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interview and essays by pamela cohn


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contents page 5: Foreword page 7: Pilgrimage: Movements of Body, Breath and Desire page 13: The Trilogy page 17: Mysterion page 25: Tanjuska and the 7 Devils page 35: Ātman (Soul)


about pamela cohn

Pamela Cohn is an American film curator and writer based in Europe and the UK. She programs for DokuFest: The International Documentary and Short Film Festival in Prizren, Kosovo, and has worked for the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, and DocPoint in Helsinki, Finland, among other festivals. She consults for the National Endowment for the Arts, Tribeca Film Institute, and Scottish Documentary Institute as a selection committee member for funds, grants, and pitch forums. She is a contributing writer and interviewer for Filmmaker Magazine, The Calvert Journal, BOMB Magazine, Guernica, Senses of Cinema, Prishtina Insight, and Desistfilm. She is the author of a forthcoming collection of long-form conversations with moving image artists and filmmakers called Lucid Dreaming: Making Personal Nonfiction Cinema in the Twenty-First Century to be published this autumn with O/R Books, New York.

this program includes

Mysterion (1991), Tanjuska and the 7 Devils (1993), and Ātman (1997)


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foreword n e i t h e r / n o r is the True/False Film Fest’s annual repertory series. With it, we spotlight work that broadens the boundaries of nonfiction filmmaking, as well as film writers who are sharp interpreters of this complex, exhilarating, and terribly fraught art. Six years into the series, in which we’ve thus far focused on industries, movements, and collectives, we are turning our attention to one director, Pirjo Honkasalo, and three connected journeys she embarked on throughout the 1990s: the Trilogy of the Sacred and the Satanic. Pirjo is one of the leading fiction directors in her home country of Finland. She was the first woman cinematographer in Finland to shoot a feature, and, at age 29, she directed what was then the country’s most expensive film, Flame Top (1980). Concerned about the direction her life was headed, she turned to nonfiction filmmaking as an attempt “to see behind the rational,” as she tells this monograph’s author and series programmer, Pamela Cohn. The three films in this series, Mysterion (1991), Tanjuska and the 7 Devils (1993), and Ātman (1997), are all the work of masterful but modest crews placing themselves in intense and disorienting real world situations. In breathtaking and heartbreaking ways,

they raise vital questions about the observational documentary camera. Is this device, which we often associate with an empirical truth, capable of capturing sacred relationships, or is the act of trying to do so a sin? If humans form spiritual bonds, is there a place for the camera within them? And are there images we should never see? Recently restored, the Trilogy is not available on home video formats. The only way to experience these films is in a cinema. The first time I heard this, I remember feeling frustrated. But then I finally encountered my first, Tanjuska. As the credits rolled, I found myself physically shaking in my seat, unsure of what I’d encountered but certain it could never be casually experienced. It challenged me on a spiritual level, and I’m relieved I was in a sanctuary when it happened. To guide us through this daunting work, we’re so fortunate to be working with this year’s writer-inresidence, Pamela Cohn. Pamela has had an indelible impact on how I’ve approached nonfiction cinema. As you’ll quickly discover, she is a brilliant thinker, a perceptive viewer, a lyrical writer and an honest soul. You’re in extraordinary hands. 

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“The images I give to the audience wake up the images that are already inside the audience. … I’m hoping everyone comes out of the cinema having seen a different film.” — p i r j o h o n k a s a l o , IDFA Master Class, Amsterdam 2010 i t o o k a d e e p d i v e into the world of international documentary filmmaking about fifteen years ago as a producer, maker, programmer, and writer. It was around that time that the genre’s designation morphed into cinematic nonfiction filmmaking — in part, a bid to rebrand documentary as viable cinema fare. No matter the particular handle, I became one of the breed’s consistent acolytes, initially focusing my gaze and dedication on all the marvelous and exciting work being done by female directors, in particular. Part of my own artistic practice in writing about film and video work, and learning how to

curate that work in meaningful ways for audiences, has been to take advantage of the privilege I’ve somehow garnered to sit at the knee of those makers who’ve crafted works that have profoundly moved me. It’s a deeply personal thing to talk about in polite company but I have this undying curiosity to know how the hell they do it. I want to know how that “magic” happens in as much mundane detail as possible and so I return again and again to the source to ask lots of nosy questions. While these conversations go some way towards elucidating the ways and means of craft, I’ve also learned


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that there are those personal spaces in an artist that remain impregnable. And then there are those makers who remain fiercely private about almost everything they do, not only regarding the modes in which they work, but also what they think about that work once it’s finished and out in the world — an explicit invitation to audiences and critics to come with their own ways of understanding and their own suppositions and questions about the works’ meaning. Pirjo Honkasalo is such a filmmaker. She described it to me recently this way: “To direct a movie is like building a boat for someone else. When it is launched and as it recedes, you stand alone on the pier. After it is swallowed up by the haze, you know it has started its own life and has

nothing to do with yours anymore. This is always a relief. After the premieres of my films, I never watch them again. When darkness falls, I walk out of the cinema.” The first film I ever saw of hers was The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, to my mind an unmitigated masterpiece — mysterious, ineffable, transcendent. I saw it at a festival in Silver Spring, Maryland, or it might have been Sheffield, UK, or it might have been somewhere else entirely. But I do remember that despite getting no sleep the night before and having a bitch of a hangover, I took myself to the 10 a.m. screening that day. The theater was small, but the screen was gigantic. I had walked in just as the lights had gone down, so I self-consciously skulked into a seat in


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the front row. I had to crane my neck to see the picture, exposing my jugular like you do when you sit right next to the screen. My neck and shoulders were stiff and sore afterwards because I hadn’t moved a millimeter during the entire duration of the film. It left me dazed with awe and gratitude, and I immediately wanted to talk to the woman who made it. A chance to encounter the Finnish director in the flesh came in the autumn of 2010. Pirjo was the main reason I further decimated my already paltry savings account to take myself for the second time to The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). The programmers there were celebrating her work with a retrospective that year, as well as exhibiting a ten-film program that she had curated — her ‘Top 10’ picks — consisting of works that had inspired her as a director, certainly, but more importantly had provided her as a film student with concrete ways of learning how a camera lens could frame and capture those still and quiet places in a human being, how to lift a story into something timeless and universal that would speak to generation after generation of movie-goer — seminal films by directors such as Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Jean Rouch, Luchino Visconti, Victor Erice, and Kiti Luostarinen. Once again, I took a seat in the front row for her filmmaker talk, taking copious notes like the diligent film journalist I fancied myself to be at the time. And when I got around to transcribing those notes in order to share that experience with the twenty regular readers on my blog Still in Motion (may she rest in peace, but feel free to enjoy the archive), I found that Pirjo’s way of speaking about her work is just as precise yet laconic as her filmic language. She’s made films using documentary practices for much of the latter part of her career, but her definition of the genre speaks foremost to the craft of image

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making: “Making the image for me is the documentary; the visual aesthetic is the essential part,” she said at this 2010 talk. I noted down something else she said then that has influenced how I watch films to this day: “What engages Pirjo Honkasalo is the steady pulse, or gradual transformation of the smaller moments, her compass set for an interior quest for the answer to something only she herself might know she is investigating. What makes her a master storyteller is that she is an artist who recognizes that her work is incomplete without the spectator.” Since then, I have dedicated myself solely to critiquing the kind of work that is incomplete without the spectator. For me there is no other way forward if potent moving image work is to survive and thrive. It needs us just as much, if not more, as we need it. Today, having recently rewatched much of her available oeuvre, both fiction and documentary, and having revisited the three films she made in the 1990s that have moved through the world as a trilogy, I can write that the acute visual sensitivity and magnanimous compassion of Pirjo Honkasalo’s cinematic visions are always seeking to penetrate the human soul. Her films are carefully composed yet somehow wild portraits where we have to trust what we are shown. When she stands in a certain place, or in a certain room, with certain people communing with one another as well as with unseen forces, it is her own corpus — the warmth that seeps and spreads into a certain part of her body; her own breath that quickens when she feels it’s time to film; the tensile muscles in her arms, shoulders, and back that flex and stretch when she knows she must move and place herself just there — that reliably lead her to capture that state of unspoken, undefined human desire. This is a maker exquisitely fluid in the language of the cinematic frame and all the quixotic information it’s able to hold.

