In “Finnish Blood, Swedish Heart,” Finland’s Mika Ronkainen, best known for his documentaries – 2003’s “Screaming Men,” 2009’s “Freetime Machos” – portrays the dislocation of 1970s Finnish emigrants in Sweden via a father-and-son musical road movie.
For “All the Sins,” a Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize entry written with Merja Aakko, Ronkainen takes very much the same elements – a genre, here the murder mystery; a near documentary depiction, here of small town bigotry; and cornerstone family relationships – and recasts them in a drama series, awash in a sense of (unmerited) shame and guilt, with a contemporary feminist turn. The result is a crime thriller which works on several levels.
“All the Sins” begins in classic Nordic Noir with a body winched upside down in a barn as a shadowy assassin draws a knife seemingly to dispatch the victim. But, diverging from the Nordic Noir playbook, we never see the corpse. After a ten-year absence, Detective Lauri Räiha (Johannes Holopainen, “Unknown Soldier”) is dispatched to investigate the murders of two men, both pillars of the ultra-conservative Laestadian religious community, in Varjakka, a small northern Finnish town where he grew up. He is accompanied by a senior officer, Sanna Tervo (Maria Sid, “Donna Paukku” ).
But why does Räiha have such huge anger-management issues, seething, white knuckles clenched, in a therapy class, after hitting his boyfriend? And why does Tervo feel compelled to sleep with the first man she meets, and the second? It is these character mysteries which, as much as the murders, which transforms “All the Sins” into compulsive viewing.
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A six-part series “All the Sins” is lead produced for Finnish VOD service Elisa Viihde by Ilkka Matila at Finland’s MRP Matila Rohr Productions, a company which is behind one of Finland’s most ambitious movies, “The Eternal Road.”
Variety talked to screenwriters Aakko and Ronkainen before “All the Sins” bows at Sweden’s Göteborg Festival, as part of its Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize competition, for outstanding screenwriting on a Nordic drama series.
You’ve dedicated much of your early career to documentaries on your native northern Finland or on Finns. Do you see “All the Sins” as another way into describing your region – but via the strong investigative narrative drive of Nordic Noir?
Ronkainen: Oh yes, that was indeed the starting point for “All the Sins.” The initial idea that I suggested to Merja back in 2014 was: Let’s do a high concept crime drama with a strong local story about something that is very special for our region, but can be universally understood nevertheless. As we both come from the Bible Belt of Finland, and we both have a background in real stories (Merja has worked as a journalist), it was very natural for us to write a story that takes place in a small conservative town with a strong religious sect. We both come from a town like that.
The real mystery seems why both detectives have buried themselves so much in work. What went wrong? This seems connected to a sense of guilt which is deeply consuming because both feel its’ unmerited. Could you comment?
Aakko: If you see it that way, maybe Lauri and Sanna are old school Finns when it comes working. We Finns take it very seriously, even if you don’t always get rewarded for it.
Our main characters are not very good at dealing with their feelings. Like most of us, Lauri and Sanna project their feelings onto other people without realizing it. It is the state of emergency in work that makes it possible for them to avoid the most difficult questions of themselves: the failure as a partner or a mother. But I do not see them escaping only into work. Sanna also projects her emotions onto sex.
The viewer may expect snowy wastes from northern Finland. Instead they get Summer sun, most all of the time, lush green fields, church spires dominating hamlets: Varjakka seems more like real mid-west America, a land of profound religious belief. Where was the series shot? Was it near your own native town, Mika?
Ronkainen: The series was shot within a 100 kilometre radius from my home town, Oulu, and it is really flat here. It is so flat that people call a fifty-meter-hill a mountain. This region is an important part of the Finnish Bible Belt, so I think that’s a fair comparison you made to mid-west America. That is actually something we talked a lot about with my DOP Jani Kumpulainen. We wanted to use both the flatness of the physical landscape and the strictness of the mental landscape as visual elements because we feel they very much go together up here.
As in many of your films, Mika, the music, the title song, for example, is memorable: A lover asking the beloved to take them off to war, or at least to the first frontier. Is this a real song? If so, what is it? And why use it?
Ronkainen: It’s a real song by Aino Venna, a Finnish singer-songwriter. We had it already in the script and we planned the title sequence to work with it. It is a lovely song indeed. It sets the tone exactly right.
How did you divide the work on “All the Sins”? As both first-time series writers, what did you learn from the experience?
Aakko: We’ve been friends since we were eleven or so. The way we work is pretty much based on our childhood friendship: We play just like we played when we were kids. First we create the characters and plot through talking a lot. We joke, debate, and challenge each other, we take roles. At best, it is like going to therapy. As a result, we have developed our own way of writing where we write as “one writer.” We are using an online application where we can see what the other one is doing in real time, which may sound scary but it actually works.
Nordic Noir has been proclaimed dead, or so influential that you now get Caribbean Noir (“Four Seasons in Havana”), or even Andorran Noir (“Felix”). It does indeed seem to have evolved. But what has that evolution been?
Aakko: I am not expert on any Noir and I don’t actually think we’re doing Nordic Noir. I feel Nordic Noir is short of love and warmth. I have not seen the series you mentioned but generally speaking, there are some clichés in Noir series: Dark colors, eroticized dead bodies of young women, and detectives who are huffing to each other without any particular reason. We avoid them. Let’s say “All the Sins” is Finnish Weird. We mix genres and share the peculiar stories from the Northern Bible Belt.
What are you working on now?
Aakko, Ronkainen: We just finished a research trip to Guatemala for another series that we’re developing, and “All the Sins” Season 2 is in our plans, too. And we’ve got a couple of other ideas waiting for the right time.