Hot Docs 2013: Interview with Aleksi Salmenperä, Director of Alcan Highway
Alcan Highway from director Alexsi Salmenperä, a story of one man’s absurd but romantic dream to buy a vintage truck and build a home on it, is one of my personal stand-outs from the Hot Docs 2013 programme. So it was with great excitement that I sat down with Salmenperä to talk about his charming hero and the challenges of making a documentary about a guy who quite pointedly doesn’t care for schedules.
As is the case with most docs, there’s a very personal story at the heart of Salmenperä’s choice of story. “I had made three fiction films, all family based films. There were basically stories from my own life,” says Salmenperä. “When it was time to write a fourth one, I just thought, I have to find something new about filmmaking, some new challenge.”
“I kind of wanted to do something romantic, something that’s like Kerouac. I thought I want to do a film about the myth of freedom,” says Salmenperä. “I had a lot of friends who were living a different life than mine – no family, no ties, no status. It was through them I met Hese.”
Here’s where I pause, struggling to frame my next question. The success of Alcan Highway hinges solely on our hero Hese. It hinges on the man himself, narrative details and absurd dream aside. In the deep South where I grew up, we have our fair share of charmers, and we have a saying about them: he could charm the owls out of the trees. How do I ask a Finnish film director precisely when he knew his subject could charm the owls out of the trees?
So I just ask. Salmenperä laughs. He has an answer for this rather silly question.
“After I met Hese I was shooting some photos and some tests. I took some test foot of Hese at these meeting of bikers in Sweden,” says Salmenperä. “There’s Hese at sunset with these bikers, and he’s joking and entertaining them. I showed it to my wife and she said, ‘He’s a mix of Jesus and John Lennon!'”
There you go. When you find a mix of Jesus and John Lennon, you start the camera’s rolling and hope for the best. Salmenperä, rooted in fiction filmmaking, is more accustomed to tight production schedules and clearly defined narratives.
“I was worried during the journey about whether this is a story anyone would care about,” says Salmenperä. “I was trying to be romantic, but it’s hard to know while you’re doing it. Sometimes it felt like they went to sleep, worked on the truck, went to sleep. I had 18 hours of footage of hands working on a truck.”
In the course of the story, Hese mentions many times that schedules aren’t really his thing. This becomes a source of conflict between Hese and his pals and, as I was watching the film, I thought it might be a nightmare for a filmmaker. When I ask about this, Salmenperä laughs again.
“Oh schedule! Of course I was concerned,” says Salmenperä. “I tried not to think what kind of film this will be, but in my head I still planned ahead.”
There’s also something very different about Alcan Highway that deserves some asking – there’s no definitive conclusion. More like a fictional film, we leave our hero on the road to Vancouver Island mid-journey. I personally found this powerful, but according to Salmenperä it has been a source for some criticism of the film.
“In docs, people want to have a box, they want the explanation,” says Salmenperä. “I think it’s kind of insulting to the viewer. I try to express characters through actions, so I don’t know if the conclusion is important.”
Here Salmenperä pauses. “Of course, I wanted a happy ending,” say Salmenperä. “I wanted a traditional ending where Hese finds a place, but it didn’t happen that way.”
Schedules. There’s something here I think. Why do we expect documentaries to tie up neatly when life rarely does? I don’t have an answer to that question and neither does Salmenperä, but he does have some buoying information.
“He did make it. The truck is in Victoria, being watched by his friends,” says Salmenperä. “He’s here now, but he’s leaving Toronto to go visit his home.”