Heikki Pölönen, photo
Katriina Kansanniva, translation
Eija-Liisa Ahtila is Finland's best known director of modern films - abroad. She is not well known in Finland, even though her films deal with Finnish themes and the characters speak Finnish.
Ahtila knows the importance of going abroad.
– Instead of going into the army, as young Finnish men are obligated to do, one should spend a year in another culture.
In the 1990s, Ahtila spent a year studying both in London and in Los Angeles. She didn't enjoy her stay in London, but California proved to be a pleasant surprise.
– I thought it would be awful there, but it was very nice after all! People there were interested in my works, even though they don't belong to the commercial mainstream.
Ahtila's films and installations deal with topics such as mental breakdown, families falling apart, death, divorce, and the hardships of growing up as a woman. Was Ahtila influenced by her own background?
– I've never thought about it. My parents are still married and I've never experienced psychosis. Themes for my films emerge when I begin to examine a topic that I don't know much about.
Ahtila comes from a working class family, and the word "culture" was not used in her childhood home. Culture was her very own hobby. At the age of 12 she began frequenting the art museum and cinema of her native city Hämeenlinna.
– I've seen Ben Hur six times and Gone with the Wind more than six times. As a child, I mean, even though these films were forbidden from children.
– I neither regret nor detest any work of mine, but as soon as the work is finished, I'm no longer interested in it. I'm more curious about other people's works.
Literature is a major influence in Ahtila's films and installations. The origins of her latest film, Missä on missä (Where is where), lie in Frantz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth.
The film tells the story of two Algerian boys who killed their French peer. The story takes place in Algeria in the 50s, during a raging war, and religion is a major theme in the film.
– Religion is politics, and I'm talking about both Islamic faith and western religions. Religion plays a big role in our everyday life, even though we pretend it doesn't matter.
Ahtila is an organised person, far from the stereotype of a bohemian artist. Her documents are contained in folders with name tags, standing neatly on her bookshelf.
– I'm very inartistic in the classical sense of the word.
Her early studies in law could also be considered inartistic. She was supposed to become a lawyer, but arts finally took the upper hand.
Twice a week, Ahtila fulfills her duties as a professor at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. She is also working on a doctoral thesis, using her own works as source material.
What would Ahtila like to say to the viewers of her films?
– Comprehending is not essential. One can enjoy a film even if one understands nothing of it.
Masterclass by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Werstas Auditory, Saturday at 4 pm. Ahtila's films can be viewed at the Film Festival, March 6 and 7.
Updated 05 March 2009 13:12