Oscars 2021 International Feature Contenders: Meet Zaida Bergroth – “Tove”

Zaida Bergroth is a Finnish director and screenwriter. Her films include 2019’s “Maria’s Paradise” and 2017’s “Miami.” Her film “Skavabölen Pojat” (“Last Cowboy Standing”) won the Best Debut award at the 2009 Pusan Film Festival, and received the Finnish...

Oscars 2021 International Feature Contenders: Meet Zaida Bergroth – “Tove”

Zaida Bergroth is a Finnish director and screenwriter. Her films include 2019’s “Maria’s Paradise” and 2017’s “Miami.” Her film “Skavabölen Pojat” (“Last Cowboy Standing”) won the Best Debut award at the 2009 Pusan Film Festival, and received the Finnish national Jussi awards for Best Screenplay and Best Sound Design. Her film “Hyvä Poika” (“The Good Son”) won several awards at international film festivals in 2011, such as the Chicago Film Festival, Prague Film Festival/Febiofest, and the Mons International Love Film Festival. It also picked up seven Jussi nominations and a nomination for the prestigious Nordic Council Film Prize.

“Tove” is Finland’s submission to the Best International Feature Film category at the 2021 Academy Awards.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

ZB: “Tove” is a film about an exceptional artist in search of her own voice and place in the world.

It’s also a passionate and complex love story between two ambitious women.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

ZB: A wonderfully interesting and unconventional main character, her ambition, and her insecurity — and her passion for men, women, and art.

I thought it was an exciting challenge to get to do a portrait of her.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

ZB: I hope they will have experienced something intimate and honest. That we will have shared something relevant together. I hope they will have felt a closeness to the world and experiences of Tove Jansson and that the themes of love, freedom, and independence will linger in their minds and spark interesting discussions.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

ZB: To overcome the fear of telling an intimate story about such a well-known artist. As Tove Jansson herself said, ”You can’t ever be really free if you admire somebody too much.” So, I guess the challenge was to let go of the admiration, look at her from the eye level, and try to forget the pressure caused by the expectations of her admirers.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

ZB: This film was funded by the Finnish Film Foundation, Swedish Film Institute, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, Svenska Kulturfonden, Eurimages, and the public broadcaster Svenska Yle. We got important financing also from other smaller foundations.

Films in Finland are mainly financed with the support of Finnish Film Foundation and a national TV channel. In “Tove’s” case, we also got significant support from Sweden.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

ZB: I’ve loved movies since I was a child. My mother showed us a lot of films and I saw all the classics. Bergman, Kurosawa, Wilder — all these old masters played a significant role in my upbringing. Sadly, there were no female directors around.

When I was around 12 I remember seeing “Psycho.” If things got too scary my mother would stop the tape and explain to us how there’s this whole film crew just outside the frame. I remember how intriguing it felt to imagine all the different film professionals building these wonderful illusions so carefully for us.

As a teenager I received a video camera as a present, and started documenting my circle of friends. My first plan was to become a cinematographer, but as I started studying filmmaking I felt this strong urge to tell my own stories.

I started to write and direct, and soon noticed that I found my place working with stories, images, and actors.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

ZB: The worst advice: As a director, walk fast and mumble when you speak, so people working with you will be a bit afraid of you.

The best advice: Work from a place of joy. Stay curious.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

ZB: I’ve said this before, but it’s important to love your ”weaknesses” and the eccentric sides of your personality. They are what make you who you are and are a source of power. There’s no need to try to blend in.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

ZB: I need to mention the works of Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Debra Granik, Lucrecia Martel, Sofia Coppola, and Jane Campion. They all have their unique and courageous voices, and I’m so grateful for that, both as a viewer and as a colleague. In a wonderful way, it feels like there’s more oxygen in the air after seeing their films.

Isabella Eklöf’s “Holiday” is one of the recent films I enjoyed tremendously. It’s violent, sharp, disturbing, and heartbreaking.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

ZB: I just got myself a new workroom, and I simply enjoy spending time there. I’ve been working hard for the past couple of years and I’m letting myself take it easy for a moment. I’m working on some ideas and reading a lot. I’m usually always on the move so in a way the pandemic has made me slow down in a good way.

W&H: What does it mean to you to have your film in the running for an Oscar in the International Feature category?

ZB: It’s wonderful recognition. It means a lot. We’ll get new kind of attention for “Tove,” and new and important distribution deals have already been done. Our film will now be available for new audiences — I think that’s the most wonderful thing from a Finnish director’s perspective.

I care for this film deeply, and I’m very proud of the work of the actors and the artistic team, so I’m grateful and glad that viewers from around the world will now have access to it. And it’s also wonderful to lead new audiences to Tove Jansson and her exceptional work.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make the film industry more inclusive?

ZB: We need more directors from different backgrounds for all voices to be heard. In countries where films are mostly funded by the state, like in Finland, the film commissioners play a key role. I’m glad to say in Finland things are changing, though we are probably a bit behind the other Nordic countries in this. There are, for example, exciting Finnish-Somalian and Finnish-Iranian filmmakers with debut features either just out or that will be released soon.

Of course, all of us individual filmmakers have a responsibility too, and should question ourselves when building the characters: “Am I using harmful and simplistic stereotypes?” I think being aware of these things also benefits the film in an artistic sense.