Mikko Makela: Interview with Finnish Indie Director of 'A Moment in the Reeds'

Mikko Makela

Mikko Makela and Independent Film.

Independent films often pack powerful punches, making up for what they may lack in budget by dialing up emotional depth, often in the context of intimate reflections on sociocultural issues – i.e. racism, war, poverty, homosexuality. Among the more than 250 films screened at the recent Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in Minnesota (MSIFF) was an entry that hit on two such key, hot-button topics. Based on audience reception, it was a home run, too.

The film, called A Moment in the Reeds, explores the relationship that forms between Leevi, a college student in Paris who returns home to Finland one summer to help his father renovate their lake house, and Tareq, a Syrian immigrant working in Finland as a handyman, who gets hired to help with the project.

In the days when Leevi’s gruff and close-minded father leaves the men to do the work while he handles business elsewhere, Leevi and Tareq learn about each other’s passions and the hardships they’ve faced – homophobia, familial dysfunction, and for Tareq, the challenge of leaving Syria and becoming a stranger in a strange land. They are drawn to one another even as they struggle to see eye to eye on what Finland, and life, has to offer.

Set in Finland but primarily an English-language movie, the queer romance is the directorial debut for filmmaker Mikko Makela. Makela, who’s Finnish himself but based in London, dove into the project with only a few editorial credits to his name.

Nevertheless, A Moment in the Reeds was one of the most buzzed-about films of the three-week festival. Its two prime-time screenings were both well-attended, and it was given a third screening as part of the Best of the Fest post-event series honoring the most popular entries.

Makela was in attendance at the initial screenings and took time to answer questions from the audience afterward, in the theater. Later that weekend, he sat down with StarsAndCelebs to share a bit more details on the making of the film, what the project and its success means to him, and more. (Scroll all the way down to the bottom for some interesting minutiae about the making of his newest project)

I then had the idea that this would be an interesting thing to look at, especially when there are a lot of queer refugees as well, who are also, not just fleeing the war but also fleeing persecution still under regimes that aren’t tolerant-Mikko Makela

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Mikko Makela Interview:

On creative choices

StarsAndCelebs: Why did you decide to make this story your directorial debut?

Mikko Makela: I think, it’s funny because if you had asked me only about ten years ago, I never would’ve thought that I was gonna even make my first film in Finland, it would’ve seemed like a foreign thought. But I really felt the urgency to make a Finnish queer film. There hadn’t been any when I started writing it and I was wondering, “why is this the case? Surely there are audiences in Finland who want to see themselves represented,” and also, I wanted to make something to challenge the mainstream audiences, as well.

And I really wanted to make a film that focuses on the lives of people who aren’t seen on screen in Finland, because it is quite a homogeneous country, ethnically, certainly – but increasingly diverse, and I just wanted to see different types of diversity on the screen. I thought Finland really needed that.

And I guess, there are a few personal elements in the film, as well, so I suppose that it was just something that I really wanted to say about Finland, and that tends to often be the first film for a filmmaker – it’s partly autobiographical.

S&C: Did you choose to make Leevi’s love interest Syrian in the writing stages or only once you had found that particular actor?

MM: This kind of idea had been gestating in my mind for a few years, where I wanted to look at Finland from the perspectives of someone who was born in Finland, who was mainstream Finnish, and then an immigrant who’s coming from abroad. And then it became, with 2015 and the arrivals of all the refugees, I then had the idea that this would be an interesting thing to look at, especially when there are a lot of queer refugees as well, who are also, not just fleeing the war but also fleeing persecution still under regimes that aren’t tolerant of that. So, I would’ve, if we hadn’t found [actor Boodi Kabbani, who played the character Tareq] then we probably would have made the film with someone else from the region, or who we could find, but it was very fortunate in the end that we did find someone.

S&C: So then when you were looking for actors, was it very important to you that you got someone who was really Finnish and really Middle Eastern?

MM: Absolutely. The original casting call, because I was casting for both roles at the same time, I was casting for people to be in a gay romance and [for the role of Tareq] I was particularly looking for immigrants and people who weren’t born in Finland.

