The Phenom Behind Finland's Big-Screen Rise - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Phenom Behind Finland's Big-Screen Rise

The Phenom Behind Finland's Big-Screen Rise

By Neil Parmar

Selma Vilhunen
SourceCourtesy of Selma Vilhunen


Because when was the last time you watched a Finnish flick like Little Wing — and knew its tragic backstory?

By Neil Parmar

It’s the denouement of our four-course meal, and dinner is settling into a lull — until, that is, Selma Vilhunen starts poking her brownie. The Finnish director perks up, growing giddy over her next passion project: Hobbyhorse Revolution. We’re seated in a special screening room on the second floor of Toronto’s Montecito Restaurant, surrounded by a film library, an old cinematic camera and images from classic comedies like Meatballs and Animal House, and she’s fiddling with the Wi-Fi setting on her phone, trying to pull up a recently released trailer of her documentary. I offer my cell so that she can share a sneak peek, and this is what her well-manicured fingers pull up:

The Finnish director behind these scenes is, tonight, celebrating with the producers and cast behind Little Wing, her feature debut, which was a decade in the making and just had its world premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). She’s previously taken her work to festivals in Aspen, Budapest and, of course, her native Finland, winning nods and awards almost everywhere she goes. Ever so humble, Vilhunen usually just says a particular movie “won a little something somewhere,” never mentioning that she’s only the second director from Finland behind an Oscar-nominated film. Little Wing, which reckons with a young girl’s search for her absentee father, doesn’t have a distributor yet, though Vilhunen says it has garnered interest from other festivals, including one in Rome. And she’s already thinking about next year’s expected release of Hobbyhorse Revolution, which builds on Little Wing in its exploration of young girls’ coming-of-age stories — a theme that allows Vilhunen to mine, though not ape, her own biography.


 At times, Little Wing, a fictional feature, resembles a documentary. It follows 12-year-old Varpu, who goes hunting for her missing father and must eventually face psychological challenges that push her beyond her years. The plot isn’t autobiographical, as Vilhunen notes following her movie’s premiere in Toronto, but it opened up the 40-year-old director to a relationship she couldn’t have otherwise explored. As a baby, she explains, eyes squinting under a harsh cinematic spotlight, “I lost my own father to mental illness.” Exploring suicide, for Vilhunen, has required more than mere memoir. She’s translated its concomitant feelings — “sorrow, loss” — into the abstract emotive landscape of her latest film.

* * *

 Born in Turku, a southwestern Finnish city with a population roughly the size of Providence, Rhode Island, Vilhunen grew up with a career in moving pictures in mind. She snapped pics as a kid, capturing the horses she rode, and joined a high school video club. That granted Vilhunen access to an S-VHS video camera and made “a dream come true,” she tells me one Saturday afternoon following TIFF’s final public screening of Little Wing. Despite making “some really terrible films” — she doesn’t elaborate on specifics — she says, “I discovered this is what I want to do.” Film school eventually welcomed her, in 1998, but only after she applied “many times” and spent years toiling away at a production company and a fish factory in northern Norway. Industrious, Vilhunen also studied screenwriting before starting film school, by sneaking into a friend’s class. 

I like dragging cameras and tripods around and to be hands-on in the dirt. I like the everyday, exhausting stuff a lot. 

Selma Vilhunen

 As for that Oscar nod, well, that’s a long story. The journey began when she and her colleagues at Tuffi Films — a six-year-old, all-women-led, Helsinki-based production company — heard about a screenplay contest back home. “Finnish people are famous for being a bit negative … and just making films about their depression and wanting to kill themselves,” Vilhunen says with affectionate ribbing of her compatriots. To address that dark vibe, a competition called for lighter, family-friendly fare. “We were like, ‘This is not our cup of tea — not interested.’ ” 

 But on the day of the contest’s deadline, one of Tuffi Films’ screenwriters, Kirsikka Saari, surprised Vilhunen by sharing an action-packed, slapstick screenplay — one that ended up winning a prize, including funding. It turned out to be the first movie Tuffi Films finished, winning the jury award for best comedy at the Aspen Shortsfest in 2013. Vilhunen and her team figured they’d push their luck, and they filed an application with the Academy Awards. “I just thought it was a fun little sidetrack,” says Vilhunen. The film, Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (in Finnish, that’s Pitääkö mun kaikki hoitaa?), became only the second Finnish flick in history to receive an Oscar nod. “I wanted it to feel real, somehow — authentic.” 

