Meet the Team: Mari Soppela

Mari is an award-winning Finnish filmmaker and mixed-media designer, living in Amsterdam. Her previous documetaries include Family Files a film about tribulations in her family, Home Recordings an intimate look into her marriage with composer Leo Anemaet and Who the Devil Can See in the Dark in which she looks for her German grandfather. Taking a break from personal subjects, Mari is now working on Lasikatto (The Glass Ceiling) and A Year on the Sacred Mountain.

You studied computer graphics in The Netherlands and videography in Finland before you gained your MA in Computing in Design. It is not exactly a traditional path. Tell me what made you interested in these fields.

My background is in video and media art. I first studied videography in Oulu then computer graphics in Groningen. I tried to get into a film school in Helsinki but wasn’t accepted so I thought I could try something else. I’ve always liked to do new things and visit new places. At that time, it was not possible to study computer graphics in Finland so I came to Holland. I studied in Groningen but got my Master’s degree from the Middlesex University in London.

As my graduation piece, I made an interactive video installation and wrote a thesis in which I compared cinematic language to non-linear media. The art work was terrible, but the thesis was – to my surprise – so convincing that professor Malcolm LeGrice offered me to do an artistic PhD at the Westminster University. I chose Amsterdam though. I was rather uncertain about myself. I got a job in a young new media company called Mediamatic. I thought of working there for a year before going to London… but I’m still here!

Then you started documentary filmmaking and made very personal films about your family. Especially “Who the Devil Can See in the Dark” in which you searched for your German grandfather. How did you start making films?

While working at Mediamatic (we made a couple of CDROM’s), I started making video letters. I was homesick and wanted to share my life with my Finnish family and friends. So, I started filming myself in the new city. I had of course made video art before so it wasn’t entirely a new medium. My documentaries can still be seen as video letters.

In new media, I experimented a lot with forms and structures –  to the point of boredom. I started missing content. So I made my first documentary film “Family Files”. There was more content than people could handle. “Who the Devil” was a follow-up to “Family Files“, a slightly lighter film, I would say, searching for truth. So I see that all my aspirations, skills, qualities and passions are combined in film.

“I was surprised to find I was expected to give birth to my child at home. Then I slowly realised that most women give up their fulltime jobs when they have families. In 2016, the percentage was 74 percent.”

Now you are directing “Lasikatto” that is an investigation of the glass ceiling. How did you first come across the information about the glass ceiling?

The project started off with the working title “Finn Fatale“. I was keen on finding out how Finnish women like myself have experienced gender biases across Europe. I contacted Finnish communities on social media. I had made a survey and got over a hundred replies in a couple of weeks. I was drowned in wonderful life stories but didn’t know how to choose only a handful for the film. By accident I bumped into The Economist Magazine’s glass ceiling index and instantly knew that the index will be my tool to choose the women.

However, with the generous development support of the Finnish Avek and the Finnish Film Foundation, I could develop the project further. In 2016, I had the honour and the pleasure to interview Finland’s first female president Tarja Halonen. She shed light on the glass ceiling from cultural, political, social and historical perspectives and compared Finland and the Nordic countries to other countries. That’s when I realised I cannot make a film merely featuring Finnish women. I have a universal subject so the subjects (protagonists) should reflect that.

Since you enjoy making personal films, did you find the subject of glass ceiling personal? What motivated you to make this film?

Making personal films is not easy. I am keen on making a documentary film without being present in front of the camera. Nevertheless, I feel strongly about the subject. My way of filming is pretty personal. I go on the road with my composer husband Leo Anemaet and we film the subjects. I’m behind the camera and he records the sound. So far, as a married couple, we have been able to break the ice among the subjects. Leo does take photos of me filming so we do have an option to include myself in the form of photos if needed. I must admit that I didn’t know about the facts and figures of the glass ceiling when I started making this film. I have learnt such a lot and will continue so.

Finland and The Netherlands are countries that rate highly on gender equality reports. Have you personally encountered discrimination or felt that you have hit a glass ceiling?

That’s funny that you ask this question. On a global level both countries score pretty high in gender equality, but I have experienced the Dutch culture regarding working women rather traditional. The cultural collision started even before my first child was born. I was surprised to find I was expected to give birth to my child at home. Then I slowly realised that most women give up their fulltime jobs when they have families. In 2016, the percentage was 74 percent.

