Ee(Niko Hämäläinen, 2005), Ff(Niko Hämäläinen and Evan Hämäläinen, 2009)
The Finns, then, have a school of film-makers unadorned by the garland throwers of the world (impossible as that may be, given that in these times mankind increasingly appears to be an island of garland-tossers, with fewer and fewer worthy recipients of those celebrated woven flower decorations); a school that numbers just one, a furious pedant and painfully precise temperment, a man who refuses to die until he finishes his work, a work that is impossible to finish. A man who describes himself as 'Finnish at the beginning, and at the end...'
Hämäläinen's preoccupation, was, is, and will ever be words. The latest in his 'visualised dictionary' series,Ff, has just been completed and will be released in Autumn 2009, a mere four years after the release of Ee, which itself was only seven years after Dd. 'digital video technology is helping us speed up' he says, optimistically. 'Besides, Xx and Qq won't take me long, they are short letters,'1 The concept: Hämäläinen makes visuals of the the dictionary. Aa is a series of images representing each word in the Oxford English Dictionary beginning with A, in alphabetical order. The sequels follow suit. So Aa begins with an image of the letter a itself, before we see an aadvark, then a and so on. Some of his shots have to be created in interesting ways: 'to articulate both argue and then arguing, never mind argument, in interesting and unrepetitive ways is perhaps the difficulty in this. And of course, how to render abstracts such as abstract in second-long bursts of images is a constant problem.'2
The BBC's Arena strand made a documentary about Hämäläinen in 1975 entitled Dictionary Man, and they returned in 1999 to check on his progress, the result of which appeared that year as The Dictionary Man Forever. The question that the interviewer returns to time and again, is inevitable:
'I don't know what you mean.'
'Why film the dictionary? It is an impossible undertaking.'
(Pause. Niko thinks, as if for the first time, about this.)
'Well what else would you have me do?'
And so, we see in Niko Hämäläinen a romantic spirit specific not only to man, but to men; a foolhardy heroism in which no-one can win, for there can be no glory. And yet, we find it admirable, this bloody-minded devotion, and wonder, what would Hämäläinen's reaction be if he were to get close to completing his task? Would his knees buckle like a rookie serving for the championship at Wimbledon, a rookie who had been fearless until the point that possibility is fast becoming probability? We cannot know, for time will have its win over the project.
But is it a defeat for an artist to die before his work is done? Don't all artists die before their work is done? Some, perhaps, are done long before they die. The interest with Hämäläinen stems from the fact that we know exactly how much further he has to go. He is 70 now, and his latest, Ff is chapter six of twenty-six. And while this chapter has a polish that Aa lacks, and some of the transitions are more imaginative, the truth is that his style and technique are largley the same, over forty years on. Such consistency in art confuses us.
'Why are our letters in the order they are? What does it mean, besides putting the Alexes and Andrews on the sunny side of the classroom and the Zacharys and Zoes in the dark? What does it mean, beyond putting Springsteen, Bruce next to Springfield, Dusty (but far, far away from Springfield, Buffalo) in the record store? What chiming moments does such a pervasive ordering of the world throw up? Is our alphabet a key? Can it tell a story? What Hämäläinen does, in not so many words (or perhaps, in exactly so many words), is ask these questions, with a direct action so bold and hopeless that we question its sanity.'3
Evan Hämäläinen, Niko's son, who co-directed Ff:
'My father is a man haunted by dreams of an oversized alphabet forest, where rain falls and an l tips over, uprooted, or a k bends to offer a branch for a climber. Whether this is why he chose this project, or because of the project, well who can tell at this point?'
'The truth is that of course he could have chosen to make films about his his family, or his home, something that was superficially more subjective. But the small decisions he makes in his films express his personality in ways other filmmakers fail to do over countless fictions: The skittering creature he chooses for the word bee, for example, or the grey, ashy block for the word brick; both articulate ceaselessly.'
Aa Directed by Niko Hämäläinen Produced by Niko Hämäläinen Venstock Films/Aqua Film Distribution. US/UK Release Date: N/A.
1. The Sunday Times Magazine, September 2009.
2. Dictionary Man, BBC films, 1976.
3. Flickers 2, Faber & Faber, 2008.
4. The Sunday Times Magazine, September 2009.