The documentary Three Miles North of Molkom could have taken cheap shots at its New Age subjects, but directors Corinna Villari-McFarlane and Robert Cannan have created a funny film that steers clear of cruelty or mockery and, instead, focuses on the real
IT DOESN’T come as a great shock to discover that Corinna Villari-McFarlane and Robert Cannan are decent people. Smooth, good-looking and chatty, the couple have just directed a very entertaining documentary about a subject that screams out for ridicule. Three Miles North of Molkom goes among the attendees of a Swedish New Age event entitled (no sniggering now) “The No Mind Festival”. Featuring all the usual, vaguely spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the jamboree offers enormous possibilities for mean-spirited comedy, but Villari-McFarlane and Cannan allow even their silliest subjects their dignity. The film is often funny, but it’s never cruel.
“I think, as documentary film-makers, we wanted to approach things objectively,” says Cannan. “We knew some crazy stuff was going to go down and it would have been very easy to make a film that was just mocking. That would have been pointless.” Villari-McFarlane nods and smiles.
“These are the people as we found them,” she says. “And people are flawed. People are funny. There is comedy in life, but there is more to this story than that.”
If you’ve studied the grim break-up of so many hippie communities in the late 1970s – your local improvised ashram almost certainly decayed into internecine conflict before the first mung bean harvest – then much of Three Miles will seem familiar. Despite all the woolly bromides to inclusiveness, tensions do inevitably emerge and, for many of the attendees, personal growth is far more important than camp unity.
“Yes, and so much of it is based around ‘Me’,” agrees Cannan. “It’s as if to progress to utopia, you have first to go into yourself. You have to heal yourself before you heal the world. But when people go into those depths, they undoubtedly generate conflict. And let’s be honest, that’s good drama.”
Villari-McFarlane and Cannan have clearly thought deeply about the dynamics of documentary in their relatively brief apprenticeships. Cannan, a graduate in film and drama from the University of York, taught himself to edit video, before going on to work with British documentary guerrilla Nick Broomfield on that director’s worrying drama Ghosts. Villari-McFarlane ran a theatre company in her late teens, studied politics at university and spent a period fuming angrily while working in the soul-destroying world of advertising. They met while working on the strange, violent British feature The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael and committed themselves to finding a subject worthy of a feature documentary.
“A friend of mine heard about this place in Sweden,” says Villari-McFarlane. “I looked it up and it sounded very interesting. Storytelling requires a journey. And there seemed to be one there. People go there to change and they are therefore likely to have self-contained stories.”
Sure enough, in the clearings between sprawling Scandinavian forests, VillariMcFarlane and Cannan encountered a fascinating cast of oddballs, charmers, freaks and maniacs. There’s (what else?) Siddhartha, a bulky, unyielding Swede who often looks as if he is about to beat peace and understanding into any foolish waverers; Regina Lund, a modestly famous singing star with no obvious self-worth issues, and a genuinely fragile woman named Mervi. Most usefully, the directors discovered an archetypically unpretentious Australian bloke called (what else?) Nick.
Initially amused by everything he sees, Nick will surely function as the eyes and ears of most audience members. “The first time we heard his voice we knew,” says Cannan. “We wanted to find someone who was there for the first time and who would be a little cynical about it. Somebody who acts as a bridge and leads you in.”
Cannan goes on to explain that the unfortunate Australian has wandered into the festival by mistake. He was expecting something very different and was, at least at first, faintly appalled by all that hugging, bonding and empathy.
“I think it was important that he was an Australian,” says Cannan. “It’s unfair to generalise. However, being from that part of the world, he was a bit cynical, but also had that attitude that says: ‘I’ll give it a go.’ I think if he’d been from London he might have looked at these people and thought: ‘F**k off!’” As the film progresses, Nick emerges as a kind of accidental guru. His national philosophy of “No Worries” makes as much sense as any of the gibberish spouted by the festival’s more self-important mentors. “Yes. In a sense that really is ‘The Answer’,” laughs Cannan.
With its satisfactory story arcs and its somewhat wry portrayal of a very middleclass, post-hippy approach to collective wellness, Three Miles North of Molkom has generated a significant amount of buzz at the world’s film festivals. Indeed, following a suggestion in Variety magazine that the picture had the makings of a drama, the film-makers have been deluged by phone calls from the major studios.
“It’s very strange,” says Cannan. “After that review came out, we had every studio on the phone trying to buy the remake rights. We’re not used to people responding to art that way. We are used to responding to the work itself rather than what it might become. Anyway, our main concern now is to not do anything that will get in the way of the distribution of the documentary. We may think about remakes later.”
Canny as well as charming, the pair admit that they are currently cultivating a big idea for an upcoming drama. The art-house success of Three Miles will surely offer them an opportunity to make it happen. So, tell us all about it.
“We would like to make an ensemble comedy,” says Villari-McFarlane. “Something that has a warm way of looking at life. We have a hook. But I don’t think we can tell what it is yet. We’ll tell you as soon as it’s ready.”