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Pirjo was born in Helsinki in 1947, but when she was still an infant the family moved to Pori, a town situated on an estuary on the western coast of Finland near the Gulf of Bothnia. When she was just seventeen, she returned to Helsinki to attend the film program at the School of Art and Design, graduating at the age of 21. In the late 1960s and early 70s, students “learned everything about everything. There were no separate schools for directors or camera people, and PH immersed herself in writing, directing, shooting and editing. She also learned about the machines that would set her eye free,” writes John Anderson in his 2014 book Merciless Beauty: The Film Art of Pirjo Honkasalo (Armoton kauneus: Pirjo Honksalon elokuvataide). (Unfortunately for all of us non-Finnish speakers, the book has not yet been published in English, and I thank John profoundly for sharing with me some of his original writings and the wonderful stories his book contains.) By working as a cinematographer for other directors at the beginning of her career, Pirjo had the opportunity to watch and listen carefully, honing in on the enormous meaning just a small gesture could hold, or the way a tilt of the head could express a state of mind. Self-disciplined and a natural observer of human silence, she has said that, “I don’t deeply interview the people [that appear in my films]. I know almost nothing about them. … I spend time choosing the people, but it’s instinctive: I have to have the feeling, when I look in the eyes of these people that it’s there. And when I find it, I trust it. Then I’m ready to start.” When an inwardly perceived event such as a dream, premonition, or vision has a correspondence in external reality, it is sometimes referred to as prescient, extrasensory — or miraculous. This type of confluence in Pirjo’s film work has happened not just once or twice, but several times — often helped along with doses of mischievous

manipulation and string-pulling on her part. How else to explain her statements that she just “knew” that Tanjuska of Tanjuska and the 7 Devils, or Jamana Lal of Ātman, or Sister Naenilla in Mysterion would enable her to go on journeys that she had somehow envisioned and written down in script form before she met them in real life? Once those guides were found, those scripts oftentimes got buried at the bottom of a rucksack or put somewhere never to be referenced again — except perhaps as a ripping good story to tell to a master class interlocutor as one more bid to keep the private stuff private. She has been able to rely upon this ability to sense an affective power emanating from another human being, particularly one grappling with his or her own abundance of psychic energy as he or she searches for inner healing. This is possible because she is a maker who allows her own emotional intelligence or intuition — or whatever we choose to call it — to generously flow. She dreams her films; she searches for the physical manifestations or representations of those visions; and once she finds them, she picks up her camera and makes a movie. Mysterion (1991) was the first feature-length documentary Pirjo ever made, co-directed with Eira Mollberg. The first in a trilogy with the archaic but enticing moniker The Sacred and the Satanic, it was shot in and around a Russian Orthodox convent in Estonia. It portrays a group of nuns (all of whom grew up in the Stalinist era) who have dedicated their lives to serving God as well as the community of pilgrims that come for the healing waters of the holy well that sits at the base of the hill leading up to the church. Tanjuska and the 7 Devils (Tanjuska ja 7 perkelettä) (1993), which Pirjo started shooting while still making Mysterion, is about a prepubescent Belarusian girl taken to a walled-off church by her parents. After endless byzantine ways of trying to


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figure out why the girl has stopped physically growing and ceased speaking or communicating at all, the conclusion her parents accept is that she is possessed by demons, seven in number. Ātman (Soul) (1997) is about two brothers, born into the lowest caste in India, as they go on an epic 3000-mile journey from the mouth of the Ganges to the tops of the Himalayas — a pilgrimage taken so their late mother can rejoin her loved ones in the next iteration of her incorporeal journey. Ātman also happens to contain the only love story to appear in any of the films Pirjo has made before or since then. Besides The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, Ātman is probably her best known nonfiction work, receiving the Joris Ivens Award at IDFA upon its début there in 1997. Twenty years later, at the 30th anniversary of IDFA, Pirjo was in attendance to accompany the premiere of its digital restoration, saying that she always felt that she would “die with film in my mouth.” As part of a larger preservation project sponsored by the Finnish Film Foundation, the three films were digitally restored from their original 35mm format in Helsinki by Petri Siitonen and his team at Cinepro in the last couple of years. Knowing she’s claimed that she never watches her films after they’re made, I wondered if encountering them again after so long effected her in any way. I also wondered what might have been her aesthetical concerns and the emotional toll that process might have had on someone so dedicated to a non-digital practice: “Yes, I had thought that I would go to my coffin with a strip of celluloid in my mouth. Like many other truths of the past this turned out to be false. I have sinned. I have shot films in digital format, as well as supervised the transfer of many of the analog films. More than changing grain into pixels I lament the fact that my professional skills obtained over the course of several decades in chemistry, mechanics and lighting for film have become totally useless.

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I feel as if I had abandoned my horses and exchanged them for horsepowers. Save that, there is nothing in what I want to tell or how I want to tell it that’s changed. My head is the same. It did not turn into pixels. The images that inspire me are the same, the themes that quake me did not change, and even the shooting ratio did not jump higher. There still is a certain film look that I long for but I lost the game as almost no cinemas are screening film prints any longer. So I have to create this feeling that my films do not really exist, as I cannot touch them anymore. When we transferred these films into digital masters, and because I am also the cinematographer of the films, I did, of course, have to see them to control the quality of the transfers. I set the new gradings together with Jussi Myllyniemi in Helsinki. As we ran the new masters in a cinema, I was talking with Jussi the whole time about what to improve. So I actually did not see the films as a whole but as batches of images. We had decided that we would be as loyal to the originals as possible, including mistakes. In spite of that decision, I screamed quite often: Scissors please! But I did not cut anything.” Pirjo Honkasalo believes in film and she believes in the experience of watching films in a cinema with pristine projection whether they are embodied in the fragile timebased material of celluloid or in sparkling clean pixelated renditions thereof. As well, like any legendary director who is female and comes from a small country like Finland, has quietly been making work for decades in rather obscure places, and has shied away from any kind of spotlight, Pirjo Honkasalo is virtually unknown outside of Europe and a few higher-echelon cinephilic circles. It is an honor and a privilege to go some way towards rectifying that and introducing these three works of nonfiction, which are being played together to audiences in North America for the first time. 

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tanjuska

mysterion

atman


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the trilogy i n e v e r y f i l m w o r k of Pirjo Honkasalo’s, both fiction and nonfiction, there is the sound of ringing bells, the sounding of gongs, communal prayer, communal chanting, communal song — a group of voices raised to a god or a deity or even a love object — at any rate an entity imperceptible but encountered with a supplicant’s heart. When one’s voice is mixed with the many, joined together in clear and precise cadence and timbre, one might feel a religious twinge. When those sounds circle back on themselves, especially in a highceilinged, well-honed acoustical space, particularly one that has been deemed sacred, that is where one could be allowed to display enough vulnerability to encounter a phenomenon that’s recognizable as that very thing one’s been searching for. The amplification and expansion of collective longings reveal and redeem themselves.

Because every atom in the universe and every cell in our bodies are constantly vibrating, the power of sound, especially in the form of liturgical or ceremonial word or song, can direct those frequencies to a very powerful place. In Mysterion, Tanjuska and Ātman, whether emanating from priests, nuns, rishis, seers, yogis, or the “lowest of the low,” simple mantras enhance the consciousness’ journey towards an altered state. Because every moment of life is temporary, that state too is fleeting; the most enlightened seem to accept that with grace and dignity. In these films, we encounter believers who feel that when communal devotional acts are practiced amongst a group of people on the same frequency, the vibrational healing power can lift them out of torpor, confusion, paralytic fear, and the

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“All of these f ilms happen in a world within this world, meaning selfimposed withdrawal from what we call everyday life. This path is chosen in the belief that it leads into a higher level of spirituality or into liberation from misery. All these paths penetrate both the sacred and the satanic.” 14

profoundest depths of grief. They long to make space for miracles. In The Trilogy, these vibrational resonances, time and time again, practiced several times a day, call forth the Divine, asking It to come nearer and commune. The possibility for that is enhanced when one is ensconced within the folds of a murmuration where movement, sound, and resonance are all in sync in order for every member of the flock to rise higher. The detritus sitting on a heavy heart can be cleaned and polished, and the iron shackles that hold a wounded soul captive can be shed. But there are always wayward birds that, no matter the pull of the group, take wing towards an alternate route. Residing amongst and between the vibrations of sounds, whether unidirectional in service to a ritual or cacophonous as in the chaotic daily world, there is the silence of the self. In Pirjo’s view, this silent self is

what defines humanity, everyone’s humanity, and is the common thread of our existence. She loves filming people in their silences because she feels there we are all equal. But silence can also wield a sort of uncanny power as we’ll see in the story of Tanjuska, an instance where one might choose not to speak because someone who does not speak wields a sort of power over others, disturbs everyone around her, or is perceived as being unacceptably stubborn — or all of the above. This is especially so when that being is in the form of a tiny young woman who’s been traumatized in some way but is unable or, perhaps, unwilling to share what might have been the cause. When that seeming act of defiance drives everyone around her to suppose that supernatural miscreants are to blame, we see how all the potential beauty of encountering spirit can fail dismally. More than exploring the dichotomy of good and evil, these films delve into the chasms that exist between love and fear. With love, anything is possible, even finding the love of your soul against all odds. But a fear-addled being can only become fixated on mere survival and not much else. Mortal life is full spectrum. Anything can happen in this realm of being alive: the most sublime joys and the most incomprehensible sorrows, moments of breathtaking but fleeting beauty, and the dirge and heavy clanking chains of grief that embed themselves as permanent but invisible scars. In this respect, Sister Naenilla and her fellow novitiates, Tanjuska and her family, as well as Jamana Lal and his profound connection to a woman he meets in the midst of a crowd of millions of people, could be said to reflect aspects of Pirjo — or any one of us. To approach her work with the exercise of comparing and contrasting the films for their common filmic language, or to point out ways in which the symbolism of water, say, or the iconography of certain modes of belief echo one another


