Look Maa, no farms

What is it that Monty Python-member Michael Palin used to sing about Finland? Oh, yes: “You’re so sadly neglected, you’re so often ignored. A poor second to Belgium when going abroad.” And there it is, ladies and gentlemen, perhaps the only enduring lyrical couplet about this small East European country in our popular vernacular. Why is that, do you suppose? After all, Minnesota has a dozen or so sister cities in this forgotten land (St. Anthony Village is a sister city to Salo, Finland), and we receive dozens of Finnish exchange students every year. Additionally, Twin Cities-based singer/songwriter Ruth MacKenzie traveled to Finland to study some of the country’s obscure vocal techniques, and returned to create both Kalevela: Dreams of the Salmon Maiden and The Snow Queen using these newly learned vocal idioms. Both plays played to packed houses, creating an unexpected audience for Finnish music in our fair Twin Cities. So, of any state in the Union, shouldn’t Minnesota be the most ready to expand its knowledge of Finnish history and culture?

We shall see. Because the U Film Society is bringing a Finnish film to town as part of their International Film Festival, and we’re about to get a look at Finland that we never expected. Titled Maa (and retitled Earth for American release), the film takes an uncomfortably familiar look at the massive cultural changes Finland has experienced since the 1960s, when the economy shifted from rural farming to rural manufacturing. Director Veikko Aaltonen takes a chilling look at those Finnish farms that have weathered the change, and peers into the increasingly desperate lives of these farmers, who have gone from being the backbone of the country to eking out a hardscrabble existence in a country that has almost entirely abandoned its agrarian roots. Filled with uncompromising imagery-often unsparing, but equally often startlingly beautiful-Earth tells a story that is all too familiar, particularly here in the Midwest, which experienced a nearly identical economic shift over the past half-century. Finland is closer to Minnesota than we could have expected, it seems.

– Max Sparber