Female filmmakers in focus: Alli Haapasalo on girl image | Interviews

With a script by Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen, “Girl Picture” is the third film from Finnish director Alli Haapasalo. With degrees in film from Aalto University and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Haapasalo finds herself drawn to strong female-driven stories. Her debut feature film “Love and Fury” depicts a female writer’s journey to find her own voice. Written and directed by a collective of seven writer/directors, her second film “Force of Habit” looks at hidden moments in the lives of everyday women to reveal gender bias and structural abuse of power. Now with the great success of “Girl Picture,” from its Sundance win to its release around the world, Haapasalo is poised to be a filmmaker to watch for years to come.

For this month’s Women Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke with Haapasalo over Zoom about reclaiming the Finnish word “tytöt” (girls), achieving true intimacy on film and the importance of feeling seen on screen.

I really loved that it was set over just three Fridays and yet there is so much going on with these girls. When in the process with the screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen did you land on this structure? It felt really honest.

It was actually a really big, important moment for us. In terms of being able to pull it together, we developed it for probably three years before we figured out the structure. The balance between the three characters and the two plots was always off. Every commenter always said I want more of this story or I want more of Emma and Mimmi and who was the main character? We had a lot of balance issues. I can’t remember who it was that came up with the three Fridays, but once that happened, things just really started to fall into place. I would say it was somewhere from the middle towards the end of the writing process. A fairly late invention, but when you think about it now, it seems like oh sure, three Fridays – what a great concept. But that wasn’t the original concept at all. I think you’re right that the really short span of time is key to getting to the point of what the teenage experience is and the adolescent experience, because literally everything is at stake in every moment. Literally every Friday can change your life.

In your director’s statement, you talk about the idea that these three girls are sort of on the cusp of womanhood. They are not quite girls anymore, but they are not quite women. They explore every nook and cranny of this time in their lives. It’s getting better, but you still can’t see that many movies really focus on sexual development. I especially love the girl who just wants to have pleasure, to find real pleasure.

I think that was the hardest thing about teenage life in a way, you know, because you feel like a child and an adult at the same time. Every day you can also constantly swing between the two experiences. It is a difficult thing to be with yourself when it is so difficult to define who you are. A friend of mine who is a producer said she thinks this is a film about the need to be seen. I thought it was pretty well put because whoever is closest to you can help you see yourself. They kind of use each other as mirrors, in this aspect, asking what does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a teenager? There are a lot of no’s at that age. What it shouldn’t be and how you shouldn’t act and what you shouldn’t wear and what you shouldn’t say and what you shouldn’t do. It can get really exhausting, so as a teenager you’re basically trying to navigate the boats of what it means in the world to be a woman. How it is and what is allowed and what is expected, but at the same time finding out who you are as a person. Your identity and your sexuality and what you need and what you want. It’s all those things happening at the same time.

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