Culture

Reindeerspotting director Joonas Neuvonen: story of a Finnish junkie

Article published on May 9, 2011
Article published on May 9, 2011
Reindeerspotting - Escape from Santaland, a Finnish documentary about drug addicts, is a film that you will probably never see at the cinema. Widely criticised in Finland, where it is accused of promoting the use of hard drugs, it’s been a viral hit. Could this be the birth of the internet version 2.0 of Trainspotting?

Reindeerspotting - Escape from Santaland ('Reindeerspotting: pako Joulumaasta') was only shown in Paris as part of the Europe Beyond Europe film festival (L’Europe autour de L’Europe). It has set tongues wagging on all the major social networking sites. Both Reindeerspotting’s title and trailer, with its quirky music, are a homage to British director Danny Boyle’s 1996 film. It’s a flattering comparison but the similarities end there; Trainspotting was a film, not a documentary. Neuvonen focuses on one sole character, Jani Raapana, and not on a gang of friends. What’s more, his film is unlikely to become ‘eurogenerational’ because it is firmly anchored in the reality of the dismal kingdom of Father Christmas: Rovaniemi, a boring town where youngsters are drugged up and depressed.

Escape destination: artificial paradise

With his dreadlocks, long goatee reminiscent of a heavy-metal rocker and rebellious look, director Joonas comes off as a heavyweight. He arrives late to our meeting in the 18th district or ‘arrondissement’ in northern Paris. His editor Sadri Cetinjka is on time and somewhat more chatty. In less than ten minutes I already know of his intake of hard drugs, a subject which constitutes the main part of our one and a half hour interview. 

In the film, Jani escapes Finland and makes a stop in Paris, as well as in Barcelona and Morocco to find some Subutex, a substitute for opiates like heroin. Nor is this Joonas’ first encounter with Paris: Reindeerspotting has led him here before. He  is well-travelled, and as soon as he could leave his hometown of Rovaniemi, he did so. With 50, 000 inhabitants, it is the capital of Finnish Lapland. Joonas damns it a dull town. He is evasive about always being on the road: he leaves, that’s all. As for Finland, he doesn’t want to talk ‘politics’, he scoffs. Sadri has more to say, as long as we’re discussing his favorite subject: drugs. So we are off on a (smoke-filled) discussion on artificial paradises, the hardcore version - because of course the 10am joint is the stuff of school kids.

Dip into the world of a Subutex junkie

Drugs and especially Subutex, prescribed by certain doctors and heavily trafficked, are at the centre of the film. ‘It relaxes you a bit and creates a distance between yourself and what you see around you,’ explains Joonas. I believe him willingly. He was himself under the influence of this ‘medicine’ while he was filming Jani. Filming lasted six months, but to release the film, rated 18 in Finland, it would have taken eight years. You have to admit that the subject isn’t very easy to market. Jani and his gang are what people politely refer to as ‘troubled youths’, low-level ‘hard guys’ who hang around all day, steal what they need and deal on their own patch.

His twenty year old self remains immortalisedIn the film, Jani is twenty but seems a lot younger. Resourcefully muddling through when he needs cash, he often seems closed off, absent even and always stoned. According to Joonas, he committed suicide last year in Cambodia, where he had fallen in love with a prostitute. He was 27 years old. His life resembled a hallucinogenic novel, and that is what Joonas Neuvonen has made a documentary about. When I ask him to talk about Jani he is clearly uneasy. ‘I met him when I was 20,’ he obliges, begrudgingly. ‘I was selling hash. He was only 14 or 15, he was stealing from shops. He was the youngest of his gang. Yes he was a kid. The older guys wound him up all the time.’ Being Jani’s friend was to be sure of nothing, the same being said for the hand held camera following from one day to the next. His repeated detours to prison between 2002 and 2008 didn’t help filming. Nevertheless, Neuvonen stuck to his original idea: film everything. Everything, including some harrowing scenes in which Jani injects himself with Subutex.

Paradoxically, although Jani is so open in front of the camera, he has always refused to speak to journalists. ‘I showed the film to Jani in 2008. It was more or less the version that you see today. He was happy with the result.’ Joonas is almost deathly silent. Only my scepticism about his distinction between ‘drug users’ and ‘drug addicts’ enlivens him slightly. The way I see it, it’s impossible not to get addicted. He spends a long time arguing the opposite, backed up by Sadri. Then I remind them that I’ve come to talk about their film, which seems to be the least of their worries. They really are a strange pair. Sadri hands me a copy of Reindeerspotting and tells me to do what I want with it. When I mention copyright they merely shrug; apparently, all that is ‘bullshit’. Joonas and Sadri are the image of their film and of Jani: revolting but carefree. They are ‘anarchists’ who don’t want to change anything, rebels without a cause, fleeing boredom in a toxic cynicism.

Images courtesy of Bronson Club