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Jörn Donner • Director and producer

"Armi was a successful, self-made, woman entrepreneur – they were unusual in the 1960s"


- Cineuropa sat down with Finnish director and producer Jörn Donner to discuss his new feature film about the founder of Marimekko, Armi Alive!

Jörn Donner  • Director and producer

The first and only Finn to win an Oscar – for producing Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) – Jörn Donner is in Gothenburg to launch his new feature, Armi Alive! [+see also:
interview: Jörn Donner
film profile
, at the 38th Göteborg International Film Festival (screening on 31 January and 1 February), ahead of its Finnish release on 20 March. An unusual portrait of Armi Ratia, the founder and CEO of Finnish design company Marimekko from 1951 onwards, it was written by Karoliina Lindgren and produced by Helsinki’s Bufo.

Also an author, producer and politician – and currently a member of the Finnish Parliament, previously of the European Parliament – 82-year-old Donner made his latest film, The Interrogation, in 2009. Between 1963, when his feature debut, A Sunday in September, won for Best First Feature at Venice, and last year, when he received the Jussi Lifetime Achievement Award, he signed his name to 90 films as director or producer.

He has written more than 30 books – his Father and Son received Finland’s Finlandia literary prize in 1985 – and besides a little acting, he has also been a bureaucrat, as head of the Swedish Film Institute between 1978 and 1982. The story goes that Bergman told Donner about Fanny and Alexander, but he knew times were hard and funding was difficult… But Donner interrupted, “You worry about the film, I worry about the money.” It eventually collected four Academy Awards. 

Cineuropa: So why this interest in Marimekko?
Jörn Donner:
I had known about Armi Ratia for a long time, but it was not until 1967 that I was introduced to her, and we immediately became friends. One day she asked me if I would become a member of the Marimekko board – it was so boring, she said – and I accepted.

Was fashion an expertise of yours?
No, but economics was, and I soon realised her business was in very bad shape. Together with some bankers, we managed to tidy up and change that; it took years, and then I left. Armi and I stayed friends, but Marimekko never became a worldwide company, and I am sure I know why, but I am not saying; it’s not part of the deal.

Why make a film about her 36 years after her death?
We kept seeing each other now and then, but when she died, I was living in Sweden, so I did not even go to her funeral. Some years later, I was collecting some material about her life for a theatre play, but it wasn’t very good, so we decided to make a film instead. Still, we kept the idea about the theatre – in the movie, a theatre company is rehearsing a play about her life and work. This way, most of the film is shot indoors, in a rehearsal room, which saves both money and time, and I like that.

But why a play within a play, or within a film?
Because I did not want to depict a straight story, to make a biopic sort of thing – I hate that. Not all the fragments of Armi’s life would suit a feature. And nor do we try to imitate her looks; we just found a very good actress, Minna Haapkylä, who was also in The Interrogation, to portray this remarkable woman. In the rehearsals for a play, you are allowed to mix timelines, events, people, whatever you want.

Who was she?
If I were to tell you, it would take hours. She founded Marimekko and made it into a successful company. She was unique, a self-made businesswoman who became a famous Finnish entrepreneur, and they were unusual in the 1960s. She was extremely intelligent, a great artist, who knew how to find talented designers and inspire them with a very pure visual style, which was her trademark. She was a fascinating person, very gifted, with a tough past, though: she was born in (now Russian) Karelia, and her father owned a small grocery store. She lost three brothers in the war. I think that is what you need to know, and the rest you will get from the film.

Are you planning your next movie?
I certainly intend to go on working, but since I am still a member of the Finnish Parliament – as a replacement – until April this year, I haven’t really had the time to think about it.

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