S&C: Tell me about your decision to have the core dialogue be in English instead of Finnish?

MM: It was kind of partly just a pragmatic reason, just because the other main character is Syrian and he’s only arrived in Finland – well the character has only arrived in Finland less than a year ago, and the actor, as well, had only been in Finland for about two years at that point, so they wouldn’t know Finnish, really, so that’s really the reason.

And English is the shared language of the young people in the world – all kinds of people who don’t speak English as their first language will still usually communicate in English, and thus, it’s the kind of language that young people around the world use to connect, so it felt very natural to use it.

And also, I guess whilst I wasn’t really thinking about it that way– it makes sense for me, as well, as someone who lives abroad and lives in London, to make a film that was, whilst it’s set in Finland and whilst it’s Finnish, then it’s also not quite entirely Finnish, there’s an international element to it.

S&C: Funny you say English is a somewhat universal language for young people. That’s what I told my friend when he criticized a different film for having English thrown in with characters who spoke Dutch and Surinamese.

MM: Yeah, well a couple of other things as well to do with that is, I think I also wanted to portray the fact that you can also be Finnish and belong in a Finnish society, even if you’re not expressing yourself in Finnish. So, it’s just a reflection of the globalized world that we live in, that different languages are going to be incorporated into that, and Finnish identity doesn’t necessarily have to be defined by those very strict definitions.

S&C: In the film, Leevi watches his father and Tareq struggle to understand one another even though he could have translated the Finnish as English, which Tareq knew well. Why didn’t he?

MM: Leevi enjoyed watching his father struggle a bit [Laughing]. But also, he wanted his father to confront otherness.

S&C: Tell me about the style you chose to do the film in and what inspired that decision?

MM: With this film, it was very much that improvisational method… where you rely on the actor, you invite the actors really to collaborate in really crafting the characters, tapping into something of themselves. I had seen several films that I liked that had been made with this method, American films. Like a very good example of a romance film that was made like this was Like Crazy [2011 film directed by Drake Doremus, starring Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin] – that was made with scriptment, and they improvised all the dialogue. That’s a fantastic film. And then the Duplass brothers (Safety Not Guaranteed, The Mindy Project, Togetherness), I think work like this, as well, and Joe Swanberg (Easy, Drinking Buddies) and Lynn Shelton (Laggies, Love). I was really wanting to experiment with that…

And actually, now that I can dig back in my memories, what really inspired me to do this I was taking some acting classes in London and I was just, it was a revelation to kind of see how the acting instructor guided us to improvise, improvise a whole story, a whole play that came out of just improvisations. He would then take the characters and shape it, and after two hours we had a whole story, so that was really, I realized the power of improvisation.

On the making of A Moment

S&C: What was it like going from editing to directing?

MM: I had some directing experience for music videos and fashion films, but of course, that’s a completely different genre so I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t challenging and that it wasn’t very scary, of course, but, I just tried to prepare myself. Although I hadn’t even made a short film before, which is, I would’ve liked to have done, but then this story, I felt that I had to make it then and there, at that moment. We had that summer to make it, and I didn’t have time to train making short films. So, I just tried to prepare myself as best I could by – I didn’t go to film school either – so by studying the method and reading lots of interviews with filmmakers who use this similar kind of method, to try to understand their process… I think we were still all of us kind of learning as we went along on the shoot, as well, and I think everyone’s work really improved through the shoot.

S&C: What did you go to school for, if not filmmaking?

MM: I studied literature at university.

S&C: What did you find to be the hardest thing about directing?

MM: It’s difficult almost to say. I wouldn’t say that it’s – I think with this project, the biggest challenge was kind of having my attention divided so much by… because we weren’t working from that completed script, so I had to really dedicate all of my attention to the actors, which I really enjoyed but then that also meant that I wasn’t… it was just finding the balance between working with the camera and the actors.

S&C: What was the most exciting part about the experience?

