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TIFF Women Directors: Meet Pirjo Honkasalo

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
September 9, 2013 10:32 AM
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Concrete Night

Pirjo Honkasalo was born in Helsinki, Finland. She co-directed several features with Pekka Lehto, including Flame Top (80). Her documentary directorial credits include Mysterion (91), Tanjuska and the 7 Devils (93), Atman (97), and The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (04). Her latest film, Concrete Night (13), marks her return to fiction features.

Concrete Night is playing as part of the Masters series at TIFF.

Women and Hollywood: Please give us your description of the film playing at TIFF.

Pirjo Honkasalo: Concrete Night is a dream-like odyssey through beautiful Helsinki over the course of one night. The protagonist of the film is a 14-year-old boy named Simo who is still searching for a sense of self and the ability to protect himself from his surroundings. He feels he doesn't have an identity yet. Simo and his older brother Ilkka are the sons of a helpless and unpredictable single mother. Their chaotic home is located deep in the heart of a concrete jungle in Helsinki. Ilkka has one day of freedom left before starting his prison sentence. The mother persuades Simo to spend this last night in the company of his brother.

WaH: What drew you to this script?

PH: The film script is based on the hard-hitting novel Concrete Night by Pirkko Saisio, which was published in 1981. The script has been adapted to modern times, but the 30-year-old novel cannily foreshadowed daily life as it is today. Concrete Night is not a film about school killings, mass murderers or the Chechen brothers in Boston. It's a film about a young mind that was shattered long before the all-encompassing misanthropy may have got a hold of it. The protagonist of the film, 14-year-old Simo, is the fragile and sensitive surface reflecting all the dark events that take place around him.

Simo is unable to filter them or to make them more palatable to digest for himself. He sees the world just as it is. But life is unbearable when seen without a filter. Humans can't live that way. Being an adult means building walls to protect one's self.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge?

PH: When he was already more than 80 years old, Ingmar Bergman stated in an interview: always when starting a new film, I am shaking in front of the fear that I won't manage to capture one true moment in the film. With experience and years that fear does not fade away.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

PH: Become as professional as your male colleagues and forget the whole question about being female. You are female anyway and it is going to work in your favor. The scope of female professional superiority can be understood by so few men that mostly they do not miss it.

WaH: What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

PH: There is one thing where people are always right. It is when they are describing what they have been feeling when watching your film. You cannot say: No, you did not feel like that!

As my films are born at the moment when they are reflected into another person's mind and memories, there are no misconceptions. I totally accept that different people have seen a different film.

WaH: What are the biggest challenges and or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

PH: Experiencing a film together as a social event has almost totally been handed over to kids or adolescents, having themes which thrill the brain of a 12-year old American boy. Very few women have a passion to direct those themes. It is more and more difficult to distribute films, which have been directed to an adult audience. In that sense festivals have become a new distribution network, but you cannot finance a film with festivals. I do not have an answer to how we could shake the dust off from the adults who have embalmed themselves in their TV couches. Is there a new distribution path? Please, let me know.

WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why

PH: My favorite is Marguerite Duras. She is almost utterly ignorant in filmmaking. Her films are so weird. They bother you as they break all the rules or are unaware of the rules. They make your mind spin. She deals with time and her hopelessly stiff characters in a way which most people, including me, find boring. At the same time you sense an unique presence of a philosophical space, an encountering of our existence. In Hiroshima Mon Amour, written by Duras and directed by Alain Resnais, we get a more accessible window to her film thinking.

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