SPOT ON

The men smiling on screens

Hopefully in the future there will be more and more films with several female actresses, who do not talk to each other only about men.

23.09.2016

The Finnish movie scene has a new shining star. Finnish first-time feature director Juho Kuosmanen’s film The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki received Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes film festival. The film was also shown in the Toronto Film Festival. Now Finns have their fingers crossed regarding the next Oscars.

In spite of the glory, a particular observation does not leave me alone: I’m writing about a premiere of yet another film that would not pass the Bechdel test. The test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, is used as an indicator for the presence of women in the films.

BECHDEL TEST is genius in its simplicity. To pass the test, the movie needs to satisfy the following requirements:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

The test does not measure the quality of the film, neither does it measure whether the film is ‘feminist’ of it or whether there is sexist content in it. It only indicates whether women have any active presence, whatsoever, in films to start with.

We are so used to see films telling stories of men that vast amounts of films that would palpably fail the Bechdel test, go without waking up any reactions within us. But if we stop to think about it, it is a little funny.

THE FILM INDUSTRY is a massive island of masculinity. A good affirmation of this from Finland is the movie supply for the centenary of Finland’s independence in 2017: The official program includes a wide selection of movies about men, made by men.

Finnish actress and professor Elina Knihtilä elucidated this aptly in an interview for Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily in Finland. The roles of the female actresses are a lover, a wife or a mother. These roles exist for one purpose only: to reflect upon and comment the feelings and actions of the male characters.

Unfortunately, this description befits also for Kuosmanen’s Cannes champ.

THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MÄKI is certainly a good movie. It is skillfully directed, the script is funny, the cinematography is magnificent, and the actors and actresses are simply excellent.

Also, Kuosmanen’s film is in no way solely responsible for the male-centrism of the movie industry. Maybe the passive roles of women just reflect the spirit of the time the film is set, the 1960s.

In addition, artists are naturally allowed to write their films about whatever they choose.

Howbeit, the structures. Movies do not, similarly to any other works and forms of art, come into being in a vacuum. They reflect and are part of the surrounding culture. In the academic jargon of the film studies, we usually make remarks such as “the images spread by films reconstruct the reality.” That is, the passive image of women we keep witnessing on screens reinforces the passive image of women in our everyday reality.

Therefore, the question is: even though the women are nowadays more visible in different domains in the society, is it somehow insurmountable for movie makers to make them visible and heard also on screen? Moreover, in this case I also argue that the criteria for “being visible” in a movie is only fulfilled, when a woman has a bigger role than only to stare, with her Bambi eyes, at the male main character.

My humble wish is that if Juho Kuosmanen is the promising newcomer among film directors, he will keep the test in mind in his future productions – or actually, the other half of the population.

‘The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki’

  • Direction and screenplay by: Juho Kuosmanen
  • Cast: Jarkko LahtiOona AirolaEero Milonoff
  • Features the boxer Olli Mäki and the 1962 world featherweight championship organized in Finland.
  • Had it’s world premiere at the Cannes film festival where the film won Un Certain Regard in May 2016. The film was the first Finnish movie that won the award.
  • It is currently being screened as part of the official selections of Toronto International Film Festival and Helsinki international Film Festival.

This speaker’s corner is an adaptation of a column originally published in Souli Media. The column triggered a reply from the director Juho Kuosmanen, and the debate continues. Elm Magazine will cover the role of women in media also in the upcoming theme issue Lifelong Learning and Gender. Stay tuned to find out, inter alia, what the director had to say about gender roles and cinema − and is it possible to unlearn harmfull gender roles by watching different sort of movies. The issue will be published the October 14th.