Alli Haapasalo: Girl Picture (2022) | poster excerpt

Director Alli Haapasalo on Politicising Feel-Good Film ‘Girl Picture’

Director Alli Haapasalo talks with PopMatters about the radical politics of Girl Picture and and calls for removing bias about queer and women’s stories.

Girl Picture (Tytöt tytöt tytöt)
Alli Haapasalo
Strand Releasing
12 August 2022 (US)

Finnish director Alli Haapasalo’s Girl Picture (Tytöt tytöt tytöt, 2022), centres on three young women on the cusp of adulthood. Best friends Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) and Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen) encounter different experiences in this moment of their lives. While Rönkkö is obsessed with discovering sexual pleasure, Mimmi experiences the difficulties of first love when she meets figure skater Emma (Linnea Leino), who begins to question her priorities.

Girl Picture has an aura that defies the expectations that come with the coming-of-age story, partly because it is structured across three Fridays. It omits a significant amount of time in the lives of its characters, revealing how deceptive and manipulative our perception of time is. Indeed, Girl Picture is structured as the characters might remember this time in their lives – as a series of moments. 

Haapasalo effectively uses nuanced tones, from Rönkkö’s humorous pursuit of pleasure to the more serious tones of Mimmi and Emma’s relationship – familial tensions and self-doubt. It’s refreshing to see characters not directly appeal to the audience, maintaining a separation even as their intimate experiences are on show. After all, characters are written to be observed, and even if the fourth wall is respected, there’s the impression that the storyteller is always considering the audience. But not here. There’s a refreshing indifference that serves Girl Picture well. 

Haapasalo positions her audience as witnesses instead of positioning her characters as performers for our emotional and intellectual gaze. Girl Picture is a subtle subversive, and mature work that challenges the finality of coming-of-age, and evokes a different feel from similar films about the transition to adulthood. 

In conversation with PopMatters, Haapasalo discusses transitioning from poetic and conceptual ideas to authentic stories with a political statement. She also speaks about challenging the bias towards queer and female stories and the legitimacy of adulthood and coming-of-age.

Are you one of those filmmakers who sensed at an early age that you’d make films? 

I don’t have one of those director stories where your parents take you to see City Lights (Chaplin, 1931) at the theatre when you’re four, and then you know you want to do nothing else. It was a childhood and youth spent with film. 

The Finnish National Broadcasting Company showed everything from ‘50s black and white Finnish melodrama to westerns, which were my favourite films as a child. They also showed a lot of European art house films that I definitely wouldn’t have gone to the cinema to see, but I saw on television. Then as a teenager, I’d watch the films from the video store and go and see all the films in the theatre. At that point, it became mainstream American films because Finnish cinema wasn’t great back then. 

I didn’t have a specific idol or defining moment. It was more that film opened up worlds, and I had a very adventurous spirit. I wanted to enter into those worlds, so it felt natural to then want to create those worlds. I was a creative child, and I tried to study journalism for a couple of years and become a documentary filmmaker, but then fiction and directing took me in, and here I am. It was a long and organic process. 

How did the films you were drawn to shape you as a storyteller? 

In my love for film, what has shaped me is a completely different world opening up. I was drawn to westerns because they couldn’t be further from my reality. 

It’s funny because I’ve come back to the need to make contemporary and relevant, realistic and authentic [films], but that’s not how it started. My first ideas were more fantastical and not necessarily unrealistic, not genre pieces, but were more poetic or constructed. Now I’m going through a phase where I’m afraid of any feeling of construction. I want everything to feel authentic and realistic, but that’s not where I started. My first ideas were more conceptual, and my first feature film has a staged, art house, and poetic style. This is silly because most films are about human stories and people, but I’ve always gone towards films that have to do with a very broad and realistic human experience that are less conceptual.

I’ve never been a genre person because I often feel that genre has stopped me from getting close to the person’s story. It’s a horrible generalisation, but what I go towards is the most human drama, where I can understand human emotions and relationships. 

Are you using your films to directly interrogate human nature?

They’re not borne from a need to answer a specific question. It’s that the topics interest me enough, and I have the patience to spend years with those questions. Also, they’ve enough sides, layers, and subtleties to sustain that amount of work. 

It’s not like it’s, how should I say, a half therapeutic need to figure out some process. I have to be very passionate about my topic, and I’m rubbish if I’m not. I can’t get excited about the filmmaking tools – I have to burn for the actual topic and content. I’m not saying that filmmaking isn’t exciting, and people who get excited about the process or the tools of creating cinema are doing anything wrong, but that’s not who I am.

There has to be some level of political statement, and that doesn’t necessarily mean political, political. Girl Picture is a feel-good film, but I still consider it a political film. So I have to feel what I’m doing is important, at least for me, but not ranting: “This is an important film I’m bringing to you that I really care about.” 

How is Girl Picture politically subtle in how it relates to our present day?

