Making nonfiction cinema offers a filmmaker many storytelling choices. Depending on several different factors, including the director's stubborness to stick to her aesthetic guns, a story about a Russian girl who has taken herself to an orphanage because things are so bad at home and then is adopted for a short time by a wealthy Finnish couple offering to take care of that child during their vacation time as part of their "charity" work, could be a grim, didactic treatise on all kinds of social issues. But instead, filmmaker Iris Olsson, decided to tell this story from the point of view of the child and, in just an hour's time, we go on a journey of discovery as told by 11-year-old Svetlana, a brave, highly emotional and
expressive pre-pubescent girl who takes her own destiny a hell of a lot more seriously than the adults around her do.
It's quite an accomplished piece, made under the auspices of the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, Finland, where Olsson and her editor, Annukka Lilja (pictured at right) met to create a film called Summerchild (Kesan Lapsi). They will both soon receive their Master's Degrees from the TaiK. Having made just one student film before Summerchild, Olsson relied tremendously on her small crew to realize her vision and is still very much discovering her cinematic "voice." And even though Lilja is still technically a student, her editing chops are first-rate; she has a born storyteller's instinct. She's also been on the festival circuit this year with another award-winning film she edited for Elina Hirvonen called Paradise--Three Journeys in This World, which I saw at the IDFA last fall. I met a very jet-lagged Lilja on the long shuttle bus ride from downtown Durham to the Hilton one afternoon at Full Frame and met Olsson there soon after. They won the President's Award at that fest and a couple of weeks later, we met up again at Hot Docs where the film was a finalist in the mid-length documentary category. We got a chance to sit and chat for a bit in Toronto about the making of Summerchild:
Still in Motion (SIM): Finding your storytelling voice as an artist is a lifelong pursuit, but from the looks of this film, yours is already quite a defined one. The solid structure is there; you’ve made some strong choices and you’ve, obviously, made your film for an intelligent audience. There’s no exposition, no explanation; you just take us right in and trust that we’ll find our way. I love those close up shots where the camera is running alongside the little girls' feet as they romp in the playground, juxtaposed with a steady, lingering shot of your main subject, Sveta, as she watches the other children at play from the window of her room. She is so unselfconscious in front of the camera, as if she’s been in front of one her whole life. What, in your opinion, made her such a perfect film subject?
Iris Olsson (IO): I think it was boredom. I think she’d given up at some point.
SIM: How do you think she interpreted your presence in her life?
IO: It’s hard to say. Someone in the audience asked this at the screening at Full Frame. And I said that I cannot answer for her. But, I think when we came, she thought that we would be fun, more people to play with. We would be giving to her; we would be admirers. She would be the subject and we would be the followers. She very soon realized the advantages of being the center of that kind of attention.
SIM: How old was she when you shot the film?
SIM: And how did you find her?
IO: I first found out about the [Russian] home for orphans from a doctor in the east of Finland. He told me about the charity projects they run there. I wanted to find people who were doing this kind of “adoption” for the first time.
SIM: Was this the subject you specifically set out to find for your film?
IO: No, I was researching a totally different subject and that’s when I ran into this doctor. All I knew was that it was time to make a film and I’d just have to go out there and find a story. What struck me about this one, in particular, was a small phrase he used in describing it. He told me that there were these children coming here [from Russia to Finland], and after a short time spent with some people involved in this charity, they would then return to the orphanage. I already saw the possibilities just from hearing that and I knew that it had strong themes. I immediately had so many questions. My first reaction to hearing this was a very stereotypical one—they get to come here to Finland, this rich and wealthy land to stay with a family and then they’re sent back to that godawful orphanage.
SIM: Yet we see that the orphanage is far from "godawful."
IO: Yes, but before I went there, I imagined it was a horrible place. It’s a very easy stereotype for someone from Finland, or anywhere in the Western world for that matter, to picture something specific when you hear the words “Russian orphanage.”
SIM: The children are very well taken care of there and, obviously, loved.
IO: Definitely, yes. I was intrigued with my stereotypical images. And in starting the film, I was committed to finishing it. It took on a different aspect from what I anticipated. There was more going on there than what I thought of as “charity,” in my mind. Some of these children are social orphans—most have families in the community. Due to social conditions that exist at home, it’s better for them to be in a state-run facility. Svetlana took herself there; she was the one to walk away from her house. That, to me, makes it even more tragic. For an 11-year-old to leave her family, the situation must have been really, really bad.
SIM: During the course of filming this, what surprised you the most in terms of what she allowed you to capture? We never really see her cry or breakdown until the very end. We hear about her crying fits, but we never see one until there's talk of bringing her to Finland for good.
IO: We really only wanted scenes of her crying that we thought were cinematic and within the style in which we wanted to make the film--that is, not having her talking to me or interacting with me or the camera in any way. That was something I decided I wanted even before I found the story for this film.
SIM: This was a personal aesthetic challenge to yourself?
IO: Yes. I wanted to do a purely observational piece, to go “old style.” I wanted to see if it was possible. It’s so much harder to get the story from “real life,” one that has no dramaturgic structure. That was something I wanted to do. The other challenge was to get a film on television. Not that that compromised or informed my artistic decisions, but it was a hope for me, that it would be of such good quality that it was worth broadcasting.
SIM: Most filmmakers I know make work for public consumption. You have to think about that if you want to survive on doing what you love.
IO: During the editing phase, we were screening roughs and, of course, it was very important for other people to weigh in. And, of course, the criticism was geared mainly to using voiceover narration or a lot of cards to establish what was going on. We were deep into it and were feeling insecure and unsure of what we had. I wasn’t thinking of audience when I made this. I was doing it for myself. I also think, though, that I’m a good audience. I want to see a good film, to be taken into a film. We were working on the dramaturgy a lot. We used the Post-It method [laughing] in the editing room, just trying to combine the Russian and Finnish footage in a good way.
Annukka Lilja (AL): We were trying to figure out how much information the audience needed to know about each place at the beginning. The material looks so different between the two places.
SIM: One scene that I found particularly devastating was Svetlana's first journey from Russia to Finland. We hear Peter [the “adopting” father] telling us that during that ride, he observed Sveta's slow realization that she was traveling a vast distance and going very, very far away from home. He describes how upset she was, crying and throwing up. That was one of many parts, too, that felt like a fairytale to me—the little girl going into the dark and forbidding forest; however, she’s forgotten the bread crumbs she’ll need to help her find her way back. It did also feel a bit like an abduction, especially as it got later in the day and the light started to go.
IO: I don’t understand how she had the strength for it. Of course, we were there. I think she felt a small sense of security in that. Those people were kind of new to her and to just hop into a car and drive away with them was very brave. She also comes from an environment where there’s a lot of alcoholism, prostitution. She could have been taken and driven anywhere! She didn't have a mobile or any way of contacting anyone. My nerves, as a child, could never withstand that.
SIM: How unobtrusive were you really? How much did your presence contribute to what played out in front of the camera? That’s a tricky thing, especially in a story as intimate as this one and especially when you're dealing with a child.
IO: There were a lot of issues surrounding that. The couple [Tiina and Peter] didn’t really know how to be with the girl at all. To my disappointment, I found that they were spending more time with the film crew than with the girl, I think because, perhaps, they were looking for some security from us, being at times uncertain how they should act as "parents." That took me by surprise. So, after a couple of days of shooting, I had to sit down with them and tell them that they needed to really start acting as if the film crew didn't exist. And the essential thing to explain to them was that we weren’t really there for them, but for Svetlana. That was hard, telling them not to talk to us. I wasn’t even really thinking about the film, so much as I was thinking that I did not want our presence to compromise or hinder anything that was to go on between them and her. She wouldn’t be forming any kind of relationship with them and that, in turn, would affect her future. So we kind of had to push them away, force them to pretend we weren’t there.
SIM: How long was your shoot?
IO: In total, about 23 days.
SIM: Did you edit or structure as you shot?
AL: No, it all happened afterwards.
SIM: How many hours of footage did you have to work with?
SIM: That’s very economical.
IO: It was a lot for us.
SIM: I’m used to talking to filmmakers that sometimes produce well over 100 hours of footage.
IO: I also pre-selected from those hours what I wanted to digitize, so we edited through only 14 hours, ultimately.
AL: The only thing I did for the first week was to watch about seventeen hours of pre-selected footage.
IO: When we did the first rough cut, we were at two and a half hours. For a long time, we were at 1:30, and I kind of liked it at that length. There was also a one hour and ten minute version I liked. But it came down to broadcast industry standard, so we cut down to 59:30.
SIM: What’s the theatrical distribution scene like in Finland for documentary?
IO: At this stage in my filmmaking career, I don’t even think of that. I just wanted to make a film, to complete a film. But I was thinking in a cinematic way all the time, envisioning this on the big screen. Being in film school, you get used to seeing films screened that way, but in thinking about where a film might be distributed, you only think in terms of film festivals. I know I will always make films for the big screen. A friend of mine in Finland wanted his feature film to go into theaters and he told me at the end, it would have been cheaper for him to give a DVD to all the people that bothered to come to the movie, plus seven euros, you know? It cost him a ton. In Finland, I think for a feature documentary, you might get about 700 people coming to the theater. It's really not worth it.
SIM: Your film was financed by the film school.
IO: Yes, that and people working for free kept the budget very low. We were given a small budget that went to production expenses, traveling and color correction. Other things like camera rental, I facilitated.
SIM: What kind of camera did you use?
IO: We shot in mini-DV using a JVC-HDV camera. In Finland, there’s still a huge incompatibility issue with digitizing HD footage, so the cinematographer [Anssi Leino] chose it for its mobility; it felt good in his hands. It’s also a great camera for hand-held work which was very important. We used a top-of-the-line lens, as well.
SIM: How did you choose your crew?
IO: Well, since it was produced out of the film school, Annukka was suggested to me from a professor. I had done another film there and didn’t want to use the same editor. For the cinematographer, I had someone besides Leino in mind, but he had a scheduling conflict. I’m very happy I went with Anssi Leino—he’s also a student there.
SIM: His shooting is really great.
IO: Yeah, it is. He’s a very open person; there's somewhat of an innocence about him. And he also has a small child. Before film school, he was a skiing coach for the Finnish Para-Olympics, where people in wheelchairs compete. He’s very sensitive, caring, fatherly. He felt very "safe" and he’s very personable, a good conversationalist—he was perfect for the project. In the beginning we shot some research material, which for a long time we thought we would want to use in the film because it had an exceptional scene. It was the first time that Sveta met the parents. We were trying out things and the situation was sudden for us, as well. We didn’t know it was going to happen so we had no preparation time. Ultimately, it was a bad shoot; we used a research camera, so the material looked terrible. We had to make a choice in terms of the cinematic criteria. I wanted the piece to look like a movie. I just couldn't use that shitty-looking material, even though it contains a great scene, an essential scene.
SIM: I think that’s a common problem, especially in the beginning of a project. There would be plenty of filmmakers that would decide to use it anyway in service to the story.
AL: It would also have colored the whole story in a different light. It was a weird scene. The girl was sitting there and they were commenting on her, “Doesn’t she have beautiful eyes?” etc. They weren't really looking at her as a person.
IO: She also had a temperature of 40 degrees [100 degrees F]; she was very pale. Tiina was trying to touch her and was talking at her, “Come, come. You want to come to Finland with us?” She didn’t even understand the language. I hadn’t thought of that material since the edit. If I start thinking of all of the films that we could have done with that material or second-guess what we should have done, it really doesn’t do much good. It doesn’t come naturally. When I watch the film now, I don’t think about what we should have done differently. We had only small hints there in the film on so many things; we chose very carefully what to keep in and what we wouldn’t use. Maybe that’s for the DVD extras or something, to include those kinds of scenes.
SIM: There's that scene where the granny comes in when Sveta is at Peter and Tiina's house. There’s a whole room of people and they’re all talking about her as if she’s not in the room. And during all this, as the camera stays still and focused on Sveta, we just hear the dialogue going on around her. She’s almost catatonic. That scene is very powerful; it says so much about her isolation.
IO: We did a lot of work to get to that point—trying to find a way to film and focus on certain things.
SIM: Sometimes there are a lot of happy accidents, too.
IO: We had a lot of those.
SIM: But the only way to capture those happy accidents, or be aware of them happening in the first place, is to be open and intuitive in the middle of everything that’s going on and realize that it will translate cinematically in a successful way into something highly effective and dramatic.
IO: I have to say that the relationship I had with Anssi was essential for this. There was only me, a sound person [Pietu Korhonen] and a camera person. That means that, for example, if we were shooting in the children’s home and other children know you’re shooting in a room, they come peek; they want to play. Somebody’s got to take sound and somebody’s got to take pictures, which means it’s the director who’s outside holding the door so the children don’t come in while we’re shooting. At those times, I thought, I can never do this again! Or sometimes I would have to take Tiina and Peter away, so Anssi could spend time with Sveta in a separate room to get something. So, there was a little bit of game playing, but not too much, in my opinion. We were honest with them in what we were trying to do but the crew had to work together to orchestrate things sometimes so we could get what we needed.
We would all sit and review the daily rushes after every shooting day and sometimes I would give a really rough critique. I was simultaneously creating a script with Post-Its while we were shooting and would re-write based on what we got that day. I could also figure out what needed to be shot the next day. For example, the great scene where Sveta is trapping the bees into the coffeepot in the yard—I was inside the house with Tiina, and Anssi was out there playing with Sveta. It’s easy to get stuff like that with digital; he could just play with her and keep rolling. It gave him the confidence to go ahead and shoot that material, even though I wasn’t there.
But we would also fight over things. The shots of the trapped bird, for instance, on the windowsill. I have a more poetic sensibility than Anssi and so I wanted to take that footage of the bird. At first he objected but then he filmed a bit. I didn’t like what he was doing so we started to fight about it. If I have a cinematographer, I want him to take the pictures. I can use the camera myself, but I want him to do it. But at this time, I took some footage of the bird to show him what I wanted; I had definite ideas of what I wanted. We filmed that bird for almost an hour to get the right image and when we got to the image that I knew would work, the other bird came [another bird appears on the opposite side of the window and the two birds, the trapped one and the free one, communicate frantically]. It’s hard sometimes to be a director because you have to criticize the work of your co-workers or demand certain things. It’s a delicate balance, but I won’t forgive myself if I don’t do what I know will work. So unless we had spent that hour getting that footage of the bird, we wouldn’t have gotten that shot.
All of the films in my head that I’d like to do, do not involve me doing the shooting. I want to use a cinematographer. I would use Anssi. He does fiction, as well. For me, it’s important to trust the cinematographer and I have great trust in him.
SIM: What kinds of stories are important for you to tell?
IO: There is something which comes from a quite personal place within me. A friend actually pointed it out. It is the theme of the guilty feeling of innocence.
SIM: What does that mean to you?
IO: It’s the situation of someone who is innocent, like a child, but they feel guilty, as if they’ve done something wrong. There’s no reason for them to feel guilt. It’s not their fault but they still feel guilty.
SIM: Does Sveta represent that?
IO: Yes, I think so. The emotion I’m trying to explain is very personal. You feel you’ve done something wrong, but you haven’t. You feel you’re not good; you’re guilty. But you’re not. I think it’s a typical feeling for a child at times. For her, she has a strong sense of responsibility; she cares so much; she worries. This is the strong theme that runs through most of my ideas for telling stories.
SIM: When it came time to edit, and considering the two of you didn’t know one another and had never worked together before, did you experience similar creative tussling (which, to my mind, is a very positive sign that more than just the director is invested in making a great film)? Tell me about your creative partnership in the edit room.
AL: Yes, it was the same creative back-and-forth in the editing. It came out of our discussions from all the raw footage. We were working really hard. It was supposed to be a 30-minute film and knowing that it would be a longer piece, we were a bit rushed.
IO: We kind of kept it a secret, how much material we had.
AL: The school has its criteria for how long it was supposed to be. Iris was in the editing room a lot to discuss everything she wanted to do. She was, understandably, freaking out and I tried my best to calm her down [laughter]. I like to work like that, having those intense discussions between me and the director.
SIM: What kinds of rhythms did you find in the piece? I find most editors have their own particular way of finding the pace that’s right for the project.
AL: I do think the material dictates that and in which direction you move. Like most projects, it took a while to find that, and we really hit our stride towards the end when putting the fine cut together. For Paradise--Three Journeys in This World, it’s shot extremely differently—very slow pace, long lingering shots, more meditative and so that's how it was edited.
IO: People do mention the rhythm and we actually never talked about that.