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or collide against one another in paradoxical ways calls for a bit of magical thinking since each film was created from a diverse set of circumstances with many surprises along the way for their director. Nonetheless, they were all made by the same woman one upon another and present a thematic trinity. “Trilogy here is not a notion of the similarity of the three films,” says Pirjo. “It is a director’s hint that the films gain something if they also are mirrored against each other. All of these films happen in a world within this world, meaning a self-imposed withdrawal (or in Tanjuska’s case, the choice of the parents) from what we call everyday life. This path is chosen in the belief that it leads into a higher level of spirituality or into liberation from misery. All these paths penetrate both the sacred and the satanic. The thoughts awakened by the first two

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films led to the third.” Any commonality in the form Pirjo’s films have taken is due to the eternal patience she possesses; that tends to be the sharpest tool in her arsenal. She has said that when the camera’s in her hands she channels a cat, a creature that can sit crouched and waiting for however long it takes for the exact moment to pounce without giving that moment away, without even the slightest twitch. As well, she shoots very little material, whether she’s working on film or digitally, and has driven the majority of her producers crazy as a result. At a talk she gave upon a retrospective of her work in 2016 at the 9th edition of the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival, she explained that for Tanjuska and the 7 Devils, the film that has given her the most angst-ridden time of her career, Pirjo filmed 1:1.5 in terms of the ratio of what ends up in the film and what was shot over the course of shooting it. At the talk in Cairo she said: “If it doesn’t belong in the film, I don’t shoot it. I take a risk, but it’s more concentrated in what I really want to capture. My images then tell more about what I want to say about what I observe.” When I cheekily asked her what her version of hell might be, I received a very pointed answer: “In these times of digital revolution I think that Hell is a place where you have to look at all the pictures you have taken. Far gone are the times when every image was almost holy. Now a filmmaker like me has to ask herself does this world need one more image? Images flood over us wherever we pass. It is very claustrophobic. Like music before it, image has become noise. I do not have the obsession for making images anymore. ...Maybe this noise is a wailing caused by the crime of modern capitalism whose first commandment is to hold greediness sacred, and second, to raze nature. Here is enough Hell for you.” 

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mysterion Have mercy on me, a sinner.

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– t h e j e s u s p r ay e r

a f t e r c o - d i r e c t i n g the drama Tulipää (Flame Top) with Pekka Lehto in 1980 — which was then the most expensive production in the history of the Finnish film industry, playing in the main competition at Cannes and later winning the Jussi Award for Best Direction, Finland’s version of the Oscar — Pirjo turned to making documentaries closer to the bone with small crews of comrades she knew well and trusted. “When I started to shoot Mysterion I had behind me almost three years of not making films. As a matter of fact, I had determined to leave filmmaking for good. During those years, I travelled around as a backpacker and worked in theater and opera. After the experience of making Flame Top, this incredibly expensive two and half hour historical epic, one day I gazed in the mirror. Why

do I not live the way I think? I was disgusted by having to deal with and talk about money all the time. I was scared that my face in the mirror would turn into a face of a small businesswoman, so I quit everything. In my twenties I was politically very active, extreme left wing of course. I had my doubts of socialist theory though. In all its brilliant analysis, it presumed that all human action is rational, conscious. And that all actions have a goal. It did not seem to hold. I wanted to see behind the rational. Shooting in a convent where time is not linear but moves in a spiral was splendid ground on which to start. Nobody at the time was dealing with religion. In Helsinki there was a rumor among my colleagues that Pirjo had gone nuts. This background created the trilogy. I was back on earth and inspired. It only takes one


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woman and a camera to make a film.” For Mysterion, Pirjo chose to utilize a familiar intermediary device, that of a voiceover narrator who also appears in the film. She is a young woman called Külliki Rannu, a photogenic Estonian production assistant who could be supposed to be somewhat of a proxy for the director, perhaps. As the film plays out, Külliki’s role becomes that of the pilgrim as well as our storyteller. Mysterion is told in twelve chapters beginning with Külliki’s journey on a dark wintry early morning bus ride to the 18th century Russian Orthodox Puhtitsa Convent. On this ride, as she contemplatively looks out the window at the scenery going by, she tells the story of her mother’s suicide, and how she remembers herself as a bad little girl while her sister was the “good” one, setting the tone for an exploration of what turns out to be just an imagined or imposed dichotomy. If there’s anything we might learn from the various journeys through the landscapes of these three films, it’s that notions of good and evil and what constitutes each in any evaluative way is a purely subjective experience. But as in all morality plays, in each of these films, there is the “light” sibling and the “dark” one. Estonia is the country in which Pirjo shot the first two films of the Trilogy. It is in the Baltic region of Europe just south of Finland, a gulf separating the two countries. Both of these small nations and the lands they occupy have been violently fought over for centuries. Bodies of water as borders appear as physical manifestations of historical political upheavals, but also as representations of something one must traverse, submerge oneself in, or commune with. Water can heal. It can also drown or poison. Estonia was formerly part of the Soviet Union, and today Russia sits cozily on its eastern flank largely divided by Lake Peipus, an enormous body of water

covering close to 1400 square miles. The RussianRevival style convent is in the northeast of the country in the rural and mostly poor Ida-Viru County. It is the largest Orthodox community in the Baltics, and the magnificent building sits on a site that has been recognized as holy since ancient times. As in many origin stories of pilgrimage sites, once upon a time long ago a young person saw a vision, or had a divine revelation of some sort, that was then shared with other believers. Eventually, an icon or some physical manifestation of that vision is discovered near the place where the vision took place — usually buried deep in a forest or on top of a hill. In this particular instance, it is a painting of Dormition, Mother of God, which was found under an oak tree. The convent still holds the icon to this day and it is a precious heritage relic used in every important ceremony or holy day. Historically, Puhtitsa — which means “blessed” — was only one of two monasteries in the former Soviet Union that never suspended its religious activities throughout the entire 20th century, even though during World War II the Germans organized a concentration camp for Russian prisoners of war inside the compound. In the 90s when Pirjo filmed there, it was under the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow with a bit fewer than two hundred nuns making up the monastic community. (Much of this expository wikimation does not appear anywhere in the film, by the way, except in its imagery and Delphic chapter headings.) The act of pilgrimage is something that fascinated Pirjo at the time. It could be said that every film of hers is a pilgrimage of some sort, whether it’s a made-up story or factually based. If one makes a long and oftentimes arduous journey with the body, the soul and spirit that reside within that body will possibly experience transformation; there might be a profound change that


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will forever alter the course of one’s destiny, or at the very least there will be some encounter or episode that will enable one to understand better the meaning and purpose of one’s life. One can also experience pilgrimage through reminiscence, reimagining an alternate narrative with elements of things that actually happened and elements that one misremembers in telling ways where history and memory conflate into a bespoke way of mending something that’s been cracked or broken. What we encounter at the convent through the pilgrimage of Külliki/Pirjo is certainly the holiness and tenderness of

a community dedicated to God and the Church that we would expect to find. But what we also experience is a glimpse of what is essentially a working farm with an intrepid group of women of all ages and backgrounds dedicating themselves to hard physical labor — tilling the land, shearing the sheep, making food and clothes for the surrounding community (including the soldiers still stationed there), bartering for goods, and in the harsh wintertime building twenty-foot high firewood stacks and going out onto the frozen lake to cut and remove gigantic blocks of ice, shove them back across the lake, load them into the back of a truck, and ride


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back with what must be close to a ton of frozen water to be placed in neat stacks in the convent’s storage sheds. All daily and seasonal tasks are accompanied with prayer, meditation, and contemplation, as well as thanksgiving. The Austrian depth psychologist and mystic Dr C.G. Jung (a personal hero of mine if anyone cares to know) believed that all rituals, including the mundane ones of daily toil, are acts of magic and that there are two kinds of religious experience: “Experiential, when you personally have an ecstatic or mystical experience [in the midst of

daily life]; and canonical, when someone tells you what to think and believe, and you bleat in agreement, moving with a large herd. Ancient cultures were all about the former. And all the troubles of the world today come from the latter.” We meet Sister Naenilla a seamstress from Ukraine amongst the other nuns, and as Külliki gains her trust, she agrees to audio-record her story (as well as pose for an awkward Polaroid) to explain the reasons why she’s chosen to ultimately renounce the world she was born into and give her life over to God. After hearing the exceedingly tragic story of Mother Georgia, a child refugee from the Siege of Leningrad who was the founder of the current order, we begin with communal song in the magnificent sanctuary, Pirjo taking advantage of the only available diffuse light that streams in from the high windows. Standing together on the floor before the altar, the nuns are surrounded by darkness, black veils encircling their faces, eyes shining as they listen to their voices lifted in prayer, tonally pure notes ringing and swirling in unison around the space. Pirjo shares the playback once they’ve stopped. Listening through giant headphones, they laugh with pleasure and satisfaction that the sound is so clear and thank the crew profusely for this unexpected gift. With that small gesture, Pirjo ingratiates herself into this modest and private community whilst also letting us know there is a living breathing supplicant on the other side of the lens. This sets the tone for a bucolic reverie of sorts but besides the intervention and recording of Külliki’s own emotional immersion in redemptive pilgrimage, the film consists of example after example of Pirjo’s observational power for the small detail, the rhythms of hours, days and seasons parceled out just so in a timeless procession of ceremony, labor, community, and prayer in the circumscribed world of


