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‘Compartment No. 6’ Director Juho Kuosmanen on Finnish Films Finding the Spotlight

Compartment No. 6 International Features Shortlist
Courtesy of Everett Collection

In a new series, Variety catches up with the directors of the films shortlisted for the International Feature Film Oscar to discuss their road to the awards, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s taken them off guard.

A crowdpleaser that quickly became a word-of-mouth hit in Cannes, Juho Kuosmanen’s “Compartment No. 6” follows Finnish academic Laura (Seidi Haarla) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Russian miner Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) on a train from Moscow to Murmansk, a city in northwestern Russia. The Finnish film, which has drawn parallels to the Before Sunrise trilogy, was quickly snapped up out of Cannes for major territories, including North America, by Sony Pictures Classics.

What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar?

It means a lot. This is my second feature. My debut film was “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki.” That was also the Finnish Oscar entry but that wasn’t shortlisted, so we’ve never been this far.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your campaign thus far?

Being in Finland when everything is happening in the U.S. is quite frustrating.

Although you are shortlisted in the international feature category, the best picture category has been devoid of non-English language features. “Parasite” (2019) was the first winner in history. Do you feel international voices are siloed in media and film criticism?

I don’t know. I follow a lot of Asian and European cinema and for me these films have always been at the core of my interests. It doesn’t feel like something that’s on the side. But it’s also easy to realize that everything that happens in the English language has a bigger audience and a bigger market. I think it’s getting better, though. In Finnish cinema, we can see more and more films outside of Europe and these films are more recognized in the U.S. and U.K. as well as “foreign-language” or “international” films, or whatever they’re called. The direction is good.

Are there ways to improve this process when it comes to awards season?

I’m not at all an expert in this and I don’t know how things work. I’m just a director and I don’t know this part of the industry that well.

How do you navigate the finances needed for an awards campaign?

I don’t know how smaller films that don’t have great festival success manage. I felt that strongly with my first film; we had a very small distributor. Even though the premiere was in Cannes and we won the Un Certain Regard award, I still felt [getting exposure] was not just about the film. We needed some muscle to get attention.

When trying to get consumer audiences to watch an international feature, there seems to be a focus on the length of a movie, but when something like “Avengers: Endgame” gets a three-hour runtime, Marvel fans are ecstatic and say, they could go longer if they wanted to. Is that fair?

I am also surprised at how long films have started to be. Especially in mainstream films, like the new James Bond film. It’s more common in arthouse films; it’s not really unusual. It’s weird because people can watch six episodes of their favorite TV show, but if they had to see a Lav Diaz film, which is like eight or 11 hours, it’s like “No, no! I’m not doing it!” But then you can be there watching episode after episode. It’s about redefining the idea of what’s entertaining and what’s not. I haven’t seen “Drive My Car” yet but I’m sure it’s great and I’ll enjoy every minute of it. People still have this idea that arthouse films or international films are not that entertaining. I don’t understand where it comes from; I think it’s just an attitude rather than something based on fact.

The Academy has favored European countries, with Italy and France winning triple the number of times than a country like Japan. How can we encourage more diversity from all countries globally?

By giving space and attention and more headlines to these films. To bring them in focus. It’s also to do with trends: Some countries become trendy and it doesn’t mean that those films are better than their neighbouring countries. But I think success brings interest. If we see a couple of Romanian films being awarded prizes in Cannes, we started getting interested in Romanian films and we start wondering what else there is. This has been in the case in the Nordics because Finland has always been behind Sweden and Denmark. Swedish and Danish films and TV series are widely recognized and seen and there’s strong interest. But Finnish films have always been in the background. But now in the past few years, as we’ve had some success at festivals, I’m starting to see that we’re actually now gaining that global interest. It’s not necessarily that the films have gotten better. It’s connected to the success of previous films. If the industry wants to change this and give more space to diversity, they should really push these films to help them win prizes and get attention.

You are representing your country to an American awards body (although there are voters who are international). How do you feel about being that representative?

I think it’s fun. Obviously, it’s a great honor. A few years ago when I was younger, I was really against this kind of competition in art. Now, I’ve started to think about this as part of the show, that it’s not so serious. And it’s not really who is better than the other, it’s just like one way to get attention. And to be representing Finland, I’m enjoying it. It’s like playing a sporting figure in the Olympics.

Could we see a sequel to “Compartment No. 6”? 

No, I would love to make another film with Seidi and Yuriy — either together or separately. I think they’re amazing actors. And I would also like to do another film in Russia; it was a great adventure. But with these characters, no, that was it.

Why is that? 

I think they’ve done everything that they could. They had that moment, and it’s gone. But it still exists in their minds, and there’s no going back. That was their story.

I was also wondering if perhaps the Ljoha character is gay in the film? 

This was something we thought while writing the script, and then we decided to keep it open. Because the whole idea of sexuality is not black and white. I don’t even know if she was a lesbian or bisexual. Our aim was to really see through these cultural identities which in a way genders are as well, and at some point sexuality, too. It’s something you’ve learned that’s a part of your cultural identity. In the end, when they’re wrestling in the snow and playing like kids, these identities don’t exist anymore — they’re just two human beings who feel a strong connection. They’re not defined by their nationality, gender or sexuality.

What’s your next project?

It’s a short silent film.