Peter von Bagh passes away
by Jorn Rossing Jensen
- The Finnish film historian, director – and co-founder of the Midnight Sun Film Festival – has died aged 71
This year, at the 29th Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland, festival director Peter von Bagh was particularly proud: when he left the festival centre (at the Kitisenranta school) to go to the Lapinsuu Cinema, he walked down Peter von Bagh Street – named after him by the village, in honour of him putting it on the world map.
And when he turned the corner, there was more festival history: his first special guest in 1986 was US director Samuel Fuller, and now his daughter Samantha Fuller was there to screen A Fuller Life, the documentary about her late father. She was also excited to take Samuel Fuller Street from the Hotel Sodankylä to the theatre.
Von Bagh, one of the co-founders of the festival – together with Finnish directors Anssi Mänttäri, Aki and Mika Kaurismäki – has died after a long battle with illness. He was also a film historian, critic, writer and a documentary filmmaker with 55 films to his credit, with the last one, Socialism, screened at the 2014 festival.
On 8 October, his 2010 book Sodankylä Forever will be presented in English at the Frankfurt Book Fair – it is his depiction of the Midnight Sun Film Festival over three decades, which he has also described in a four-part documentary, including highlights from his own two-hour interviews at the local school with famous filmmakers visiting the festival.
“What was the first film you saw?” would always be his first question – a way to extend the story of a festival back to the silent era, as he later explained, because a “festival is as deep as the memory it contains”. And the interviewees included everybody from the UK’s Michael Powell to America’s Francis Ford Coppola.
A BA from the University of Helsinki in Philosophy, Sociology, Aesthetics and Literature, and later a Doctor of Social Sciences, von Bagh started as a lecturer at institutions such as the University of Aalto. He has written 40 books, mostly non-fiction, although his Song of Finland (2007) received the Finlandia Literary Prize for Non-Fiction.
His films include Helsinki Forever (2008), a documentary that US critic Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed as “one of the ten best films in the first decade of the 21st century”. Von Bagh retrospectives have most recently been organised in Moscow, Washington, Vienna, Munich and Tromsø, the northernmost festival in Scandinavia.