Filmmaker Susanna Helke discusses her film “White Sky” and her latest project “Playground,” which were both shown on campus. A guest in the Film and Digital Media Visiting Artists series, Helke answered questions ranging from her inspirations and future projects to the technical aspects of how she produced the films. Photo by Molly Solomon.
Images of a steely gray desolate landscape spread across the screen as a voiceover speaks steadily and poetically about relationships, family and the nickel factory that looms over and dominates a small Russian town.

This is the opening of Finnish director Susanna Helke’s film “White Sky,” a documentary that follows the story of a family in Northern Russia. The family is financially dependent on a local nickel factory that negatively impacts them physically and environmentally.

As the film shadows the family of three, it treats their lives with a tone of neutrality. Helke lets the individuals share their story through the slow unraveling of their daily lives — what Helke calls “the Slavic slowness” — rather than through abrupt scenes of intense action or unconcealed emotion. Within this apparent “slowness,” the focus on the “banal,” the barrenness of landscapes, the coiling smoke from the factory, and the narrator’s explanation of treatment to remove metal from her and her family’s bodies illustrate the situation and bring it to life.

For Porter fourth-year film student Ally Bobus, the visual of the films and their presentation were “really beautiful [and] really different from most documentaries we get to see.”

The change of pace in the film and the ways in which it diverges from traditional documentary film made the experience, for Bobus, “almost a cultural thing.”

Working between Helsinki, Finland and San Francisco, Helke is a documentary filmmaker who often focuses on disenfranchised youth, and is visiting as part of the Film and Digital Media Visiting Artist Series. Helke has a history with UC Santa Cruz, as she has worked and done research with the film and digital media department.

Associate professor in film and digital media Irene Gustafson explained that the draw to Helke’s films was the unique way they represented and told a story.

“[‘White Sky’ is] so dramatic, but it’s not dramatic in the way we usually think about film,” Gustafson said. “It’s about the drama of living in an area of environmental disaster. I think her films are incredibly curious and intensely visual.”

Helke said she does not want to portray the family of “White Sky” or any of other individuals in her films as victims.

“I don’t see these people as victims,” Helke said, “but I think in documentary tradition … films see some kind of social problem … something that is wrong that has to be corrected, and the strategy to do that is to find …victims and not really look at them, or look at how they are but [use] them as examples or [use] them to promote the agenda, the agenda of change. For me, it’s more about exploring how people survive.”

As Helke discusses her work, she makes clear that she is not interested in painting a specific social picture of the family, nor is she interested in delivering a neatly wrapped message. Instead, she wants viewers to infer the film’s message on their own by experiencing the film through the characters. By denying the viewer easily accessed ideas and leaving the films open-ended, Helke is opting to set herself apart from the tradition of documentary film making.

“[Viewer response is] something you don’t even want to control,” Helke said. “I feel like if you can [make the audience] feel the world through that mergence, that experience of kind of getting inside that [character’s] skin and see the world through that perspective, I think that’s really important.”

While Helke’s approach to story-telling is through the lens of documentary, she does not hold herself to the “classical, puritanical” tradition of documentary filmmaking, but she seeks out an “emotional element.” Helke’s divergence from the mode of traditional documentary filmmaking was recognized immediately by individuals within the audience.

Associate professor of film and digital media Gustavo Vazquez appreciated the ways in which Helke played with the boundaries of genre, specifically in her short film “Playground,” which was simultaneously a more structured narrative and a documentary.

“[Helke] likes to blur the notion of narrative with documentary,” Vazquez said. “[The characters] are social actors, playing themselves on different subjects.”

For Helke, an easily definable film — a film that fits neatly into one category — is unnatural and “paralyzing.”

“I was just never able to make documentaries any other way,” Helke said.

Currently, Helke is working on a new documentary discussing the large number of homeless queer youth within the United States. The film, similar to “White Sky” and “Playground,” focuses on “things that are in the shades of normal life” and “[gives] voice to people who don’t usually have it,” she said.

The experience of a film like Helke’s, for people like Gustafson, is an opportunity to see a new perspective on the ways individuals interact and behave.

“There’s a productive way where [Helke is] really interested in working with real people to create caricatured versions of themselves,” Gustafson said. “[She’s] interested in the way we’re always playing characters, performing roles.”

The Film and Digital Media Visiting Artists series continues throughout the 2010–2011 academic year. Other visiting filmmakers include Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas Jan. 24, Travis Wilkerson Feb. 7, Rebecca Baron April 4, and Wynne Greenwood April 25.