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“She offers up one exhilarating image after another, particularly when she is filming the sisters, finding the layers of light and shadow that make the women seem like they’ve just stepped out of a Caravaggio painting.” the monastery grounds. She offers up one exhilarating image after another, particularly when she is filming the sisters, finding the layers of light and shadow that make the women seem like they’ve just stepped out of a Caravaggio painting. However angelic they appear to be, the “work of obedience” continues nonetheless and in the scenes of spring planting with dray horses pulling plows and the sisters hand sowing seeds, this gentle pastorale reveals the relationships between these women to be ones of love, respect and tenderness, even though they are not allowed to touch one another. But their individual and joint strength in their physical labors, which are truly staggering; their mutual love of the animals they work with and care for; and the beauty of the surrounding fields connotes a chosen family, a chosen life that one supposes surpasses all levels of what want or penury or abusive circumstances many of these women might have been facing instead. There might be salvage and rescue in a more earthly way, perhaps, so that a life devoted to a spiritual father/husband/caretaker and yes, also taskmaster, is something to truly praise and appreciate. It is the early 90s and we are proximate to Russia, remember, still a very dodgy time to be a communicant, and since time immemorial, no matter the place and time, a very dodgy time to be a woman without a man for protection no matter how horrible he is to you. While it is never this filmmaker’s intention to illustrate problematic or urgent messages in any didactic

way — such as these female devotees living and working under the protectorate of a patriarchy where there are clear delineations of power between the sexes — we move out of the confines of the monastery to see that there are signs of the modern world encroaching, just a breath away in fact, as the battles of WWII once raged extremely close to the convent. Chapter 6 slyly introduces itself as “135 Kilometres of Polluted Land Surround the Convent, Yet the Protective Mantle of the Holy Mother Shelters It.” We’re introduced to images of a nearby factory that sits proximate to Lake Peipus. Instead of water that is purifying or sanctifying, this is dirty business. Viscous foam boils and floats on the wavelets washing up on eroded beaches. Giant pipes vomit industrial waste straight into the lake, an abrupt reminder that we are not, in fact, in the 18th century but are ensconced squarely in an area where the pristine land and forests that make up most of northeastern Estonia are ripe for plunder, plunder started by the Russian military and continued by big business in collusion with the military. The longstanding monastery and the neat and tidy traditions and ways of life encompassed within it might be more threatened than we’ve been led to believe. With this darker turn, over the menacing footage of giant diggers tearing into the hills to extract coal, we hear Sister Naenilla’s tape-recorded confession to Külliki that her sister is married to an abusive drunk. This is when we see the first shots of the factory (and the

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men working in it — the only jobs available for probably a mighty long stretch) whose effluents are poisoning the surrounding land and water and will eventually poison the nearby inhabitants. When Naenilla’s sister’s husband is drunk, he beats her. But the sister keeps silent. Külliki tells us that Naenilla “believes it is right for one to suffer for others; Naenilla is crucified and suffers for us all.” But Naenilla has also chosen not to be under the thumb of any male of the human species, even though she tells Külliki with some pride that she had many suitors who wanted to marry her. Maybe she would have married a factory worker. The movement of the spiral moves inward again in the very quiet and brief scene squarely centered in the film — its heart — wherein the ancient Mother Superior sits in her well-appointed room to talk about the transfer of one way of life to one of sequestration and devotion. Pirjo’s camera work is just absolutely gorgeous here in its simplicity and open curiosity. The Mother Superior softly talks to Külliki in the background but her words are not translated. Instead, Pirjo allows us to follow her eye as she moves her camera away from the tiny, gently speaking figure. Using a slow pan, she starts looking around the room filled with valuable icons, a small bed with a pristine handmade lace-coverlet, and a partial view of the convent and church through the picture window as weak winter light leaks in. Here, we feel this nod to the silence that is the reason Pirjo makes films. Next to the heroic scenes of ice block extraction and other Herculean tasks of the women, amidst the constant revolution of work, prayer, and ritual, it is here in this room where time is truly taken hour by silent hour, where contemplation and inner dialogue with the Divine surpasses all. The contemplation of looking towards the next iteration where one is united with one’s Maker and gets to sit by His side for all eternity is what lives in this room.

As the day of the ultimate devotional ceremony approaches, Külliki participates in a Christian baptism. As she drives to the church, we can see how deeply affected she’s been by spending time with the nuns, another lost soul trying to find ways to forgive her all too human transgressions, real or imagined. As the priest gently uses a tiny brush to draw small crosses all over her body with holy water, including on the tops of her feet and behind her ears, we hear her say: “A small child’s hatred is terrifying. I don’t remember ever wanting to kill anybody — but I remember that feeling of hate. It’s such a burden to live and hate, no good thing for a small child” — a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the child Tanjuska and the encounter with her demons. Külliki, in turn, bears witness to Sister Naenilla’s final relinquishment of her worldly life along with all the other novices taking their vows and renouncing their former selves, a shedding of one identity for another where all that has made one an individual thus far is erased in lieu of a being that walks through the world, works, conducts herself, and relates to others as a Bride of Christ. Pirjo shoots the ceremony only by the available light inside the now silent sanctuary. The novices don white smocks that glow slightly brighter than anything surrounding them. The priests are dressed in their usual finery, satin and bejeweled robes, crowns placed on their heads; the nuns are covered from head to toe in their black habits with only their faces and hands showing as they bend to kiss the hand of the head priest to receive blessings. From the rustling sounds of the novitiates’ movements as they get into position, soft sounds of weeping also emerge as the women transition from sisters to mothers, a ceremonial death and rebirth, their arms crossed over their breasts as the elder nuns gently pull back their loosened hair as locks of it are cut by the priest.


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Pirjo’s camera stays close to Naenilla as they take their vows and we hear her quavering voice over the others in the call and response with the priest. In preparation for the inexorable movement towards the hereafter, this is a wedding ceremony in which the soul attains its missing half and achieves wholeness, the Mysterium coniunctionis. The women don their black robes again, and we see Külliki standing near. She says: “Naenilla is now Mother Veronica. One day Naenilla will be buried wearing

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that same white habit she made herself.” A candlelight procession begins and the priests and nuns once again lift their voices to God. All we can see are the firefly lights against the darkness as they process and genuflect inside the sanctuary. The procession finally moves outdoors into the gloaming, the dark spires of the church silhouetted against the indigo sky. In this ultimate chapter entitled “The Conquest of Death,” we hear Mother Veronica say: “Do you know how good the death of a nun can be?” 

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tanjuska and the 7 devils There was a time that crepuscular was mild, The hour for tea, acquaintances, and full

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Away of day’s difficulties, all

Discouragement. Weep, you are not a child. — j o h n b e r r y m a n , The Heart is Strange

a s i d e f r o m t h e discernible other-side-of-the-coin look at the lighter and darker aspects of spiritual struggle, Pirjo’s story of encountering the young Tanjuska reads as something almost apocryphal. As in Mysterion, the film begins in the dead of winter and we’re on a winding road that leads us through the Estonian forest to our destination. But this time we don’t see the passenger and the mood is heavy and ominous as we listen to a piece of music evocative of the “Ave Satani” theme from John Moore’s 1976 horror film The Omen. Pirjo distinctly did not set out to make a film about Satan as embodied by a

child or demonic possession. She thought that the next protagonist for this second installment of the trilogy would be Father Vassily, a defiant priest who built his own church in Vasknarva, a settlement in the same county as the monastery in Mysterion, Ida-Viru on the northern shore of Lake Peipus. Pirjo had visited the church the summer before during her travels and was captivated by the renegade priest and the high wall he was having built around the compound of the church. The village sits on the left bank of the Narva River where nearly the entire population speaks Russian. As both a Russian Orthodox


