Arto Halonen and the Movies that Matter

Published Book Review by Heljä Ora

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We all, each and every one of us, have a responsibility for the direction to which the world develops.

“Our activities on the shady areas of business are growing and the human cleanliness and whiteness is turning darker unless we grow aware of the consequences of our actions and start controlling and questioning our ways of thinking”, says movie director Arto Halonen. In many of his documentaries he has dealt with human rights issues.

The office of Art Films in Helsinki is busy. The financing applications for a new film project are to be sent on by taxi. Halonen’s latest documentary, Pyhän kirjan varjo (The Shadow of the Holy Book) recently premiered in Finnish theatres with fierce discussions about Nokia’s connections with the Turkmenistan authorities in the media. The tight schedule does not diminish the intensity of thought and presence, and Halonen answers all questions in the warm and friendly manner typical of him.

Arto Halonen is a multitalented player in the film industry. He has written manuscripts, directed and produced documentaries and drama. The film Ringside in 1992 was his real breakthrough, and after that, he has directed dozens of successful films. At the Thessaloniki documentary film festival in 2008, he was granted the honorary prize as a developer of film art. He has received The European Union Humanitarian Award, and the Suomi Award by the Finnish Ministry of Education. He has also been nominated for the Amnesty International Award ”The Movies that Matter”. He has established the Helsinki DocPoint documentary film festival.

Into the film industry by accident

Arto Halonen spent his childhood and went to school in Joensuu, in North Eastern Finland. Fate stepped in while he was studying and took him to the world of films. He was a student at the Joensuu School of Business Studies and was totally unaware his artistic gifts. The teacher of Arts and Environmental Studies asked the students to create a piece of art during the term. The options were to draw, paint, write or shoot a film

Arto wanted to make a film and the result was so successful that it began his film making career leaving other activities aside. During the following two years he completed twelve short films. Those years were the beginning of a professional career as a scriptwriter and a director.

Halonen is a cosmopolitan. Shootings that may take years, constantly take him abroad. His soul- voice, from time to time, urges him slow down and rest but there is not quite time for that yet.

What makes the human rights so interesting?

In many of his movies, Arto Halonen has discussed the human rights issues. Films such as Karmapa – jumaluuden kaksi tietä (Karmapa – Two Ways to Divinity) and Maailman katolla (A Voyage On the Roof of the World) describe the situation in Tibet and the Chinese tyranny there. Unelmoija ja Unikansa (A Dreamer and the Dream Tribe) tells about dream culture and survival struggles of the Temiar Senoi tribe in Malaysia. With his films Halonen wants to arouse discussion and show what is happening around us.

“Within a human being, there is a higher consciousness and by activating it, one can develop ones spiritual side. Our aim is to develop as individuals and as communities. The world has become “worldlier” and therefore it is difficult to find this connection. It is the responsibility of a film maker to tell about things”, Halonen says.

The fact that unethical operating models become a daily practice, means that a sufficient number of people have agreed to act against one another or against their community – either because they are forced to do so, or for financial gain or for some other benefit.

It is an everyday routine for big companies to turn a blind eye to what is ethical in order to secure favourable business deals by doing so. This is happening, among other places, in China and Turkmenistan where also Finnish companies have business activities.

We can criticize the big companies but this does not free us from our own responsibility. Every human being has a responsibility for how we develop our world. The choices we make affect the whole. It is human beings who form the big companies and states.

“If we human beings do not act ethically and morally, the big companies and states will not do so either. As general moral codes become loose and vague, and as the rules of the game change, unethical ways of acting become normal. States and companies become monsters and gradually we human beings start developing in the same direction. The responsibility lies with us all: communities, companies and individuals”, Halonen states.

If one wishes to see the world develop, one has to develop oneself. One should ask oneself: what would I be willing to do if I were promised a million Euros. Do I consider the consequences of my actions when making everyday choices?

In the shadow of Ruhnama

The most recent film by Halonen, a documentary Pyhän kirjan varjo (The Shadow of the Holy Book) tells about the dictatorship in Turkmenistan and about the activities of the multinational companies there. The film had its world premier in November 2007 in the main competition series of the Amsterdam international documentary festivals. The film is currently being shown in international film festivals all around the world and has received an exceptionally wide international audience.

The movie is an expedition to the present day Turkmenistan. This former Soviet Republic gained independence in 1991. Dictator Separmurat Nijazov seized autocratic power, the country’s borders were closed and the rich oil and gas resources were transferred from Moscow’s control to that of the dictator. In the hope for gaining business worth millions, Western big companies competed for the favour of the dictator.

The appalling epic Ruhnama has been translated into 41 languages. Why? Because having the title translated and published has opened the doors of international companies to profitable oil, gas and construction businesses in Turkmenistan.

The book is a peculiar mixture of invented history, assumed spirituality and intentional brain washing composed by the dictator of Turkmenistan, the late Separmurat Nijazov. In schools and universities, students are forced to study and repeat the thoughts presented in the book. One cannot even get a driver’s licence without reading the Ruhnama. Festivities and singing events based on the book are organized throughout the country and people are forced to praise the epic and the dictator.

