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Review: Ruthless Times - Songs of Care


- Susanna Helke’s DocPoint winner adds another trophy to its collection, having now been granted the Main Prize for a Film Over 30 Minutes at Tampere

Review: Ruthless Times - Songs of Care

Susanna Helke’s documentary Ruthless Times - Songs of Care [+see also:
interview: Susanna Helke
film profile
has been getting a lot of attention in Finland, winning at DocPoint (see the news) and now Tampere (see the news), and it’s hardly surprising – it’s a very local story about some very pressing issues, as it explores the state of the Finnish public-care sector. This topic alone might make it harder for it to travel, but make no mistake: people are scared of their future everywhere. They are scared that once they get old and fragile, and their families can’t look after them any more, they will waste away at some understaffed place full of “phantom nurses”, where no one has time to even talk to them any more. On the list of things that nobody wants to think about, this must come in at the absolute top.

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But while the subjects presented here are familiar, the execution surprises – Ruthless Times – Songs of Care is a docu-musical. Instead of “talking heads”, Helke provides a choir and, with the help of Anna-Mari Kähärä, lets her protagonists sing about their worries. The lyrics, based on the messages sent by the elderly care employees, are sometimes wonky (“The sustainability gap is us, in the land of budget deficits, we are a swing in dependency ratios”), and sometimes just sad (“To a nurse, it’s fair for anyone to say, anything and everything. I am dead tired, dead tired”). The “musical sequences” are as simple as it gets, as this is not the Busby Berkeley show. People exercise, stand in a corridor, walk around, and yes, they sing. Looking right at the camera, sometimes teary-eyed. It’s weird, but it’s affecting.

It also helps one to stick to this story, as the amounts of details and problems mentioned here are overwhelming. Nurses talk about mistakes being made, mostly due to budget cuts; incriminating press clippings are shown; people in virtual service centres try their best to communicate with the elderly via screens; local citizens worry about their municipal nursing home being outsourced to a private company; and two gentlemen “are having coffee and pondering life”. And that’s all before a robotic seal pup shows up.

Would the film work better if streamlined? Probably, but Helke is clearly going for a general overview of this problem that seems to be growing bigger with every passing year. The system doesn’t work – not when nurses admit, “It’s easy to make things look good on paper,” already brainwashed into thinking that when you complain about working a shift understaffed, it means you are clueless. Instead of fixing it all, it’s easier to look down on the employees and look down on the elderly. Also because, as mentioned, nobody wants to think about it, let alone consider that one day, they “will also be old and need nappies”.

It’s all rather dire, so the presence of some simple human kindness is welcome: of a nurse who, apart from being one of the first to report problems in round-the-clock elderly care, actually takes time to chat to the people she works with, or of a husband worrying that his wife won’t be getting the same kind of attention now that a private company is involved. This isn’t WALL-E – when you are sick and lonely, a robot announcing that he “is your friend” just won’t cut it.

Ruthless Times – Songs of Care was produced by Finnish outfit Road Movies Oy. It was co-written by Markku Heikkinen and Susanna Helke.

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