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cleric and a Stalinist (a two-headed hydra), the now-aged Vassily is as hardline as they come. He runs his church, the daily services, and his ministrations for a needy and spiritually wayward congregation of communicants along similar lines that a cult leader would do. But he is known as a successful exorcist, and people come from all over the world to be healed by him. Father Vassily built his church at a time in the former Soviet Union where it was rather foolhardy to do so since the Communist Party regime was busy tearing all the churches down, doing their utmost to cleave the Church from the State. Parts of the walls in the sanctuary are still held up with disintegrating wooden beams, but the high surrounding wall that has been built by the time of Pirjo’s return is of solid gray stucco with a massive green metal gate that keeps the rest of the world out. Just to elucidate how deeply entrenched Communism’s state/church divide still is in this part of the world, and how strongly the State has kept a stranglehold on the freedom to practice religion, on 6 January of this year 2019, the country of Ukraine just officially received church independence; it is now in possession of a document called the Tomos of Autocephaly, which grants that independence to the newly formed and united Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Pirjo was looking through her viewfinder as a service in the sanctuary was going on — still blissfully unaware that she would end up documenting one of the most morally ambiguous films of her career, the footage she captured making her question whether she should release the film at all. She felt a sudden warmth along her arm and turned in that direction with her camera and came face to face with a small girl who was gazing at her intently. This was Tanjuska. As it has been for every main protagonist in any of her films, when she locked eyes with her, Pirjo says she knew that this was to be the human conduit for an exploration that would expose the kind

of religious devotion that requires unending amounts of pain and suffering and next to no amount of its joys. There is something supremely alone about Tanjuska, and if indeed she had been possessed by demons, it’s clear that she was also in possession of a knowledge that seemed to have unnerved her and loosed her from her moorings. It was knowledge she could not share, perhaps because she had no words for it. So she had stopped speaking. This individual on her lonely path has a secret that, for various reasons, she cannot reveal no matter how much she is punished for withholding it. As a minor in the care of others, she loses all agency with label after label after label heaped upon her in an effort to name something stubbornly unnameable. Is she autistic, schizophrenic, bipolar? Suffering from kidney or pituitary or thyroid malfunction? Possessed by demons? Her frantic family — hard-working, devoted parents to two girls, trying their very best — runs from one institution to another, from one healer to another, to find out what ails her. Their desperation for an answer leads them finally to the walled-off compound of Father Vassily, who turns them away the first time they come to him to seek help because they are not married in the eyes of the church. He throws them out and tells them not to come back until they’ve remedied that situation. As seemingly gentle and benign as the world of Mysterion is, Tanjuska and the 7 Devils is claustrophobic and cruel, a gloomy mood throughout where one loses all sense of time — except that kept by the summons to go to the sanctuary and prostrate oneself, receive communion and dwell on the sin of being a perpetual sinner before the eyes of God. Despite any doubts about whether or not she should be filming what was happening to this girl, Pirjo and the handful of people that made up her crew stayed to see it out for over a year. She had positioned herself as a documentarian, a storyteller that must grapple with


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portraying “truth.” But the situation was so discomfiting that for the first and only time in her filmmaking career, she decided she needed to step in not just as the virtual storyteller with a stand-in such as Küllikki, but as herself, Pirjo, our guide and narrator, to undeniably identify herself as the “terrible person,” as she termed it, responsible for documenting this story. In soft-spoken Finnish, she never tells us how she feels about what she’s seeing, but as ever, her camera eye is unflinching however shaken she may have been as some scenes played out before her.

Perhaps this film illustrates more than any other that the observer is not thinking, in fact; she is watching and waiting to see what might be revealed. More than any other genre of filmmaking, documentary can impose harsh moral and ethical mandates, but like most filmmakers who don’t wish to make films for the already “enlightened” liberal viewer — one who insists that he or she has a moral compass as straight as they come and sees all the right films and reads all the right books and regularly watches programs on PBS — Pirjo steadfastly navigates her own


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troubled waters. But she did get involved here in ways she never has before or since. In thinking about how to write about this film, I’ve had battles of conscience of my own that have been persistently disorienting and disturbing. This film left me bereft and uncomfortably adrift and that’s why, of the three films, it moves me the deepest. After Pirjo meets the girl and her father Peter, she goes to film in the small dark room where they’ve been living. It has been six months since Tanjuska has been outside the wall. As if speaking to a reporter, Peter talks in a calm and even tempo as he tells the story of how they ended up there. Pirjo’s camera moves over his shoulder every so often to gaze at Tanjuska who gazes back at the camera catatonically, prone on the bed behind her father. During

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Peter’s long narration, Pirjo’s camera moves around the small space, noting the stinginess of light and air and that the only way they can boil water is by putting the business end of an electrical plug in a pitcher of water since the only outlet seems to be placed in the middle of one wall where only someone of great height could reach it. Sister Naenilla and her fellow novitiates and Jamana Lal and his family physicalize their pilgrimages as they grapple with attaining inner enlightenment and moving themselves forward on the spiritual wheel. But Tanjuska has chosen a solely interior pilgrimage of her own making, remaining silent as she works her way through her own stations of fear and love, puzzlement and certainty, gain and loss, good and evil. We never learn anything about


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her except what is interpreted by others, and as we learn about the journey that led the family to seek refuge with Father Vassily, we suppose that the efforts at healing her have probably done even more damage to an alreadytraumatized being. What came first — the symptoms or the diagnosis? After visiting several local healers, Tanjuska was taken to a local hospital where she stayed for two months and then was moved to the larger City Hospital in Minsk since the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with her. Peter tells Pirjo that Tanjuska was “stuffed” with medication: “The child was like a robot.” When she’s finally taken to a church, they’re told that she has a demon inside her and it should be exorcised. After three weeks of prayer and counseling at a local church, she did get better but was not completely cured. Father Vassily has told the parents that their daughter’s current condition is their fault because by taking her home before she was completely well, the evil spirit in her went and got seven more powerful demons, and now there is even more work to be done to save her soul. When they are finally accepted into Father Vassily’s community, Peter takes leave from his job. His wife and their other daughter stay back in Belarus. By way of explaining why the decision that he came instead of Lyusha, the mother, he says, “I can be more severe with her, I can use my belt and shout.” Then the bells ring and he gets up from the bed, grabs Tanjuska’s arm and tells her it’s time to go to church. The child is like a rag doll, physically acquiescent but otherwise moribund. We are left to wonder which of the stories we hear about Tanjuska are true, partly true, false or even heretical as if nothing can happen to fully heal her until the investigation of her wholly personal story is revealed. No one — not even her psychiatric physicians — finds out how to gain that knowledge. But here also might be a girl who has obstinately been holding on to some secret

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because in that secret is freedom from conformity and pretense and the strictures of one’s community. Perhaps she’s even willing to suffer abuse at the hands of a priest who is convinced her soul is in grave danger for that freedom. One could suppose that if one chose to. C.G. Jung, among others, believed that a child’s early revelations of the power of silence is a meaningful way to differentiate the self from others. Standing squarely in the bedrock of secrecy means it’s all Tanjuska’s and no one else’s and for a helpless child this may be the only power she feels she has. But this stance of solidarity with the self to the exclusion of all others has consequences. The keeping of secrets profoundly alienates, and since Tanjuska’s exterior displays of obsessive behavior become part of her undoing, it causes her to become victim to all sorts of misalliances with the people responsible for her care, as well as capsizing her own ability to grow and flourish. Whatever is happening to her from within leads to physiological arrested development that one can clearly observe with the naked eye. As for Father Vassily, he is a wonder to behold as he leads the services and sermonizes. “There are people like devils with hoofs and horns who work for Satan. … If you are really squeezed the demon comes out of you. The damned healers and doctors only make it worse.” He berates and screams at the people before his altar: “What on earth are you doing? Cross yourself! Don’t you know how? Cross yourself, for heaven’s sake! …You bloody godless idiot.” During communion, he will fling holy water on people so violently it’s as if he means to drown them, no gentle brushing of tiny crosses on foreheads and behind the ears here. Oh no, this priest violently slaps a big green brush onto upturned foreheads twice, practically slapping the members of his congregation across their faces and dousing them until they splutter for air. It is both horrifying and perversely hilarious. There is a small pond

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underneath the altar when services are done, dutifully mopped up by the church custodians for the next goround. As well, the communal liturgies, songs and other modes of prayer sound like a vibrating underground drone, metronome-paced, dissonant, and dreary as if the angst of each individual contains so much lament their voices can only chafe against one another. The calls to the deity are full of sorrow and trepidation. As well, the deity’s intermediary here goes a long way towards exploiting their fears that they are hapless victims to some otherworldly force. Yet more disturbing scenes emerge of what appear to be both emotional and physical abuse from Peter towards Tanjuska. We see him in every other manifestation as a pretty meek and gentle man, but in this room they share he is abrupt and violent. In a scene when the still half-asleep girl starts to fight him as he’s trying to dress her for church, Peter gets his belt and starts snapping it at her and whispering commands. Perhaps he is a bit afraid of her — or maybe he’s very afraid. “Do you hear me, Tanya?” He talks to her as if she’s being held under by forces that are not his daughter because this is what he’s been told to believe is happening to her. His ministrations become more impatient. The sounds of the clock ticking and the comb scratching roughly against the girl’s scalp are loud in the silent room. He rips through the knots in her hair. He slaps her; she flinches. In church she is doused with holy water, Peter pushes her face down to kiss the icons, he forces her to genuflect and cross herself. The whole time she stares into Pirjo’s camera as if mesmerized. Father Vassily knocks Tanjuska’s head with the Bible: “There’s a demon in you and you let her [the healer] touch you. …[She] is a garbage can, full of demons herself.” An agonized viewer longs to go back to the world of Puhtitsa.

