Hanna Maylett: creating films from the ‘margin’

I remember my overwhelming sense of anticipation and excitement at the world – the world being My Place by the fallen birch log, with the grass, the insects in the grass, the sky, the sheep and cows and rabbits, the wax-eyes and hawks – everything Outside . . . and the way I was filled with longing for it.
 – Janet Frame, New Zealand novelist, short story writer, and poet, from her autobiography, To the Is-Land

Hanna Maylett

Hanna Maylett

When Hanna Maylett was 13 years old, she announced to her mother that she wanted to become a film director. Her three younger siblings were child actors in films and television movies in their homeland of Finland. Although she, too, auditioned for roles, she didn’t get any parts. “I guess the only option for me was to get behind the camera!” Hanna joked. She chose well, given her rich filmography spanning 20 years, which includes seven short and feature-length films and several television mini-series. At the time of her announcement, she also told her mother that she couldn’t go to film school right after high school because “a film director needs life experience.” So she took a year off after graduation to travel before attending UIAH Helsinki (now Aalto University) to study film and graduating in 2000. “I always knew I wanted to tell stories and in a visual way, so cinematic storytelling was really the only option for me,” Hanna let me know in an email interview.

While in high school, Hanna saw Jane Campion’s film, An Angel at My Table (1990), a luminous film based on the three-book autobiography of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, who grew up impoverished, suffered numerous tragedies during her childhood, and was misdiagnosed and committed to a mental institution for eight years before winning a national writing award that literally set her free. The film was, as Hanna relates, her “greatest inspiration professionally.” “I realized it was possible to create worlds and characters that are meaningful and personal to me,” she said. “I have never seen anything as insightful, powerful, and intimate on-screen before. Campion’s film told about a woman’s vulnerability as a creative strength.” Hanna came to realize later that it was the first film that she saw that had “female protagonists taking an action.”

A scene from the television series, The Limit.

A scene from the television mini-series, The Limit.

Hanna’s filmography
Of her television mini-series, her most successful is The Limit (2014), a story of three women at different ages at the turning point of their lives, which was short-listed for Prix Italia (2014) and Prix Europa (2015). Of Hanna’s seven films – including her graduation film Good Girls (2000), Suburban Virgin (2003), Sisters Apart (2008), and First World Problems (2015), the latter having been chosen for this year’s LUNAFEST – two are autobiographical. The silent short The Rose of the Railroad (1996) tells of her grandmother’s choice between two suitors who came from the front of the same train. The feature-length documentary 100 Clocks (1998) focuses on her grandfather’s voluntary enlistment as a 17-year-old in the German army during WWII. In this “very private film” about her and her grandfather, whom she never got along with very well, Hanna related that he was never the same after the experience. He was a watchmaker by trade, and Hanna had childhood memories of the 100 clocks ticking in his office, where she slept when she visited. Clocks served as a metaphor in the film of her grandfather’s “neurotic need for precision,” which Hanna believed was a result of his time served in the German army. “It was my journey into his past, trying to understand him,” she said, of the making of 100 Clocks, which won the Prix Europa prize in Berlin in 2000.

A still from 100 Clocks - Hanna's brother trying on their grandfather's uniform - from the IDFA Festival site.

A still from 100 Clocks – Hanna’s brother trying on their grandfather’s uniform – from the IDFA Festival site.

Exploring societal ills
I was intrigued by Helping Mihaela (2012), a feature documentary about Hanna trying to help a 16-year-old Romanian Roma beggar with, as the movie trailer hints, “unexpected results.” With a population of 10 million, the Roma is one of Europe’s largest minority groups, spanning a broad range of communities, tribes, and clans. As a disadvantaged group, it has become the convenient scapegoat for societal ills. Hanna read a newspaper article about a Romanian Roma teenaged beggar, Mihaela, who gave birth at the Helsinki railway station in the middle of winter and, as a result, was deported to Romania. “Her situation really shocked me,” Hanna related. In an interview at the Astra Film Festival Sibiu in Romania in 2012, she said of the deportation, “I thought it was racist. I didn’t think it could happen in Finland.” Like many European countries experiencing cultural, political, and socio-economic upheaval resulting from immigration, Finland was grappling with the recent influx of Romanian Roma beggars coming to Helsinki and facing outright bigotry.

A pensive Mihaela.

A pensive Mihaela in her home country of Romania.

While a friend suggested that Hanna make a film about Mihaela, Hanna knew that wanted to investigate the events surrounding the girl’s situation. During the filming in Romania, she discovered that she was only seeing the proverbial tip of the iceberg: “The issue isn’t about one group – it’s so much more,” she pointed out in the Astra interview. One of the biggest problems is the “criminality and corruption” of the entrenched “social hierarchical structures” in central and eastern Europe, which adds to the already complex issue surrounding the Roma, according to Hanna. “Every time there is a poor man, there is always someone who takes advantage of him,” she recounted in the interview, “and there is always someone who is poorer than that man.”

The Romanian Roma landscape.

The Romanian Roma landscape.