MM: Oh, it was definitely just seeing the material come to life, seeing the actors bring something of themselves. It always transforms, it’s always a little bit different than what you’d imagined, but then you adapt to that and then you work with something, you create something more together than it was in your head, so I think that was the most exciting part, is just to have the actors breathe life into it and make it into a living thing.

S&C: What advice do you have for people who want to get into filmmaking, but like you, may not have formal training?

MM: To learn by doing. You can, just try, there are so many resources nowadays that you can educate yourself with about filmmaking. What I did to prepare, like I said, read interviews, I also listened to a load of podcasts about independent filmmaking. They really inspire you and just give you so much advice, you can really immerse yourself in that. So, I think it’s to try to take lessons from other people who are working and who’ve made things that you like and then just kind of experiment and get into it.

On representation, reception and Moment's message

S&C: How does your film’s portrayal of Finnish attitudes toward LGBTQ compare to real Finnish attitudes? In the film, it seemed like in general there’s acceptance but maybe less so in more rural areas versus urban.

MM: Yeah, I think it’s mainly a rural vs. urban thing. Leevi’s character is from what’s probably quite a small town, not from the capital city, so he would’ve felt certain… homophobic attitudes, even if the legislation has been quite progressive for a long time, and even if Finland likes to think of itself as quite a progressive…

I guess it’s based very much on my own feelings when I left Finland, almost 11 years ago now, so it’s a bit earlier. Then definitely I felt that there was just a lot of latent homophobia, and there weren’t very many out celebrities yet, and if they were, they were kind of ridiculed a bit, and it’s just a very – the culture was just quite macho, especially in those smaller places, there’s this idea of masculinity that not only has to be heterosexual, but also is very averse to emotion or artistic tendencies, or anything like that.

S&C: So, things have improved in Finland since you left?

MM: Yeah, so what I was gonna say was I think it’s gotten like a lot better, but also there is of course, the paradox as well in the film, is that Leevi is obviously much more privileged than Tareq in the way that he can sort of choose to leave a society that’s – that Tareq finds so much more accepting, and for him, Finland represents sort of a very liberal place where he can finally be himself. That’s the paradox on which the whole film is founded – that one of them is fleeing the place where the other one has come for what they’re both seeking: freedom and acceptance. The perspective is so different.

S&C: So, one of the men has it worse than the other?

MM: Leevi is, of course, a much more privileged character, in the sense that he has freedom of movement. He can travel around, and he realizes that – it becomes maybe clear to him, as well, in [his and Tareq’s] argument when he’s asking Tareq to uproot his new life and follow him around, and maybe not quite grasping how there are many more obstacles for [Tareq]. So, I definitely wouldn’t say that Leevi had it worse in any way. Because he’s also not having to deal with – whilst he’s dealing with homophobia, of course, he’s not having to deal with racism, whereas for Tareq, it’s both.

S&C: Is this film festival here in the Twin Cities the overall debut for A Moment in the Reeds?

MM: No, it’s played at like over 20 festivals, since October. It started in London and then in the U.S., it’s played at a few festivals already.

S&C: In the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival at least, it seems to be a smash hit. How does that positive reception feel?

MM: Really nice because it’s my first film, the first time that I’m experiencing people experience something that I’ve made, and [they’re] connecting with it, so it’s really rewarding and I’m happy that people are connecting with it. It’s great and it’s kind of humbling to know that it’s moved someone, that they’ve gotten something out of it, and I mean if the message that I’m trying to – I think the film has a strong message – and if that’s coming across and people are taking the messages well, then that’s kind of mission accomplished.

S&C: What is that message you were going for with the film?

MM: I think it’s just the message of tolerance and trying to understand otherness and difference. And it fits so well, I think, with that theme [within the festival] of “chasms and bridges in cinema,” of the common ground, of trying to bring together… and I think this film is really – I feel it’s relevant to the times because it’s, you know, when there’s the rise of right-wing politics and general intolerance, it’s really about tolerance and solidarity between minorities.

S&C: What about the story do you think people have connected to so well – especially since you may not be getting many Finnish and Syrian audience members here in the U.S.?