The emotional tension of watching all this play out reaches several crescendos throughout as the questions on one’s mind become more and more insistent: What, exactly, is the camera doing here? And does it mean anything at all to Tanjuska to be the focus of its observation? We never see her in any other manifestation except for this one. There is no arc of healing to orientate us to how the girl was before we meet her, a glimpse into the happy, carefree child her parents tell us she was. It is then that a blunt cut leaves the alternate world of the church compound behind, and we see younger sister Natasha hula hooping in the family living room back home in Minsk. She is younger than Tanjuska but is bigger, a husky girl, healthy and seemingly quite content to have her mother all to herself and not a little titillated that there’s something mysteriously wrong with her elder sister. They live in a crumbling building and Lyusha works as a nurse in the nearby textile factory but their home is cozy. Lyusha has kept Tanjuska’s “disease” a secret from neighbors and friends. As she did with Peter, Pirjo keeps the camera steadily on Lyusha’s face as she tells the story of Tanjuska’s decline all over again. However, this time the version of the story contains an episode that happened at school during Tanjuska’s fourth class, and once again we encounter the funhouse mirror of individual memory and its retelling. And it’s for the camera now, so why not embellish, perhaps, or draw one’s own conclusions? Apparently, someone locked the girl in a dark room. It’s never clear whether this was by accident or on purpose. The room is a shooting gallery in the basement of Tanjuska’s school. Odd that a school would have a shooting gallery but it does. Tanjuska told her mother that she had screamed and called for her for what seemed hours and when she finally got out a teacher had told her that she could have been eaten alive by rats. Not surprisingly, two weeks after this episode Tanjuska


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tells her mother that she feels “very bad.” According to Lyusha, the girl had a block in her throat and felt like she was going to die. However, when Lyusha decides to talk to the teacher to find out what happened, Tanjuska forbids her mother to approach the teacher, and asks her to not say anything at all thus generating another question: Did something happen to her in that room at the hands of someone at the school? She gets a fever that lasts three months and her throat is red and sore from screaming. Then Lyusha’s story dovetails in line with what we’ve already learned from Peter. It is at this point that Pirjo is heard in voiceover determined to do a little investigating. Maybe she’d reached the point where she felt she needed to try to find out more useful information for the girl’s poor parents. “On Sunday night I call the Minsk City Mental Hospital.” They tell her that Tanjuska had been diagnosed as schizophrenic; however, for some unknown reason, they didn’t bother to tell Peter and Lyusha about this diagnosis. Pirjo is also told that Tanjuska told the doctors that, “She is a man named Big Dinar, son of Vassily who lives in the town called Yuriev.” Yuriev was once the Russian name for the Estonian town of Tartu, the place where Father Vassily was born. For the first time, there is the realization that Father Vassily might be truly tuned into some unearthly forces here else there is an uncanny connection he has with Tanjuska that is never explained. “On Monday I meet the hospital psychiatrist Natalia Grigoryeva.” Here, Pirjo’s camera films down a long corridor, slowly passing by the

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antiseptic rooms with children in rows of dormitory beds or standing in front of a cart as a nurse hands out meds. There are strange sound effects and music added here, ghostly children’s laughter floating down the hallway. Dr Grigoryeva has told Pirjo: “[Tanjuksa] lives divided in two: on one hand she is a boy, on the other a girl. In addition, she can have a form of a devil. …These people can be machines, locomotives, cattle, dogs. …” But, on the bright side, with more treatment and therapy, she can get better. More than at any other time one is flushed with a feeling of such utter hopelessness not just for the suffering girl but for all humanity. With the power of suggestion used so ignorantly and profligately, how are they ever to figure out what’s going on? A full year has gone by that the family’s been split apart. Lyusha and Natasha get on the train to go visit Peter and Tanjuska at Vasknarva. The landscapes they pass through are industrial and heavily polluted, but once they reach the settlement, crossing over the lake to Estonia from Russia, the atmosphere is serene, the light golden, bells are chiming prettily. It is spring. But when we enter Peter and Tanjuska’s room it is infested with mosquitoes. Peter is still swatting at her, and she is still flinching. And then we hear her speak: “So get up at once, Tanya,” she says, speaking of herself in third person. She says, “Hurry up, get dressed, Tanyusha.” Peter asks if she’s listening to him. She then turns and looks him in the eye and impatiently says, “Yes!” Now when Tanjuska gazes into Pirjo’s camera, her eyes are much clearer, and she

“More than at any other time one is flushed with a feeling of such utter hopelessness not just for the suffering girl but for all humanity. With the power of suggestion used so ignorantly and profligately, how are they ever to figure out what’s going on?”

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starts to laugh. She says: “You laugh, girl, they say.” Peter says resignedly, “That’s Satan speaking in her.” Tanjuska does nothing to dissuade him of that notion. The last scene of the film was shot on the day that Pirjo and her small crew had decided to pack up and leave, probably feeling that for everyone’s psychological well-being they stop filming. As Peter and Tanjuska go to meet Lyusha and Natasha’s car in front of the compound’s gate, we hear Pirjo say: “Yesterday morning Tanya told her father that three demons had left her.” Since there are still four fiends in residence, clearly they won’t be leaving the compound anytime soon. It is a strange family reunion and the girl seems quite feral at this point, which is to be expected. As well, we can now see her stunted growth in stark relief as she sits beside her much bigger younger sister in an almost absurd optical illusion. It’s hard to tell what agonies (or feelings of relief ) she might be feeling when the family leaves again after a visit of only a few hours, but she is devotedly attached to her father now, the prisoner now needing her exigent sentry for her baseline survival. As told to John Anderson, when Pirjo sat down to edit the footage, she experienced a crisis. “I was stupid enough to drag a Steenbeck [editing] table — in pieces, in August, when it’s already starting to get dark — to the [Finnish] countryside, where I was alone. And watching the footage, the things I had captured, I started to feel: ‘This can’t be shown to an audience.’ Then I called Lisbet Gabrielsson in Stockholm [the Swedish producer] and said, ‘I’m not sure I have the moral right to show this.’ And she said, ‘Pack up and come here.’ So I packed and drove, took a boat, we were watching it at the Swedish Film Institute and I was suddenly with someone else and not on an island.” After viewing the footage together with Lisbet, they discussed Pirjo’s concerns. Pirjo decides that Tanjuska, despite the circumstances, does not present

solely as a victim, that, in fact, she’s strong in the way that “she has taken on the whole burden of the family; she’s the one carrying the family in a way.” We can certainly be of two minds about the status of Tanjuska and her victimhood — or superhuman strength — and Pirjo’s solution about any lingering doubts of using her own voice as our guide into the strange world of Father Vassily and his church as a de facto mantle of responsibility. At times, it feels as if we are watching something that could have been made in medieval times, despite the dress and comportment of the people portrayed. But this is a documentary made in the mid-1990s, and even though there is some life in the girl that emerges by the end of this disturbing tale, it is ours for eternity to guess what might have happened to her. Was this just an episode of post-traumatic strife from some kind of attack? Did she have a psychic break? Is it something physiological that has gone untreated for too long? Or are we willing to concede that the notions of good and evil are truly representations of love and fear, strong enough so that something supernatural could, indeed, seem to take hold of a person in such a fierce way because it had found an unexpected doorway in which to enter? Did a malignant spirit enter unbidden? Or might Tanjuska have actively beckoned those demons to come inside to help fortify a life left powerless by those flawed mortals that surrounded her? In 2013 Pirjo made a fiction feature called Concrete Night (Betoniyo), co-writing the script with spouse Pirkko Saisio based on Saisio’s 1981 novel of the same name. The film is shot in sumptuous black and white in the city of Helsinki and tells the story of one night in the life of 14-year-old Simo who is a deeply vulnerable (innocent) and impressionable adolescent on the cusp of morphing from boy to man. His is a rather bleak family life, and he suffers from unending loneliness. He encounters plenty


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of people who offer him systems of belief about what life has to offer and what comes after, none of them very enticing or elucidating. The only male figure in his life is his snarky elder brother who is about to go away to serve a prison sentence. Simo is obsessed with a man who lives in the building opposite his; in fact, he can see into the man’s windows and spies on him regularly and can hear the sacred music he plays loudly echoing between the buildings. One night he surreptitiously witnesses this man singing in a church as a member of the choir. That same night he is invited to the neighbor’s house at a moment

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when anything can happen. The man says to Simo: There are two things in this world: love and fear. In this world, there’s only one bad thing — and that’s fear. And there’s only one good thing —love. Some people call it freedom, joy, God, or whatever. There isn’t a single bad thing that can’t be opened without revealing fear. There’s always fear. And when you unravel that fear, you find ignorance. There’s a line in the Bible that says: ‘He will find himself who first loses himself.’ Losing yourself means understanding who you really are so you don’t live as though you’re dreaming. He who speaks doesn’t know. And he who knows doesn’t speak. 

