The 3 Rooms of Melancholia; Pirjo Honkasalo; 2004

The 3 Rooms of Melancholia

Pirjo Honkasalo's documentary film The 3 Rooms of Melancholia depicts the vulnerability of a child's mind. The main characters of the film are the 9 to 14-year-old boys at Kronstadt Cadet Academy, a woman called Hadizhat Gataeva who saves children from the ruins of Chechnya, and the children living across the border in the Ingushetia refugee camp. The setting is the everlasting Chechen war.


The personal point of departure

Having completed my "Trilogy of the Sacred and Satanic"" (the full-length documentary films Mysterion, Tanjuska and the 7 Devils, and Atman), I felt I had purged myself of what I had sought from the documentary film: its purifying and implacable concreteness. I had given whatever I had to give; to that concretion, an intimation of human silence.

I felt an attraction and attachment to the logic of the dream, to which the fictional film provides the most natural path. The world of the dream is half in the past, half in the future. Its gods swing back and forth between life and death. There is no sense of longing in dreams. Time in dreams is not time in time. I directed the feature film "Fire-Eater".

I have always been stimulated not only by the Sacred and Satanic, but also by the Poetic and Political. It was this that drew me back to the documentary.

I don't care for truths, for I see all thought as roiling foam that adheres to nothing nor holds fast; but in the time when I am not asleep or dreaming, I wish to know how the human tribe leads its life, shapes its history and expresses its will, which always seeks to improve the human condition and yet wallows, bewildered, in its blood like some elk gone astray in the city and impaled on the spikes of a cemetery fence. It should not happen this way.

Europe is filled with people who need grace of some kind to cope with their righteous rage. The righteous rage turns, a reflection, against them. And life is no court of justice; justice does not prevail, life does. It rises out of chaos in an ascending spiral, briefly appears to have structure, and descends in the curve of a downward spiral toward fresh chaos.

Stripping away icons of the enemy calls for the acceptance of grace along with righteousness. Grace is illogical and irrational - in other words, a profoundly gratuitous liberation from the compulsion to hate.

Production history

An American producer with an ambitious plan for a trans-Atlantic series on the Decalogue approached Iikka Vehkalahti of the Finnish public broadcasting company YLE to suggest a suitable director. Vehkalahti asked Pirjo Honkasalo to direct one part of the series. She chose the commandment "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour", and The 3 Rooms of Melancholia was born.

It took a whole year to reach a draft agreement that was apparently acceptable to all parties. As the talks entered a critical phase, Honkasalo engaged Millennium Film producer Kristiina Pervilä as a partner. Even as all seemed to be ready, Honkasalo could not bring herself to accept a clause giving the American producer the right to a "final cut". A staunch believer in the European "auteur" tradition, she felt that a film director must not relinquish control over a work for which she is artistically and morally responsible. Nor would she allow any third party to pre-empt her right to make the final judgement calls on how to use footage of the lives of people living in a war zone.

At that point the American producer visited Helsinki to try and resolve the conflict. As Honkasalo remained intractable, he quipped: "I opened heaven's gate for you girls and you are too stupid to walk in". The two sides never met again.

Honkasalo had also refused to divulge anything about the theme of the film to the Americans before any agreement had been signed, so the subject remained free for her to work on. Even though it meant they had to start looking for funds all over again, Honkasalo and Pervilä were determined to continue with the project, particularly as a great deal of preliminary work had already been done with trips to possible locations and the drafting of a script.

In addition to winning financial support in Finland, Sweden and Denmark, the two women obtained financing from Nordisk Film & TV Fond, a Scandinavian foundation, and from the European Media Fund. Germany's ZDF and the Franco-German television channel Arte offered to co-produce the film through the Martin Pieper "Grade format" scheme. The Kronstadt Military Academy was willing to welcome the film crew, and the President of Ingushetia volunteered transport and armed security guards for field trips to the crisis area. Everything seemed to be going well.

And then the unpredictable happened: September 11th, the collapse of the Twin Towers, and Russia joined America's war against terrorism. In exchange, the West chose to silence its criticism of the war in Chechnya, now redefined as part of Russia's contribution to the war against terrorism. Chechnya thus became an internal affair for the Kremlin and the wall of silence became virtually indestructible.

Earlier on, during the pre-shooting trips, Ingushetia had been awash with observers from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations who were able to keep track of events in neighbouring Chechnya. They were now quietly being forced out of the country while, at around the same time, the post of President of Ingushetia "conveniently" went to a new incumbent, a former classmate of Vladimir Putin with a KGB background. The change of attitude also meant there was no more talk of cars and bodyguards for the crew. The film crew were let in, but without their equipment, and they were soon presented with an ultimatum to leave the country within 24 hours. A climate of distinct hostility towards the media began to spread across Russia. By now the Kremlin had significantly tightened its grip on the media and effectively controlled all television channels of any importance, and most of the press organs.

Increasing numbers of former KGB officers - now employed by its successor organisation, the FSB, or Federal Security Service - began to infiltrate all manner of public administration bodies across the Russian Federation in what effectively amounted to a quiet takeover of large portions of executive power by the secret services.

Shooting for the film was taking place at the Kronstadt Military Academy in October 2002 when Chechen rebels burst into the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow. The ensuing hostage drama resulted in a change of atmosphere in Kronstadt. The directors of the cadet school began to make it impossible to continue filming. They became increasingly nervous and suspicious, fearing bad repercussions. No-one seemed to think that shooting footage of Russian and Chechen children was a good idea any more, albeit on the grounds of propriety or out of concern for the safety of those involved.

Kristiina Pervilä, the Finnish producer, battled for the ever-increasing number of new, additional official filming permits, calling on influential contacts in the cultural sphere, in the military, in political circles - including the Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament) - and among civil servants responsible for the issuance of accreditation credentials to journalists in the Caucasus region. They did manage to continue shooting the film, but the details must remain confidential to avoid putting anyone at risk.

Filming finally had to stop in the autumn of 2003, when the hostilities began spilling over into Ingushetia and it became too risky for anyone to show their face to a camera.

Technical data

genre documentary feature
original languages Russian, Chechen, Arabic, Finnish
subtitling Italian, English, German, French, Swedish, Danish, Finnish
format 35 mm / 1:1,85
  colour & black-white
length 106 mins / 2950 m
sound Dolby Digital 5.1
preview tape DVD / VHS pal
world sales agent Deckert Distribution


director & cinematographer Pirjo Honkasalo
composer Sanna Salmenkallio
editors Niels Pagh Andersen
  Pirjo Honkasalo
sound designer Martti Turunen
sound Mart Otsa
  Kristiina Pervilä
  Jaak Elling
director's assistant Marita Hällfors
location managers Vladimir Miklashevsky
  Maria Lakchina
  Tair Aliev
producer Kristiina Pervilä
co-production with Pirjo Honkasalo, Baabeli, Finland
  Lisbet Gabrielsson, Lisbet Gabrielsson Film, Sweden
  Lise Lense-Moeller, Magic Hour Films, Denmark
  Heino Deckert, MA.JA.DE Productions, Germany
Financiers Martin Pieper, ZDF in association with Arte, Germany
  Iikka Vehkalahti, YLE TV2 documentaries, Finland
  Björn Arvas, SVT-Documentaries, Sweden
  Petri Rossi, SES, The Finnish Film Foundation, Finland
  Timo Humaloja, AVEK, Finland
  Jakob Hoegel, The Danish Film Institute, Denmark
  Göran Olsson, The Swedish Film Institute, Sweden
  Eva Faerevaag, The Nordic Film- & TV Fund, Norway
  The MEDIA Programme of the European Community