It seems that Dutch women have had to choose between a career and family whereas in Finland combining the two has been self-evident for decades. The Finnish state supports working moms a lot better than The Netherlands does. Working part-time is not very common in Finland. My mother has had a fulltime job so did her mother whereas my Dutch mother-in-law never had a paid job. She did work in a hospital as a volunteer. That’s one of the differences. Finland was poor, women had to work and earn money. The Netherlands has been wealthy for centuries. Finland is only a hundred-year-old state in 2017.

What comes to a glass ceiling I have experienced my own, personal glass ceiling in regard to the Dutch national broadcast company. Despite my best efforts some commissioning editors have said that my films are not appropriate for Dutch audiences. I have felt that my situation as an immigrant has alienated me from The Netherlands as much as it has from Finland. It’s been like being caught in a no-man’s-land, (no-woman’s-land) between my place of birth and my new home. But then again, perhaps my predicaments have given me a unique perspective on life – as a director it can sometimes be useful to view things from a distance. And who knows I might crack a glass ceiling with “Lasikatto“!

You interviewed many women across the world for the film, some of whom live in countries were sexism is more prevalent. Did talking to these women change your opinions on the subject?

I have found it rather surprising. It seems that the phenomenon of the glass ceiling exists in almost any society, regardless of the development of a state. One could for example imagine that Britain is pretty gender equal, but child care costs are there the highest in Europe. This means that in many families it is simply not financially profitable for both parents to work. It is not very difficult to guess which one of the parents tends to stay at home. Brexit will only worsen these perspectives, by the way.

Women not only get paid less for work but they also do more unpaid work like housework or caring for others. How do you combine family and work? Do you feel pressure to do it all?

I think my second documentary film “Home Recordings“ dealt with that. It was such a hard film to make because it was so personal. But yes at that time I was fighting for my space as an artist and individual. I didn’t have a room of my own in our house, for example. My husband and children did. I was dumbfounded to realise that it had never occurred to me to protect my space. Was I so stupid? The only one? I was perplexed about my role in society. I had grown up in Finland where mothers do not stay at school as lunch nannies, lice mothers, reading volunteers – as I did. They work. So I got myself a studio, which I couldn’t in fact afford but stayed there for eight expensive years trying to make a living from my films. My husband has always supported me so the pressure didn’t come from him. Perhaps I was too uncertain about myself. Nevertheless, it was complex. The fact that I kept practising my profession did save me as an individual and artist. At least that’s how I feel. Now, I have a desk in our house and I’m happy. Probably because our kids have moved out of the house and I have a sense of freedom. Not to mention that the years have shaped me as a person.

One of the most important moves in my career has been to form a company in Finland. That happened during the making of “Home Recordings” when we lived in my place of birth Kemijärvi. With LPMA Productions I have been able to find financing in Finland. I am not only directing but also producing my documentaries, with a host of professional creatives and co-producers. I enjoy that tremendously.

As the mother of a daughter and a son, do you think you have different approaches to parenting to each of them?

Yes, I think I have. I’ve been more critical towards my daughter than my son when they were small. I couldn’t help it.

Lately, and because of my research on the glass ceiling, I have discovered some astonishing facts about The Netherlands. According to The Economist Magazine’s glass ceiling index 2017, there is a negative gap between Dutch women and men in higher (tertiary) education. Dutch women’s tertiary education attainment is 0,7 lower than Dutch men’s. The Netherlands scores below the average of the index, with Austria, Switzerland, South Korea and Turkey. In Finland, the figure is 13,1 higher, i.e. Finnish women are a majority in graduating from third-level education. I had never thought about it from that perspective. When my children went to the secondary school it didn’t look like that. Now, they are both studying at the University of Amsterdam. It was a strange eye opener on gender equality to realise that my son is more privileged than my daughter in The Netherlands in this respect whereas in Finland the situation would be the opposite.

Do you think you have made compromises in your life and career that your male counterparts didn’t have to make?

Yes, it is more self-evident for men, such as male artists, to keep their space. Not only in my own relationship but I see it all around among my friends, neighbours and colleagues.

Lastly, what is the one thing you would want people to know about you?

I was brought up with Finnish sisu.

Sisu is a Finnish concept and cultural construct that is described through a combination of various English terms including stoic determination, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness and is held by Finns themselves to express their national character. It is generally considered to not have a literal equivalent in English. The source: Wikipedia.
By |2018-02-03T20:38:27+00:00April 20th, 2017|

About the Author:

Aslı Bildirici is a freelance producer currently working and studying in The Netherlands. She has worked in several companies and cultural projects that value creativity and social impact.

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