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Zaida Bergroth • Director of Maria's Paradise

“My film talks about the relationship between love and power”


- We met up with Finnish director Zaida Bergroth, who is currently editing her new film, the period drama Maria’s Paradise

Zaida Bergroth  • Director of Maria's Paradise

Set in the 1920s, Finnish director Zaida Bergroth’s Maria’s Paradise [+see also:
film review
interview: Zaida Bergroth
film profile
 tells the story of real-life preacher Maria Åkerblom (played by Pihla Viitala), who was the leader of the Finnish Åkerblom Movement – an evangelical movement also deemed to be a cult. Produced by Komeetta, the feature’s sales are handled by LevelK (read more about the production here). We chatted to Bergroth as she was in the middle of editing the movie.

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Cineuropa: Before this film, the furthest you had gone back in time was to the 1970s in your first feature, Last Cowboy Standing [+see also:
film profile
. Was this a big challenge in that respect?
Zaida Bergroth: I think it was mostly just exciting. Even though it’s set in the 1920s, it’s mostly located in one villa. It’s Maria’s universe, and I think we were able to create a world of our own, in a way. I didn’t want it to feel like a stuffy period piece. It was supposed to breathe and be fairy-tale-like. I had a great team, and I think they carried this weight mostly on their shoulders when they were creating all of the costumes and sets. For me, it was just inspiring.

Whenever I read something about cults or sects, it feels very claustrophobic. People just become more and more isolated. 
I think there were a couple of hundred people around her. Our film focuses on the time when they settled in Helsinki around 1927, as they ran into some problems – Maria had issues with everyone who opposed her. My film talks about this relationship between love and power. I can understand how wonderful it is to give all of the responsibility to somebody else and just do as you’re told. It’s almost freeing. In our story, the main character, Salome, has a strong need to gain acceptance from Maria, which can be dangerous because you can really lose yourself in that system. When she finally starts doubting Maria, it’s a big deal. In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story.

It’s rare to have a woman lead a spiritual sect like that. What were her methods?
What made her special was that she would turn those meetings into a performance. She would bring a bed to church, dress in a nightgown and have some flowers in her hair. She wanted to look innocent – like an angel of God. She was an actress, in a way. She spoke a lot about a brighter future – which, of course, was very effective at that time, right after the Finnish Civil War. She would depict paradise-like places where they would settle down, like Jerusalem. She controlled people by convincing them that she could see through them and that she was the messenger from the other side. She was psychologically very gifted – she could see people’s fears, and she was not afraid to use that knowledge to her own advantage.

Her story touched me because she came from a very poor background. Maria was given away when she was five years old to serve in different households, and her future didn’t seem bright. No matter what her motives were, it was interesting that she was able to turn everything around. 

It seems like a story of survival.
That’s a nice way to put it. We don’t know how she felt. I don’t know if she really thought she was a messenger, but she was so convincing that maybe at one point she did. What touched me was that there was this girl who needed love, as we all do, and she wasn’t getting it, so she forced people to give it to her. She demanded loyalty and attention – she couldn’t live without it. And she would get dangerous when people refused. But it’s heart-breaking that even with all this power, there was no chance for her to experience the real thing.

How did she navigate her sexuality? When it comes to religion, women usually have to walk a very thin line in that department.
Everybody says that she used her sexuality in a clever way. Men and women alike were drawn to Maria – there was this boldness to her. She had the power to tell people whom they should marry; she was naming their children. When she chose someone to join her in the bedroom, she would just take their hand. At the same time, she actually got false documentation from a doctor claiming that she was “untouched”, and she liked to underline her innocence. It’s a mystery, but in my film, she is not afraid of getting close to people. She uses intimacy, but also motherly love – she offers it to Salome. But there is this strange, almost erotic element to it. 

This admiration was also very present in your previous film, Miami [+see also:
film profile
Actually, the themes in both films are quite similar. Once again, there is this magnetic woman whom the main character looks up to, and she really needs admiration. She needs it to shine. But this one is obviously more extreme. I understand Maria Åkerblom, and I do feel for her, but I couldn’t really look at things from her point of view. She did horrible things and was convicted of attempted murder. I was thinking about all of these dark tales I loved as a child, by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I felt I could use them to get the necessary distance and to be inspired visually.

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