The reaction to the film in her homeland was “diverse,” according to Hanna. The “ordinary” movie-goer sympathized with Mihaela’s struggles, although audience members said they would stop giving money to the Roma beggars as a result of having seen her film. Some journalists, however, took Hanna to task. Offended, they felt Hanna should have “known” the solution and incorporated it into her film to give it a “happy ending.” Responding to critics, Hanna pointed out, “There’s no easy solution.”

Filming Helping Mihaela in Romania.

Setting up filming Helping Mihaela in Romania.

The filmmaker’s role: defining identity by digging deeper
When I asked her what themes run through her films, she said, “All my films seem to be about defining one’s identity by finding new, deeper or broader layers in who one really is.” More pointedly, Hanna’s films present situations in which “a woman is not fitting in the expected role anymore.” This theme references her inspiration – Campion’s An Angel at My Table. But it is especially true in First World Problems, in which a middle-aged Finnish woman breaks down after losing her car in a car park and has a surprising encounter with a trolley (shopping cart) collector.

A scene from First World Problems.

A scene from First World Problems.

“In most of my films, the expectations of one’s social role/identity comes from within the character, not from outside,” she went on. “I find this subject endlessly inspiring. You are your biggest obstacle.” Thus far, most of Hanna’s protagonists are female, which perhaps is not accidental. “One seems to make films about those whom they feel emotionally closest, and maybe that’s the reason,” she revealed.

The idea for First World Problems came about when a friend posted on Facebook her failed attempt at unlocking the wrong car in a car park. Hanna went beyond the initial premise when she and her crew realized that “a car park is like a small universe, with all the aspects of a welfare society,” which thematically circles back to the issues Hanna addresses in Helping Mihaela.

A scene from First World Problems.

A scene from First World Problems.

Whether she explores familial territory or universal social issues, Hanna’s goal as a filmmaker is to elicit a response from the audience – whether it is laughter, tears, confusion, anger, disgust, and/or an understanding – and have the audience connect with her characters. She also hopes audiences “recognize something new and surprising about the world around them.” With First World Problems, for example, Hanna challenges people to “see the ever-so-invisible trolley collectors in a car park as persons with backgrounds.” To Hanna, film is an “empowering form of art: films can soothe, support, comfort, and challenge the audience.” The film has to speak directly to the audience member – “This is what I look for as a filmmaker,” she said.

On being a woman filmmaker: rejecting the gatekeepers and fighting back
In film school, 50 percent of her classmates were women. “I thought we were even with the fellow boys as directors,” she recalled, looking back. But in her 20 years, Hanna admitted that the career path for female directors is “much longer and more frustrating” than for male directors. It took her eight years to make her first feature-length film. Eight years later, Hanna is still working on the financing of her second feature film. In that time, she has also endured rejections for five other projects. To date, her male classmates are working on their sixth or seventh feature, even though, she pointed out, not all of their films have been successful. “I was not aware of the equality issue as a beginning filmmaker,” she confessed. “I naively thought we all have the same chances in the competitive business no matter your gender.”

The wide open spaces - a scene from Helping Mihaela.

The wide open spaces of freedom – a scene from Helping Mihaela.

In a recent bid to obtain financing for her project, a financier said to Hanna, “I think what now happens is that you go home, cry a little, and have a glass of red wine.” Her response was pointedly a different scenario: “I did not cry. I did not drink my wine. Instead, I furiously created a new strategy to get my film financed.” In another instance, Hanna was hired for a project, which featured boy protagonists, but a week later, the producer took it back because she had not experienced a boy’s childhood herself, which he found to be “a big problem.” For female filmmakers, she said, the unwritten rule is that women can make children’s movies and documentaries, but feature films are the domain of male filmmakers.

While Hanna admitted that she hasn’t personally overcome the treatment of women in the film industry, she vowed, “I have not given up. I fight against it every day by making films and having a strong women’s network.” Given that her success and recognition of her films have come from outside of Finland, her strategy has included cultivating an international career. “I try to look for all possible options,” she explained. “If one door gets shut, I knock on the next one.”

A scene from First World Problems.

A scene from First World Problems.

Being true to yourself
And that’s the advice she metes out to young women who aspire to become filmmakers. “Go for it!” she entreated. “If you need to make films, then you have to make them.” While the industry isn’t evolving fast enough, it is evolving, Hanna said, and at some point women filmmakers won’t have to endure some of the pushback that she endured. “Try to recognize those people who wish you good – hold on to them,” she said. “Make films that look like you, and don’t ever make coffee for guys just because. Don’t fool yourself by being one of the guys in order to be accepted. It will never happen, or if it does, it is not you anymore.”

In a nod to all of her filmmaking efforts, but particularly First World Problems and Helping Mihaela, Hanna said, “Most original stories will come from the margin, so be proud if you come from the margin. If you stay true to your artistic ambition, your films will deliver your soul and message. It will be a bumpy road, but it will be really worth it.”

Note: You can see Hanna’s short film First World Problems at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 19th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater.