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BERLINALE 2023 Encounters

Tia Kouvo • Director of Family Time

“Everything has to feel true to me”

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- BERLINALE 2023: The Finnish director told us about her feature debut and her desire to see a more truthful depiction of the family

Tia Kouvo • Director of Family Time

Finnish director Tia Kouvo has presented her mesmerising and slightly sarcastic directorial debut, Family Time [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Tia Kouvo
film profile
]
, in the Encounters section of this year's Berlinale. We talked to her about her inspiration, her characters and their authenticity.

Cineuropa: Why Christmas?
Tia Kouvo:
I think there is something universal about these family gatherings. We meet our family members a certain number of times per year, and there are special expectations of what it should look like. The idea for the film came to me around ten years ago, when I was watching a Christmas movie and thought that my Christmases don't look anything like that. I think we lack images that show a truthful depiction of family gatherings of any sort – not especially at Christmas.

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How much of your own family history made it into the film?
I try to draw a lot from reality; I try to be truthful in my depiction. Everything has to feel true to me. The characters are a mixture of different people I know. It is a fiction film, and that means, of course, that I invented a lot of things as well. It's difficult to say how much exactly comes from my own experience, but I would say a great deal. I wanted to start from something personal in order to make it very universal. My aim is not to tell a personal story; I look at this family and how they behave, and I think there is something everyone can relate to.

Would you say it is a typical Finnish family that you portray?
In a way. For example, alcoholism is very common in Finland, as is this pattern of not communicating with each other – there is no emotional closeness. Something is standing between the family members; something is stopping them from talking to each other about what they really feel.

And the character of the grandmother fills this void by never ceasing to talk.
I really love her character. I wanted her to be a typical grandmother, but it was important that she wouldn't be a victim. She is totally in control of what she is doing. I always write my characters while feeling that I believe everything they believe. I am not that interested in what goes on in their subconscious. For me, she is the beating heart of the family, but she also enables some of the bad stuff to happen. She is not a perfect person.

You strike a nice balance between humour and drama. But is it more of a drama or more of a comedy for you?
“Drama” is a difficult word, because I try to avoid drama. I didn't want to bring any drama into the story; I only wanted to observe what is happening in the room. And I hoped that the drama and the conflict would happen between the film and the viewer. Those labels are difficult, but maybe it's a comedy-drama.

The sisters can't stand each other: the younger one suffers from an inferiority complex, and she is seeking the recognition she has never had.
I think she is a very typical person. In Finland, we have a lot of Susannas: the daughters of really stern, silent men. They have never had enough love from their dads, and they try so hard to be good. Susanna is a little bit conflicted in terms of what she really wants in life or if she is happy in her relationship. She is struggling with her self-esteem. She tries to stand up for herself. Maybe she read in a magazine how you can improve your self-confidence, and she tries it out. But then there is this scene at work, where her colleagues overlook her. This is a common thing, and it has happened to me in the workplace, too. I thought I would be thanked for something, but then the focus shifted on to something else. You are always the most important person for yourself, but for others, unfortunately, you are not so important.

You used a static camera. Why was this important?
I spent a long time developing the visual concept with the cinematographer. We made a short with the same title and the same characters in 2016, in the same style. A lot of things are happening between the lines of what people do and say. You can depict so much with the framing, such as leaving somebody out of the image. I think a bigger image is so much more interesting to look at. That's where you get the space to start looking for yourself. I don't feel like using close-ups, because it's the situation that I’m interested in.

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