Absurd but true: in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, a huge mobile (opening and closing) statue of the epic Ruhnama has been raised on a pedestal. A gigantic gilded statue of Nijazov also stands on a motorized base which turns the statue to always face the sun.

The transfer of power did not improve the life of the Turkmens. After the sudden death of Nijazov in 2006, the power was seized by Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov who is characterized as a poor copy of his predecessor. A dictator was replaced by another one. In order to prop up his own power, he has also decided to publish an epic of propaganda.

Exile and murder attempts

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is a glossy setting in the middle of a desert. A lot of fear lies behind the coulisses, the appraisal songs and the brain washing. Political opposition parties are forbidden, there is no freedom of speech and dissidents are persecuted.

The spying network dating back to the Soviet era has been updated with the help of Siemens’ new technology. This modern equipment can be used to minimize the freedom of speech and to root out dissident activities in a more efficient manner than ever before. Representatives of the opposition can be more easily caught to be tortured, expelled or killed.

The film Pyhän kirjan varjo (The Shadow of the Holy Book) shows a group of Turkmen dissidents. Their stories about their own lives are clear evidence about the human rights situation of the country.

The film portrays Avdy Kuliev, the first Foreign Secretary of Nijazov. He escaped and lived in exile in Norway but died soon after giving the interview for the film.

Holmurad Sojunov lives as a refugee in Sweden. He used to be a member of the parliament of Turkmenistan. The secret police of Turkmenistan have made three murder attempts against him. First he was shot in his own office. His family was also threatened. Sojunov managed to escape to Russia were he worked for Radio Freedom. He spoke openly about the situation in Turkmenistan and his openness had its consequences: somebody tried to throw him out of a moving train. He had a narrow escape from that incident, as well.

Later, there were attempts to poison him. When the murder attempts were unsuccessful, he was imprisoned and Russia promised to extradite him to Turkmenistan. He spent a month in prison in Russia where he was tortured, interrogated and extorted to confess that he had been fomenting a revolution and that he had tried to assassinate president Nijazov. Thanks to the pressure from NGO’s he was never extradited to Turkmenistan but managed to flee as a political prisoner to Sweden in 1995.

A human rights activist, Farid Tuhbatullin who now lives in exile in Vienna, ended up in prison in Turkmenistan in 2002 after he had participated in a conference for human rights held in Moscow. Tuhbatullin was sentenced to three years in prison but was released due to international pressure.

Amnesty International described Tuhbatullin as a clear conscious prisoner. He received refugee status and asylum in Austria.

Tuhbatullin still bravely acts as an advocate for human rights. His son, Ruslan Tuhbatullin, makes animated satires about the situation in Turkmenistan.

Are ethic norms mere decoration?

Siemens, DaimlerChrysler, Caterpillar, Zeppelin, John Deere, Bouygues, Çalik Holding, Polimeks and many other companies have cooperation with Turkmen authorities.

Before Nokia Siemens Networks was established, Arto Halonen’s film crew warned Nokia about the activities of Siemens in Turkmenistan. Nokia showed no interest in the issue.

In the discussions following the documentary, Nokia’s representatives have tried to wash their hands clean by telling publicly about their own ethic codes which they claim to abide by. In its social responsibility report, Nokia states that the company takes human rights into consideration in all its business decisions and the way it does business operating. Nokia gives as an excuse that Turkmenistan is not under international trade embargo.

Turkmenistan has for years been listed among the three countries with the most severe violations against human rights. Do companies have their ethic codes only as a way to prevent authorities from intervening in their business activities with oppressive dictators? Companies can always refer to their own ethic codes and claim that international agreements on activities in dictatorships are not needed. According to Halonen and the opposition in Turkmenistan, this is the very way of preventing binding international agreements.

Nokia Siemens Networks has closed a deal on expanding the gsm network in Turkmenistan. Nokia gives as an excuse for its operations the fact that enhanced data communications give society valuable assets, such as increased open flow of information and the growth of economic prosperity.

One can hardly discuss open information in a dictatorship where modern information network is used to spy on its own citizens and to destroy the opposition. This is were companies’ profitable business deals override their ethic codes.

Another Finnish company, Ensto withdrew from a deal worth of millions with Turkmenistan. Ensto is the only big company which sets another kind of example. In the film, the Chairman of the Board of Ensto, Mr. Timo Miettinen, urges all companies to take responsibility for their actions.

Freedom for sale

In addition to movies, Art Films maintain web pages on human rights: www.freedomforsale.org.
The aim of the pages is to gather information on human rights violations and arouse discussion on the subject. The pages give illustrative examples of human rights violations and violations on the freedom of speech in different countries. The goal is to create an interactive forum which promotes human dignity and gives a voice to those treated wrongly. There are plenty of articles and new picture and film material on the pages.

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