Finnish filmmaker Zaida Bergroth returns to TIFF with Maria's Paradise, a film profiling the rise and fall of evangelical cult leader Maria Åkerblom. This is the third time she's premiered a film at the festival (The Good Son in 2011, Miami in 2017), and like her previous films, Maria's Paradise is an emotionally charged piece of cinema that defies any one genre. Her next film is slated to be a biopic on Tove Jansson, a Finnish author and painter who created the popular Moomin characters. Here's hoping she brings that film to TIFF as well!
throwdown815: How’s the experience of watching your own film with an audience around you? Especially when it’s a world premiere screening like with Maria’s Paradise this year.
Zaida Bergroth: It was so exciting. That was really the first time I saw it with an audience and it was great because every time I've been here the audience has been really lively. They react and they somehow seem to go with the flow and get into the story, so that was really rewarding.
TD815: And when you’re in the audience yourself, are you constantly looking around and trying to get a sense of how the audience is reacting? Or are you more just focused on being an audience member yourself, and really just taking in the cinematic experience?
ZB: I try to focus on the film. Does it really work? How do I feel about it? And how does it work emotionally? But it's quite hard because I'm hearing every sigh, every laugh and every little thing. Even somebody changing their position. So I'm so super aware of everything and it's quite intense for a director to be there. But I really wanted to be there and experience it.
TD815: Do you find that the audiences at TIFF are a bit different than the audiences you’ve encountered at other film festivals?
ZB: I think they are warm and really enthusiastic and interested. Everybody always says that because it's true. I feel really good showing my films here. For example, with The Good Son, it was a very important film to me and it has quite a strange story. But I always feel so good showing my films in Toronto because I feel embraced here by the audience. They don't need to like it or love it, but they are always really interested and into it. They are all film lovers.
TD815: At the Q+A for Maria's Paradise (world premiere screening), you mentioned that Maria’s character was introduced to you by a producer who knew her story very well. So is Maria a pretty well known figure in Finland?
ZB: No, and I hadn't heard of her before either. But I think she was a celebrity of her time, but that was in the 1920s. For example, there's this nice anecdote that when she escaped from prison, some of her followers met her somewhere and had a car. And the car company started to advertise their cars like – "Maria got away with this. It's the fastest one you can find." So she was really known at the time and she was very connected and very powerful. I think this will be very interesting for Finnish audiences to somehow get introduced to her because only the older people know her.
TD815: It was really interesting when I tried to Google Maria Åkerblom, because a lot of the pictures that show up are ones where she’s with dogs and appears very friendly.
ZB: I've been contacted by some people who had parents or grandparents that lived with Maria, and they told me it's really divided. There are still people who think that she was a magnificent, kind, angelic person who did so much good. And then there is this other half who thinks that she was a very dangerous psychopath, and somebody should have stopped her. But I think that was exactly the thing that interested me about her character.
TD815: When it came to making a film about cults, what made you want to focus on a real life character, as opposed to a fictional story?
ZB: I think it was because her story was so interesting and everything I heard about her was so interesting. There was this mystery to her. So I found that more intriguing than trusting my own imagination and coming up with something. I knew I couldn't really solve her mystery and I already knew from the very start I would never be able to fully explain her. But I can get all these ideas from her life story and maybe I'll have my own theory about her, which I do. And there were also so many horrible things that happened during that time, that reality beats fiction somehow. As I said during the premiere, I find her to be a very tragic and touching character. Really in need for something that she's never going to get.
TD815: One of the most interesting things about the film is that Maria’s character is that she’s not necessarily portrayed as a complete villain. There’s some ambiguity to her.
ZB: Yes, even though she does all these things, she's like a very, very lonely little girl. And that's very important to me because she really is a bad guy. She does so many bad things you can't really sympathize too much or explain it because the facts speak for themselves. But she had seven other siblings, and a very poor family and she was given away when she was five years old to serve as a maid. So I have to admire that a little bit since she found a way to climb some ladders. But at the same time, she made this Faustian Bargain, as I said at the premiere.
TD815: The music for Maria's Paradise is also something that was really striking because it has a very modern/techno vibe to it (similar to Miami). But given that this is a period piece, what made you decide to choose this type of music?
ZB: Well, I knew I wanted to play around a little bit with the genre. I didn't want it to be a heavy period piece or too traditional. I wanted to shake that a little bit, so then I started to think about the music, and classical pieces didn't really do it for me. I started thinking of the music around that preaching scene at the beginning of the film, and what that atmosphere should feel like. And I wanted to bring this pressure and something a bit scary to it.
TD815: You mentioned not wanting to stick to a single genre, so were you thinking about specific genres when making the film, and trying to avoid specific genres? Or did the genre labels come after you’re done making the film?
ZB: I think it just came together afterwards. And it’s really nice that you have seen Miami and The Good Son, because I don't really know what their genres are. They are drama films, but there is this thriller element in all of them too. That’s something I lean towards for some reason.
TD815: What about the audience, do you think about a particular kind of audience that you’re making the film for during the filmmaking process?
ZB: I'm thinking about it now. It will be really interesting because we are opening this film in Finland in a couple of weeks and I'm really wondering what our audience be like. Because in a way, this is a period film. But because we play around with the genre so much, it will be really interesting to see how people react to it.
TD815: But while you’re making the film, the intended audience isn’t something you’re really thinking about.
ZB: No, I haven't been able to do that yet, but I know it's really part of the business. But I've been lucky enough to have worked with people who take care of that. And I've also been given the space to do stuff that I really enjoy and I'm very lucky that I haven't had to think about that too much.
TD815: To end off, I was hoping to ask you about your thoughts on the cinema landscape of Finland. Is it pretty strong right now?
ZB: Yes. Finnish movies are really popular in Finland at the moment, and that's wonderful. Our audience has really started to support Finnish films and they are doing very well. I wish I had some numbers, but I think the situation has been really good recently. Of course, it's still a lot of Hollywood, and then some smaller cinemas show European or Asian films. But overall, the situation is very good for Finnish films and people really love seeing them.