Pirjo Honkasalo: Thou Shall Bear Witness

Looking at the Finnish documentarian’s poetic and haunting “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia.”

11 mins read

“These children have the serenity of a leafless tree, as if they already had within themselves one life; as if all the pain and longing that goes into adult life, all the relinquishing, has already been endured.” – Pirjo Honkasalo

Veteran Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo made her latest documentary, The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, because she felt ashamed. Seeing the world repeatedly turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the first Chechen war (1994-1996) and the current one (1999-present), Honkasalo felt that she had a “second chance” to add her voice to what was happening. She traveled to Russia and Chechnya looking to “enter the vulnerability of a child’s mind,” one full of internalized pain and unconscious enmity. She discovered children, some as young as eight, who had been raped by soldiers, and many others who had witnessed the deaths of their parents and been abandoned, heirs to a world of violence. In the visually arresting 3 Rooms, Honkasalo returns to a defining theme of many of her narrative and documentary films: what happens when emotional burdens get passed on from one generation to the next?

The idea for 3 Rooms grew out of a TV doc series based on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s acclaimed Dekalog, which had placed the Ten Commandments in modern contexts. For this new anthology, Honkasalo chose to examine, “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” After protracted power-struggles with an American producer – she was unwilling to surrender “final cut” – Honkasalo struck out on her own with a Finnish company, Millennium Films. She feels the funding situation makes people intellectually dishonest and that “film in America is a product, like sausages—you can make them longer, shorter, package them differently.” In reaction to pressures from commissioning editors who prefer formulaic, time-slot docs, Honkasalo jokes about two t-shirts she needs: “This bitch don’t pitch” and “Just say no to 52 minutes!” She laughingly admits to being “an ideal director for a producer because I say I want to make a film that has no story, which is in three parts, and nothing happens.”

Honkasalo presides, alongside Alanis Obomsawin, Heddy Honigmann and Agnès Varda, in the pantheon of female documentary storytellers who have changed the way we see and process film. She made her first experimental films in the late ’60s. Her narrative feature, Flame-top, was accepted into Cannes in 1980 and Fire-eater (1998) garnered numerous awards internationally, including nine Jussis (Finnish Oscars). At last year’s DocPoint Documentary Festival in Helsinki, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

At the recent International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA), Honkasalo was head of the Joris Ivens Award jury. (8 years ago she won the Award for Atman (1996), the third installment in The Trilogy of the Sacred and Satanic, in which she explored her fascination with spirituality and the nature of evil). POV’s international editor, Peter Wintonick, organized a screening-cum-master class that focused on “her intersection of aesthetics and documentary.” The 3 Rooms of Melancholia received the Amnesty International DOEN Award for best humanitarian documentary. Honkasalo’s impressive new film will have its U.S. launch at the 2005 Sundance Festival.


3 Rooms of Melancholia
The story takes place in three “rooms”— physical/emotional containers for the children’s wounded spirits. Honkasalo has a piercing yet empathetic eye for transmitting hopelessness and loss through the eerily vacant, though paradoxically present, gaze of young Russian and Chechen children. What is it like to be inside their heads, to sink deep into their crushed, orphaned hearts? Honkasalo takes us into intimate places, groggy with both childhood sleepiness and adult sleeplessness. Her lens lingers on small hands, a foot sticking out from a blanket—unobtrusive yet unwavering.

Room 1: Longing
The 300 year-old Kronstadt Military Academy is located on a remote island off St. Petersburg. President Putin revived the academy as a training ground for future Russian soldiers, most of whom are abandoned children. She shadows the boys through their daily activities—getting dressed, going through drills, marching, saluting, and reciting nationalistic folk anthems. When we see the boys having a snowball fight, it feels surreal: these are kids just being kids, but what is innocent child play now will one day be traded in for machine guns and sniper gear.

Room 2: Breathing
Grozny is the heart of the Chechen inferno. Shot in gritty black and white, this is the no-man’s land of war. While explosions are going off in the background, we enter a bombed-out apartment building. A woman is lying on a couch, surrounded by her crying and confused children. Poisoned from toxic fumes, she is no longer able to care for them. Enter Hadizhat Gataeva, a guardian angel who roams the city gathering up these orphans in order to take them out of harm’s way. The children have no idea who this woman is or where they are going. We see them traveling in a van through the wreckage and ruin, as if in a liminal state suspended between the present danger and an uncertain future.

Room 3: Remembering
Four miles from the Chechen border is the Ingushetia refugee camp. Since the first Chechen war, Hadizhat, an orphan herself, has taken in over sixty children. There is a hauntingly long sequence in which we see close-ups of children in bed and hear her voice, as though on a loop, saying over and over again, “Wake up, wake up.” But there is some unconscious willfulness at play here, as though the children prefer the safety of their dreams, however frightening they may be. Which is safer, their dreams or waking to a no-hope reality?

While shooting at Kronstadt in 2002, the Dubrovka theatre was bombed in Moscow. It’s disturbing to watch the children in both the military academy and in Hadizhat’s home as they see “their inheritance” on TV, their faces chillingly placid. Then in another overlap of events, the horrific massacre at a school in Breslan, Russia, happened days before the film’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September 2004.

If 3 Rooms feels non-narrative, it is by design. Honkasalo believes a story “should emerge from what the audience apprehends.” Niels Pagh Andersen, the film’s co-editor, found it challenging to work with material with so little action and dialogue: “While I am not afraid to be sentimental, Pirjo is almost anti-sentimental. For her, sentimentality is rape. I also discovered that my desire for harmony and beauty was a problem…but by and by, I saw that ugliness was exactly what was needed to keep the film from becoming schmaltzy. The (film) already had clarity in Pirjo’s footage, so I had to do the opposite of what I usually do. Not reduce, but mystify. Make the material more ethereal and leave a lot up to the viewer.”

The 3 Rooms of Melancholia is one of a number of films (like Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly and Marziyeh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs, both at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival) that show us a world of suffering children in different pockets of the world far from the landscape of Hollywood films, who don’t have the luxury of choice to shape their own destinies. Though 3 Rooms takes place in Russia and Chechnya, Honkasalo feels that it could have easily been Israel, Palestine, Iraq or Africa. Andersen asserts that, “by showing the Russians as damaged, innocent children, Pirjo avoids pointing out a villain to blame for the evils being committed. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Why do we do such things?’ Each viewer is left with the world’s evil on his or her shoulders.”

Pirjo Honkasalo is an imagistic Dante for our modern age: two purgatories bookend an inferno, but paradise has yet to surface for these children. Documentary pioneer John Grierson coined a phrase, “documentary conscience.” It aptly describes Honkasalo’s cinematic voice, seldom uttered by mainstream media, of the quiet, lost and searching heart. Maverick filmmaker Guy Maddin has referred to primetime news as “adult nightmares.” The 3 Rooms of Melancholia is a dreamtime with no tooth fairies, filled with children exiled to the inner world of trauma where innocence is numbed and hope smothered. While it remains unclear in the film whether the orphans in Kronstadt will one day be fighting the orphans in Chechnya, as Honkasalo sees it, “When you put them all together, they are one child.”

Previous Story


Next Story

Documenting Apartheid – Part 1

Latest from Blog

0 $0.00