MM: From what I’ve heard, from people’s reactions, is I think they enjoy seeing a love story that feels authentic. I mean I’m a big fan of romantic films, and that, you can probably tell from the film, and I wanted to make it very much about that: the joy of meeting someone… and then raw romance. So, I think people are enjoying the – I hope they’re enjoying just seeing people fall in love authentically.

On making A Moment last: What's next for Makela and the movie

S&C: What’s the next step for getting A Moment in the Reeds out there?

MM: We’ll continue to take it around festivals. It’s coming out in some cinemas in Germany actually in May… in Germany and the UK it’s gonna come out I think like on DVD and digital in late summer. In the U.S., we’re still seeking distribution. So, some more festivals – quite a few more festivals – and then in the fall, it’s gonna be out on video.

S&C: So you have separate distributors in different places?

MM: Yeah, we got distributors in Germany, the U.K., Poland, in Australia it’s going to be on TV and probably in Sweden. And it’s coming out in Finland finally, as well, in June, so it’s a very busy time.

S&C: How’d you get those distributors—through festivals?

MM: Yeah, the festivals attracted attention, so then we had distributors approaching about the film.

S&C: How can people in the U.S. see it besides at film festivals while you’re waiting to get distribution?

MM: Regardless of whether we get a traditional distributor or do a DIY release – if we end up doing a DIY release, then it’ll be on iTunes, Amazon, sometime in the fall.

S&C: What’s next for you?

MM: Promoting this and releasing it is taking a lot of time. But I’ve been working on a few treatments for possible scripts that I would like to write and making lots of applications for screenwriting labs and funding to write the scripts, and then I will send a couple of scripts, as well... I don’t have a specific project that I know is gonna be next, but I’m sort of going to follow whatever gets financing.

S&C: Is there a genre you’re most interested in pursuing going forward?

MM: Drama. This film, I’m almost kind of surprised, really happily surprised by how much comedy there is in there as well. I love dramedy, it’s sort of one of my favorite genres.

I want to continue telling stories that feel authentic that have a very realistic touch, stories about identity and people who are on the margins of society somehow, individuals at odds with society, stories about outsiders or people who think of themselves as being somehow outside of the mainstream.

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Highlights from answers to audience questions after the showing:

(From a discussion with the audience after the showing of A Moment in the Reeds at St. Anthony Main Theatre in Minneapolis on April 27)

-With this film, he wanted to show opposite perspectives – someone who was from Finland and left it for something they thought was better, and someone who came to Finland to live a better life than where they were.

-He felt lucky to get the actors he did and said there were a lot of actors in Finland eager for queer projects.

-The Syrian actor, Boodi Kabbani, had almost no acting experience but was a natural with the camera.

-Kabbani’s own journey out of Syria wasn’t as arduous as his character’s, but to help with the role, he interviewed friends and family who did have that experience: of traveling through many different countries in many different ways, including by boat, as a refugee hurdling various obstacles to avoid getting sent back.

-When an audience member noted how small the creative team was based on the credits, Makela joked he considered inventing names so it would seem not as low-budget.

-Makela used a method called scriptment, where the script isn’t complete, to allow room for improvisation. “I asked the actors to use their own words, I wanted them to surprise me… I valued the possibility of something fresh and unexpected emerging from the project,” he said.

-The scriptment method is connected to a well-known style called mumblecore, which Oxford Dictionary notes is characterized by the use of non-professional actors and naturalistic or improvised performances.

-Makela shot the film at his own family’s lake house in Finland, and it was a 12-day shoot. The post-production, however, took a while.

-Makela relished setting a gay romance in the same kind of atmosphere – with the beautiful natural landscape of a Finnish countryside – that countless of straight romances have been set throughout history. It was a way to show that LGBTQ culture can be part of Finland as well.

-Like the character Leevi [played by Janne Puustinen], Makela himself didn’t appreciate the beauty of his family’s lake house until he spent time away from it, and from Finland as a whole.

You can find out more about A Moment in the Reeds and see when it's being screened near you at http://amomentinthereeds.com/ and at https://www.mikkomakela.com/, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.

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