With her, people open up and build the confidence to share their until-then often untold story. She elicits trust, compassion and empathy, which allow people to see joyful and painful things in their life in a way they may not have done before. This happens everywhere, even at the supermarket check-out. It is no wonder, then, that this amazing person who grew up in Lapland, should be a documentary filmmaker. Her films, often about people at a critical stage of their lives, have been acclaimed not only in her native Finland. Throughout Europe, in France, the Nordics, Switzerland and Germany, her works have received prestigious awards. I meet Virpi Suutari one late summer eve in a magical garden – her own – over wine, berries and ice cream, to find out the secrets behind her films moving stories.
Tell me the story of the story of a girl from Lapland that becomes a filmmaker…
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, until quite late, sometime at the end of my university studies. But Northern Finland certainly plays a very important role in my life.
I was born in Kainuu, in Kajaani, in 1967. We lived in Rovaniemi (in the arctic circle) during the winter. My dad was a teacher in the commercial college and my mum took care of children while their parents worked. That allowed us two and a half months holiday, which we spent back in Kainuu, a small country village in the Eastern part of Finland, where my mother grew up. There were cows and fields and the whole extended family helped with the summer farm work. These summer experiences have been very important to me. I could look at life from many angles. But it wasn’t exactly an idyllic place. There were some harsh things too, some with a comic side to them. My aunt’s husband had been marked by the war. Sometimes the adults got so drunk we children had to carry them in wheel barrows to the boat and then row to the sauna to clear their heads.
Those years – the late sixties and the seventies – were full of optimism in Finland overall. We all felt the world was going to be a better place; the welfare state was going to be a guarantee that your background would not define your future. Yes of course, there was the oil crisis in the seventies but overall we felt we were the first generation of school kids for whom life was an open positive horizon.
Art and music were a big part of my childhood. I played and listened a lot. Dad painted oil paintings at night and his works helped us pay for our house; his salary as a teacher was simply not enough. I remember as a child, Dad extending loans and working hard to build our house.
After school, I went to Paris as an au-pair. That opened up a whole new view on life yet again. The family where I worked, lived in the XVI arrondissement and we maids ate in a separate room to the family. I collided with the class society but I also discovered an amazing city. After Paris, I decided to become a journalist at Tampere University. While in Tampere University, I found the possibility to join the University of Industrial Arts (today the Aalto University) to study Photography. What started as my minor subject became the primary one; I graduated in the Arts rather than journalism, from the department of Photography.
Journalism and photography sound like a good foundation for becoming a documentary filmmaker.
In 1992, I made my first short film documentary. It was love at first sight when I found this profession. All I had studied came together; music, photography and journalism.
I am fascinated by how to build a story and often this starts from a social observation. This is something I learnt in journalism. I could then take this further in documentaries, where the same idea gets a cinematic form and aesthetics plays a role.
I remember the feeling of sheer happiness when I made my first documentary; the joy of editing and cutting the film in the studio! It’s in editing these pieces that you create a holistic world.
I can see the journalist behind some of your work. You made a documentary called Auf Wiedersehen Finnland in 2010 about young women who left war-(scarred?)barren Finland with German officers in 1944.
It all felt like detective work at the start. I went to the Finnish National Archives and found some details in police records. I had to figure out where these ladies could be today (sometimes they had changed their last names) and then of course, convince them to open up. Many were reluctant to tell their story. Sometimes they had kept it secret from their spouses and children. Initially, most said they would tell me their story but would not appear in the documentary. Many cups of coffee later, many changed their minds.
You have been traveling a lot with your recent film Hilton! This month it will participate in the prestigious Dok Leipzig Film Festival in Germany. Tell me about it.
Hilton! is a creative documentary film about young drifters who don’t find their place in society. It is filmed in Eastern Helsinki. I just presented the film to eighth graders in Espoo and really enjoyed their strong reactions. The making of the documentary, the process itself, is the meaningful part. Once it goes out into the world it sometimes feels foreign to me.
Curiously Auf Wiedersehen Finnland led me to Hilton! I always stay in contact with the people that appear in my documentaries, I feel that they are part of my life, not just of my work. I was sitting with one of these grandmas when a young man in his twenties, who I understood was the son of her son, came by in a terrible state, asking for money. I could see both grandmother and grandson were equally upset by this obviously recurring situation. After this encounter, I decided to do my next documentary on these young people. The process for the documentaries is quite intuitive and one thing leads to the other.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a documentary called Garden Lovers (Eedenistä Pohjoiseen). For a long time, I have wanted to do a documentary of couples who tend to their gardens together. It is interesting to see the relationship of the couple through gardening. There are serious sides, couples discussing big existential issues like giving up and death, but there is also companionship, humor and pleasure in their relationships.
When I started to film, my dad was dying. My father had loved gardening. In our village in the countryside, gardening was a utilitarian act; you planted tomatoes and potatoes for eating. But my father also got an aesthetic pleasure from gardening and in many ways introduced this pleasure to those around him.
How does one find the protagonists for a documentary like this one?
