Reindeerspotting examines Rovaniemi drug scene from within
By Veli-Pekka Lehtonen
The restaurant Roskapankki (“Junk Bank”) in the Kallio district of Helsinki is known for its somewhat threadbare appearance. At ten in the morning, a handful of young people are sitting there. One of them is 30-year-old Joonas Neuvonen.
He orders a large glass of cola and a whisky - apparently not an unusual morning order for Roskapankki.
As a film director Neuvonen is exceptional. He has shot a documentary about his friends, who are united in their use of drugs. Neuvonen himself is a member of the group of drug users.
The main character in the film is Jani. He injects Subutex [a form of buprenorphine used in pill form as a replacement drug to treat addicts], commits petty crimes, takes speed, suffers from drug debts, steals, does break-ins, gets a prison sentence, and escapes the long arm of the law.
Neuvonen’s camera records all of this.
The film is historic. According to the Finnish Board of Film Classification, Neuvonen’s film is the first Finnish production that has been given a certificate restricting viewing to those under the age of 18.
Director Neuvonen is not particularly enthusiastic about discussing his life. We know that he is unemployed, without a fixed abode in Finland, and that the past few nights he has slept somewhere nearby. Behind him he has scattered art studies.
“Jani and I had a life in common, but I wasn’t hooked. I didn’t need to steal”, Neuvonen says.
Neuvonen and Jani met each other in the late 1990s on the Rovaniemi drug scene. At 26 years of age, Jani does not want to meet any journalists, even though his full name is revealed in the film.
“Jani and I were hanging out at the same place for a couple of days recently. He insisted that he feels good about the documentary. He doesn’t want anything more in his life to be made public”, Neuvonen says.
One might guess what the reason for this might be. Perhaps life wasn’t a hazy trance and a daydream since the footage for the documentary was shot in Rovaniemi in 2003-2004. The city is described in the documentary as a miserable small town.
Officials said that Rovaniemi had about 100 drug addicts at the time. Other things were also available for the young at that point. For instance, Rovaniemi is the first to organise a project allowing young people to shoot their own movies. The city lent Neuvonen a camera. Jani became the protagonist. Joonas was 23 at the time, and Jani was 19.
“We agreed with Jani and the others that we should make a movie without any preaching from above - just real action shown from our point of view. In the film, the drug users are still young. The process has not gone so far that all the cards would have been played. There’s still a glow, a glamour - the model learned in the movies that they try to live.”
Already by then Jani had had two fingers cut off. According to the film, it was the result of a misunderstanding. One can guess that it had something to do with drug debts.
During the film, Jani expects monetary compensation for his injury. With that money he hopes to move out of Finland.
The starting point of the film is to tell the story of Jani’s trip, which turns out different from what had been expected.
“Jani showed up behind the door. He has stolen 5,000 euros. He says, pack up, we leave in an hour.”
The ragtag duo travel via Stockholm, Christiania in Copenhagen, and Paris to Spain, where heroin and the Subutex are cheap. When they get there, Jani starts dreaming of a house, a family, and a plot of land in Spain.
A turning point in the making of the film is the running of the reindeer on the streets of Rovaniemi in March 2003. The Santa Claus Reindeer City Race is a big event, with which the city of Santa Claus puts on a show.
Neuvonen and the camera were there, as a group of young people watched the event from a roof of an office building on Kiskikatu. One of the druggies stumbles on the roof, and falls on the street. “That’s when they took the camera equipment away from me”, Neuvonen says.
Neuvonen needed to get a camera. He says that one foreign friend of his pawned his guitar and his amplifier, and Neuvonen got the money for the camera. The troubles continued: the police confiscated the camera in connection with an arrest, but returned it later. “They suspected that it was stolen”, Neuvonen says. He started to hide the videotapes in a ventilation duct as a precaution against a police raid.
Years later the completed film is given the name Reindeerspotting - pako joulumaasta (“Reindeerspotting - Escape from Christmas Country”). The name is a reference to the reindeer run, as well as the Trainspotting, the film by Danny Boyle from the 1990s about a group of down-and-out heroin users in Edinburgh.
Neuvonen does not feel that the documentary, which has been criticised as being pro-drug, would cause him any problems.
“I think that the difficulties are behind us”, Neuvonen says. He adds that it was difficult to find a production company that would not have tried to censor the film.
Neuvonen sees his documentary as a part of the debate on the drug question. He says that drug addicts have been deprived of their human rights.
“I was just hanging out in a place where the guys were comparing how the cops had beaten them. The present tendency is not sustainable. It causes suffering among the people who are the victims”, he says.
Sitting at the table in Roskapankki, Neuvonen calls for more funding of replacement therapy and mental health services.
From the world of film, Neuvonen admires Finnish director Rauni Mollberg. He likes experimental cinema, the cinéma vérité tradition in documentary film, and gonzo porn. He likes the insolence of the trendy magazine Vice.
He denies using crime as a way to advance his career. “I believe that I earned my hourly wage sitting at the editing table”, Neuvonen says.
The footage remained uncut in Neuvonen’s hideaway for a long time, until he met editor Sadri Cetinkaya through the Avanto festival, who told the people at the Bronson production company about the tapes. The company, which is now a part of the Solar Films group of Markus Selin, was headed at the time by producers Tero Kaukomaa and Jesse Fryckman, son of Peter Fryckman.
On the official level, Finland has taken two different types of views of the film. The pro-drug attitude banned it from being shown to anyone under 18, but the post-production has been financed by large public entities - the Finnish Film Foundation, The Promotion Centre for Audiovisual Culture (AVEK), and the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE).
Neuvonen criticises the age limit that was imposed on the film, saying that it amounts to censorship from an important audience. “Young people aren’t that stupid. Isn’t it time to accept that there is a drug subculture?”
The interview has gone on for more than two hours, and during the whole time Neuvonen has sat completely still wearing two jackets and a woolen cap. He has not managed to finish his whisky.
We exchange contact information at the door. Neuvonen digs through his back pocket. He has at least three mobile phones, and the numbers change frequently.
He should be going to Tampere and the film festival there, where Reindeerspotting is getting its first public screening in the competition. It turns out that Neuvonen does not plan to participate in his own festival.
“I don’t know if I’ll go. I want to concentrate on new things”, he says in a relaxed voice.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.3.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
Student work wins Grand Prix at Tampere Film Festival (15.2.3010)
New documentary follows lives of drug addicts in Rovaniemi (11.3.2010)
VELI-PEKKA LEHTONEN / Helsingin Sanomat