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Ulla Heikkilä • Director of Eden

“Spirituality lives in all kinds of beauty rather than in churches or fear”


- We chatted to Ulla Heikkilä, the director of Eden, currently in Finnish cinemas

Ulla Heikkilä • Director of Eden

In her debut feature Eden [+see also:
interview: Ulla Heikkilä
film profile
, now in Finnish cinemas with Nordisk FilmUlla Heikkilä presents a group of teenagers sent off to a Christian confirmation summer camp. Predictably, not all are thrilled, but by the end of the week, they might find out something new about themselves – after all, God works in mysterious ways.

Cineuropa: Watching Eden, I realised I got used to seeing negative takes on religion – especially when it comes to its effect on children. But in your film, these camp leaders are not villains.
Ulla Heikkilä: Villains, in general, aren’t interesting to me. I would rather see something good in everyone, and something bad in everyone. I want to show the multitudes of truth – that’s why there are so many main characters in the film.

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As for religion, I love the drama of it: the rituals, the language. It’s like entering an enchanted forest – there is a cross, golden ceilings, angels and people speaking in tongues. It just appeals to me. I don’t belong to the church but I am spiritual and I found spiritual comfort in Christianity on several occasions in my life. My grandmother, whom I loved very much, was Laestadian: it’s this big, conservative Finnish movement. I sort of inherited a part of that religion I think. Then, when I went to the confirmation camp myself, I was very critical towards the whole institution. I was asking questions, and nobody would give me any answers or reasons to stay. So I left. My relationship with the church and with religion is rather complicated, but this question of faith is still important to me. I wanted to approach it with respect, not just negativity. Also, because it would have made for a boring film!

When you describe the church as “dramatic,” it’s very fitting – after all, teenagers are dramatic too. Do you find attempts to “modernise” the church interesting?
There is some comedy in them, but I would rather have the church that goes “yeah, gay rights are important!” rather than “they will all go to hell.” I researched it a bit and it’s a very real thing in the Finnish Church: there is a conservative side and a liberal side. It’s nothing new – in the 1970s, my father had a “rock priest,” with long hair and playing Led Zeppelin on his guitar. I was fascinated by the ways in which the church is opening up, like by having a class about sex, for example. I went to my first confirmation camp in 2003, so it was very different. Then a few years later, the first class I attended there was about sex and they had a Pride flag on the wall. Even though we like to laugh at these attempts, I was happy for the kids. I think that during this whole process, my view of the church has become a lot more positive.

It’s always fun to observe teens interact in an isolated space. Here, it’s an island – there is no escape, so one is talking about Neruda and the other brags about having sex.
This camp lasts just for a week, and they all come from such different places. I wanted to see them all mix, ending up with something else from their everyday life. The “queen” of the whole school suddenly goes: “I am not the queen of this camp? What?!” She goes into an existential crisis, because maybe it means she won’t be popular everywhere she goes. The other one, who has always pretended she doesn’t need other people, starts seeing that other people can be smart, even if they disagree with her, they can be valuable and beautiful. I was interested in seeing how these revelations can affect them.

And yet it’s the adults who really seem to have lost their way, starting with the young female pastor. This confirmation is also for them in a way, just to stop for a second.
And think about their children. Look at their children. Who became such beautiful, unique people that probably had a very interesting week you will never know anything about, and five seconds ago, they were just babies in your arms and you knew their every thought.

With Tiina (Satu Tuuli Karhu), I was interested in the idea that the young one would be the conservative one, because it’s something that happens quite often in the world. When I went to the camp a few years ago, I was with a small group of people, talking about Easter. They didn’t really know the story behind it. I went: “What? You can’t live in this society without knowing this story by heart!” And then: “Wow, that’s an interesting reaction coming from someone who claims not to be religious.” She wants to bring religion back to the church. Less games, more prayers – that would be her way. She is looking for religious ecstasy, but her ways of going about it are wrong, because hanging people by their wrists from a tree is just not cool. She is trying to make them “see.” My actual discovery was that spirituality lives in people, in animals and in nature, in all kinds of beauty rather than in churches or fear. Real magic lives in the ordinary.

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