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Legendary Finnish Filmmaker Jörn Donner Looks to His Past and Film’s Future in ‘Armi Alive’

Legendary Finnish Filmmaker Jörn Donner Looks to His Past and Film's Future in 'Armi Alive'

READ MORE: Scandinavia Stands Tall in 2015 Oscar Race

A writer, film director, producer, politician and film
critic, Jörn Donner is probably best known internationally for being a producer
of Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” which made him the only Finn to date
to win an Academy Award. But as a prominent and sometimes controversial figure
in Scandinavian culture and politics, Donner’s works have influenced Finnish
society for almost half a century.

Somewhere down the road, Donner was also a board member of
the Finnish fashion company Marimekko, a strong influence within the fashion
trends in the 1960s. His most recent film focuses on the company’s legendary
founder, who he eventually became friends with: Armi Ratia, a controversial
figure and a leading entrepreneur, facing the challenges in her role as a
business woman in the 1960s and 1970s, before the spread of the women’s
movement. The film operates on a meta level, following a stage group preparing
to stage a play about Ratia’s life, with the leading actress struggling with
Ratia’s contradictions, paradoxes and mysteries and trying to find the truth
behind the legend.

Emphasizing the show-like features of Ratia’s life, “Armi
Alive” is also an achievement in art direction, with costumes exact replicas of
the period and the musical and dance inserts visually mimicking the advertisements
and fashion shows of the time. In a memorable New York sequence, the original
dresses were worn, on loan from the Design Museum in Helsinki. Indiewire sat down with the 82-year old director at the 28th Love and Anarchy in Helsinki to talk about his career and how he keeps moving forward.

Why drew you to the story of Armi Ratia?

As a board member at the Marimekko company, I was helping
out whenever they were in trouble. I knew Armi for about twelve years, and her
story has sort of followed me during the years. I knew that making a
traditional biopic about her wouldn’t interest me. I like small films that can
be made in a short time; not because of my age, but because instead of a movie
that takes too long to be made, I could be doing something else. When I got the
idea about a theater group rehearsing a play about her, it became fun, it
opened things up. That’s the reason. The other reason is that I find women to
often be protagonists in films, but not in the sense that Armi is in this film.
Even in today’s society, it’s quite seldom to see them running a company which
depends on them.

How relevant for her were the issues of the Women’s
Movement?

They were very relevant to her, but you have to remember
that she founded the company in 1951 and she died in 1979. It was the time when
feminist movement was just starting to grow. She didn’t participate herself,
but she became a symbol of it in Finland, because she was a very well known,
independent woman. The problems she dealt with still persist today; women are
being paid less than men, for example, but I never consciously wanted to make a
feminist movie. It’s just like that by implication.

Considering you also made a career as a politician, how
would you define the relationship between art and politics?

There is very little connection between the two: Apart from
paying for them, the politicians should keep their distance from the arts. It’s
different for small countries like Finland and Sweden, where in order to keep
culture alive, you need government or public funding. That goes for films,
theater, even literature, dancing, and the rest of the arts. This is very
important, and we are talking about small percentages of state or municipal
budgets. Without it, you have an American system, where film and the rest of
the arts depend on private entrepreneurs and investors.

Television is also very important. If there are no national
television stations, but purely commercial ones, there is a risk of some
interesting films not being made, especially the risk of minority films not
being made is immense.

What was it like to work with Ingmar Bergman?

He was good to work with when he needed you. And he needed
me. But I wouldn’t say I was really close with him, because he was not that
type of a person. That kind of a relationship was not unusual for the people
working with him at the time — he liked women, which you could figure out by the
number of children he had, but the men, not as much. Since we were not that
close, I am not sorry that I was not invited to his funeral, though all of
these ladies were — I didn’t belong there.

Could you tell us a little bit about your work on “Fanny
and Alexander”?

Of course, but there’s not much to be said. The fact is that
without me, there would be no “Fanny and Alexander.” In Munich, I stayed in a
flat that Bergman owned, and he gave me a script to read. He told me the story
about his failure to get his British producer, Sir Lew Grade, to produce it. It
was supposed to be too long and too boring. Afterward, Bergman wanted to shoot
the film in Munich, but on a spur of a moment, I told him that I had read the
script and will take care of the production, provided he makes the film it in
Sweden. That was our deal. The rest is history.

Not many people can say that.

Well, I have to say that many people were opposed to me in
Sweden. It is a small country – bigger that Finland, but still small, and since
I was head of the Swedish Film Institute, they feared I’m going to spend money
intended for their ongoing productions. That was why I had to find
international financing for the film, and I did, from Germany, from France and
from the United States. It took some time, even my own board was against me in
addition to everyone else. That was, until the film was released. Suddenly,
they started telling me how beautiful it is. When the film was awarded
internationally, it almost felt like a revenge for me. But that was all a long
time ago, and we shouldn’t dwell on the past.

You’ve had an amazingly diverse career. Which of the
things you did do you identify with the most?

My main profession is writing. These days, not so much
journalism as writing books, and I think that is something that I will continue
to do. From time to time, if I run across something interesting, I will make a
film. But even though I’ve written more than sixty books, films have always
interested me; also as a film critic. You can’t get away from the moving image,
even if you are just a writer.

“Armi Alive” will screen on Friday, February 12 at NYC’s Scandinavia House as part of their “New Nordic Cinema” series. You can purchase tickets here.

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