Documentary in Finland

History, Practice and Policy

by Jouko Aaltonen (Author) Pietari Kääpä (Author) Dafydd Sills-Jones (Author)
©2023 Monographs VIII, 234 Pages
Series: Documentary Film Cultures, Volume 3


«Documentary in Finland is a needed contribution to the emergent field of documentary production studies, and it sets the direction for further research on small nation documentary film cultures.»
(Ilona Hongisto, Professor in Film Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology)
«This book offers an excellent exploration of the Finnish documentary eco-system as a site of negotiation between several competing elements in a constantly evolving film and television culture. There is much to be learned about the specific Finnish context, but also plenty of valuable lessons for other small nation film cultures and anyone with an interest in how to think of production cultures from a productive media ecology perspective.»
(Eva Novrup Redvall, Associate Professor, Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen, Denmark)
Having established itself as an award-winning and ground-breaking documentary cinema in the 1990s and 2000s, Finnish documentary has experienced many of the challenges that have beset the form since the mid-2010s, including the digital disruption of production and distribution traditions. How has documentary in Finland met these challenges, and what does that say about the country’s way of making films? This book examines the ecology of Finland’s documentary filmmaking milieu by framing and analysing a series of encounters with its most important financiers, producers and directors. What emerges is a portrait of an interconnected ecology of relationships and practices, typical of a small nation documentary cinema and of the traditionally communitarian nature of Nordic film cultures. Through this analysis, the ruptures and challenges within this ecosystem are addressed, where the values of collaboration and the coherence of a national culture are challenged by the forces of change.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Figures
  • Chapter 1 The Finnish Documentary Ecosystem
  • Chapter 2 A Brief History of Finnish Documentary
  • Chapter 3 The Current Finnish Documentary Scene
  • Chapter 4 Financiers’ Panel
  • Chapter 5 Producers’ Panel
  • Chapter 6 Directors’ Panel
  • Chapter 7 Conclusion: Finnish Documentary Beyond the Golden Age
  • Bibliography
  • About the Authors
  • Index
  • Series Index


Chapter 1 The Finnish Documentary Ecosystem


Documentary in Finland: History, Practice and Policy is part of a book series dedicated to an ecosystemic view of documentary film cultures. A key imperative for this volume is to re-evaluate the ways in which scholarship approaches individual films and their production context. Instead of viewing them simply as individual films or reciting histories of auteurist genius, we approach documentary production as cultural constellations. In doing so, we draw from scholarship conducted in media ecology studies, which adapts concepts from the study of (natural) ecology, such as ‘evolution’, ‘extinction’, ‘cross-fertilisation’ or ‘punctuated equilibrium’, and applies them to the study of a specific media system in order to avoid common pitfalls of either an economically determinist or textually determinist account. Practised by scholars such as Lance Strate (2008) and Carlos Scolari (2012), media ecology does not intend to fix the problems of other methods, but instead seeks to find ways to account for gradual and sudden shifts of various kinds of media production and content within the same system. Through this, it can avoid the critiques often faced by media scholarship where the focus is too heavily on the text (i.e. studies that do not take into account production processes, policy, exhibition, reception) or ones that prioritise the industrial context (and thus in the process overlook creative practices and the content itself).

In this book, we suggest that Finnish documentary culture functions like an ecosystem with deliberate (but porous) boundaries and a multitude of participants (agents) who influence and are influenced by these confines. While studies of Finnish documentary culture have presented historical overviews (Sedergren and Kippola 2009 and 2015) ←1 | 2→and thematic analyses of specific films and filmmakers (Toiviainen 2009; Anderson 2014; Aaltonen 2014), we suggest that adopting approaches from media ecology can provide us with a more comprehensive and responsive perspective on the formation and continued existence of this culture that accurately reflects its constitution. Finnish documentary culture has not developed in a neat historical pattern that we can summarise (even) in a book-length narrative. Seminal historical events, such as two world wars, the expedient modernisation of society, Finland’s changing position in Europe, have all influenced documentary production in immense and complex ways. In terms of film culture, technological factors (film as new media; television; VHS; digital media), artistic movements (New Objectivity; New Waves), cultural policy (funding incentives; taxation laws) and institutions (the Finnish Film Foundation; the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE) all play a complex role in this ecosystem in ways that refuse easy linearisation.