I put a small advertisement in gardening magazines some three years ago. I received 75 answers. I went through each of them and in the end the film is about five of these couples, plus two more couples I found myself. Finding the right characters – the casting – is essential. You want characters with many sides to them; depth and sometimes too a sense of humor. Often, the most cinematic characters are introverted and even shy.
Are you the director or also the filmographer?
It depends, with Hilton! I started doing the filmography myself with a small camera –technology has gone so far—but soon a team of three formed around it. Garden Lovers is a bit larger production, made with a different aesthetic. Hilton! was more spontaneous, whereas, Garden Lovers is more staged, like living portraits where people play themselves.
I imagine that making a documentary is different than writing a story; the characters are living characters and can take you places you had not anticipated…
It is curious that nowadays you often need a very specific script for documentaries when you search for funding; sponsors expect some dramatic elements. This is the wrong approach because it can make you hostage and you don’t see any more what reality has to offer you. Very often as you build the documentary there are surprising elements, little miracles that shape your film in directions you could not have anticipated or scripted.
Tell me something unexpected that happened when you filmed.
There are many situations that are surprising. The funniest one was perhaps in Kainuu. We were making a film called Joutilaat (Idle ones), about young unemployed people ten years ago. The young men were joining a party near an ostrich farm at 4 am in the morning. I thought it would be great to film the guys near that farm and we were making our way there. At one point, the gear stick of the car came off and suddenly the youngsters started to fight; one went behind a bush and started to shout “I want a woman” and so many other half dramatic, half hilarious things started to happen. We realized there and then that there was no point going to the farm – the movie was happening right in front of our eyes! All we had to do was film! One always has to be ready.
In fact, that documentary won a Jussi Award, the Finnish equivalent of an Oscar and was nominated for best European documentary.
How do you get ready to film?
I have learnt to prepare for filming, physically as well as emotionally from my husband, actor Martti Suosalo. One can’t simply go from the dinner table to filming. You need to have the right energy. You need to be 100% present and you need to be able to draw people in. For that you need a certain mental state and alertness and some physical wellbeing too. I often go for a long run or I ski if it is winter, to get ready to film.
What makes people open to you?
I was recently with Martti at the fish counter at the super market when the fishmonger started to share with me some painful things about her life. I could see Martti worried that we were never going to be able to leave the fish counter! I guess quite unintentionally I offered a bit of my life, sharing something here and there. This makes people feel secure in sharing too.
So you give some part of yourself and leave space for others to share when you film.
Yes, that is true… and being present with your senses, too. People are often very happy to share. There is a saying that goes: No one is as interested in your life as much as a documentarist! When someone is interested in them, it is therapeutic to open up. A key thing is perhaps to leave that space and not be too close, so that people don’t break up. During filming, I also prepare people about what the final product and the consequences will be like.
How do you choose your topics? Most of your films have a social undercurrent.
I follow closely what happens in society. But the process for any documentary is several years in the making, so it is not a question of a topic being hot at any particular moment. Maybe in every film, there is a deep personal issue that I am trying to solve. In the end, every film tells a little about myself. In Hilton! maybe a bit of my childhood came out and now in the gardening film there is a lot of reflections of my father and about losing him. Documentaries allow us to see ourselves in others. In Hilton! there is a scene of a hyperactive eight-year-old girl who comes to meet her alcoholic father after school. There is nothing in the fridge but beer. There is vomit on the floor. Her father is an alcoholic and he has some wounds. But after a pillow fight there is stillness and the girl and the father look at each full of curiosity and love. At that moment, I remember what it was to be that little girl.
People ask me how a middle-aged and middle-class woman can go into topics that according to them are foreign to her. This is a silly question. I believe we can all see ourselves in others. It’s a question of imagination and empathy.
Do you have a message?
I have no deliberate message in my documentaries. I am interested in something and follow the story. The older I get, the less dogmatic, the softer my work is. When I was younger, a friend of mine, Susanna Helke, and I made a very strictly structured documentary called Synti (Sin), where we wanted people to reveal their sins or sins made to them. No psychological explanations were allowed. I do not think I could do that now. Life is not so black and white. Perhaps, I now wait and listen more patiently for the material itself to tell what it wants to tell.
Maybe more than a message I am now after an emotion with Garden Lovers. I hope people will hug each other and see their partners with softer eyes after seeing the film.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I also get a lot of inspiration from the work of other documentary film makers. I have been in a few national and international juries so I am lucky in that a lot of interesting works land on my desk.
The most underrated value is?
Goodness, people find evil sometimes more interesting. People make fun of goodness; good people are described often as simple or naive.
The most overrated value is?
Individual liberties; too often we take it too far and they lead to destruction.
What’s on your reading table?
I am reading Karl Ove Knausgård, a Norwegian writer who writes without a grain of censorship about himself and his family.
I just read Ice by Ulla-Lena Lundberg. This is a fantastic work about the contradictions of a person’s ideas and reality.
Do you have a life motto?
You haven’t come here to rest! (she says, with a hearty laugh!)
Image: Osma Harvilahti