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Finnish Writer-Director Aino Suni on her Feature Debut ‘Heartbeast,’ a Queer Love Story with a Dark Twist

Heartbeast
Credit: Kerttu Hakkarainen

Helsinki-based helmer-writer Aino Suni makes her feature debut with “Heartbeast,” a queer love story with a dark twist about a Finnish teen whose mother moves her to France. It world premieres in Nordic competition at this year’s Göteborg Festival.

What inspired the story?

Suni: The documentary “Never Again” I made about Finnish rapper Mercedes Bentso definitely gave me a lot of inspiration. Mercedes Bentso, one of my closest friends today, uses rap as a way to express even the darkest emotions, fears, wants and the most forbidden fantasies, as does Elina, the protagonist of “Heartbeast.”

It’s personally important for me to tell stories about queer people. It’s part of my own self-expression and answers my own need to see women loving women on the screen. But the fact that the story has a dark quality has nothing to do with being queer. It could be any kind of love that is ruined by possessiveness. As a filmmaker I notice myself drawn to stories with moral ambiguity. I want to understand why we do things that hurt ourselves and other people.

The film is a psychological thriller, a coming-of-age story and a drama unfolding in three countries.  

I love coming-of-age stories. When you’re young, one summer, one friendship or one love can turn your life around. You see a deeper meaning in everything, you are learning about life, you get to experience something for the first time and that memory will stick with you forever. It sculpts you as a person. I think this is something I wanted to relive when making this film and for me it’s definitely the core of the story.

I wanted to tell the story in a different style, almost the way you would film “Scarface” — a larger-than-life kind of approach that’s normally dedicated to adult men and their honor. Just because there’s young women in the film doesn’t mean it needs to be only gentle and subtle . . . lately I’ve realized I can also use the big brush, I don’t need to go small.

Why did you decide to have a multi-lingual narrative? 

The fact that the film [would be] mostly in French was evident from early on. The story I wanted to tell was set in France and the main characters came from France and Finland. It was definitely a challenge to direct a film in a different language than my mother tongue. Luckily, we had a great team to make it happen.

It was difficult to cast Elina’s role – not just because of the language, but also because of the rap skills and stage presence we needed Elina to have. Finland is a super small country so it’s not likely to find one person like this – in the right age, with right attributes – it’s a very limited pool. But we were extremely lucky. Elsi Sloan (they are non-binary and use the pronouns they/them) didn’t actually speak French when they came for the audition. For the second round, we asked people to present a part of the main rap song from the film, which is in French. Since Elsi is a musician, they have an excellent capability to learn sounds. Elsi could rap the song just by ear from the tape we sent them. And they did it with such ease and charisma, we were in awe. I was sure they could learn the language by the start of the shooting.

What about the other young lead, Carmen Kassovitz, daughter of French director-actor Mathieu Kassovitz?

Carmen has a long background in dance and ballet. She is originally from Martinique, a French island in the Caribbean, where her mother Julie Mauduech works as an actor and has an acting school. Carmen moved to Paris some years ago and now works in films and TV (she plays in “Stalk,” a big French youth series).

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Aino Suni

What kind of preparation did you do with the two young actors?

We rehearsed a lot with Elsi and Carmen. I think we had a month of rehearsals together. We went through the script, talked about the characters a lot, we did scenes and sometimes a little improvisation. I was also testing out the shot-list while doing this. Thanks to the rehearsal period the actors really got to know their characters and most of all, each other. Elsi and Carmen became close friends and there was a very natural bond between them which is seen in the film. They supported and helped each other.

You’ve directed fiction as well as documentaries. Will you continue to move between both kinds of filmmaking?

It’s hard for me to choose between fiction and documentary since I’ve done both since the very beginning of my career. And, luckily, I don’t have to choose. In the best case, they really complete each other. Both can be so rewarding and at the same time very demanding in different ways. What I like about fiction is that I am able to create the reality I want and express precisely what I need to. Of course, there’s always an element of surprise and because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking you always end up with something more than just your own imagination, which is awesome. On the downside, it can take forever to develop and find funding – it’s such an expensive art form.

While doing documentaries you learn a lot. You need to stay humble and open. You get to meet people you would never normally meet. It really broadens your view of life beyond your own experience. I always feel that documentary filmmakers are the activists of the film industry: they are on a mission bigger than their own immediate success or career and I respect this quality a lot. On the downside, you have a big responsibility towards the people you film. You can’t just take their private, sometimes painful stories and run off with them and do your own thing. At least I can’t do it like that. So, there’s a lot of ethical issues about documentaries that make it less easy, but it doesn’t stop me from doing them when the right topic and subject comes along!

Please tell me about your TV work.

“Pussy Diaries” is a short documentary series that has four episodes (produced by Mete Sasioglu from Sons of Lumiere, broadcast on YLE ) about young women and non-binary people who struggle with their sexual life and try to find their own solutions. One of them, Minni, who suffers from vulvodynia and can’t have penetrative sex, searches for her pleasure by trying out shibari: Being tied up by ropes. It’s an introspective journey about what pleasure can be and how are we conditioned to think about sex through heteronormativity. It suggests we should expand our concept of sexuality. We’re currently developing another documentary series with Mete about different forms of love, such as polyamory, asexuality and friendship. I am constantly fascinated to broaden my own horizon by questioning the normative ideals that limit how we express our love and sexuality.

What’s next for you?

Coming up next is a feature screenplay about a couple who try to find a home and build their life together from scratch. Both women are recovering addicts who have found support and love in each other. When Aamu, the main character, falls for another woman she doesn’t just start a secret affair but also is drawn back to her old bad habits. I am currently writing the first draft so it is still very much a work in progress.