AL: No, it came pretty naturally. It was just a matter of re-working and re-working until we found it. And we went with the emotions, using the moments that were relevant to emphasize what was happening emotionally with the subjects.
SIM: When did the other production components come in, music, sound design, etc.?
IO: The music actually came before filming.
SIM: That’s interesting; tell me about that.
IO: I don’t know how to feel about this, and I don’t know if it’s good or bad that I had in my mind already some kind of emotion that I wanted to have in this story. I don’t know if it’s good that it came from me and not from the reality of the situation. When we were starting to film, I had found this music in my roommate’s CD collection. It was sort of electronic; it sounded like crystals touching each other. Listening to it, I felt it was very innocent, child-like music, pure innocence. I really loved it and I thought it expressed something essential for me. I had written a lot about what I wanted to say with this film, in thinking of themes. For a while, I was contemplating doing a film where the presence of the adults would be missing completely and it would be some kind of tribute to children or childhood using that world only. That music, to me, had that innocent beauty of a child.
It was an Icelandic band so I was convinced we’d never have money to use this music. We had a composer that did some music that wasn’t right. I got kind of hopeless about it and, at one point, gave him the CD to listen to. I remember telling him, "Just try and copy that!" It was still terrible and wasn’t what I wanted at all. In the meantime, we were using this music in the edit, but then we hit the final stage. In my first film, I made the mistake of using a very expensive song in the edit and got so emotionally attached to it. I, of course, had to change it and it tore my heart out. I used a song from the movie Amélie, which was a stupid idea, I know. I said I wouldn’t do that in this project.
And then I was in a bar and was talking to a Finnish musician about this group, Múm, and wanting so much to use their music. He told me that they have a Finnish member in the band. I never Googled them or anything so I didn’t really know that. I was convinced that I would never be able to afford to use this music so I never fully researched this. So I called him [Samuli Kosminen, aka Son of Yoda] and he did the music for us!
SIM: A good soundtrack should be like another character that adds an emotional layer to the picture and sound. It is tricky to get it right, that resonance, that emotional connection through the music. What was the biggest lesson for you in making this film—besides the music issue, which, fortunately, worked out for you in that lovely serendipitous way?
IO: To learn to trust myself.
SIM: That’s a good one.
IO: Yes, trusting myself, and learning that it’s not just about making the film. It’s learning to deal with the feedback afterwards and dealing with the small success that it’s had. At Full Frame, I was at the screening and was convinced that the audience was hating the film. They weren’t laughing in the right places or reacting in any way.
SIM: I was just talking to another filmmaker who said the exact same thing—that awful feeling in certain screenings that everyone watching it dislikes it.
AL: Well, this feeling of hers happened also in the editing process. She has a really strong vision and she was constantly second-guessing herself, saying, “This is not what I meant to do,” etc.
IO: Yes, over-talking, over-thinking all the time.
AL: Even afterwards, she was not confident. People started to say how much they loved it.
IO: Even then, I didn’t trust that.
AL: I think you’re past that now [laughing].
IO: Yes, well you learn through something like this to believe in yourself.
SIM: Creating something like this is such a huge risk in so many ways—it’s scary. For some, it gets more difficult with each project they take on, and while you may have built up confidence in certain ways, you still feel the same insecurities with each new endeavor.
IO: Well, especially in documentary, there are so many things that can heavily dictate what happens with your film. With the industry the way it is, I think the biggest challenge is not in creating the film but in being able to make it in the first place, to find funding, support. You know that a lot of energy is going to go into that before you even get to the creative aspects of what you’re trying to do. That’s the biggest challenge now. You have to be a salesperson, to sell your idea to the right person, to convince them of what you have to offer aesthetically before you’ve even shot a frame. In this instance, we all worked for free so I didn’t have to sell it so much, but for my next film, that will be the next challenge.
SIM: Will you two work together again?
IO: Yes. There is a trust now. I have a hard work ethic and I need that trust—to know that, just as I am working very hard to accomplish something, the people helping me will do the exact amount of work as, or even more than, I would do. That creates the trust to know that they’re willing and able to do that. When I feel like I’ve found these people, it means so much. Otherwise, I just worry more than I already do. That’s why things worked so well with Annukka; she has a good head on her shoulders. After 10 hours of working and editing in a day, she would tell me, “Okay, now we stop. Let’s go home now. See you tomorrow morning.” And I would have a fit and want to keep going through the night, thinking we could keep going and going. At 11:00 p.m., I would tell her, “But we have a good four more hours to work!” She was very firm with me and would tell me, “No, I’m going now. See you tomorrow.” If she hadn’t done that, we would have been going in circles. You can really mess up a film like that.