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atman (soul) Myth is a fact in the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter. — m a ya d e r e n

ātman,

p a r t i c u l a r l y i n its new restoration, is dazzling to the eye. But the story of Jamana Lal and his pilgrimage can also hold very little in the way of wonder or mystery for an audience since images of India — or any other place white Westerners hold as exotic — are the only ways we’ve usually been able to skate along the superficial layers of a culture and assume we’ve come to know it, even if we have traveled there ourselves. The epic grandeur of the physical manifestation of Jamana Lal’s journey is captured by Pirjo’s camera as she follows the disabled 35-year-old as he traverses the country from the Ganges to the Himalayas. In order to get around, Jamana Lal must move himself using his hands. As a Dalit —an Untouchable — no one except his own

family even considers carrying him or coming to his aid in any way. The narrative cards that precede each chapter read similarly to the texts inserted in silent films that forecast the action to come. But what’s missing from these clues that are there to help a viewer understand what’s going on is the vital fact of the man’s caste and how that manifests in his daily existence. It’s never explicated in any straightforward way. We are only informed by Jamana Lal himself that his broken body is his karma. When one is able to observe the physicality of Jamana Lal’s body and the way he moves himself around, particularly from the back, one sees a withered trunk and an intensely muscled upper body. Jamana Lal tells

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Pirjo a story of a vengeful evil eye being pointed at his mother’s womb when he was being formed inside it, and thus we are placed squarely back into the land of apocryphal myth. Like Naenilla and Tanjuska, we don’t have the opportunity to see Jamana Lal in his normal daily existence. Instead, we accompany him on a journey filled with ritual and ceremony, a cultural theater that is exoticized and visually hallucinogenic, but can be a rather lonely time for a spectator observing another human being’s internal crossroads. As we follow Jamana Lal, his brother Gisu Lal and Gisu Lal’s wife and two small children, the packed streets and bodies of water — from the island of Sagar, where over a million pilgrims gather during the day, to Varanasi, the holiest city in Hindustan, to the city of Calcutta (now called Kolkata), and then to the holy city of Haridwar at the foot of the Himalayas — provide an extraordinary amount of chaos, a jarring and overwhelming cacophony of sight and sound and wall-to-wall people, the polar opposite in every way to the circumscribed universes of the convent and Father Vassily’s church compound. For long stretches the recordings of these scenic routes take hold, but virtually tell us nothing of those moments of silence within Jamana Lal — even though whenever the camera is on him he is praying fervently, his eyes lifted, his hands palm to palm in front of his heart. Even though Jamana Lal’s deep grief and pain is more outwardly exposed than that of Naenilla’s or Tanjuska’s, it is still challenging to find emotional purchase. Since this journey of one full year is once again condensed into a 75-minute drama that feels more like a re-enactment of a passion play, the stories of Ātman’s genesis, production, and post-production become its wildest and most improbable aspects. A German broadcaster partnering with a German film distributor invited Pirjo to make a film as part of a bigger

project commissioning various filmmakers to tell stories from different parts of the world. These accomplished directors were given carte blanche, in essence, except for two elements. The location was to be determined by the commissioners so Pirjo was told she’d be expected to shoot something in India — an enticing prospect filmically, adventurously, creatively and philosophically, particularly as it was conceived to be the final chapter of a tripartite exploration of spirituality, as well as tantalizingly divergent from the cloistered confines in which she’d shot the first two films: a continent away, in fact. The other condition was that it had to be shot on 35mm film. It’s fairly important to keep this detail in mind because part of the miracle of this film is the sheer magnitude of that order, to trek from the mouth of the Ganges to the tops of the Himalayas with a small Finnish and Estonian crew carrying ten pounds of cash in a backpack wherever they went for belowthe-line production costs (and bribes), and 600 kilos of equipment and film magazines packed in forty-eight cases traveling by public transport across India with a main protagonist who cannot walk. After accepting the commission, Pirjo promptly set out for India with her partner Pirkko for a month to take a look around. She had traveled there before, but this time she needed to look for a specific journeyman (or woman), only knowing that she wanted to follow someone on a pilgrimage. At any given time, millions of people in India are participating in the act of pilgrimage for a variety of reasons, but the devotional act of communing with gods, yogis and other religious figures is done through every season, some traveling for years at a time. Here’s the story of how she finally met (and then had to re-find) Jamana Lal as told to John Anderson: “…Where the Himalayas begin to rise, up in the north, there was very heavy rain. And a small tent where


pirjo honkasalo’s trilogy of the sacred and the satanic

“Pirjo still remained interested in investigating religious devotion, and in fact would go on to explore that theme in every film she made afterwards. What was dissimilar about filming a spiritual journey in a place like India was the totality of how spirituality and corporeality intersect since they are enmeshed.” people were serving tea. ‘So I thought I would go there and wait out the rain,’ PH said. ‘As I did, there was a family coming into the tent, and it was suddenly totally packed. But I looked into the eyes of Jamana Lal, took a picture, and I said, It’s him. I didn’t even notice how crippled he was. But his eyes, I knew, that’s him!’ With no one there at the moment to translate, PH took out a notebook and managed with the book and some hand signs to make him understand that if he put his address in the notebook she would send him the photographs she’d taken. ‘That way, I got his address in my notebook. Then I went home, I wrote the script, 30 pages, sent it to the German producers, they said, ‘Fantastic, here’s the money.’” The first obstacle, of course, was trying to find Jamana Lal since when she returned to India with her long-time assistant director Marita Hällfors to locate him, they were told that what Jamana Lal had written in Pirjo’s

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notebook was not decipherable since he was illiterate. Therefore it was impossible to figure out where he lived. But armed with her photos of him the two women drove from village to village for three weeks straight and finally in the northern state of Rajasthan someone finally identified him as ‘the crippled man who lives in Moshu village.’ “And what was fantastic — although bad luck for him — was that his mother had just died.” According to parts of Hindu tradition, if a son or sons “don’t make a pilgrimage, the mother can never join the realm of the souls of the ancestors. The soul is going to be restless. So there I was with a real pilgrimage. You could make one up of course. It would not have been improper to make such a pilgrimage. But with the mother dead, they had to make one.” And so, Pirjo embarked on a journey as far away from the sparsely-populated forests and small hidden villages of Estonia as one could get. But she was still accompanied by a small group of comrades that included her male cousin who carried the cash and helped lift the ponderously heavy camera to her shoulder when it was time to film something; an Estonian soundman who was the only one willing to physically carry Jamana Lal besides Jamana Lal’s brother; and Farzan, a well-educated Parsi as her local assistant to help grease the wheels and call out every instance of attempted corruption along the way, of which there were multitudes. Despite the grueling emotional journey of making Tanjuska just a few years before, Pirjo still remained interested in investigating religious devotion, and in fact would go on to explore that theme in every film she made afterwards. What was dissimilar about filming a spiritual journey in a place like India was the totality of how spirituality and corporeality intersect since they are enmeshed. “Our whole life is so fragmented. We have work and family and religion perhaps, or passionate

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irreligiousness. But in Jamana Lal’s life everything was united. Even though he made a pilgrimage, his religion lay in the fields, in animals, in everywhere. It’s one compact world and consciousness, and death too is a step on the path of life. …What I was trying to do, if only for a second, was to regain my innocence and experience everything as a whole. Of course, their religion also brings them anxiety, as does ours, but for them a source of happiness is to see the wholeness of life. And it’s not something they have analyzed. … I think maybe that is why we have been driven out of paradise, we can no longer sense the world as a whole.” The storytelling devices imposed on Ātman bring a

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much more stylized way of giving this free-flowing existence some structure, and while there is no spoken narration or intermediate storyteller as in Mysterion, or baroque but sibylline first-person accounts as told directly to the filmmaker as in Tanjuska, we are guided by chapter headings where in fairy-tale fashion we are given some guidance as to what is happening as we move from location to location. The text also takes the liberty to describe what might be happening to Jamana Lal interiorly, and here is where things become even more artificial. This baseline guidance simplifies things into easily digestible bits for viewers not wellversed in Hindu religion and philosophy, turning a


pirjo honkasalo’s trilogy of the sacred and the satanic

significant psychic, spiritual, and embodied journey into all too-familiar tropes, a common occurrence when we encounter films made by outsiders trying to parse cultures that in no way, shape or form share the same social, religious, or even visual or aural states of being with the majority of spectators who will watch them. Perhaps there is no other way to illustrate why someone would go on such an arduous journey and not just repair to a local temple to pray. The trip is filled with exciting and glorious moments, to be sure. But also ones filled with deep fear, uncertainty, and constant questioning while the protagonist of this tale is in the throes of the deepest grief he’s ever experienced. What we are left with then is an idealization — filled with beauty and a bid to understand more deeply — but still a strange and discomfiting ballad. But, then again, parsed to its elements, is there that much difference between the strangeness of this and Father Vassily’s compound that holds Tanjuska’s story of demon possession? Isn’t that story just as strange and inexplicable? The language of the song accompanying a devotional dance in a temple in the opening scene of Ātman — something that was in the script Pirjo had offered to the Germans — as a graceful male dancer pantomimes a discussion he is holding about his predicament with Lord Shiva is not completely different to how Westerners converse not only with the Divine, but with the Divine’s intercessors. In Hindu tradition, there is something akin to standing on equal footing with their gods, and unlike Western traditions there is not one overriding deity or trinity. There are numerous incarnations of devotional figures, and the stories that accompany each on how they moved to the immortal sphere are fantastic. Like Greek gods, they practice intercourse (of every kind) with their fellow gods as well as with mortals in a miscegenistic orgy, manifestations of the more open membrane

