Filmmaker Selma Vilhunen: "You have to be persistent and believe in what you do"
Selma Vilhunen, an Academy Award nominated film director and screenwriter who graduated from the Turku UAS Arts Academy in 2004, was one of the invited speakers at the PMP Online webinar on “Media and Art”. Both in the webinar and in this interview, Vilhunen had Marko Luukkonen, Senior Lecturer in Film and Media, as her discussion partner.
When Selma Vilhunen and Marko Luukkonen get to discuss filmmaking, the discussion revolves from cultural funding and the Oscars to the significance of the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle to the Finnish film industry, from success factors to challenges. As well as to how and where their paths have crossed. For example, when Marko once photographed Selma on a tram during a film production.
Today, in front of an international and domestic audience in this webinar Professional Media Presence -project , they are discussing Selma’s incredible career twists and turns, the changes in the film industry, and the encouragement of a new generation of creators. How can we move forward in a field where funding is uncertain, application processes are lengthy and there is no guarantee how the film will be received by the audience?
“I don’t have any philosopher’s stone on how to succeed in the film industry. You just have to persist in believing in what you are doing and be determined. In what you do, you should approach the topic seriously, observe, and start researching something that you don’t immediately know the answers to. Time and effort must be invested for observations, questions, and form to find each other. You have to be open to different ways of approaching your own topics and questions”, Selma Vilhunen advises.
Documentary requires time and extensive background work
Vilhunen makes both documentary films and fiction. The webinar audience asked about her data collection methods in documentaries. As one example, Vilhunen says that the more time you can spend with the main characters of the documentary before filming begins, the better the result will be. This is not always possible. When making the documentary Hobby Horse Revolution, which won the main prize for films lasting over 30 minutes at the Tampere Film Festival, Vilhunen says that she succeeded well in this. The film is about young hobbyhorse enthusiasts and the sense of community between them.
In addition, Vilhunen explores the subject of the documentary as extensively as possible by reading and studying various material.
“When you study a topic, you also examine yourself as a researcher of the subject. It’s important to keep alive the question of what my authorship is, why is it that I make films. Then you can find something fresh”, Vilhunen ponders.
Oscar nomination meets poetry singer’s story
Marko Luukkonen mentions one turning point in Vilhunen’s career, where documentary and fiction met in an exciting way. When Vilhunen was an Academy Award nominated for the short film Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, at the same time she had just finished the documentary called Laulu (The Song).
“Yes, it was an interesting situation. The long documentary Laulu tells the story of Jussi Huovinen, our last poetry singer, and his student. The glamour of the Oscars, on the other hand, was as great as you can imagine from what you have seen on TV, or maybe more. When I was at the Oscars, I was happy at the same time that I had that documentary with a small audience, that I had been able to do it before it was too late, and I had those songs. It was a truly important job for me,” Vilhunen says.
What would we have if there were no culture?
Before the webinar speech of the Professional Media Presence project, we are discussing with Vilhunen and Luukkonen the state of national funding for culture and the arts.
“In Finland, the budget for culture is being cut by EUR 180 million. The film industry is still fighting to get one percent of the state budget. That has not been achieved. It seems that the intrinsic value of culture is not seen. But what would Finnish identity, for example, be without culture?”, Vilhunen worries.
Other measures in the Government programme are also a cause for concern.
“One of the pillars of Finnish culture and well-being is investing in Finnish-speaking culture with as many voices as possible. The decline in diversity erodes Finnish culture”, Vilhunen points out.
Turbulence in the film industry makes it difficult to operate in the industry: streaming services shape the industry and create demand, but on the other hand, there can be rapid changes in their operations and projects can be suspended.
“It’s a bit like an everyday exercise, the kind of competition that you remember to hold on to something that is really essential in that art form – regardless of trends or what a financier thinks somewhere. To be faithful to your own observations even when it may mean a financial struggle”, Vilhunen ponders.
Yle’s role is significant for Finnish cinema. Vilhunen and Luukkonen think that if Yle’s funding is lowered, it will be reflected in the entire cultural sector. Especially when it comes to financing and distributing short films, Yle is very important. Otherwise, short films can only be made by those who have access to capital through some other means. This leads to inequality in making art.
Anyone can make a film – what does that mean for the industry?
Today, the technology of filmmaking is accessible to everyone on some level, regardless of the background. However, making a professional film requires more than just technical equipment, Vilhunen points out.
“It’s absolutely amazing that a lot of productions by artists from different backgrounds are published in numerous forums. There are also a huge number of film festivals. The whole culture has become more visual, something lingers on the retinas all the time. It is all the more important that filmmakers have to stop again and again at what filmmaking is all about; cherish the essence.”
Luukkonen points out that cinema has always been a union of art, entertainment, money, innovation, and experimentation. Film is both art and a commercial product.
“As an artist and entrepreneur in practical life, I do have to think about this, the hat I´m wearing changes frequently”, Vilhunen laughs.
“You want to make art for art’s sake, to be free from business thinking, but you can’t be. That union is special.”
The secret of success
Let’s return to one of the core questions of Selma Vilhunen’s seminar speech: what lies behind her personal success? What is the secret of success?
“There are probably several factors behind the successes: first of all, encouragement and support from home, from close friends and relatives. After high school, I got to know people who have each pushed me a little bit forward and supported. I also received encouragement and experiences of success during my studies – the experience that making art is meaningful, even if it does not make a living right away.”
Goal-orientation, belief in one’s own things, has also taken Vilhunen forward, even if she did not immediately receive a response to her own ideas. In the beginning, it could take up to five years to get funding for one film, and not all ideas received funding at all.
“In other words, good luck and stubbornness are needed!”, Vilhunen says.
Selma Vilhunen is an Academy Award nominated director and screenwriter of both fiction and documentary films. She is also one of the founders of the production company Tuffi Films. Her sophomore feature film Stupid Young Heart won the Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019, while her debut feature film Little Wing received the Nordic Council Film Prize in 2017. Vilhunen’s short film Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? was nominated for an Oscar in 2014.
Her latest film Four Little Adults had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2023. Actor Alma Pöysti was awarded with the Dragon Award for Best Acting for her role as Juulia in Four Little Adults at the Gothenburg Film Festival. The film will have its Finnish theatrical release in December 2023.
Marko Luukkonen is a Senior lecturer in Film and Media department at Turku UAS Arts Academy. He has a Master of Fine Arts in cinematography. He has worked as a cinematographer and filmmaker in visionary, essayistic, documentary and fictional films. He has also worked in the field of visual arts and participated in exhibitions. He is widely networked with the Finnish national film industry. His research interests include new technologies in filmmaking and time based media art.