For Finnish film director Alli Haapasalo, centring women and girls in her work was never a question. Her first feature-length film, Love and Fury, was about the struggles of a female writer, while the second, Force of Habit, was about gender bias and sexual harassment. Her most recent feature, Girl Picture, explores the lives of three young girls as they navigate love and relationships.
Two of the protagonists, Emma and Mimmi, are swept up in a whirlwind romance, while the third girl, Rönkkö (Mimmi’s best friend), is on a mission to find pleasure. Girl Picture was screened at this year’s Fire!! film festival in Barcelona, which highlights LGBTQI+ focused films. It has already made waves for its portrayal of a young, female, queer couple, including an award from Sundance, making it a groundbreaking project from a Finnish director. Haapasalo spoke with us about how she conceptualised a lot of the film, and how, above all else, centring girls and girlhood was of the utmost importance.
For readers who may not be familiar with your work, who are you? What is your background?
I’m a film director and writer living in Helsinki (Finland). I went to film school first in Finland (graduated from Aalto University in 2004) and then did my Master’s at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts (graduated in 2009). Girl Picture is my third feature. My first feature, Love and Fury (2016), was about a female writer finding her own voice in the early '80s in Helsinki, and the second one was an anthology film called Force of Habit (2019), a multiple-story film about gender bias and sexual harassment. I directed that one with six other female directors.
I have also written and directed short films and episodes for a spy thriller drama series called Shadow Lines (2019). I’m currently in the development of my fourth feature film and a new drama series, a political thriller.
You have stated that you wanted Girl Picture to be a love story, not a coming-out story. What are your thoughts on the state of coming out stories in the media? Have we outgrown them?
Girl Picture is first and foremost a story about drawing your own contours. It’s about that time in life when you’re both an adolescent and an adult at the same time – and constantly fluctuating between the two. I call it a ‘liminal age.’ At that age, everything is about identity, every day is about figuring out who you are. And people around us are very important mirrors in that process.
The A-plot, where Mimmi and Emma fall in love, is both a love story and a story of both of them trying to navigate their emotions and identities. I think coming out stories are very important to tell, and I’m well aware of the fact that being out isn’t nearly as easy in many parts of the world, as it is for Mimmi and Emma. But I’d like to see a world where a same-gender relationship doesn’t have to be about the question of sexual orientation or gender, but it can simply be about two human beings and their relationship. That’s why in Girl Picture, sexual orientation is not mentioned or problematised.
You have also mentioned certain aspects of the film that could have come up, but you and the writers explicitly chose to leave out. For example, Rönkkö isn’t jealous of Mimmi and Emma’s relationship, despite her own issues with intimacy, and there are no creepy men in the film, though jealousy and creepy men can be found often in real life. Because of these decisions, would you say Girl Picture is an escapist film? One where all of these common, real-life struggles and flaws don’t exist, so more focus is on the girls?
I wanted all three girls to be able to explore their identities freely so that their journeys would not be defined by others, and they can go in directions they want to. I am personally sick of how often films end up punishing women for being sexual, bold, independent, free-spirited – or just basically themselves. I think that too often the stories we tell teach young women that they should negotiate their identities and actions to avoid punishment. I realise that the real world victimises women too often, but I just didn’t want to reinforce the narrative of ‘woman as victim’ on screen. So the screenwriters Ilona Ahti, Daniela Hakulinen and I decided to leave out all shaming, belittling and patronising of girls, and we never place them in any kind of danger in the film. You could call it escapist, I guess, and some have called it utopian. I prefer to call it ‘the goal’ or ‘how things should be.’ By changing the representation of girls on film, we can at least help change the way we look at them, one film at a time.
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Mimmi is prone to self-destructive behaviour, much to her own expense, as well as the people she loves. How much of this aspect of her character is influenced by the lack of attention from her mother?
She is definitely experiencing some strong growing pains. And a big part of those pains is her relationship with her mother. On one hand, Mimmi is very eager to live an independent life – she wanted to move out and live on her own already in high school – but on the other hand, she would really just like to be held by her mother and feel like a child. This is the fluctuation between adolescence and adulthood! Some people see her mother as a monster, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Mimmi hasn’t communicated to her mother that she misses her, and her mother is trying to give Mimmi freedom – while also being very busy with her new family. So it’s a relationship, where the problems arise more from lack of communication than from lack of caring.
Rönkkö goes on a journey to find pleasure and become more in tune with her sexuality. The ending of her storyline is left pretty open-ended. Was this intentional? Is it possible that she is asexual? Has she just not found the right person? Or is she unlabeled and still learning about herself?
Already very early on in the writing process, we decided that we didn’t want to make a statement about the end of Rönkkö’s process of self-discovery. She is on the ace spectrum – she might be asexual, or she might not have figured out her needs and desires yet – maybe she is not ready for sex yet, or maybe she never finds sex to be her thing. Whatever the discovery is in the end, we didn’t want her to have it in the film because we wanted to emphasise that not all answers come to you neatly – and that’s ok. Life is much messier and much more incomplete than the narratives we tell about human life. Rönkkö’s search ends unfinished – and that’s the best possible ending for her. She accepts that you don’t have to be complete at the age of 17 (I personally question if we ever are ‘complete’) and she accepts herself. Her quest for pleasure isn’t solved by another person – it’s not about finding someone else, it’s about finding yourself.
