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Reclaiming Girlhood – An Exclusive Interview with Alli Haapasalo

Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) has sudden outbursts of anger. Emma (Linnea Leino) wishes to compete at the figure skating European championship but struggles to keep her focus. Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen) worries that she may never experience sexual pleasure. They are all under the age of 20 and go about life in a state of constant discovery. They refuse to abide by the extraneous expectations of parents, coaches or peers. They want to find what makes them feel all right.

Girl Picture is the quintessential female coming-of-age story, and its creator, Alli Haapasalo, is the quintessential female director. Her debut, Love and Fury, was about a writer in early 80s Finland, finding her place in a world “much dominated by male voices,” while her second feature, Force of Habit, was co-created with six other writer-directors, expressed frustration with women’s mistreatment. The latter was a “political passion project” dealing with “sexual harassment, women not being heard at the workplace, the different ways gender bias manifests itself in the world.”

Even though screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen had already started to develop Girl Picture in 2014, the screenplay did not resonate with producers until a few years later. The #MeToo movement changed the landscape for female-driven stories, because “people started to ask themselves whose stories are we telling, who is telling the stories and what is the representation [of women]”.

“Of course, there are men who can direct women’s stories in relatable ways,” Haapasalo chuckled when the HFPA interviewed her on a zoom call. “But, I think, in most cases, the understanding that a woman director has about a woman’s life manifests itself in a way that allows you to experience the female characters on a deeper, more human and more complex level.”


Building female characters that felt “approachable” and “identifiable” was the director’s main goal in making Girl Picture. “We know that the male gaze in the film is connected to the sexualization and objectification of women. Seeing women as objects of desire also has to do with seeing them as distant, dangerous perhaps, or somehow unique and special and mysterious.”

“Whether you see them as objects of desire, dangerous or mysterious or victimized … there’s always a distance,” she continued. “I just wanted us to get close … [The characters] are regular, you know! They are not crazy, junkies, girl gang members. They’re just human, flesh and blood, realistic women who deal with everyday issues.”

Just a few years ago, films about women were sometimes contemptuously referred to as “chick flicks.” Who would now dare to call Girl Picture a chick flick? Yet this is exactly what it is. The difference is that this film is made by, about and for women – unapologetically. Its title in Finnish says it all: Girls Girls Girls.

Instead of pointing a scolding finger at society in general, Haapasalo wanted to raise her fist in solidarity with the girls in her film and in celebration of everything that comes with girlhood. “Early on in the process,” she said, “I was told not to use the word ‘girl’ [because] in Finnish it is considered belittling. I said: ‘No way, there’s nothing bad about “girls!”’ We very much wanted to reclaim the word in Finnish”.

The film, however, isn’t just the war cry of a feminist nor an empty slogan. Rather, it recognizes that reclaiming oneself must be based on self-acceptance. “Having mercy and love for yourself is tremendously important,” the filmmaker pointed out. “Even at 44, I struggle giving myself the same credit as I see men my age give easily to themselves”.

For millennia, centuries, decades and years, the male gaze has defined women. If women are now emerging above the surface and beginning to be seen for who and what they are, it is up to them to stop trying to fit into molds that were made by others. It is they who must accept themselves as they come, with all their awkwardness and confusion, insecurities and imperfections.

In a similar vein, rather than the writer’s putting labels onto the characters, their sexual orientation is kept fluid: “We don’t know if Mimmi’s and Emma’s next relationship will be with the same or the opposite sex. That’s very much [done] on purpose, and it’s also something that [the characters’] generation is better at than mine”.

In the end, the only thing that matters is finding peace with how one feels inside. The strong and angry Mimmi is liberated by admitting that she wants to “feel like a little child in her mom’s arms”; Emma realizes that she can be an athlete and enjoy life too, and Rönkkö is reconciled with the prospect of being asexual. “The LGBTQIA community has responded very well to the fact that [Girl Picture] also raises the question of asexuality potentially … I heard that there is no treatment of [asexuality] in films,” Haapasalo mentioned as a side note.

How much does the filmmaker’s raised fist in solidarity with her own kind resonate with the society at large? Is this conversation confined to the artistically and culturally privileged? “It remains to be seen how [Girl Picture] will be received in, say, small-town Finland,” she admitted.

Still, the theme of investigating women’s lives is a powerful draw for this director. She is currently developing two features, one period, the other contemporary, but both dealing with the same theme – “the expectation of what a woman can be in society – what is her self-expression, what is her sexual expression, what is appropriate to be, how social circles allow her to be or not to be.” 

“I guess this is what drives me,” Alli Haapasalo affirmed with a smile. “I started film school 20 years ago and I remember that everyone was saying ‘women are coming to the cinema.’ 20 years later it is actually happening. Of course, there have been magnificent female directors throughout film history, but now the momentum is here. I have meetings with agents, and they are all saying Hollywood is hungry for women directors, Gothenburg Film Festival launched its 50-50 initiative … it’s happening, it’s here!”

Then she added without any hint of self-satisfaction as if her work could speak for all female filmmakers: “We can do this, we can launch Girl Picture and have it win a Sundance audience award, with that title!”