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Zaida Bergroth • Director of Tove

“Intimacy was what we were after”


- We talked to the Finnish director about her latest film, chosen as the Finnish submission to the Oscars

Zaida Bergroth • Director of Tove
(© Ville Juurikkala)

Chosen as the opening film and competing in the Nordic Competition at the Göteborg Film Festival, Zaida Bergroth's Tove [+see also:
film review
interview: Zaida Bergroth
film profile
shows Tove Jansson before the Moomins: young, free and in love, as the world around her slowly wakes up after the war.

Cineuropa: This is not just a biopic about a famous person. In Finland, Tove Jansson is “the” famous person. Was that a concern?
Zaida Bergroth:
It was scary, of course, and I needed to find a personal angle. She felt distant at first. Maybe I admired her too much? It's easier to relate to difficult characters who are passionate and childish in their struggles, or even horrible in some way. But Tove seemed so wonderful! I was worried she would just stay there on the pedestal and I would never look at her from eye-level. But once we focused on that chosen time period, with [screenwriter] Eeva Putro we could find themes that intrigued us and felt close to us.

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Sometimes, having too much information seems to be the problem! You show her when she is still figuring things out, on an emotional level too.
The problem I have with artists' biopics is that there is this admiration for “creating art”. It's something out of our reach. But my mother is a painter, and work and love would go together in our everyday life. I wanted to show how The Moomins came as a side product of this wonderful, bohemian existence. It wasn't something she planned, it was an indulgence – something she did for herself, inspired by those important to her.

She really wanted to become a painter, that was the common language she had with her father, and ultimately got recognition for these funny characters instead. Not for the area where she really pushed herself. That period in her life was interesting also because although I really think she was great, her paintings weren't the strongest back then.

To think that something you don't quite respect becomes what defines you... That's almost a tragedy, one could say?
That's why she started to hate the Moomins at some point. They came from “the language of the heart”, they were so personal, but it must have been frustrating. She would wonder: “Who am I? Am I only seen as this Moominmamma or am I still considered a painter?” She still did whatever she wanted, however, and she was able to walk away from them when she needed to.

It was also interesting to talk about Thingumy and Bob [characters based on Jansson and her lover Vivica Bandler] and how courageous that was at that time. If we think about the choices she made, there really was some integrity to them and it's wonderful that she put it out in the world. We speculated that this film could be called Tove and Vivica, just to show it wouldn’t be one of those biopics that start with a birth and end with a grave.

Even though it's such an important connection, it never crossed my mind that this was a film about a lesbian relationship. She meets a person and something happens. That's it.
Tove herself was so unproblematic when it came to that. She fell in love violently and passionately, and she was happy about it. The relationship was short and complex, but not because of any external judgement, the problems were elsewhere. It felt refreshing to tell a same sex love story where the gender didn't cause any problems for the protagonists.
In her relationship with Atos Wirtanen [Snufkin's real-life inspiration], too, it was interesting to see how they tried to deal with things. He told Tove that when he was younger, he felt the world was too much and he couldn't handle his own emotions. That's why he decided to push them to the side. I love the fact that even though they are grown ups, they are still searching for themselves. Tove wanted to focus on art: no children, no restraining family. I think she understood she needed to shut some things out. In a way, she was perhaps protecting herself from this all-encompassing tolerance and understanding, which is such an important part of The Moomins. But you still need to protect your own heart a bit, and maybe she understood that.

She is always hiding her Moomin drawings when someone comes into the studio. You do that in the film, too, so how did you decide when to hide and when to show them again?
They are so cute that if we had them in the film more often, it wouldn't allow for this raw and intimate portrait. The film is about Tove, an ambitious young painter, rather than about them and their creation. But they do appear in some personal moments.

Her studio is the real heart of the film, the place where she worked and lived. The war had just ended and there was this need to party, to celebrate life with other people, family and friends – this is what the Moomins are also about. Alma Pöysti was so good at expressing all these little nuances, so I had to take advantage of that. Somebody told me that during the film, she realised she hasn't seen people so close for such a long time – intimacy was what we were after. I would whisper to my Director of Photography: “Closer. Come closer!”

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