First of all, it’s a feminist film, and the story has a strong political undercurrent. The politics are subtle in the sense that the “radical” statements come from it excluding danger and being very positive about female pleasure, the female and the queer experience. Its politics are radical because it doesn’t victimise, it doesn’t shame, it doesn’t belittle, and it doesn’t require gay people to have a coming-out story or [encounter] an outside threat. 

The political aspects of [Girl Picture] are in its positivity. There’s not a single bad person who does bad things. There are just flawed human beings who try hard but are terrible to each other because they’re selfish as human beings are. They’re trying to make it work, to be seen, to see each other, but they make mistakes. It’s not wagging its finger about these topics. It’s saying that we should look at our bias about female and queer stories, maybe get rid of some of it, and look at girls from eye level instead of belittling them.

The social perception of women is a complicated one. For example, women who explore their sexuality risk being slut shamed. It’s only one example of this complicated relationship that still places expectations on what a woman should be. I sympathise with women because you can’t win when there are many competing narratives of what society wants you to be.

You hit it perfectly when you pointed out women can’t win because we’re either too little or too much. Sexuality is a great example, and I haven’t yet seen a woman who was sexual in a good way because it’s either she’s not sexy enough, or she’s a slut. Or women are too loud, or they’re not interesting because they’re too silent. 

It’s always this dichotomy, and you can’t hit the balance in-between. The good thing is we’re talking about this; we have a vocabulary for it. We can bring it up in conversation, and when we get those comments, ask people, “What do you mean?” 

Women are aware of this already, but there are a lot of men who are not. I’m sure it’s exhausting feeling threatened by women’s complaints about how they’ve been treated. I’m sure it can cause a lot of defensiveness, but it sounds like you’re ready for the conversation. As a woman, I’d appreciate it if more men were pointing out what you did – that you feel bad for women because they can’t win. It’s a bit tiring as a woman to keep repeating these problems we have because this conversation should go somewhere rather than just keep repeating. 

In his writings, the Swiss psychologist C.G Jung wrote about how as we move into adulthood, a shift occurs from exploring our world to a focus on who we are. Girl Picture presents us with characters in this period of splitting their gaze between the external and the internal. 

I don’t believe in adulthood. What does that mean? We’re just humans who are insecure and strong at the same time. There can be a coming-of-age story for someone at any age, and I don’t even know what that means. Does it mean you come to some conclusion about who you are? I don’t buy into it at all, and life isn’t linear like that to me either. I see it as a process with twists and turns, and it’s a little dangerous how, in narratives, we try to put it in a linear form. 

There’s the arc, the question that arises, then there are the levels of the different struggles. The stakes get higher, then you come to a moment of realisation when you figure it out and grow as a person. There’s a little bit of aftermath, and the story’s over. This is why Girl Picture‘s story feels like it looks toward who we are and the question of what that identity is. 

I keep saying it’s about drawing your contours, figuring out your identity, and how to connect to other people in that process. Connections are a big part of it. It’s a look inside, connected to how we don’t have that linear structure – it’s just these three Fridays plus one Saturday. It’s fun when that Saturday title card comes up because it’s like: A Saturday – so radical. It’s not a Friday anymore, something’s happening. We’re in the present tense. 

We had to withstand a lot of pressure to make Girl Picture more plot-driven and linear in the writing stages because it’s difficult to read what that inward look is on the page. It’s easier to read an exciting plot and understand where the story’s going, but it’s more difficult to read cinema on the page. What does it look and feel like when a human being is looking inward and trying to figure out who they are?

In Girl Picture, the characters go back and forth, learning from their choices and actions, but continue to repeat their mistakes. By the final scene, all they’ve done is made it to this next step, and it could only be a momentary relationship for Mimmi and Emma that will help them in the future. Girl Picture unhinges the coming-of-age story as a neat, tidy concept. It’s about a moment in these young lives.

You called it a moment. To me, it’s almost a fragment of a life. It’s important that when the last shot abruptly ends, it feels like their lives continue. It wasn’t just this fictional narrative, and now it’s over – they made it, end credits. Life is happening, and this was a little part of it. We have no idea what happens to them, but we hope good things will come. 

In life, experiences are drawn out, slowly developing even if, in hindsight, they seem to have gone by in the blink of an eye. In cinema, we condense time, which conveys how deceptive and manipulative our perception of time is. In this fragment of your characters’ lives, you capture this conflict. 

I don’t know if I can analyse my aspect of time and rhythm. In Girl Picture, movement and time were topics we explored in our artistic planning because they’re at the core of teenage experiences. The teenage years are a time of constant movement. It’s a norm, and when you stop, and it becomes still, that’s a special effect. 

The mood changes are abrupt, and the scale is off the charts. Something that can feel insignificant to adults can be the largest thing to teenagers and vice versa. I wanted to try and be authentic and realistic with the teenage experience. I also love slow cinema, and so I try to have the courage [laughs] to stay with the characters, and not be too fast and efficient.