With her story, I also wanted to emphasise that sexuality is a natural, sometimes insecurity-inducing and problematic part of life that belongs to everyone. And everyone should be allowed to explore it safely. We still call sexually active women names, while allowing men much more freedom – that’s a misogynistic double standard that we should leave in the past. So many stories of sexually active women depict women as distant, deranged or somehow damaged and traumatised characters. In reality, most women are sexual beings in a much more human way, and there are many interesting questions to explore in their sexuality.
Tension emerges between Emma and Mimmi because of Emma’s figure skating. Since navigating young love is a big theme in the film, do you think portraying that tension between love and career or passion is important for young viewers?
Each girl’s story deals with a different question of identity, and for Emma, that question has to do with her identity as an athlete. Not many 18-year-olds know (or think they know) already exactly who they are. But for Emma, the path seems absolutely clear. So then it’s of course exciting to put that kind of a character in a situation where she is suddenly completely thrown off. Mimmi shakes her world because Emma has never felt anything like this before. I didn’t want a story of the reluctant athlete who now wants to quit because she has found love. It’s much more interesting to see her really want Mimmi but also really want to win. One of the key ingredients of happiness in our lives is to be able to be there both for ourselves and for others – and I think that’s a major element of each girl’s personal plot.
“As a director, I’d love to explore the topics of race and gender in the Finnish society – but more so, I’d like to see these films made by trans filmmakers or filmmakers of colour.”
Something I really appreciated is how fluid and normal Mimmi and Rönkkö’s relationship is. Though Mimmi is queer, there is never a question of if she is secretly in love with Rönkkö, because that is not the kind of love they share, they are just close friends. Was that aspect on you and the writers’ minds when developing the script? Do you believe it’s important to portray platonic relationships with queer people like this?
I don’t think we ever even problematised the sexual orientations of Mimmi and Rönkkö – it was always clear to us that they are best friends. And not just best friends, but also the best kind of best friends who would always have each others’ backs. Rönkkö’s sexuality as a heterosexual is mentioned in the film, but Mimmi’s pansexuality is not. I’d say it’s extremely important to portray platonic relationships with queer people, just like it is important to portray platonic relationships with straight people. Friendship and parenthood are at least equally strong as bonds, as sexual or romantic relationships.
In many ways, Emma and Mimmi are a classic ‘opposites-attract’ couple, with Emma being a hardworking perfectionist and Mimmi being a rebellious party girl. Because it is such a classic trope, how did you make it unique to their dynamic?
I just tried to be very true to the characters – and very specific in all my choices. With a story like this, which is small in plot and action, but huge in psychology and emotion, you can’t have a generic moment. The second is not specific, it feels generic – and generic feels like nothing. So I tried to focus a lot of energy on making each character very specific to the detail.
You have said that Girl Picture was born out of reflections and conversations you’ve had about girlhood and what it means especially in this day and age. Girl Picture explores queer girlhood, but I wonder if you’ve explored the intersections of girlhood with other identities, such as race, transness, class, etc. in your work. Or, if you haven’t, do you see opportunities to explore these identities in the future?
I haven’t but I’m very interested in both topics. As a director, I’d love to explore the topics of race and gender in Finnish society – but more so, I’d like to see these films made by trans filmmakers or filmmakers of colour. It’s important to diversify the voices making films. Currently, our stories are still very binary, and I’d like to see more fluidity there. Also, people of any other race than white are grossly underrepresented in Finnish film, so Finnish films don’t really reflect the make up of the whole population.
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You have stressed that, above all else, you wanted the film to focus on girls and girlhood and wanted to portray them as accurately and sensitively as possible. Now that the film is out, is there any aspect of Mimmi, Emma, and/or Rönkkö’s characters that you would change?
I wouldn’t mind if the cast looked a little bit less perfect – they are all quite gorgeous and thin. And I don’t want young women to watch this film and feel like that is the only norm – you know, the magazine perfect woman. But the thing is that I had to choose the best actors, and these three women were the best for the roles. I wasn’t going to turn them down for their looks. So makeup designer Kaisu Hölttä did everything she could to make the girls look realistic and less gorgeous – they have dirty hair, shiny faces, armpit hair, acne, etc.
What is the significance of the plot being folded into three Fridays? Is it a nod to how fast life and relationships can change, especially in young love?
In a teenager’s life, even just one Friday feels like something that can change everything. So we wanted the time span of the story to be very condensed. Doing that also allowed me to concentrate on the characters on a micro-level. Almost every draft of the script struggled with the question of balance: it was difficult to weave together three main characters with individual character arcs, but also two separate plots – one being Mimmi and Emma’s plot and the other being Rönkkö’s. Once Ilona and Daniela discovered the structure of three consecutive Fridays (and that one Saturday) everything fell into place. I absolutely loved the structure, as it allowed me the freedom of lingering on certain moments, and then cutting very abruptly to the next moments. I thought the very dynamic changes in tempo were in sync with the tempo of real teenagers’ lives.
Girl Picture won an Audience Award at this year’s Sundance, making it an incredible stride for Finnish film representation. What do you believe is the future of Finnish film, and what would you say to young Finnish filmmakers who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Finnish film is doing really wonderfully now because Finnish filmmakers trust themselves and their stories. I think that this new generation of filmmakers, which has emerged in the past 10 years, is willing to take risks with story and style. Current directors also trust their own handwriting. This is of course the key to great filmmaking. So I’d encourage everyone to keep making the kind of films they want to make, follow their own instincts and focus on their own style – even if, or especially when, it’s outside the box. It took a very long time to get Girl Picture made; both finding a production company and getting it funded took several years. But we kept working on the story we wanted to tell. You can only make a good film if you stay true to what’s important to you personally.
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