So one storyline follows a woman on holiday who is groped in a restaurant and neither she nor her husband know how to react. The film poses questions: should she confront the well-dressed older man, sitting with his family at a nearby table, who grabbed her bum as he walked past? Should her husband? Is it a minor incident that should be shrugged off? Or is it serious enough to demand action from the restaurateur or the police?
“Our intention was to put the viewer in that girl’s shoes,” Toivoniemi says. “How does it feel to live through those moments? No matter who you are or where you come from. That’s something that film can do: it can go to emotion rather than just observing.”
Force of Habit is screening in the virtual edition of the Sydney Film Festival – held online for the first time because of the pandemic – which starts on Wednesday.
It’s a festival that features a new generation of European women directors who are following such talents as France’s Agnes Varda, Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat; Germany’s Margarethe von Trotta and the more controversial Leni Riefenstahl; Denmark’s Susanne Bier and Lone Scherfig; Italy’s Lina Wertmuller; and the UK’s Gurinder Chadha, Andrea Arnold, Sally Potter and Lynne Ramsay.
Under-representation of female filmmakers remains a vexed issue around the world, prompting the establishment of Screen Australia’s Gender Matters program, which aims to fast-track talented women to make films with female-driven stories. Leading the way have been such films such as Ride Like a Girl, The Nightingale, Judy & Punch, Animals and, heading for release when cinemas reopen, Babyteeth and I Am Woman.
After a concerted push for more representation, the virtual festival has a historic 74 per cent of the 33 films directed by women, which has to be a record for a major festival. And which makes Force of Habit especially timely.
The surprise, as even Saari and Toivoniemi admit, is that such an intense and uncomfortable-to-watch drama comes from what is often considered the happiest country in the world.
Finland seems to have everything going for it as an enlightened and civilised society: excellent education, childminding and healthcare systems, high incomes and a 34-year-old female prime minister in Sanna Marin. Best known in film for the deadpan comedy of director Aki Kaurismaki, it was largely unaffected by #MeToo revelations that followed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s outing as a sexual predator almost three years ago.
“We assume we are one of the most equal countries in the world,” Saari says. “Sweden is good as well and other Nordic countries.”
But the 2014 Oscar nominee for a live-action short film quickly adds that even in a country where equal numbers of male and female screenwriters, directors and producers are trained at film school, less than 30 per cent of public finance goes to women filmmakers.
“We have equality but when it comes to the real actions we don’t have it,” she says.
Four years ago, the duo behind Tuffi Films noticed how much they and their friends were talking about the power imbalances affecting women’s lives and decided to make a film about it.
“When #MeToo started to happen, we realised the frustration was very widespread,” Saari says. “It was not just us. So we started calling filmmakers whose work we admired and with whom we wanted to work. Everybody said, ‘Yes, I’ve been waiting for this call. Let’s do it.’ “
Toivoniemi says sexual harassment is only “the top of the iceberg” – a charming Finnish variation on icebergian descriptions – so they focused on the often-invisible structural forces affecting men and women.
“It’s more than, ‘It’s happening in Hollywood and those weird film people do their weird terrible stuff and let’s put Weinstein in prison and problem solved,’ ” she says. “It’s so much bigger and so much more of an everyday issue.”
Saari says the film, like the #MeToo revelations, has made women recall their own troubling experiences.
“That happens a lot,” she says. “Also some men have said, ‘Yes, it’s tough to watch but it’s also a relief because I was afraid that you’d accuse me but you don’t.’ “
Some men have said, yes, it’s tough to watch but it’s also a relief because I was afraid that you’d accuse me but you don’t.
Finnish film director Elli Toivoniemi
Adds Toivoniemi: ” So many of my female friends that are really aware and have reached middle age and have kids and been educated – that kind of life, super feminists – were in shock after the film. It’s tough.”
In a unique creative challenge, seven women directors originally shot 11 short films, which also covered such issues as fat-shaming and unconscious bias at work, for an anthology television series. They gave all their footage to Saari and Toivoniemi, who selected stories with a similar theme, wrote extra scenes and had others reshot for the feature film.
