The spectacular rise of green-haired Finnish pop star Alma has inspired one of Finnish Film Affair’s most buzzy documentaries in progress, “Alma – Who Am I?” Finnish director and actor Pamela Tola spoke to Variety about her film.
Produced by Helsinki production company Lucy Loves and Oskari Huttu, and being pitched at the Helsinki film industry event this week, “Alma – Who Am I?” follows the rise of its subject, who suffers from mental health challenges and who grew up in a socially alienated family with her twin sister and their disabled parents. Alma is also a musical force of nature who writes songs for major international artists and performs her own work to audiences around the world.
Tola confesses that as she got to know her subject she quickly encountered universal themes in the challenges facing women artists.
How did you become interested in Alma’s story and what did you want to explore most in the film?
First I got to know Alma personally and it was surprising for me to learn about her life because so many things that she has had to face in her life are strikingly similar to my personal history. The way she’s been undermined by middle-aged male industry executives throughout her career is something I could really relate to. I spent almost a decade trying to finance my first film as a director after being established “only” as an actress.
Also her background in growing up in very challenging surroundings, surrounded by social alienation and chronic illnesses, is exactly my past. I was amazed when I understood that at the moment she’s dealing with the same issues I was facing 10-15 years ago.
So you found many personal and professional parallels you weren’t expecting?
I started to think more about the reasons behind Alma’s success and her relationship to music. It is funny that she didn’t really ever dream of being famous or successful. All that just happened because of her passion, talent and personality.
I have always had the same kind of fire inside me that Alma has, and that has driven me as well. With Alma’s story I want to show that it is possible to be incomplete and complete at the same time. That it’s possible to be successful in one area and struggle in another.
What were the most unexpected things about her life and work that you discovered?
The biggest surprise has been understanding how big she actually is internationally. I mean she’s performed and written music with superstars like Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey. People don’t really understand that in Finland. Because she does not sing in Finnish there are, for example, big radio channels that don’t play her music even though she is the biggest international Finnish artist.
On the other hand, that shows Alma’s courage: She does not care too much about others’ opinions. She was told that she should sing in Finnish because people in Finland only listen to Finnish music. I really admire that she had the courage to say that I will do it my way or not at all. Also it’s been so touching to see how fans react when meeting her; you can really tell how much her music means to these people all over the world.
Why do you think her work has become such an international phenomenon in such a competitive arena?
I think it’s because of her talent, courage, stubbornness and personality. Alma is very real, authentic person. She is a brilliant performer with voice and charisma, but she is also a really talented composer, I think especially in writing melodies. And I think one of the key things is that for some reason she’s had the courage or stubbornness or whatever to be able to keep on doing her own thing while everybody has been pushing their advice and opinions.
I have also been thinking that maybe sometimes the difficult past may help someone to achieve something? Often people are too afraid of making mistakes so they end up doing nothing, they don’t even want to try. But what about when you don’t have anything to lose? If the worst has already happened?
How did you decide to structure the doc? Did you follow along mainly as an observer or did you want to also actively create some scenes?
So far I have been mainly observing and filming. But we still have a long way to go in shooting the film, so you never know how things proceed… Alma has a lot of material that they have been shooting while they have been touring, so we have a lot of material to deal with.
Why do you think the themes Alma explores in her work are especially appealing to young people right now?
She is real and genuine and that really can be felt in her music and that resonates with the audience. She is not afraid of being herself, showing also her vulnerability. And that makes her extremely strong. And to be honest I think Alma is a great role model or example to anyone regardless of age or gender roles.
What was the most challenging aspect of making the film?
I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise that shooting a documentary during COVID is difficult. For very understandable reasons travelling and access to practically everywhere is restricted and we have to do constant risk-evaluation of where, and with whom it is okay to shoot.
What’s the status of the production and what kind of interest and support has been generated so far?
We have been following Alma’s life since the spring 2020. So far we’ve had development support from the Finnish Film Foundation and AVEK (The Promotion Center for Audiovisual Culture), and we have a distribution deal with Scanbox and the Finnish streamer Elisa. And we are currently looking for a possible co-producer, more financing and international sales. Alma is not just a Finnish artist and I think it is important to open the story and her world so that it is possible for people to enjoy the movie abroad too.