'The Punk Syndrome' co-director and cast discuss their SXSW-winning documentary

Co-director J-P Passi and two members of Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day, the band featured in 'Punk,' talk about how their movie got started and the niche the band members feel they've found.

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP
Attendees of the South by Southwest Conferences & Festivals, where 'The Punk Syndrome' won the SXGlobal Audience Award, wait in line for events.

One-on-Three interview with J-P Passi, Sami Helle, and Toni Välitalo: The Punk Syndrome – Winner, SXGlobal Audience Award

J-P Passi, co-director, The Punk Syndrome
Sami Helle, bassist, Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day
Toni Välitalo, drummer, Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day

Erin: My first question is for J-P. What compelled you to make a movie about this band?

J-P Passi: The anarchy of the guys. We have two directors, and the other one saw them on TV on a news program. It was a news flash on the band, who were still in the very early stages of their career.

Sami Helle: Four years ago.

J-P Passi: He told me about the band and asked if I would be interested.

Erin (to Sami): How did you guys get together, and what made you want to form a band?

Sami: It was Pertti, our guitar player. He has been a punk rock freak for 30 years. Of course, we just do the music. He said, “Okay, let’s just put a band together,” then we did that. Three guys, me, Toni, Kari, then Pertti started this band, and in 2010, there was a movie called A Little Respect, a Finnish movie. That movie needed a song. So the song was in that movie, and the rest is history.

Erin: It sounds like you guys ascended very quickly.

Sami: It was quick. It came really quickly.

J-P: They have a really long history together. They were already working in that direction.

Sami: We’d known each other for a long time, and so far, so good to be together.

Erin: How do you guys come up with ideas to write songs?

Sami: It’s the other guys who write the songs.

Erin: You just play them.

Sami: Yeah, basically I have no say about the songs! (Laughs.) It’s Pertti who makes the songs. The message is [usually] what’s wrong with the world today, and about their lives.

Erin: So the music comes from the lives you lead, and your frustrations.

Sami: Yes. Pertti’s frustration, mainly. [His ideas] are about sticking it to the government, and everyday things.

Erin: Your band is made up of people who are developmentally disabled–

Sami: Mentally handicapped.

Erin: I am also developmentally disabled. Nobody really knows exactly what I have. When I was three, they thought I was autistic, but the thing was, I could read, whereas normally–

Sami: I am mildly handicapped. Mentally handicapped. And I too didn’t know for a long time what I was. They said I was mildly handicapped when I was 14. For 14 years, I didn’t know what I was. That’s the truth. When they put a label on me, “You are mentally handicapped, that’s that. That’s what you are.” But sometimes they don’t go through specifically who you are.

Erin: Growing up, I experienced a lot of frustration from my peers because at some point during the day, I would have to leave, and go to another room–

Sami: I know what you’re saying. I was taunted when I was a youngster because there was [a big group of kids who would taunt me]. I had girls who came to me and started to bully me. I went down to the principal’s office. They were like, “What’s wrong with this? I [reported] the students to the teachers and the principal. But when their parents stepped in, they were like, “Oh, our girls don’t do that!”

Erin: Even though you don’t necessarily write the songs, how much of your frustration goes into your music?

Sami: When I’m onstage, I [channel] the frustration from the girls who bullied me into the music, and all that stuff comes out. I don’t write the lyrics, but 30, 40 percent of the time, I feel the same. Toni feels the same, we all feel the same. This is our way for us to say, “Screw it!”

Erin: With the kind of music you play, do you think that being disabled puts you at an advantage? As disabled persons, you’re marginalized to begin with.

Sami: Yes.

Erin: When I was watching The Punk Syndrome, I was reminded of a musician, and I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, named Wesley Willis.

Sami: No.

Erin: He was also mentally handicapped, and he had schizophrenia. He would write songs about having schizophrenia, and stuff around Chicago, where he lived. He passed away ten years ago. There was some fear of him being exploited due to his disability. Do you guys fear being exploited because of your disability, or that people might take advantage of you?

Sami: No. Because we’re out there. First of all, we went out there. At first we thought that people would shoot us because we are mentally handicapped. [Instead], everyone was so supportive. We were like, “What’s going on?”

When I was a youngster, there was a lot more negativity. We’ve had fans that have come to different parts of Finland to see us, people who would travel 200km just see us. People have been really, really supportive. It’s easy for us to do punk rock, because it’s already a family. Everybody saw us and said, “You’re pretty good!” They don’t look at us as mentally handicapped, they just look at us as us. And that part has been really good.

Erin: Do you think you’ve found some acceptance, now that you have cultivated a niche for yourselves?

Sami: Yeah. When we are musicians, everybody accepts us, but when we are on our own in society, it’s a little difficult. When we are musicians, it’s like, “Okay, we’re on our own!” It’s harder when we’re not musicians.

Erin: So it’s like when you’re out performing, you’re accepted, and then when you’re in the real world–

Sami: It seems like we have to do a lot more in the real world to be accepted.

Erin: And then you write songs about the “real world”, and then you play them–

Sami: It’s Pertti that writes the songs. Sometimes, I’m not agreeing with the views of the songs. But I still have to play the songs!
 Co-Director J-P Passi

Erin (to J-P): How long did you follow the band?

J-P: About eighteen months or so.

Erin: And during that time, they gained a huge following.

J-P: Yes.

Erin (to Sami): When you formed the band, did you think it would get as big as it did?

Sami (laughing): No.

J-P: It was kind of a project.

Sami: It started because our manager put one of our songs on YouTube. After that, it was like, WHHHHOOOOOOAAAA!!!! A lot of people watched it. After that, it got so big, we got gigs, and the rest is history. The movie came, and everything got big.

At this juncture, the publicist asked Toni to say a few words. His thoughts were translated from Finnish by J-P Passi.

Toni via J-P: He really likes the film. But in the film, he was visiting a group home. It was busy there. He wants to stay with his parents, and he will stay with his parents. He will not leave home.

Erin: I totally understand that. What are your hopes for the film, and what are your hopes for the future?

Sami: Especially today, I am looking forward to seeing how Americans react to this. It’s always a little nerve wracking, because people are different. For some of them, it’s a big success. But you never know when you go to a different place. We’ve been to Canada, and that was that. And now we’re in America, one of my favorite countries. Because I lived here for four years, and I haven’t been in America in 21 years. It’s good to be back.

Erin Scherer blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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