Sodankyla: Films where the sun never sets

It may lack the showbiz glitz of Cannes, but the world's most northerly festival draws all the big-hitters. By Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture

In faraway Finnish Lapland, around 120km from Rovaniemi (the official residence of Santa Claus), and above the Arctic Circle, sits the village of Sodankyla. It is not an especially prepossessing place. It's here that 24 years ago, the Midnight Sun Film Festival was set up. The name refers to the fact that in June, it never gets dark. Even at midnight, the skies have the greyish pallor of an English winter afternoon.

Midnight Sun is one of the oddest and most perverse events on the festival calendar. It was set up in 1986 by the Kaurismaki brothers (Aki and Mika), Finland's most celebrated and notorious film-makers. The idea was to have the event in as remote a place as possible. If you want to be in the dark, the only solution is to watch movies, which play 24 hours a day. The main venue is a circus tent, which swirls in the wind and sometimes feels as if it might blow away.

For any practical industry purposes, the festival is useless. Nobody does any business here. Nor are there red-carpet premieres or cocktail parties. Instead, between screenings, film-makers and visitors sit around, drinking beer and vodka and eating hot dogs. The main social event takes place on Friday evening in the forest 20km from the village. Here, guests are invited to dance Finnish tango and have saunas. Everyone wears mosquito repellent, which the locals call Sodankyla's special perfume.

The great American director Sam Fuller (Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss) attended the very first festival and had a street named after him for his efforts in travelling so far north. Since then, an extraordinary range of film-makers have been lured to Sodankyla. Francis Ford Coppola (who relished being able to shop undisturbed in the village's supermarket), Michael Powell, Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Stanley Donen (Singing in the Rain) and Robert Wise (The Sound of Music) are just some who've made the pilgrimage.

Alongside them are hundreds of young Finnish cinephiles who've driven from Helsinki (a 12-hour journey) or some who have come on bicycles (which takes weeks). They sleep in tents beside the river.

The strangest event of this year's festival was the karaoke screening of the 1959 musical Suuri Sävelparaati, a very cheesy black-and-white yarn featuring 30 or so songs performed by the cream of late-50s Finnish light entertainment talent. In a mood of delirious nostalgia, the audience sang along to every word.

More accessible was the flagship screening of a restored version of Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925) with live accompaniment from the Oulu Symphony Orchestra. The film is scarcely unfamiliar, but there was something magical about watching it so close to the Arctic Circle.

The Festival also featured Jim Jarmusch's new movie, The Limits of Control, a stylish but very arch and self-conscious drama about a lonely hitman (Isaach De Bankolé) carrying out a job in Spain, receiving his instructions in matchboxes which are given to him in cafés. The film is full of eccentric cameos from the likes of Tilda Swinton (wearing a strange blonde wig and cowboy hat) and John Hurt. The film was hard to engage with emotionally, but intrigued the Sodankyla audience with its studied coolness and cleverness. It helped that Jarmusch is an old friend of the festival, having visited in 1987 and kept up ties ever since.

As it approaches its 25th anniversary, the festival is likely to come under pressure to grow. But as long as the dates are kept, the sun still won't set here.