Film reviews

Telling Tales Film and Audio Festival: The Illuminators

Antti Haase’s The Illuminators (Valontuojat) – the best film of this year’s Telling Tales – is a beautiful story of family history combined with Lapland’s electronic evolution.

Opening with a helicopter journey, Antti presents stunning imagery of Lapland and its powerlines. Antti’s grandfather, the legendary Gunnar Haase, is of a said legendary status because he sought the installation of electricity throughout Lapland, during the post-war (WW2) period onward. Gunnar, a Baltic German refugee had the desire to rebuild the destroyed Lapland, a place left with destruction and no money.

“We are men with a mission. We bring light into the darkness.”

In presenting archive audio from 1954 with archive imagery, the listener is immediately exposed to Gunnar’s plans for electrical lines throughout Lapland. As a point of interest and fascination, it is intriguing to listen to a creator’s plans prior to creation, having previously seen said creations erected. Subsequently, the creation of Gunnar’s creation is introduced: grandson, Antti. Antti presents himself as, almost, an outsider despite being the grandson and son of subsequent Managing Directors of Rovakaira. Going against expectation and not following the footsteps of his fathers, Antti is a documentary filmmaker, stating that he had his first video camera in 1997.

The home video footage from 1997 is pivotal in the character developments of Gunnar, as the audience is presented the figure decades after his accomplishments. Interchanging between contemporary contributions, archive imagery from the 1950s onwards and the 1997 home video footage, there are aspects of non-linear storytelling in the plot of The Illuminators.

Returning to the old HQ, Antti introduces his father, Hannu. In a touching moment, in the old office, Hannu and Antti play with an old electricity set. Hannu subsequently further contextualises the Lapland his father, Gunnar, tried to evolve, “War ended, everything destroyed. No roads. Electricity was almost unknown to them.” After Gunnar’s retirement in 1979, Hannu was the natural successor, though there were doubts from the workers in his abilities.

Hannu’s reign as Managing Director entailed parallels with his predecessor. Gunnar dreamed of having a power plant, leading to the construction of one, though disaster soon followed in the form of a Dam breaking in 1959, leading to damages. The Dam was repaired, but the origin of the break remained a mystery. Fast-forward to the early 1980s, and Hannu fought for the construction of a power plant in Sinettä. The local villagers, however, were in wanting of lynching Hannu, and summarised that “the plant destroys nature.” Within a village hall demonstration, Hannu tried to convince the locals, but it lead to nothing, and the river and nature in general stayed intact.

Despite being offered the privilege of having electricity in the home, there were oppositions. To some extents criticisms of electricity were close to being of an extreme nature, “No, I won’t have electricity it will ruin everyone’s life”, whilst others believed that they shouldn’t have to pay for it, “I won’t pay a penny for it!” Women, however, were very much in favour of electricity as opposed to some men. Whilst men were content with working in the woods, women demanded electricity. An elderly housewife, Maija, recalls her mindset of the time, “Electricity was our dream.” whilst also recalling Gunnar saying to her, “Soon you can do your homework in bright light.”

Some of the recollections of former workers are both inspiring and utterly tragic. One elderly contributor reveals that in the early days of the company, there were, “No cars, bikes, just bare hands. Iron bar and shovel.” Therefore being able to erect such figures with limited resources was quite an inspiring prospect to those working with the bare minimum. Inspiring it may be, but tragedy and danger were far from distant, as explained by the elderly Pentti Nissilä. Given its own chapter in The Illuminators, Pentti recollects a life-changing incident that occurred in 1952 in Kittilä. 14 metres up in the air, on a powerline crossing a river, a new worker had made an error, so Pentti climbed up to fix said error. Whilst up there, however, the current was switched on – “I saw green flame.” Pentti recalls. Experiencing a 110 KV current and suggesting that it was a “miracle [to] survive it.” Pentti subsequently lost a foot and a hand. In the time after the accident, Pentti also recalls feelings of disturbance and wanting help, suggesting the possibility of PTSD.

Antti’s chapter-based story-telling is quite admirable, as appose to a generic chronological story – though the real delight is Antti’s presentation of almost three character arcs: Gunnar, Hannu and their company. The interlocking story arcs also present the visual of old and new. Old and new can be seen externally through the non-linear of archive and contemporary contributions, but internally in the examples of placing both Antti and Hannu on screen together, as well as the elderly workers of yesteryear erecting a wooden pole alongside contemporary electricians. The erecting of the pole is full of banter as one would expect, but is quite feel-good too.

Though somewhat serious in tone throughout, it is a refreshing feel when there are light-hearted moments. Subtle comedy plays its part in a minimalist fashion too, even an almost black comedy element occurs when Hannu and his villager opposition from the 1980s reunite to recreate their intense debating, though leading to more arguing as if the original debates occurred a day prior.

Ultimately, The Illuminators is a tremendous piece of historical storytelling. Beautiful, tragic and awe-inspiring throughout, it is an absolute privilege to have been presented the family history of the Haase, as well as the recollections of the workers, and families in receipt of the electricity. It will take some time after a viewing to truly comprehend the greatness of Gunnar’s achievements – for one man to establish electricity in all but every home in Lapland over a number of decades is a remarkable accomplishment. Then for Hannu to finish his father’s work in having every home electrified is the ultimate tribute.

The Illuminators is electrifyingly great.

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