Hannah Strong


Photography courtesy of

the tampere film festival

Community and creativity thrive at Finland’s Tampere Film Festival

At Northern Europe's oldest short film festival, cinephiles from around the world come together to declare small is beautiful – be it in the sauna or on the ice.

The Finns don’t have a word for “please”. This was among the first thing I learned on arriving in Tampere, a former industrial hub located a ninety-minute train ride away from the established cultural heart of Helsinki. As a terminally apologetic British person who feels the excruciating weight of Brexit with every step I take on the continent, this was devastating news. Thankfully I was informed by my welcoming hosts from the City of Tampere and Tampere Film Festival that the word for “thank you”, Kiitos, would more than suffice. Sure enough, across the five days I spent in the chilly climate, I became accustomed to the cheery refrain echoing across restaurants, bars, cinema screens and saunas. For my first encounter with Finland, I warmed up extremely quickly.

The Tampere Film Festival takes place in early March, just as the snow is beginning to melt and spring is peeking around the corner. Though, in Finland March still means bracing temperatures and frozen lakes – as we stepped out onto the ice of one such body of water, our guide assured us that the lake would still be frozen six metres deep for at least another fortnight. (Sure enough, no one plunged into the icy depths during our ice fishing expedition).

The warmth of the cinema is a welcome respite, be it Cine Atlas, the shopping centre multiplex that lends itself to the festival for five days or Tampere’s cosy independent Arthouse Niagara, which becomes a hub for the festival, playing host to screenings, talks, and even some parties which spill over into the labyrinthian back corridors behind the screens. Established in 1970, Tampere is Northern Europe’s oldest short film festival, and they take that responsibility extremely seriously, packing around 500 short films into the programme from every corner of the globe, as well as a number of features in their national Finnish competition. There are also a number of panels, workshops and special events (a highlight this year was a screening of three silent Juho Kuosmanen shorts, screened at Tampere Cathedral with a live organ accompaniment) spread across the week-long celebration.

Filmmakers from around the world descend on the city, creating a buzzy international atmosphere. Around the main hotel’s breakfast buffet, I hear snatches of conversation in Spanish, Portuguese, German and Danish as well as English. Where bigger festivals are susceptible to hierarchies forming quickly, there was little sense of that at Tampere. Filmmakers, producers, programmers and critics mingle with students and enthusiastic cinephiles – all the parties are free entry for badge holders. Speeches and Q&As are delightfully ad-hoc. During one screening of shorts I attended, a filmmaker shouted out from the back of the room “Sorry, I didn’t realise I’d made the credits so long!” as we all sat in polite silence. There’s an air of light chaos which runs through the festival, giving it a distinct charm.

Part of this atmosphere undoubtedly comes from the festival’s unique welcome offered to filmmakers and guests: a trip to Hangaslahti, a traditional smoke sauna on opening night. Guests strip off and toddle into a tiny wooden room heated between 110 – 130°c, where they sweat it out in a room that’s played host to Finnish prime ministers, before waddling out to a hole in the frozen lake for a quick dip in sub-zero waters. I did this once before I decided I liked sitting outside in the night air wrapped in a towel drinking a beer more than alternating between the sauna and frigid water. But encouraging your guests to get sweaty and naked together as a festival kicks off is a novel way of creating an even playing field. I can’t imagine Thierry Frémaux ushering everyone out for a skinny dip at Cannes.

As for the films – the nature of a short film festival means not every single one is going to be a winner, but I was pleasantly surprised by the breadth and scope of the Tampere programme, which was divided into various categories by theme, medium and length. My personal favourite section was the International Competition strand entitled Animal Factor, which centred on films about the animal kingdom. There was Calf, an austere Irish short about a tragic farm accident, and The Sun Sets On Beirut, a British-Lebanese co-production about a young woman searching for her missing cat in the ruins of the city , but my highlight was Comrade Poopy. Ostensibly a film about a spunky ginger cat who adapts when his owners up sticks to join revolutionaries in Myanmar, I was surprised to discover the real story – Poopy’s owners had previously enjoyed a comfortable life as popular travel bloggers, but they were targeted by Myanmar’s military dictatorship after speaking out against them. The couple were forced to leave their Instagram-ready life behind, taking with them only suitcases and their beloved cat as they headed for a revolutionary stronghold in the jungle.

It’s the sort of incredible story that flourishes at short film festivals, where programmers are able to dedicate the time and space to films that otherwise might get overlooked by bigger festivals or those geared towards features. But this may also be to Tampere’s detriment – while there really is something for everyone in the expansive programme, the scope is a little overwhelming and means that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s no hope of realistically seeing even half the programme, although the festival has continued to embrace online viewing (something that many festivals have moved away from since the height of the Covid-19 pandemic).

But Tampere’s collegiate atmosphere was a welcome change of pace from the self-serious vibes of many European festivals. Outside of the film screenings, the city offers picturesque walks along the unique Tammerkoski rapids, and is home to the world’s only Moomin museum, where visitors can learn about Tove Jansson’s sweet environmentally-minded creatures who continue to enjoy national treasure status in Finland. The city also has a thriving bar and restaurant scene, with our memorable final night dinner at Apaja ranking among the best things I’ve ever eaten, in or out of a film festival blur. It’s easy to understand why the city has become popular with Finns looking to escape Helsinki, and the film festival plays no small part in this appeal.

The idiosyncratic awards ceremony offered another insight into Finnish culture, with a duo performing a panpipe and moose antler-themed interpretive dance to kick things off. Although I’ve never been to a ceremony with quite so many awards given out, it was heartening to watch the genuine enthusiasm and excitement with which winners collected their prizes, many of whom were lost for words. It was the complete antithesis of the usual festival pomp and circumstance, giving way to amusingly short speeches and laughter every time it emerged a winner wasn’t actually there to pick up their award (such is the nature of the regional short film festival).

But when one eventually tires of films, Lake Näsijärvi is but a short 15-minute bus ride away from the centre of Tampere. The 40km expanse of frozen ice offers prime real estate for sledging and skating (there’s nothing quite as humbling as hobbling along the ice with all the skill of Bambi only to watch a small child zoom past on figure skates), and if you make it far enough to the centre, there’s a hut serving up hot juice and freshly-cooked sausages. It’s quite unlike any environment I’ve experienced a film festival in before, but one that I left with gratitude for its welcoming atmosphere. The bruises on my legs from where I repeatedly decked it on the ice took much less time to fade than the warmth I felt at seeing what a thriving film community exists in the frozen north.

Little White Lies were guests of Visit Tampere and the Tampere Film Festival. This piece is not sponsored. 

Published 2 Apr 2024

Tags: Tampere Film Festival

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Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.