Finnish Director Selma Vilhunen and screenwriter Kirsikka Saari discuss their new film Stupid Young Heart, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. They tell us about creating realistic teenagers on screen and responsibly portraying white supremacist groups.
Stupid Young Heart was one of several films about the rise of white supremacist politics at this year’s TIFF. Selma Vilhunen’s follow up to Little Wing stands out from the pack through its rejection of didactic storytelling in favour of quiet observations that depict how emotional alienation can lead people to adopt extreme ideologies when they find a community that takes interest in them, instead of more accepting, carefully thought out beliefs.
The film follows Lenni (Jere Ristseppä), a disaffected 15-year-old who believes he must become a “man” to support his far more capable pregnant girlfriend, Kiira (Rosa Honkonen). But the young boy can only imagine this role in traditional, toxic terms and is drawn to a supportive older man in the neighbour, Janne (Ville Haapasalo) who takes him first to martial arts classes and later to white supremacist meet-ups.
Director Selma Vilhunen and screenwriter Kirsikka Saari talked to us in Toronto about creating realistic on-screen teenagers, responsibly portraying white supremacist groups, and the ethics of depicting racialized characters in a story about a white person learning and unlearning racism.
Seventh Row (7R): What interested you about telling the story of Stupid Young Heart?
Kirsikka Saari: There were many starting points for the story. One of them was I have been writing films about teenagers. I’ve been doing a lot of research, interviewing teenagers in youth clubs in Helsinki.
7R: What sort of research did you do?
Kirsikka Saari: I did a lot of interviews in the suburbs of Helsinki, in the eastern parts where I grew up myself. I don’t live there anymore, and I didn’t want to just remember my own youth. I wanted to write about what is happening right now. So I went there, and I started to admire the young people. Many of them have a difficult situation in their families. Many of them lack parents to help them, and sometimes, their roles were upside down, where the young people were taking care of their parents.
When you first see them — like those girls who might have their glitter makeup and are really rowdy and screaming and yelling and laughing — you wouldn’t know what kind of stories they have. They seem kind of hard-boiled, but when you start talking to them, they were so eager to tell their stories. They were so grateful there was some grownup who was just listening to them and interested in them without trying to tell them how to live their life or what to do next. They really appreciated that I wanted to hear about their lives and how they see the world. It was really, really touching. They are so young, and they have such heavy burdens. I really wanted to tell a story from their point of view.'They are so young, and they have such heavy burdens. I really wanted to tell a story from their point of view.' - Kirsikka SaariClick To Tweet
Of course, there were other starting points for this story. There’s the political situation: the same things are happening with these populist movements rising all over Europe and in North America. I found it a frightening phenomenon. Quite often, the conversation is lacking. People are shouting their opinions, and they refuse to change their angle. I really wanted to look to that phenomenon, which I found frightening and even hard to understand.
I wasn’t a teen mom myself, but my best friend had a child when we were 16. I became the godmother of the baby, who is now a lawyer. So it turned out really well. I feel because of this personal connection, I have something to say about this topic.
7R: Selma, how did you come aboard Stupid Young Heart?
Selma Vilhunen: We are partners in a production company: it’s us two and three others. We collaborated on a short film that went really well. She wanted me to direct, or at least read her script. When I read the first draft in the autumn of 2013, it was already a very good story, a page-turner as a screenplay. It resonated on several levels. All of those themes that she talked about were themes I was also interested in.
I have also been working quite a lot with teenagers in my previous films. I find that time of a person’s life very interesting. I seem to find always new reasons to go back to teenagers. Lately, I’ve been thinking that now the reason for me is that they are children, and children simply are the most important thing that we can talk about. It’s a big process to make a film. It costs a lot of money and takes many years of my life, so I want to be dealing with something that I find very important, and children are that.'I seem to find always new reasons to go back to teenagers. They are children, and children are the most important thing that we can talk about.' - Selma VilhunenClick To Tweet
7R: What sort of research do you do to visually capture teenage subcultures?
Selma Vilhunen: I had an advantage of being surrounded already by them in my three documentaries where I have been hanging with them. I had this certain confidence that I know who they are. The secret to knowing who they are is knowing that they are people just like anyone else, that actually there is no difference.
But I suppose this confidence comes from having a lot of material. I know the details, and I don’t even have to think it. I know how they speak. I know how they are online… when I say “they”, it’s of course generalizing, but the culture is already in me in a way. I’ve always felt connected to that time of a person’s life in myself. I feel like my teenage self is somehow always present. I think, as people, we are like trees: we grow horizontally, in a way, and we have the year circles inside us, so when we age, we have all the ages inside of us. Even though I’m soon 41, I’m also 16.'I think people are like trees: we grow horizontally, and we have the year circles inside us. When we age, we have all the ages inside of us. Even though I'm soon 41, I'm also 16.' - Selma VilhunenClick To Tweet
7R: You talked earlier about so much of politics being people shouting opinions at each other. This film avoids that and focuses, instead, on the emotional pulls of joining a far-right group. What are your thoughts on depicting it that way rather than a more didactic discussion?
Kirsikka Saari: People want to think themselves. As much as I have thought about this topic, I don’t have one clear thing I want to teach others. It’s a complicated matter, so I wanted people to think themselves. I think only by seeing those who have very different opinions from us as people who are trying to make sense of their own lives, that they are not bad people. What they are trying to do is find some way to cope in their lives, to find answers and some security and a community to belong to.
It was really hard, but also very important to understand that Lenni is not interested in Janne’s thoughts because he likes to hate or he’s violent. He’s looking for security. Janne’s a real father figure. Many people are attracted by these populist movements because they are trying to look for answers. Maybe they are simple answers to complicated problems. Maybe they are thoughts that are quite difficult to take, like maybe the economic system will be turbulent in the future, as well. So you try to find security where they can. It was also very important to show the whole arc, because even if I understand the motives, still that kind of movement which is based on hatred or exclusion or racism, they lead to violence, I think. It was very important to me to show how Lenni’s eyes open step by step.'Many people are attracted by these populist movements because they are trying to look for answers. Maybe they are simple answers to complicated problems.'Click To Tweet
7R: How do you depict a white supremacist movement so that scenes can not be co-opted by white supremacist?. How do you think about responsibly putting them on film?
Selma Vilhunen: It’s true the violence in this film is not very glorious, even though I enjoyed making the fight scene so much. What I can’t get rid of, in my own filmmaking, is looking at people at such an eye level that they come across with all their dirt. I may be incapable of glorifying in a way. Maybe, with some music and really fancy lighting? But we really want to show the dirt underneath the fingernails and the beauty of people in their vulnerability. I suppose that protects you from glorification.'We really want to show the dirt underneath the fingernails and the beauty of people in their vulnerability. I suppose that protects you from glorification.'' - Selma VilhunenClick To Tweet
Kirsikka Saari: When writing the screenplay, it was quite clear for me I didn’t want any glorification of the gang’s actions because it’s not something I admire, and I kept that in mind. I didn’t want young people, or grown ups, who see this to feel that, “Oh, those are tough guys”. Because young people might like that in the wrong way. I went to a lot of demonstrations of that kind of movement and saw those people, which was a sad experience, actually, so I wanted to show them as I saw them.
Selma Vilhunen: It’s very much in the script already. It’s in the situations the people are to begin with. They are not very glorious.
7R: The Muslim characters in the film have a relatively small role. How do you think of portraying them so they are still people and not just objects in Lenni’s arc?
Selma Vilhunen: This is a fantastic question, and it was actually one of the actors who stated that this is another white people film about a white boy coming to terms with his own feelings and the black characters are, to be very harsh about it, they are dramatic tools in a white boy’s journey. When she stated this when we were talking about her role, all I could say was to admit that that is true. This is the white boy’s story, made by white people.
And then, having admitted this, I still wanted to do my best in portraying them as well-rounded as I can within the screen time that they have. I did some research, because I didn’t know much about Somali culture in Finland. I interviewed people and asked questions, for example of [actor] Abshir Sheik Nur [who plays Abdi], and really was helped by him. But it’s not that story. That story should be made but not by us.
Kirsikka Saari: I did a lot of research, too. When I was developing Abdi’s character, I had very good interviews with some people. I had a moment where I realized I’m not writing about a Muslim guy here, I’m writing about a Finnish family guy, too. He takes care of his daughters and is a peacemaker. He is trying to keep calm. There is a small conflict in the film with his parents because he’s not married to a Somali woman, so there are some layers in his character.
Friends of mine who are of Somali origin read the script, because I was worried about cultural appropriation and how to write about this. One friend of mine who is a writer and journalist and political activist and Muslim feminist told me, “I really can connect. I see my brother in him”. She was very happy to find those layers I had been building. And also, she could read that Abdi is not just a peacemaker because he’s such a good man. He’s a peacemaker because he knows, as someone with Somali origin, he manages by not demanding. In the film, his wife says to him, “don’t be so Finnish.” You have to fight for your rights and shouldn’t have to just swallow everything and look away. So I tried to make him a multidimensional character in a small part.