The Midnight Sun Film Festival begins today. Due to an unprecedented global pandemic, the traditional format cannot take place, and in its place a new version is streamed online. Midnight Sun Forever is the first step into a shifting landscape for film festivals, and arguably a vital and important one to ensure the iconic film festival survives into a new era.

The Midnight Sun Festival is as much a part of my identity as it is quintessentially a part of Finland. In a few short decades it has ingrained itself into the very heart of the country, to the point that it feels like it was always there.

This year, because of the COVID19 pandemic, we cannot make the journey north.

In a way it’s a blessing: not everyone will be able to go even at the best of times. Others, like myself, will find life intervening for years at a time. I haven’t returned to Sodankylä since 2008. Part of the allure is the distance, and the romanticism of watching films at the most northern film festival in the world.

But now, more than ever, it’s vital that we celebrate the festival in its newfound form just as we would any other year. The pandemic has set the world off its axis, and some things will never be the same. Yet the Midnight Sun will endure.

Everyone has their Sodankylä love story.

I was finishing my second year of high school; awkward, anti-social, and totally in love with film, unable to express it. I knew what I liked, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t even understand where some of the things I liked came from. I just knew they were intoxicating and still out of my grasp.

Thanks to my film studies teacher, Antti Pentikäinen, I managed to collect myself enough to go on his summer excursion where a group of students travel across Finland to the far north. First by train, then by bus, as no rail lines run all the way to Sodankylä. I made the long trip alone, as I had dallied until the last minute. I was terrified the whole ride, unable to handle even the most basic social interaction.

When the bus pulled down main street, coming to a stop in front of the now legendary diners opposite the Lapinsuu cinema, it was love at first sight. Sodankylä is a beautiful small town; sleepy and idyllic like from an old film. During the summer it bathes in golden brown and shades of blue, green fields surrounding it on all sides, and a deep blue, dome-like sky hanging above it. Every year the streets are filled with film fans from all over the world; some devotees who’ve come for decades, others there for the first time. Each holding a claim to a piece of something special in this distant mecca. 

I remember The Big Tent, where I saw METROPOLIS with live music from Laika and the Cosmonauts; listening to Val Guest talk about directing QUATERMASS AND THE PIT; geeking out with Irina Björklund about Greek mythology. Not knowing what time or day it was, but that another screening would start soon. 

To this day, Sodankylä and the Midnight Sun Film Festival remain vital parts of my cultural and personal upbringing. Without the guidance of both my teachers, but the staff, volunteers, and experts at the festival, I would not be here today. The festival is more than just a fun excursion (though it certainly is that as well!), it’s a chance to learn, to broaden horizons, and to realize an important fact: You’re never alone when you love cinema.

A projectionist at the festival told me one summer: Sodankylä isn’t just the location, it’s the people and the passion that have made it what it is.

Now, thanks to the internet, we are more connected than ever, even during a time of quarantine. The indomitable spirit of film fans in this country can’t be stopped by a mere pandemic. My former teacher, Antti, is leading another group virtually into Sodankylä; directing discourse about film just as he has for twenty years. Other teachers around the country are doing the same. Friends are joining in for viewing parties through Zoom or in small groups.

While we can’t join each other on location, we can share the experience. Log in to the viewing platform and you can buy a ticket to any of the 50 films screening, or join the morning talks with maestros like Agnés Verda and Francis Ford Coppola. The Facebook lounge serves a virtual festival ground for all who want to join. Want to experience a variation of the tent? Head outside with a trusted laptop, tablet, or phone and watch THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST under the midsummer sun, which will not set even down south. 

Elsewhere the indispensable Yle Areena is hosting the “Desert Island Films.” A curated series of films from film influencers around the world. Right now you can see Citizen Kane, as recommended by Finnish filmmaker Matti Kassila

Between films, hop in on the discussion on Facebook or Twitter. Call your friends. Share the experience. What matters is that the celebration of cinema doesn’t end. It cannot. Because even if we can’t go to Sodankylä, we will bring Sodankylä to us. 

I hope to see you at the festival.