Rather than separating the pathways of media analysis, media ecology seeks to emphasise the interactions between different elements in a system – structure, content, impact – that might otherwise be considered discretely. Here, we draw from Neil Postman’s use of the word ‘ecology’ which ‘implies the study of environments: their structure, content and impact on people’ (1970: np). This is because, according to Scolari, ‘media create an “environment” that surrounds the individual and models their perception and cognition’ (2012: 209–210). Far from being a description of how elements – technology, texts, institutions, audiences – operate together in a system, media ecology maps the ways in which these elements co-create an environment that has, in turn, an effect on the very elements within it, what Strate refers to as a maelstrom of cause and effect:

The maelstrom is our media environment, and the only way out is through synthesis or pattern recognition. We cannot get out through linear logic and cause-and effect thinking alone. We need to work dialectically and ecologically, riding through complex systems on the edge of chaos. (2008: 137)

For Scolari, the maelstrom forms ‘an environment that includes different media and technologies … subjects (i.e. content producers, users, readers, and media researchers), and social/political forces (Hollywood majors, wikileaks, legal regimes …)’ (2012: 209–210). Such complex approaches ←2 | 3→work well in attempting to understand Finnish documentary culture, with its local focus, its generic developments and its constitution as a site of negotiation between competing elements – the subject, the text, technology, institutions, the audience. In this book, we focus on exploring historical and contemporary developments, including the roles of a multitude of players in the field, responding to a wide variety of socio-historical and political challenges or to cultural-artistic or cultural-economic provocations. Through this, a picture of Finnish documentary culture as an evolving ecosystem emerges.

Within this category there are two processes in particular that are of interest to us: the process of ‘evolution’ within the environment, and the concept of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ between different elements within the environment, both of which provide key conceptual tools used throughout the book. Evolution, as used in a media ecology context, is a broad analogy. It can be used to discuss the general notion of change over time caused by environmental forces, or it can be used in a more biological sense to look at the processes within media forms – and other elements within the media environment – that affect the processes of evolution. In this book, the notion of evolution comes through strongly in Chapter 2, which focuses on a history of Finnish documentary. The chapter captures the complex processes of how elements within a media ecosystem operate and respond to one another. Media ecosystems can also experience sudden transformations – referred to by Scolari as episodes of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, when abrupt bursts of transformation and development occur, quite out of rhythm with the usual temporalities. Chapter 2 captures such instances of punctured equilibrium when, for example, television as an emergent technology disrupts the stability of the whole cinema industry, often referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Finnish cinema’ (see Bacon 2016), or when digital media provides a boost to documentary distribution. Here we can see how ‘media coevolve and hybridize each other. These two processes can be seen as two sides of the same coin; if we think in time, we will discover coevolution; if we think in space, we will see hybridization’ (Scolari 2012: 217). For Scolari, intermedia ‘co-evolution’ and their eventual ‘hybridisation’ are key concepts, and they play a major role in this book too, especially when we cover the impacts of technological development and digital convergence on Finnish documentary culture.←3 | 4→

In the context of documentary film culture, media ecology can be used to discuss the dynamics through which funders, producers, directors, subjects and audiences interact with industry-wide transformations. The documentary ecosystem can be imagined under a number of paradigms – political economy, performance tradition, production studies, cultural studies – but to capture the richness and diversity of a documentary culture, these elements need to be viewed as they collide with and influence each other. A Finnish documentary culture analysis, as practised in this book, focuses on funding structures, dominant modes and texts, the demographics of the audience, the professional codes of the filmmakers, a documentary’s existence across technologies, and its relationship with other genres, industries, platforms or practices. In the ‘maelstrom’ of a constantly transforming documentary film culture, the various ecological processes can be reimagined as follows:

Thinking ecologically suggests we look at big pictures, at the whole assemblage of agents that constitute documentary ecosystems. This attempt immediately becomes a daunting task. The sheer profusion of what we might identify as documentary materials is overwhelming. Documentation and recording of our everyday lives is the super-abundant fruit that seeds and sustains the Internet: it is overwhelming. (Dovey 2014: 11)

Jon Dovey’s admission stands as a warning to anyone who attempts to survey or analyse the field of documentary film and/or media production. Firstly, as the quotation suggests, the field is unwieldy, and it has long been noted that it is a minefield in terms of definition (Winston 2008). What can be counted as documentary, and importantly, what can’t? These discussions go to the heart of how media texts operate within and across societies, territories and technologies, and navigating between the positions of Minh-ha, Winston, Renov and Bruzzi can leave the student of documentary in a profound quandary as to the usefulness of their mission. Perhaps in the face of this debate and diffuseness, documentary really only exists as a category of convenience, one that needs to be addressed simply because it is so widely used, rather than as a term with any precise meaning or significance.

The contemporary situation exacerbates this confusion in a number of ways. Firstly, as Dovey notes, the sheer quantity of documentary material ←4 | 5→now available on digital platforms makes it almost impossible to trace the linkages of influence, inspiration and affect that previous eras of film and media studies have tracked, even the ones that challenged the very existence of documentary as a category. Secondly, the fundamental shift from existing mainly on the static platform of analogue television – the major home of documentary between the end of the Second World War and the onset of high-speed internet – to being dispersed across a panoply of digital platforms and spaces is another massive challenge to the category of documentary. The notion that documentary was a film form, existing due to a perceived forward momentum in formal development, has come into doubt due to the overwhelming proportions of what Williams (2004) once referred to as media flow. The balance between textual unitary integrity and the intertextuality of the platform on which that text is accessed has all but collapsed. Here, the application of media ecology to documentary can open up a highly useful and flexible analytic analogy, through which the multivarious processes at work can be evaluated in terms of their correlation and co-causal nature.

Media ecology in small nations

While the overall analysis presented in this book is inspired by a media ecological perspective, that perspective also welcomes and utilises a number of other approaches to analysing a media production ecology. Similarly, while ‘media ecology’ can be used to trace the causality of a process across boundaries (of nations, regions, artistic movements, production structures), and to make sense of the atomised and fractured production processes of late capitalism’s increasingly globalised digital mediasphere, this study makes a specific choice to follow a specific tradition of documentary-making in a specific geographical territory: Finland. This decision emerges from our hypothesis that Finland’s documentary scene is a microcosm in which the global processes of artistic flows, commercialised pressures, creative innovations and digital disruption can be seen to work upon the traditional form of documentary. There are many ←5 | 6→other forms of documentary – television documentary, internet docs, corporate docs – and they have their producers in Finland, but creative, artistic and independent documentary in Finland has a specific function due to the high levels of state subsidy and public regard.


VIII, 234
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (February)
Documentary Finland media production Documentary in Finland Jouko Aaltonen Pietari Kääpä Dafydd Sills-Jones
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. VIII, 234 pp., 15 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Jouko Aaltonen (Author) Pietari Kääpä (Author) Dafydd Sills-Jones (Author)

Jouko Aaltonen is Docent (Adjunct Professor) at Aalto University Helsinki. As a researcher, he specialises in Finnish documentary film, the filmmaking process, and the rhetoric of documentary film. He is also an active documentary filmmaker. Pietari Kääpä is a Reader in Media and Communications at the University of Warwick. He specialises in environmental media and has also published widely on Nordic film, including Finnish documentary. Dafydd Sills-Jones is Associate Professor in the School of Communication at Auckland University of Technology. He writes about documentary, minority language media and media education.


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