The Finnish director talks about his Rotterdam retrospective, the privilege of bringing great directors to the Midnight Sun Film Festival, and how very local films can be universal.

It’s safe to say that Finnish director, festival programmer, film historian and writer Peter von Bagh is not accustomed to being in the limelight himself.

“All my life I’ve been working for other filmmakers, even if I was doing things all the time, I didn’t consider myself anything special. My films were made for television so they didn’t continue their life,” he says with charming modesty.

So he calls it “the surprise of my life” that he is the subject of a retrospective at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam.

“It’s an extremely rare situation when somebody is honoured with this kind of thing. Somebody whose films have never been shown outside of Finland,” he tells Screen. “Festivals are more and more run according to big names and some sensation. They had the confidence to make this series that wasn’t that marketable. “

There should have been no worry about that, the audiences in Rotterdam have been turning out in droves for the programme of 16 of his films (shorts and features) as well as other Finnish films that inspired him. The selections include his latest film Splinters (Lastuja), about several generations in an artistic family, also reflecting the rise of modern Finland. Other films include The Story of Mikko Niskanen, about the troubled filmmaker; Helsinki Forever, an ode to the Finnish capital; and early short Pockpicket, a humorous homage to Bresson.

Watching his work again has been an enlightening experience for the director himself, now aged 68. He reconsidered two works that had been screened together, A Day at Karl Marx’s Grave, and the recently made Sodankyla Forever [which screened in a longer form at IFFR 2011] – “Suddenly I understood that these were one and the same film, practically. It’s a very strange experience to see these two films that I made 30 years apart.”

He praised the “wonderful, perceptive” audiences in Rotterdam. “These were films that I thought were purely for domestic use, they are so extremely Finnish. It’s a credo that if you go domestic and national enough, then you can have a chance to be international.  It’s a strange paradox.”

He continued: “It’s been an enormous professional act by Rotterdam that they managed to negotiate the prints [with Finnish television] and to subtitle them. They’ve done an impeccable job. “

The director has ideas for future film projects but hasn’t committed to one yet. That’s partly because of the overload of working on four films in three years, and partly because the financing situation from Finnish broadcaster YLE has changed – “outsiders don’t work for them at the moment,” he says.

Von Bagh will soon be busy again working on the programme for the Midnight Sun Film Festival (held in June). “At the moment we’re just starting to think about the invitations,” he says of the cult favourite festival he cofounded in 1986 with the Kaurismaki Brothers. In Rotterdam, Aki Kaurismaki said they would like to screen FW Murnau’s 1927 silent film Sunrise this year.

The intimate festival is famous for bringing top filmmakers – including past visitors Samuel Fuller, Michael Powell, Francis Ford Coppola, Abbas Kiarostami and Milos Forman – to Lapland for screenings and in-depth discussions. “It’s a challenge and also a great privilege,” he says of the Midnight Sun work. (He also programmes Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy.)