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Susani Mahadura • Director of Kelet

“A black model on the cover of a magazine is a black person being celebrated”


- Cineuropa chatted to Susani Mahadura, the director of Kelet, crowned as the winner of the Audience Award at the Helsinki-based DocPoint festival

Susani Mahadura  • Director of Kelet
(© Lina Tegman)

In Kelet [+see also:
film review
interview: Susani Mahadura
film profile
, the audience favourite at the DocPoint Helsinki Documentary Film Festival, Susani Mahadura shows the fabulous world of an aspiring model and a trans woman of colour, born in Finland and raised in Manchester. We see her trying finding her way while following Tyra Banks’ advice and never forgetting to “smize”.

Cineuropa: There are so many aspects to Kelet. How did you decide how to show her life?
Susani Mahadura:
I invited her on my radio show [Mahadura & Özberkan] once. We talk about equality and people of colour living in Finland, and while discussing gender diversity, we realised we hadn’t heard any stories about brown or black trans women. That’s how we found Kelet. I think she was just 19 at the time, and after the interview, she invited me to her first vogue ball. When I saw her stepping out onto the catwalk, with this amazing energy, I just went: “Wow.” It’s not like I decided to make a film about this subject. I met Kelet, and something about her made me feel like I had to.

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According to some studies, Finland is one of the most racist countries in Europe. But Kelet encounters not only racism, but trans phobia as well. It’s a lot to deal with. As she says in the movie, there are places where she can’t go. At the same time, and that’s what’s so unique about her, she wanted to tell her story in a way that empowers people – to show them that even when you go through some dark times, you can still live in this society the way you want to.

Her sense of humour certainly plays a massive role in the story. Was it something you noticed when you first met, or did you discover it later on?
When she came in to do my show, it was her first interview ever. So there was some kind of protective shield at the start. She always thinks about the way people perceive her and how they interpret her story. But then I started to go to vogue balls and saw that this community, and her friend Lola, is the family that gives her confidence. I started to see a different side of Kelet: funny, and hilarious, even. There were moments when I had to run out and hide in the corner because I didn’t want to ruin the shot while laughing, with my cameraman also struggling to hold the camera, shaking so hard. Once we were in her safe space, and once she had got to know us, she showed us all of these facets I found fascinating.

With the vogue scene, is it something that people embrace more easily thanks to shows like Pose, for example? Even though the performers themselves comment on its lack of diversity in Finland?
When we started, it was still a small scene in Finland. As the girls say in the movie, they were the only trans women and the only people of colour. But once you start thinking about where this ballroom scene came from, and who actually gave birth to the culture, it’s the people of colour from the LGBTQ communities! For Kelet and Lola, it’s an important part of it all – making people aware of this history. Now, little by little, it has become more popular, and last summer, Kelet and Lola were invited to a big Finnish festival to perform. I think it means that something is changing.

You show a person with a very specific dream – she wants to become a model. Which makes sense, as it’s surprising that agencies are not signing her up left, right and centre. But what’s the appeal of this world?
When she was still a kid, living in Finland, we didn’t see people of colour anywhere, basically. Not on the streets, and not in the magazines or movies. That makes you wonder: do I have any opportunities in this society? The first time Kelet saw a black model on the cover of a magazine, she saw a black person being celebrated – even though she kept hearing that her skin didn’t have the right colour. She went straight to the library, looking for more, finding Naomi Campbell and Iman – powerful, beautiful black women. The way I see it, that’s where this drive comes from: the drive to become a model, to be powerful and to be seen. I think that’s what she’s always wanted.

You mentioned the desire to tell an empowering story. But given that you are not shying away from her troubles, was it hard to bring out this sense of empowerment?
At the beginning of the film, Kelet says she doesn’t want to see her family [after they renounced her]. But then she goes: “I forgive my parents. They didn’t know any better.” There she was, this 20-year-old woman, realising the power of forgiveness, feeling that just by buying her a chicken burger, her father was welcoming her back. I learnt a lot from that. We all know how it feels, but then we rise again, surrounded by people who keep us up, instead of bringing us down. In the film, we show the hardship and we stay there for a moment, but then the next scene is either the vogue ball or some other celebration. It shows that, in the end, we can survive it all.

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