Freeze Frame: Maybe Israel Isn't So Dissimilar From Finland After All

Yael Bartana's new film presents eight Finns from different ethnic backgrounds who politely explore what it means to be a 'true Finn.'

Scenes from Yael Bartana's new film, 'True Finn.'

“Ohoy, world. I’m [from] the Horn of Africa, in Northern Somalia I, too, grew up by the sea,” Mustafe shouts as he stands amid the snowy expanses of Finland. He is trying to position himself in geographical relation to the other seven participants in a new film by the veteran Israeli-born international filmmaker, photographer and installation artist Yael Bartana. The 50-minute work, “True Finn,” can be viewed at the Sommer Contemporary Art Gallery in Tel Aviv. It was commissioned by and screened at IHME 2014, a contemporary arts festival in Finland, and will also have a five-week run at the Petzel Gallery in New York beginning January 8. Bartana’s film raises questions about national identity as an instrument of inclusion and exclusion, discussed in conditions recalling the “Big Brother” reality TV program.

The project’s title refers to Finland’s nationalist, populist political party, which was founded in 1995 and in the 2011 elections became the third largest party in the Finnish parliament. The party’s platform, which is against neoliberal economics and in favor of teaching “healthy national pride” in the schools and of subsidizing traditional rather than contemporary art, won broad public support. Bartana makes ironic use of the platform of originality, authenticity and credibility espoused by the “true Finn.”

For the film, she brought eight Finnish citizens to the countryside of the Kirkkonummi region, south of Helsinki, in January 2014. The group spent a week in cabins in the heart of the forest, discussing basic issues relating to the national question. Anna, Tiina, Stanislav, Komugi, Peter, Martin-Eric, Tuisku and Mustafe are mostly young people who are not very opinionated. There is nothing to suggest that they were chosen for any dazzling intellectual or philosophical skills, for a profession relevant to the subject at hand or for strongly-felt opinions about it. They were, rather, chosen for their diverse ethnic, religious and political backgrounds, coming originally from places like Japan, Germany, Estonia, Sweden, Canada and Somalia.

The film follows their conversations as they carry out the tasks assigned them by Bartana. These were related to the most external and immediate aspects of the national question: designing a national flag suitable for “true Finns,” writing a new national anthem, defining the homeland and, finally, choosing the most genuine Finn among them, who will have the privilege of raising the flag at the end. What is not clear is whether this is meant to be a parody of nationalism or a sincere exercise that seeks to clarify its parameters.

Segments from old movies are spliced into the film; they are scenes that appear as flickers of the unconscious or as dream-images of the participants.

Problems begin to emerge at the very first communal meal: Should a prayer be uttered before they start eating? And what about the atheist in the group? “You’re a bit of a vagabond. Do you have Roma blood?” someone in the group asks, and the atheist replies, “I can’t say. A lot of people suspect that I am Jewish, because of my nose.”

The group designs a flag. “I don’t think the Finns have ever been a warlike people; there’s nothing to be ashamed of in the present flag,” Tiina observes, adding, “Finland is pure. There’s innocence, whiteness, purity” in the current flag. Does the white symbolize “the space for the individual and the community”? The discussion continues to revolve around questions of the meaning of national symbols in the global era. But it never becomes impassioned. Indeed, much of it consists of words that are unspoken, buried beneath mountains of political correctness that pile up in the cabin like the snow piling up outside.

Who is a Finn?

The second task is to write a new national anthem. This time the dispute is over religious references and the name of God. Gradually the question of “who is a Finn” emerges, and of who has the right to buy land in the country. But it is not answered.

There is also a psychodrama exercise, a role-playing game on the subject of the national identity of minorities. The group dramatizes a job interview, which includes stereotypes of Roma people (“The assumption is that I am always stealing”) and the like.

At this point, a woman named Anni-Helena arrives for a visit. She is, we are told, “a Sami guest.” The discussion focuses on the question of whether the Samis – more popularly known as Laplanders – are the original Finns, or only an indigenous people who were compelled to assimilate into the general society, their language and clothing prohibited. Is she Finnish or part of a minority? Her situation, it turns out, very much resembles that of Israel’s Arab citizens who view themselves as Palestinians. In the last section of the film, each participant delivers an election speech aimed at being chosen as the “true Finn.” Most of them mention the values of coexistence, the Finnish lack of competitiveness, the sense of a shared destiny, and equality. Also raised is the ever-popular idea of covering Finland in asphalt and turning the country into a huge parking lot for Russia. “During the film the participants wear T-shirts with “True Finn” emblazoned on them, and occasionally traditional clothing (with the exception of the atheist). They are also seen engaged in folklore-type activities, such as ice-fishing, chopping logs and gathering firewood. Every once in a while someone wearing the head of a bear appears among them. Why? Why not?

All told, it’s a pluralistic group, but anemic. Everyone speaks in measured tones, there are hardly any points of friction, no outbursts, nothing to dream about. Is this emblematic of the Finnish culture of discussion? In Israel, heating up ahead of an election, one can only envy the dispassionate Finnish style of discourse, its meagerness, the non-manipulation of history, the absence of personal accusations, the lack of hatred and violence, the total non-intrusion of militancy and incitement, the concise, altruistic language of the conversation, taking place in a heated cabin amid a landscape of lakes and forests, while an apple is eaten next to a vase of roses, candlesticks, a bowl of fruit, on soft sofas or in a sauna.

“True Finn” is not one of Bartana’s better films. It turns out that without an apocalyptic component, without a frontal clash between normative national kitsch and an extreme vision, a transfiguring horror, or Gog and Magog, it doesn’t work. In this case, the structure of the film succumbs to simplification and superficiality – placing people in a building and letting them talk. Cinematically, too, the flashes from films that visually convey the history of the tension (the Romas, the war against Russia, stags in the forest) are an easy solution and function like speech bubbles in comic strip that are inflated around what doesn’t happen in the film itself.