Susanna Helke • Director of Ruthless Times – Songs of Care
"I liked the idea that this 'faceless mass' we keep referring to is now standing in front of the camera, singing"
by Marta Bałaga
- The Finnish director encourages her protagonists to talk about their problems, and sometimes even sing them out
In Ruthless Times – Songs of Care [+see also:
interview: Susanna Helke
film profile], a documentary-turned-musical focusing on the state of elderly care, Susanna Helke shows nurses exhausted beyond belief, patients suffering from dementia and loneliness, and nursing homes taken over by private companies. “It was important to address something that was happening in Finland, so in this sense, this film could be seen as quite local. Which is why it was so nice to hear how the jury felt,” the director tells Cineuropa after winning Docpoint’s National Competition and the Audience Award (see the news). “We belong to the Nordic welfare states, so there are certain expectations: 'What kind of problems could you even have?' But there has been a fundamental change starting all the way back in the 1990s, and now certain things are unravelling.”
Cineuropa: You openly discuss the problems with elderly care in the film. Fewer people are willing to take it on as a profession, yet more and more will need it in the future. That’s scary.
Susanne Helke: It’s a cultural thing in Western societies in general: we really abandon our elderly family members. It’s not that we are being indifferent – it’s how things are, how society is structured. These days, we turn to economic paradigms whenever we are talking about health, education or even art. This kind of lingo has taken over everything, every single realm of our life – including elderly care. I thought that taking care of each other was what made us human. Now, it’s more about what we can “afford” and concepts of “sustainability gap”. We approach it like an economic challenge! What’s worse, people have internalised this perspective that they are a burden of some kind. I hear these half-ironic comments among the retirees sometimes: “Maybe we should just go behind the barn.”
This jargon you mention made it into the lyrics of the songs. They seem absurd at the beginning, but then you notice tears in these people’s eyes. They are feeling what they are singing.
I was wondering about how to talk about these subjects in a film. Then this musical concept came about, and yes, you have a choir of retirees singing, “We are the sustainability gap.” There is some dark humour in it, even though we borrowed many expressions from media headlines or some politicians. There are so many inside jokes – even Finns won’t get all of them.
I liked the idea that this “faceless mass” we keep referring to is now standing in front of the camera, singing. When we were filming these scenes, I would say: “This is your generation’s demonstration!” In 2019, that was the last time when this elderly care sector crisis really hit the media. My mum, who was listening to all these stories, said: “Don’t ever put me in one of these places, I would rather take some pills.” She wasn’t even joking. It really hit me hard because her generation, they are the ones who built the welfare system and created a society which I was able to take for granted. You feel like you have this safety net, so you dare to do things that are not as secure in life. We say that every man is the architect of his own fortune, which is bullshit. We are not – we can only be lucky or unlucky in life, and we should have this pact between generations, because we owe them.
You show so many odd aspects of this existing system, from the concept of the “phantom nurse” to robots that look like baby seals. You show many perspectives, too.
It’s so much easier to build a film around one storyline. But it was crucial to underline that it’s not just about one individual experience. I wanted to explore the idea of care, show how corrosive the system is, once this whole logic of commerce has taken over. It was shocking to find out that 65% of the services are privatised already, with bigger and bigger companies taking over.
This image of a robot, there is something funny about it, but it also serves to show the kinds of things we are actually concentrating on. I wanted to show more than just problems, however – that’s why the character of Tiina [a nurse blacklisted by her employer for speaking out] was so important. She makes you think about the very essence of care. The way she treats her patients, jokes with them, creates a sense of equality. I have always loved people with a sense of humour.
Can I ask you about the singer popping in at the very end, sitting in some bar and actually echoing many things you have discussed in the film?
That’s something I knew would never be understood outside of Finland [laughs]. It’s Sepi Kumpulainen – the original title of the film is inspired by one of his songs, Armotonta menoa. It was a big hit, and if you were somewhat conscious in the 1990s, you will remember it. There is this connection between the great depression of that decade and political commentary in his songs, and I also wanted to give his lyrics a little twist. But yes, foreign audiences will probably go: “Ok. Who is this?!”
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