In a sunny dress contrasted with dark heels atop Hollywood’s most famous rouge carpet, Vilhunen relished her nomination for best live-action short film. And ever since, that big “O” on her résumé has made it easier for Vilhunen to start discussions about new projects. But each film must stand on its own, she adds.

Those who have worked with Vilhunen tell you her success hinges on an ability to deeply connect with both documentary subjects and actors on an authentic level. Vilja Keskimäki, a Finnish film student in Toronto who interned at Tuffi Films, watched Vilhunen’s dynamic while interviewing and filming girls for Hobbyhorse Revolution. “She spent lots of time getting to know them and asking them questions so they felt comfortable,” Keskimäki says.

That’s especially true as Vilhunen channels elements of her childhood beyond plot. She seems to pour her own experience growing up with a single mother into coaching 13-year-old Linnea Skog, who plays Little Wing’s lead, Varpu.

Ahead of one screening, Vilhunen passes Skog the mic to take an audience question, though Skog quickly dismisses it and looks toward her feet. The next day, when it’s just the three of us, Skog does open up — but only after Vilhunen shares some encouraging words. This kind of mentoring, Skog says, helped coax her from her shell and perform with more confidence. Indeed, in one dramatic scene, Skog appears to drive a car while painfully absorbing caustic, verbal blows from her crazed father. In another, after learning how to ride a horse for this particular role, Skog realistically portrays a daughter longing for her dad while also coming to terms with her mom’s haphazard efforts at parenting. One pictures an encouraging Vilhunen standing just offscreen.

* * *

Traditionally, women directors have dominated Finland’s documentary-making scene. But, notes Jaana Puskala, head of the Finnish Film Foundation’s international department, they seldom make feature films. One study from the Nordic Gender & Media Forum found that more men are employed in the industry across Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Vilhunen isn’t much interested in discussing gender dynamics tonight, though — “I’m tired of the whole question,” she dismisses with a soft laugh. Previously, she has said the progression toward gender equality for women filmmakers in Finland has been slower than what she would have hoped. Now she’d rather focus on “the process of making films. I like dragging cameras and tripods around, and to be hands-on in the dirt,” she says. “I like the everyday, exhausting stuff a lot.”

There is a challenge of the language. There are only so many buyers who are interested in films other than English.

Breaking big abroad has been a tough act for Finnish filmmakers. Even at home, their collective work made up just 28 percent of Finland’s 89 million Euro (US$99.9 million) box-office market share last year — much improved from 15 percent a decade earlier but still far weaker than the draw of American cinema, which nabbed over half of the country’s revenue for movies in 2015, the Finnish Film Foundation reported. And only about 5 million folks speak Finnish globally, most of whom reside in a nation roughly double the population of Chicago. “There are only so many buyers who are interested in films other than English,” Vilhunen says. 

 For Vilhunen, earning a slot to screen Little Wing at TIFF was akin to “winning a jackpot,” says Puskala. The festival is known as a major launchpad for both big premieres and award season; past winners of its people’s choice pick, for example, included Oscar favs such as Room, The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Argo and, likely a hit this year, La La Land

 But Vilhunen has never been in a hurry to grab stardom. While writing Little Wing, she had her own child, and moved slowly. “For some reason,” Vilhunen says, “I just didn’t feel there was any rush.” Pushing into production too quickly might have meant missing something important in the story, she muses. Time itself permeates the film, and it makes sense to consider Vilhunen growing up in her own way while making it. After telling her audience of her father’s suicide, Vilhunen adds: “In a way, this was my way of meeting him through fiction.”

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