Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Finland's Forbidden Fruit

Is Passion the road to Perdition?

Finland's young director, Dome Karukoski, whose film, Forbidden Fruit was showcased at PIFF, speaks to Sandhya Iyer about its theme and gives a glimpse into Finnish cinema

The Pune International Film Festival (PIFF) on Monday saw the screening of Forbidden Fruit (Kielletty Hedelma), a film from Finland that explores the lesser known Laestadian community, which believes in following every single word prescribed by the Bible. The sect, though a forgiving one, sees sex as a tool for procreation and not enjoyment. Condoms are not allowed, and sexual urges have to be repressed. Also, music, films, alcohol, swearing are all prohibited and seen as an invitation to the devil. This revivalist movement, spread across 16 countries, has about 1 lakh followers around the world, most of them concentrated in Finland and Scadinavia.
This cult makes for a vital backdrop in the coming-of-age story that the film's young director Dome Karukoski narrates by way of some beautiful visuals and dramatic scenes. Forbidden Fruit follows the life of the Lolita-like Maria, eager to experience life beyond her conservative Laestadian setting and move to Heilsinki for a summer job. The community back home is concerned of the potential dangers of a single girl moving to a big city and assigns her prissy friend Raakel to join her. However, they do not bargain that Raakel herself will fall prey to her vulnerable side.

The film's obvious strengths are it's stunning visuals, it's dramatic flourishes and engaging narrative. Also, the film successfully brings out the moral and ethical dilemmas that one struggles with, because they often run contrary to our basic human nature. However, it has to be said, that the transition that both girls go through is not always very convincing. Also, in today's time and age, the philosophy of the Laestadians – demanding such inhuman levels of self-repression and self-reproach --- seems quite absurd, especially coming from the Western world. Yet, it's a film that is significant for bringing a community into sharp focus and exploring the theme of female sexuality and morality.

What was your inspiration behind Forbidden Fruit?

I used to know a girl like Raakel in the film. I was in love with her and whenever I love, I tend to get overwhelmed. She, on the other hand, was a control freak and the most complex girl I had ever met. She kept me forever at an arm's length. I kept at it for a few months before giving up. The character in the film is modelled after her. I've known girls who leave their 'faith' (as it is called) and move out of their Laestadian community. When one in the family does it, the other siblings follow suit. It was a story I wanted to tell.

How did the Laestadian community and the media react to the film when it released this year?

The Laestadians are really nice people, in spite of theirs being a difficult community to get a grip on. Also, they are in very important positions everywhere in Finland, because they are so efficient – one of the reasons being they don't drink. Naturally, the media was not prepared to offend them, and hence remained neutral. Yet, a lot of television discussion happened following the film's release. Many of my friends are Laestadians and they used this as an excuse to see a film at last and they liked it.

Yet, most things in the film appear to be black and white. One doesn't really get an idea of what the Laestadian point of view really is...

To a libertarian, the film will seem black and white, but many who understand the community will vouch that in fact, I have been far less cruel in their portrayal than I could have been. Women are idolised only as mothers, not as women – which is why the film shows them having so many children. Many women from this community do not get married even after they turn 30 because they realise that they would have to get into the role of motherhood immediately. They don't want to abandon their careers and yet, they don't wish to leave the Church either, because their friends and family belong to it. The one aspect about the community that binds them together is that they are forgiving as people. No matter what 'sin' you commit, they will accept you back if you are willing to repent. Also, they look after the interests of each one within their fold.

How conducive is the Finland film culture to different themes?

The good thing about cinema here is that there is a ready audience for art house films. There are kino schools where films are taught as part of the syllabus. Finland does not have a big population and yet Forbidden Fruit when it released was a boxoffice success. Art house films runs successfully along with Americal blockbusters and local comedies. But the funding continues to be a problem. It's a three dimensional system – that includes the government, TV channels and local distributors. Unless all of it falls in place, it's difficult to make films.

How do think cinema in Finland has progressed over the years...

For the longest time, we were under the shadow of Finnish masters like Aki Kaurismaki, whose films were minimalistic and melancholic (where characters drunk themselves to death). That posed problems for new filmmakers internationally, because our films were measured on those standards. My films are more optimistic, joyful and humanistic. So yes, new filmmakers are bringing their own sensibilities to cinema now. Is there an influence of Swedish films on us? Well, considering that Finland was occupied by Russia and Sweden for years, we tend to view their cinema with a mixture of envy and hatred (smiles). For a long time, I did not see Swedish films, but when I opened up to them, I had to admit their cinema is richer than ours. What I find admirable about their cinema is that they know how to make even art house films entertaining – that is something we in Finland should learn.

Any thoughts on India vis a vis Finland...

Yes, I see people smiling a lot here. It doesn't happen in Finland. You go to a restaurant and the waiter will grunt at you. Grunting and drinking are national characteristics.

Any views on Bollywood films?

I enjoy the emotional moments, but suddenly the characters break into a song. I cannot adapt myself to the lip syncing. I have seen Lagaan and there is great craftsmanship at work, but as I said personally, I cannot relate to the singing.


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