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Award-Winning Documentary Takes A Punk Rock Look At Intellectual Disabilities

Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (Pertti Kurikka's Name Day), a punk band from Finland, is the subject of the documentary "The Punk Syndrome," which won the SXGlobal Audience Award at this year's SXSW Film Festival.

The documentary provides a sincere and honest look at the lives of the four band members, who are all adults living with varying degrees of mental intellectual disabilities.

The band is made up of Pertti Kurikka (guitar), Kari Aalito (vocals), Sami Helle (bass) and Toni Välitalo (drums).

Punk Rock was built on simple three-chord progressions, rapid-fire drums and a lot of anger and frustration, the latter fueling the lyrics behind the band's songs.

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Credit Chris Eudaily / TPR
Drummer Toni Välitalo .

"I need a little respect and equality in my life. I need a little respect and dignity in my life," sings Kari on the song "Kallioon!" as the film opens.

The next scene lands the viewer in the middle of a band discussion as Pertti forgets how to play his guitar part on the song they are rehearsing.

"Pertti was the guy who decided that the band plays punk rock because... he [had for] over 30 years [been] listening to punk rock," explained Sami, "and after a while he decided he needed a punk rock band. In 2009 we came together. In 2010 we were in a fictional movie in Finland called "Little Respect," where I play a role, and they needed a band with a kick-ass song. So one of our first hits, 'Kallio,' became the song for the movie. After that our manager decided to put that video on YouTube; after that it just exploded."

Sami lived in New York when he was a child, but has spent much of his time living in Finland.

Comedy and comfort

While watching the film I forgot that these men were mentally intellectually handicapped, but their need for assistance and a helping hand is manifest in the stuttering or slow speech and other small moments that are sometimes hilarious.

While Sami is in the middle of a strongman competition someone asks him if his pants are properly fastened. He quickly replies that they are, but seconds later - as he is walking a course holding weights in his both hands - his pants fall down almost on cue.

Sami finishes the event and walks off by himself in frustration over the poor showing. For a moment I questioned whether or not this portion was used in the film to make him a spectacle - an easy question to ask whenever people with disabilities are the subject of a film or performance. That question was quickly answered as Kari walks over to his bandmate, stands by him, pats him on the back and shakes his hand not saying a word.

Though the two are often frustrated with each other and fight throughout the film, this moment shows a great range of human understanding and true friendship that anyone can relate to.

Always joking

During the sit-down interview in Austin at SXSW, the four band members gave each other a hard time about things like Sami's political allegiances, Kari's frustration about group homes and Toni's living arrangements at his parent's house.

"We call him a little momma's little boy because he lives at home all the time, but that's the truth because he's 30 years old and still lives with his parents," Sami said.

In "The Punk Syndrome," Toni considers moving out of his parents house, and at one point even says that he will.

"He's giving the appearance of moving out and then he doesn't do it," explained Sami. "So for the people who watch it they ask all the time after the movie, 'Is Toni already moved out?' And we're like, 'No!'"

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Credit Chris Eudaily / TPR
Kari said the electricity in the crowd compels him to remove his clothes.

Following your heart

One of the film's directors saw a short news package about the band on television and fell in love with the group. He brought in the other two filmmakers, director JP Passi and producer Sami Jahnukainen, and the three followed the group for 18 months.

"All the process from the initial idea to the finished film was almost exactly two years," said Jahnukainen.

Although there are no plans for a follow-up documentary, Passi says it's not out of the question. "We don't know yet, maybe. Of course the correct answer is maybe some day," he said. Passi is off to Greece following SXSW to show the film at another festival.

Both Pertti and Sami said that early on they thought that traveling was a possibility with the band, but neither expected their current level of fame.

"I didn't know it would be this big," said Sami. "It was a little dream but I didn't know it would be huge, but it has been a really huge thing for everyone in the band."

Hear more from the band and filmmakers on World Music with Deirdre Saravia this Saturday at 8 p.m. on KSTX.

*Author's note: It was brought to my attention that the accepted term for people with Down Syndrome, Autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and other developmental disabilities is "intellectual disabilities" - hence the changes in the body of the story and headline.

My journalism journey began with an idea for a local art and music zine and the gumption to make it happen with no real plan or existing skill set.
Deirdre as born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and her first paid work was at the age of 10 with the BBC as an actress on "Children's Hour." She continued to perform regularly on radio and stage for the next eight years, at which point she was informed by her parents that theater was not an option and she needed "real" work.