, polite, socialist, boozed-up, sauna-obsessed party animals and… and how the hell am I going to get down from here?

This article first appeared in  Hotdog Magzine in 2005.