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VISIONS DU RÉEL 2020

Review: Anerca, Breath of Life

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- Delving into indigenous cultures in the Arctic Circle, Finnish filmmakers Johannes Lehmuskallio and Markku Lehmuskallio ask us to prick up our ears and listen

Review: Anerca, Breath of Life

“A film about indigenous cultures in the Arctic Circle,” announces, rather pointlessly, a statement opening Johannes Lehmuskallio and Markku Lehmuskallio’s Finnish documentary Anerca, Breath of Life [+see also:
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, world-premiering at the online edition of Visions du Réel, in the International Feature Film Competition. This is followed by an actual list of all of the territories in question, as well as some more introductions. It’s an awkward beginning, to say the least, giving off a feel of a school assignment, or a direct response to these famed “five Ws” of journalism: “who”, “what”, “when”, “where” and “why”, ticking off all the questions a story should always answer, apparently.

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Luckily, what comes next eases up a bit, as tales are told and forgotten words introduced, like quarrtsiluni, for example waiting for something to spring forth. What does spring forth here, however, is the music, along with a plethora of different sounds, cries and whispers, controlled by sound designer Martti Turunen and still sweeping you along with it. At one point, it’s almost advisable just to listen to this film, not look, as one can be transfixed by its changing rhythms taking over whenever the explanatory voice-over wisely withdraws into the background. It feels odd to urge anyone to close their eyes when watching a film – unless it’s “torture porn”, a subgenre now blissfully dormant, thank God – but here, the aural is just so much stronger than the visual, and frankly elevates the entire production.

Director Markku Lehmuskallio, a multiple Jussi Award winner now accompanied by his son, Johannes, doesn’t feel like a tourist in these worlds – after all, he has been exploring indigenous cultures for what already feels like forever, recently(-ish) in Tsamo [+see also:
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film profile
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(co-directed with Anastasia Lapsui). Adding archive footage to various performances or something as simple as a close-up of a woman discussing the importance of traditional face tattoos, only to reveal hers to be just make-up, they accumulate a great deal here, hoarding any trace of cultures that seem to be disappearing with every passing minute. They also respectfully listen to those who share their often painful experiences or wonder what one’s identity really depends on nowadays, especially if the language of their ancestors is long forgotten.

And while some of it is somewhat clumsily shot, possibly rendering the film’s appeal even more limited, every time the music kicks in, that’s when the magic begins, combining old and new, traditional costumes and graffitied surfaces in the middle of Helsinki, as maybe that’s the ideal way for it all to live and prosper. It’s a movie that leaves the ears buzzing – with the sound of mosquitoes, a haunting melody, coming back again and again, or finally all those numerous tales, remembered by few and sometimes recounted to no one in particular except for a curious cat. Like the one about a mythological bird, Minlei, known as the messenger of the shamans, always the first to warn them about any upcoming misfortune, a flood, a blizzard or an epidemic. It seems like we could all really, really use one of those right now. And fast.

Directors Johannes and Markku Lehmuskallio also handled the cinematography and editing of Anerca, Breath of Life, which was produced by Finland’s Giron Filmi.

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