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between this corporeal world and other worlds beyond human sensation. There are dolls or statues one can buy in the marketplaces and can hold in one’s hands and even kiss and talk to if one wants to; origin stories of the gods are illustrated in massive paintings on the walls; there are spiritual arbiters that present as hirsute, naked men on mountaintops who have sat in one place for decades patiently waiting for acolytes to ask them for reassurance and blessings; and the Ganges and her tributaries is the Mother River, there to be bathed in for purification and further blessings. Substitute icons, altarpieces, priests, and splashes of holy water to the above equation and there we are right back in the bosom of the Church. To ask for divine intercession, no matter which way you look at it, involves some dialogue with the unseen and whether you believe in a linear trajectory of birth-life-death, or a more circular one of birth-lifedeath-rebirth, or a truly transcendent one of birth-lifedeath-final rebirth without the burden of the body, we rely upon our traditions and relics and rituals to make all of that manifest — a housing or a framework for our otherwise wayward souls. As resilient as we humans can be, we can also be incredibly irresponsible for our actions, words, and deeds, ready to lay them squarely in the laps of the immortals, drop some coins in a box, and then go luncheon with the relatives. When it’s not capturing the rapturous commotion and hurly-burly of the sites they traverse, Pirjo’s camera lingers on Jamana Lal almost constantly, focusing on his face in a way we don’t get to look at Tanjuska or any of the nuns. Jamana Lal’s body might be broken, but his face is incandescent and one can see what electrified her the first time she looked into his luminous eyes. At times, he seems to blossom before her camera for he is being seen in a way he has never been seen before. And then there is Shanta, and just as Pirjo’s camera captures

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“Man is a meaning-seeking animal. From the time we separate our consciousness from that of the mother we start asking for meaning. We think that by understanding things, we gain their meaning. But I believe that once we sense that we understand, we have lost the meaning.”

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perspectives that must have been just as astonishing to Jamana Lal as they were for her and as they are for us, this woman emerges out of chaos to become Jamana Lal’s companion, the only one to stay with him (besides the camera crew) until the very end of his journey, including accompanying him back to his home village. Shanta is from a different caste. She is educated and can write. We never learn where the rest of her family is — we are only told that she is a mother of three and that she has seen incredibly hard times. Her real name, she tells Jamana Lal, is Ganges. Again oddly, or we could say miraculously, this love story had been envisioned in the 30-page treatment Pirjo gave to the German producers. While Shanta’s presence provides amazement and joy for Jamana Lal, once she joins his family’s pilgrimage, he also starts to experience paroxysmal fits of grief, overcome with emotion while floating in a boat on the Ganges, unexpected love, inconsolable grief and physical exhaustion converging into nervous collapse. Jamana Lal’s face resembles a pietà as he tells Pirjo that he perceives his current embodiment as a punishment because of something he did in a previous life. “My body is my jail.” As bloated cow and human carcasses float by he says, “To me Ganges is always pure and clean, whatever happens.” Loinclothed young men are adding wood to the funeral pyres up on the jetties that overlook the river as corpses are brought on biers and

set down like cordwood to be burnt, the smoke from the constantly fed fires hazing over everything including the polluted murky flow below them. The river is thick with life forms that devour the dead, a gigantic coursing self-recycling compost heap, all things restored and then returned once again, immemorially. At night as a boat passes by theirs dumping another dead body into the river, Jamana Lal is taken by a second cataclysm of grief as Shanta comforts and watches over him. Gisu Lal, the brother of Jamana Lal, stays pretty much in the background but Pirjo bluntly told John Anderson that he was a “pain in the ass,” and when the money he was expecting from her wasn’t forthcoming, he became obstinate and looked for any reason to lift off from the journey. Whether he and his family continued the pilgrimage on their own is unclear. There is an underlying violence in both brothers, which Jamana Lal very briefly talks about on a train journey but other than that, both brothers remain ciphers, representations of something that surpasses their individuation. It probably astounded many there who saw a largely European film crew in attendance around Jamana Lal. It possibly garnered not a small amount of ire and jealousy, perhaps, from some quarters. Or perhaps they saw an actor performing for a foreigner’s camera. But if we do perceive him as a symbol of something larger, it might be the most elucidating way in which we


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understand that every character in this story presents an archetype, something that perhaps is harder to discern in territories like the monastery or the church that are also strange but, perhaps, more familiar. Watching the story of Jamana Lal play out, in fact, provides a rather transcendent and object lesson about documentary filmmaking, in general. Pirjo is a maker who could give a damn about genre and a woman who goes her own way no matter what a producer might be demanding or an audience expecting. There is no nice, neat meaning on offer for anything to be found here. There is also really no sense of differentiating what’s observable with the human eye and what the inner eye yearns to see so it’s all very conflationary, something that many makers of nonfiction are hesitant to reveal so clearly. The journey itself becomes the world with its own heights and abysses, time disappears into chants and prayers and purifications, similar to the ways in which it does in the mandala of daily life at the convent and at Father Vassily’s church. Those places are fixed in space; whereas, in Ātman, every step of this devotional journey is holy and constantly moving. At journey’s end, the crowds have dissipated and from the magnificent looming Himalayas where it is peaceful and quiet, the water cascades down over rocks in flowing streams. Jamana Lal bathes in the pools and prays. As in the exchange of vows Naenilla takes with her Maker, Jamana Lal and Shanta declare that they recognize the Divine in one another, two lowly humans who keep forging ahead in their current earthly lifetime towards their reward, the sphere where they will be free from the confines and pain of mortal self-bondage. As for the Cosmic Dancer in the Temple, he returns just as we see him in the beginning, still struggling to create meaningful moments of communication and sanctification and spiritual reverb with his god Shiva, Himself quite a wild

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one known as the god of destruction, the god of illusions, the challenger, the transformer.. Those moments fly away as soon as they are captured and then the mantra or song is begun again. Pirjo, as well, knows that she can only provide fleeting glimpses of human repose, even if sometimes it’s very puzzling and enigmatic to look at those moments straight on. She steadfastly holds what she sees in the frame as the brief gift it is and then lets it go. Then the dance begins anew, the triumphs and failures of that past moment gone forever or held in the mind’s eye as just a hazy memory, something that was and never will be again. When I asked Pirjo if making these films had affected her life in any way, she responded with a typically inscrutable, elusive and poetic response: “Man is a meaning-seeking animal. From the time we separate our consciousness from that of the mother we start asking for meaning. We think that by understanding things, we gain their meaning. But I believe that once we sense that we understand, we have lost the meaning. As a child absolutely everything is meaningful. Having lived through all these films by raising questions of what I have seen, meaning has become ever more brittle. It nears insignificance, nothingness. And I sense that the question of where to search for meaning has been the wrong question from the start. This nothingness is a non-answer. There lands the beauty of being here. “The mystics of all religions, with no exception, end up with one concept, love. Love not in the soapy sense in which it is disseminated in the Anglo-American world as a sign of one’s generosity, but love in the sense that the Russian Orthodox monk Pavel Florensky put it: Being one and separate at the same time. I think there we meet the impossibility to talk about the fragile and true moment of existence. As art after all is metaphysical might Art be the language of this moment.” 

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the author would like to thank 42

Chris Boeckmann for the invitation and the friendship, John Anderson, Suvi Paavola, Eveline Kaethoven, Adi Amar, Neesha Zollenger, Simon Park, Neil Young, Scott Macaulay, Maryan Tafakory, Kaltrina Krasniqi, Michael Robinson, Mila Turajlic, Roberto Minervini, Sara Fattahi, Veton Nurkollari, Orwa Nyrabia, Sonja Henrici, Peter Taylor, Anna Zamecka, Courtney Stephens, Karim Aïnouz, Chico Pereira, Abby Sun, Sheela Lal, Adithi Vellore and Nathaniel and Ina Cohn

essays, interview: Pamela Cohn editor: Chris Boeckmann design: Theresa Berens true/false film fest managing director: Camellia Cosgray true/false film fest executive director: Jeremy Brown ragtag cinema director: Barbie Banks true/false film fest co-conspirators: Paul Sturtz & David Wilson © 2019 Pamela Cohn and Ragtag Film Society. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except brief excerpts for the purpose of review, without written permission of the publishers. Printed by Modern Litho, 6009, Stertzer Road, Jefferson City, MO 65101 modernlitho.com

Profile for True/False Film Fest

Neither/Nor 2019 Monograph  

Neither/Nor 2019 Monograph  

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