“I need a little respect and equality in my life”
“Decision-makers are cheaters, they suck..they don’t give a sh*t about us disabled”
“I don’t want to live in a group home, I don’t want to live in an institution”
“They make promises in Parliament and break them every day”
Not the words from a campaign against welfare cuts or disability rights, but lyrics from a Finnish punk band whose learning disabled members star in a new film and are about to embark on a UK tour.
The Punk Syndrome, already being shown in selected cinemas and out on DVD next month, is a documentary about the band Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day (see the trailer with subtitles at the end of this post).
The documentary by filmmakers Jukka Kärkkäinen and J-P Passi follows the members – Pertti Kurikka on guitar, Kari Aalto, vocals, Sami Helle on bass and drummer Toni Välitalo – as they record, fight, find love and gradual fame. Guitarist Pertti, who lends his name to the group, composes the music and writes the lyrics with vocalist Kari. The band members’ learning disabilities include Down’s syndrome and autism.
The film bills itself as painting a “frank, edgy and funny portrait of the individual band members” and you can believe the hype; this is one film that does what it says on the tin.
It is warm, refreshingly raw, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. Watch out for some awkward issues around personal hygiene, a comically honest complaint from one musician to another that the music he’s writing is, well, a little too difficult to play, and an al fresco gig in a shopping area where the audience, pensioners included, is encouraged to “wave your hands in the air like you don’t give a f..”.
This isn’t a portrait of vulnerable people undergoing music therapy (although, even the band originated through music therapy workshops, does it matter if the end result brings their story and their experiences as adults with learning disabilities to light?) but charts the bust ups and the brotherly respect between the musicians (although there’s more of the former than the latter).
My favourite song? The one about one band member’s trip to the pedicurist, a regular event that inspires an angry song. On one level a darkly comic diatribe against yet another appointment that has to be kept, on another, a spitting rage against a lack of choice and control; being forced to do things you don’t really want to do at times when you don’t really want to do them.
The band was formed in 2009 in a workshop arranged by Lyhty, a non-profit organization that provides housing and education services. The group came together on punk fan Pertti’s name day [the tradition of celebrating the day associated with your given name] the band’s name was born. Pertti won the silver medal in the Nordic countries’ street organ championships in 2008.
As for Pertti’s fellow musicians, Kari is into motorcycles and has a girlfriend who he one days hopes to move in with. He hates group residential living, a sentiment he puts into his lyrics: “I live in a group home in Töölö, but I don’t like it because the area is too quiet. People in Kallio are nicer and there are record stores and bars.” As he says in the film: “Everyone has the right to make a decision about where and how they would like to live.”
Bass player Sami, a volunteer campaigner with the political party he supports, lives in the same group home as Kari. Toni lives with his parents who want him to move into group living, but he wants to stay at home.
Pertti, who describes touring as “terribly lovely” says he has been surprised “to see how many people dig us and say ‘Hey, that band plays damn well.’ We played a gig and they really liked our band.”
If anything, I’d have liked to have known more about their families, a bit more about the process that brought them together, but that would have been a different film. Cinematographer J-P Passi, has said of the documentary: “I hope that our film will show people that these people shouldn’t be though of as defective or inadequate, but rather as individual and complete human beings. I’d like the audience to see them as people who lack certain knowledge and skills but also lack the ability to act destructively against other people.”
To borrow Pertti’s words when he describes his band, this is one “kick-ass” documentary.
* The film is playing in selected venues, see the list of screenings here.
* If Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day and the film are of interest, then check out Stay Up Late, founded by the band Heavy Load. The Brighton charity brings disability arts to the mainstream and advocates for the rights of people to lead the lives they want to. Stay Up Late’s gig buddies scheme, for example, gets people with and without learning disabilities going to gigs together through a love of the same music. You can also check out this link to a documentary about Heavy Load.