Being Finnish in the World of Documentaries

Representing Finland and YLE in the world of documentaries has been good. Outside Finland the country has been called “the heaven of documentaries” and YLE’s pre-purchasing has been “the stamp of quality”. The team in charge of YLE’s pre-purchasing and joint international productions has expertise that is respected by producers, directors, and colleagues all around the world, perhaps even more than in Finland. There are very few fields of art or culture where Finland has such notable international status as it does in the field of documentaries – almost like in javelin, except in documentaries the competition is harder.

 In just a few years young Finnish production companies have reached a strong position regarding international funding. A couple of years ago I counted that the Finnish joint productions of Dokumenttiprojekti had gotten more funding from the international market than from YLE. The fact that all the top four films in the main competition of the 2011 IDFA festival were made with Finnish participation also says something. They were all pre-purchases of YLE/Dokumenttiprojekti. The winner, Planet of Snail, was co-produced by Vaski Filmi from Oulu, Finland. The opening film of the festival, The Ambassador, also had a Finnish co-producer, Petri Rossi.

Still, internationality hasn’t been just about money and fame. The most important factor has been the effect that internationality has had on the quality of the work, the height to which the bar has been set. Not more than ten years ago making an English version of a Finnish documentary wasn’t taken for granted. These days, however, it is customary to present a project on international forums already in the early stages. The production is thus compared with the best films in the world, instead of merely with other Finnish films. The regular viewers, who are surprisingly familiar with the best documentaries in the world, also compare Finnish documentary with the greatest international ones.

The unfortunate fact is that due to problems in YLE’s funding, the number of international documentaries will decrease. Although excellent documentaries are made in Finland with national funding, there is a world outside Finland, Europe, and the USA where 88 per cent of our planet’s population live. There is something wrong when only four per cent of the programs in major television channels are from those counties. There is also something wrong when most of the programs regarding those countries are about crisis, war, natural disasters, exotic travelling, or historical issues. At its worst the situation will also have a negative effect on the international networking of Finnish productions.

But instead of whining, we can all keep an open mind on the matter. International investors are usually much more conventional – more focused on the business than the producers – than the people in charge of Finnish funding. The website has been received very well. And the first priority of a documentary is still to report its domestic audience about the world. For example, Jäämarssi – Suomen matkaopas 1941–42 (Frozen Hell – Prisoners of War in Finland 1941–42), Taistelu Turusta (Battle for the City), and Kerjäläiselokuva (Helping Mihaela) are all produced with Finnish funding for a Finnish audience. None of these good and important films would have been made if the only goal was international distribution. Being Finnish is a valuable resource.


Iikka Vehkalahti
Long-standing producer of YLE’s Dokumenttiprojekti, Visiting Professor of Journalism - University of Tampere

Translation by Janne Hirvisaari

Photo Heidi Uutela