In A MOMENT IN THE REEDS, having moved to Paris for university, Leevi returns to his native Finland for the summer to help his estranged father renovate the family lake house so it can be sold. Tareq, a recent asylum seeker from Syria, has been hired to help with the work, and when Leevi’s father must return to town on business, the two young men fall in love and spend a few days discovering one another during the Finnish midsummer.
The following is Cinema Without Borders interview with Mikko Makela, director of A MOMENT IN THE REEDS.
Mikko Makela is a London-based filmmaker who, feeling compelled to fill the queer void in Finnish cinema, decided to return to his native Finland to make his debut feature. Since studying English Literature and French at Nottingham University and University College London, in London Mikko has directed music videos and fashion films alongside working as an editor in drama and commercials. Having studied Drama at City Literary Institute, he has also recently been seen acting on stage in the Arcola Queer Collective’s revival of Mae West’s The Drag as well as making an appearance in John Cameron Mitchell’s film How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
Cinema Without Borders: A MOMENT IN THE REEDS is one of the rare Finnish films dealing with homosexuality, was it a challenge to make this film?
Mikko Makela: It’s true that queer films have almost entirely been lacking in Finnish cinema, which was one of the main reasons for my wanting to make this film – to begin to provide some representation on screen for the queer community in Finland. I knew from the start that it would be difficult to find financing for this type of film in Finland, and I didn’t want to compromise on any aspect of it, so instead of going through the more traditional routes of public funding, we made it fully independently at a lower budget level, which allowed us the luxury of complete creative freedom. It wasn’t difficult to find cast and crew for the project, because we were all so passionate about making this kind of film and in agreement over its importance. During the shoot we did run into some difficulty, when one shooting location which had already been agreed (the village shop) fell through the night before we were due to shoot there because the owners no longer wanted to support the film after finding out its subject matter. It also wasn’t easy to find distribution for the film in Finland because the Finnish queer audience was so untested and undefined.
CWB: What is interesting in A MOMENT IN THE REEDS is that beside addressing the discrimination against LGBT communities, you are bringing up the conflicts inside the characters dealing with their own sexual orientations. Please tell us about your approach.
MM: Well, really I wanted to move beyond the traditional coming out narrative and the focus on a person battling with or conflicted over their sexual orientation. But certainly we wanted to show how, for instance, Tareq’s sexuality adds another layer and complication to his trajectory as a refugee and to his relationship with his parents, and how he then becomes very conflicted over his parents possibly joining him in Finland, as that would mean him either coming out to them or continuing the kind of double-life he lead in Syria. The film is very much about queer migrations, and both characters’ trajectories have been either informed or to some extent complicated by their sexual orientation.
CWB: Considering the rise of the right movement in our world today and specially in the US, your film is a timely piece, did you have the political climate of the world in mind when making this film?
MM: I started work on the film in early spring of 2016, following the arrival of large numbers of Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers into Finland the previous year, which had led to a frightening swell of xenophobic sentiment among sections of Finnish society. At that time, it really felt like we were fighting for the soul of the country with neo-Nazis openly protesting in the streets, so making the film was absolutely a response to this atmosphere of increasing intolerance and hate. At the time of writing, I wondered whether I was being too pessimistic about racism in Finland and western societies, but with all the subsequent political developments in the world, including Brexit and Trump, that is sadly clearly not the case. Looking at it now, I think the socio-economic milieu depicted in the film has much in common with the areas in the US that voted for Trump.
CWB: Was the screenplay written based on the actors that were supposed to play the parts, Janne Puustinen and Boodi Kabbani ? How much of it was improvisation?
MM: I wanted to approach the writing of the film more collaboratively in the sense that I invited the actors to contribute to crafting their characters’ backstories, encouraging them also to incorporate some elements from their own lived experience, where possible, but the characters aren’t strictly based on the actors. This was particularly important in the case of Tareq, as the actor playing him, Boodi Kabbani, is himself a gay Syrian asylum seeker, who has lived in Finland since 2014. He was able to infuse the role with detail and emotional authenticity drawn from lived experience. The dialogue was to a large part improvised within the confines of detailed scene descriptions that included the beats of each scene (instead of a full screenplay, I wrote a 30-page “scritpment” which was essentially a detailed prose outline of the film). Prior to shooting a scene, we would discuss what should happen in it, how the characters are feeling and what their objectives are, but then I asked the actors to use their own words to express all of this. This approach felt like it made sense especially because the two leads were communicating in a language that wasn’t the mother tongue of either, and I wanted to make the effort at communication one aspect of the story. With this approach, I was above all looking for truthfulness and to tell a naturalistic story firmly rooted in the contemporary world.
CWB: A MOMENT IN THE REEDS has a unique visual style, how did you develop the look of the film?
MM: In terms of the visual style, I wanted the film to have a baseline naturalistic look – all hand-held and all available light, but punctuated with a few moments of more impressionistic shots to transport the viewer into a kind of romantic reverie across the rural midsummer landscape. In crafting those more poetic montages, I was of course inspired by Terrence Malick’s romantic dramas such as To the Wonder. Overall, close-ups on a 50mm lens were very important for me to create a sense of intimacy between Leevi and Tareq, and in a way, to allow the viewers fall in love with the characters as they were falling for each other. I had the pleasure of working with the extremely talented Finnish DOP Iikka Salminen on the film who is simply brilliant at working with available light.