“It took us four months to edit the film, with three editors,” Saari says. “Other directors commented on versions and helped if they could but did not take responsibility for the feature.
“They really showed us so much trust. I still think it’s a miracle. How does a director give her baby away and say, ‘Be kind, I trust you’?”
When Force of Habit was released last September, the warm reaction was unexpected.
“We were ready to have hot discussions but it didn’t happen,” Saari says. “People were crying and thanking us and they wanted to gather together and drink beer and talk about the issues. It was like a therapy group.”
Toivoniemi says many male viewers were confronted by the realistic nature of the situations.
“But it’s tough to watch anyway,” she says. “I don’t even want to watch the film for a while because it goes under your skin – painfully watching what’s happening right here, right now, in the most equal country in 2020.”
There was also a surprising response to Marta Pulk’s documentary A Year Full Of Drama, another selection in the European program.
The Estonian director was commissioned by the theatre company Kinoteater to make a documentary about a fascinating experiment: they wanted to pay someone who had never been to the theatre before to watch and review every production that opened in the country in a year.
The idea was to find out what theatre does to a person, how art can change a life and – a very relevant question – how much theatre is too much.
Polk was part of a panel that hired a charismatic 21-year-old from a small town, Alissija Jevtjukova, from more than 500 applicants for the job.
“She was very uninhibited and I felt like, with her background and with the way she thinks and the way she was able to express herself, I was fascinated with her,” she says. “She was just charming.”
Jevtjukova travelled almost 20,000 kilometres around Estonia, watching 224 productions including Shakespeare, children’s plays, agitprop, dance pieces, intense contemporary drama and puppetry. All up, she spent more than 350 hours in the theatre.
And it turned out to be a different documentary to what had been commissioned.
“I ended up hijacking the project I think,” Pulk says. “More than a film about theatre, it became the story of Alissija.”
As the year went on, the budding reviewer struggled with productions she did not enjoy, a heavy travel schedule that meant sleeping in a tent some nights, the requirement to file a review to her blog within 24 hours, loneliness on the road and Pulk turning up regularly to film her.
She also became a celebrity in Estonia, a country of just 1.3 million people.
“It was a very public project because the casting was public, she had the blog and most of her followers who were reading the reviews were theatre people,” Pulk says. “Very often it was the first review to come out, so everybody who was involved in productions would always turn to her blog first to see what she wrote.”
Pulk, who went from editing films to directing shorts five years ago, found she could not be a detached filmmaker as her subject struggled.
“Maybe she’ll kill me when she hears this but I think we developed a strange sisterhood,” Pulk says. “We became close from spending so much time together and just as a person I see so much of myself as well in both the story and in Alissija …
“There was a point when I remember Alissija asking, ‘Are you here because you’re working or are you here as a friend?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know but what’s the difference? I’m here because I care.’ “
Without giving away what happens, Pulk says the experiment was a lesson in reassessing what you think is possible in life.
“What I loved about it was to witness the process of how being immersed in the arts and different ideas and meeting people can expand the world around you so greatly or change the idea of what you think you can achieve … or what you have a right to in this world,” she says.
The (virtual) Sydney Film Festival runs from June 10-21. For tickets and details of program bundles or to rent individual movies, go to sff.org.au.
OTHER EUROPEAN HIGHLIGHTS
My Little Sister (Switzerland)
Directors: Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond
An intricate family drama starring leading German actors Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger as twins – a brilliant playwright and an actor.
Lessons of Love (Poland)
Directors: Malgorzata Goliszewska and Kasia Mateja
A candid documentary about a Polish woman going her own way after leaving an abusive marriage at the age of 69.
Zana (Kosovo, Albania)
Director: Antoneta Kastrati
A tense family drama about a woman’s struggles to overcome wartime trauma and conceive a child.
Charter (Sweden, Denmark, Norway)
Director: Amanda Kernell
After a messy divorce, a desperate mother abducts her two estranged children and heads to a holiday resort in the Canary Islands.
They Call Me Babu (Netherlands)
Director: Sandra Beerends
Archival documentary exploring the forgotten legacy of Indonesian nannies working for European families.
Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.