SIM: So ultimately you are very proud of this, right? You do realize that the reception the film’s received here at these festivals is some very real validation?
IO: Yeah, I’m proud of it. I’m also proud of the girl, Sveta.
SIM: It shows. It’s a very weird but satisfying ending where she’s staring into the camera lens for several seconds. We see this child that is the author of her own destiny and that is very much the way she will navigate through her life. She’s nobody’s victim. That’s a very beautiful thing to come away with. Tell me about that last lingering shot of her in close-up.
IO: We have this idea in our teaching we call “first image.” That image is to be guarded within you, the first image that comes into your head when you start to make the film. That was my first image. Sveta has had a heart operation and actually, the image I saw was of her without a shirt on, a medium shot showing the scar over her heart as she gazes at the camera. I didn’t want to ask this girl to take her shirt off, this young pre-pubescent girl. Ultimately, it was a bit touchy for me ethically.
So we did it with her clothes on. For a long time, I wanted the film to start with that image. For me, it’s a “reality check” shot. When you go to watch a film, as a spectator you want to feel something, to experience your own emotional reaction to something that you see. And that shot of Sveta is to say to the spectator, “It’s me. It’s my life and it’s real and I will go on from here.” She’s the one that has caused you to experience what you did—the laughter, the sadness, whatever authentic feelings come up for you watching this story. We are looking in her eyes so that we can understand that.
SIM: I like that you give her a chance to stare back at us, in a way, just as we’ve been staring so intimately at her.
IO: For me, that was the important, essential shot, that image of her. And, ultimately, while the scar over the heart shot for me was important, she would have been too bare. She’s already exposing so much.
AL: When I saw those images of her, I was really blown away.
IO: Well, this is a funny anecdote, actually. Because that was the only serious moment we could get from the footage—she was laughing so hard. I was trying so hard to get her to look into the camera and not laugh. It was the longest time in which she was looking serious and could be still. We cut that exactly one second after she stopped laughing to the last second before she started again! I want to say here that we did have an "actor agreement" with her. After the first three days of filming, she totally blew us off.
SIM: That’s not unusual for a subject to do that, especially at the beginning of a project.
IO: And not unusual for a child to do. She used us quite a bit. She told the caretakers at the home that she was going to go with us and do things that were not permissible for her to do. So we made this deal with her and also with the two other girls in her room. We created a "contract" that stated that she would be an actor in this film and she got to ask for what she wanted as “payment” to cooperate and appear in the film. At first they asked for TVs and stuff like that, which was too much. They wanted make-up bags filled with shampoos and things like that, so we went to the store and let them take what they wanted to have their own pink make-up bag and that made them very happy. That was the actors’ salary [laughs].
We ran into a lot of questions about all this while we were filming, so we handled that in the best way we could. This contract was just a piece of paper torn from a ledger and done in pencil but it was also for her to understand that we wanted to do this film about her and we would give her something for her participation and cooperation. It also clarified that this was something real, something important. We had a lot of talks about that with her.
SIM: It would be interesting to follow up with her when she’s older.
SIM: Has she seen the film?
IO: Yeah, she’s seen it.
SIM: What did she think?
IO: She liked it. I, unfortunately, couldn’t be there when she saw it, but I totally trust the director of the home who watched it with her and she said she liked it. It’s hard to talk on the phone because of the language barrier and it’s a day’s journey to go there; you can’t go without a visa, etc. But she talked with the translator and so I know she liked it, but, ultimately, really found it to be nothing that special.
I think from all this, Tiina and Peter will pay for her education, at least, and so all of this has created a big turning point in her life. I don’t know what will happen in terms of them adopting her permanently. There's also a chance that she could be adopted by a couple in the US.
SIM: That would be a whole other story with its own set of wild circumstances.
IO: Yes, that’s the sequel right there [in a mock "coming attractions" voice]: “Sveta 2: Driving to America.”