Pirjo Ojala and Anna Venäläinen: Identity and humanity

Two Finnish creatives—Director Pirjo Ojala and choreographer Anna Venäläinen—have teamed up to create Burning Voices, a documentary that “combines dance, interviews, abstract images and images of everyday life into a multilayered film, exploring and contemplating the complexity of surviving violence and building an identity.”  They are currently crowdfunding for resources to facilitate filming in Pakistan. The production will also take the team to Uganda and the US.

#DirectedbyWomen had the chance to talk with Pirjo and Anna this week.

Mehwish [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
Mehwish [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
DBW: Your new project Burning Voices seems to be a documentary not only about the trauma inflicted by—but also transformation in the aftermath of—acid attacks. What drew you to this project and how would you describe the project? What’s at the heart of this film for you both?

PO: Identity and humanity. Being a victim of acid violence is a forced identity change. Part of you is killed, you are kind of the same person that you were before but you are still not the same. And when your looks are destroyed and the familiar face is gone, you are not the same person to the others either. Your trauma is for everyone to see and you can’t really hide it unless you completely hide from everyone. But what kind of life would that be? If we think victims’ lives are indeed over when their looks are damaged, the perpetrators are winning because that was their goal. And this leads to the questions of how we see each other and ourselves, what is the meaning of the looks. What is the worth of a human being.

AV: Pirjo was searching for a dance artist ”who is not afraid of heavy issues” and I became interested. For me this is a new kind of work – I have not worked on documentaries before, and I eagerly wait for this to happen. For me this is art that has impact on society and that´s why I find it very important.

Deus [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
Deus [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
DBW: On your IndieGoGo project page you describe Burning Voices as combining “dance, interviews, abstract images and images of everyday life into a multilayered film.” What inspired you to work in this way? Can you share something of your vision for how you’ll blend these aspects into the film?

PO: We deal with concrete and abstract things, inner and physical ones, the past and the present and all these have layers in this film, also visually. I feel it has something to do with a mosaic or a whirl… like your life is suddenly shattered into pieces and one by one, you have to build it again like a broken mirror. Building a new life is not a straightforward journey – sometimes you take a step forward, sometimes back or move sideways. Or stay still. All the scenes are somehow thematically connected with the meaning of the look and reflection.

AV: I think dance brings more depth to the handling of the theme. Traumatic experiences are not always reachable by words, and dance is a good and unique way of getting in touch with them.

DBW: Can you share about your process of collaboration?

PO: I do the verbal interviews and Anna does the physical ones, so to speak. At first we switch between these two, and the questions and the movement are about the same topic. After a while we have less words and more of the movement and take it further in expression and combine our work more and more. I feel it’s the best way to work ”organically,” to create a safe and creative environment where we explore both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Anna and I represent different art forms but we have the same goal: to create a piece of art with the protagonists.

AV: The process is still in the beginning but we have already made one journey to Chicago with Pirjo, and did a short research movement laboratory with Karli, one of the main characters in the movie. The trip was successful and opened up the method that we are going to use in the film. Dance will be guided improvisation and movement exploration, where slowly we’ll find everyone´s own way of expressing the inner experiences.

Karli [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
Karli [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
DBW: How did you come to focus on these three individuals from Pakistan, Uganda, and the US? How are you looking to explore their individual experiences, the cultures that created space for the attacks to occur, other aspects of their stories?

PO: I found Karli on the web actually, contacted her and she said yes. When I travelled to Pakistan in 2013, our collaborator Acid Survivors Foundation Pakistan had already Mehwish in mind and it worked out. When I travelled to Uganda, the NGO there had also someone in mind as well but we agreed with her that she was too early in her recovery process to be part of this. When I met her, I noticed Deus there and thought that he could be suitable. And he agreed to be in this film. They are experts in their lives and their cultural codes, we are there to ask, listen, collaborate and compose ideas with them, working from our own cultural background as well, of course.

What I’ve learnt while travelling is that people and cultures aren’t that different. Some of us have more or better tools and chances in life than others. But there are more similarities than differences in human nature – in good and bad. And everyone should matter.

AV: I believe dance is a universal language and connects people around the world. That was my experience when I was working twice in India with my dance projects. Of course we need to be aware of different cultures and develop the dialogue between the protagonists and us.

Pirjo Ojala films Karli [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
Pirjo Ojala films Karli [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
DBW: Pirjo, your BA thesis short film Kolme sanaa rakkaudesta (Three words about love) is a riveting exploration of sexual violence in a relationship. When I saw the film, I was moved by your patience and willingness to be present with the tensions and the distorted emotions the main characters were experiencing. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how you approach the creation of a story with deeply personal violence at its core, and how this earlier film has impacted your creative process on Burning Voices.

PO: I think that even tough emotions have to be dealt with. Life can be wonderfully light at times but it is not healthy to pretend that it is like that all the time when it’s not.

The film process always starts with an instinct but I love doing research for my movies. I have experienced some violence in my life but even though it has probably given me tools to deal with darkness, it hasn’t given me the tools or right to speak for every kind of violence or every kind of experience. I rather do the research and then use all the knowledge combined with my inner vision, and then forget the knowledge and concentrate on the feelings. Does that make sense? I mean, it takes a lot of time to make a movie anyway, so why not do it well and with stories that have realistic elements. Life isn’t simple, so the characters shouldn’t be either.

For Three Words About Love I interviewed a few rape victims and also collaborated with Victim Support Finland. I think the most important piece of advice was that as many as there are victims, as many are the ways to deal with what has happened to them. I also read books about sexual violence, watched films and also read a book about how to deal with heavy topics when you are a researcher – that was extremely helpful. Because sometimes you just have to shut it all from your world for a while and rest. When your normal everyday life is safe, you luckily can do that. And while making the film, I met people who started telling about their experiences, too. That was another reminder you don’t want to screw it up.

After shooting Three Words About Love, I wrote my written thesis ”May I hurt you? The ethics of fictional violence from the point of view of a scriptwriter and a director” because I needed to analyse the process of making the movie. I interviewed my classmate Riikka Holmberg, whose BA thesis movie was a fictional short horror movie, and the actors of Riikka’s and my own film for the written thesis.

How did it affect Burning Voices… it might be a bit too early to say, except that I want to make an honest film that shows Deus, Karli and Mehwish as they are. That we show the beauty in their survival without brushing off the horrible experiences they’ve had. I’ve done research as well but this time I can’t control the story. Or I can try but it works only to a certain point. And the ethics are even more important now.

Anna Venäläinen
Anna Venäläinen  [Photo: Aino Ojanen]
DBW: Anna, in addition to Burning Voices, you’re also working on a new project Deus que me deu. Is it a live dance performance? Can you tell us a little about the project?

AV: It is a live dance performance, there will also be live music. I’m the choreographer and dancer. The title means ”What God gave to me”, and I’ll approach spirituality and religious experiences from a wide point of view. I feel we are all connected to spirituality, and it does not need a church to belong to. Nowadays people are very suspicious about religions, and I understand that, but more than in religious institutions I am interested in the inner spark of each of us and the questions of birth and death, how are those connected to spirituality. I combine capoeira and contemporary dance in the piece, and the musician has a background in Finnish folk music. Premiere will be 18th of June in Kuopio, Finland.

Karli, Anna and Pirjo [Photo: Anna Venäläinen]
Karli, Anna and Pirjo [Photo: Anna Venäläinen]
DBW: How can people support your Burning Voices project as you move forward?

AV: By supporting our IndieGoGo campaign so that we can make the film happen!

PO: Yes! We need to reach our goal to be able to proceed. Please take a look at our campaign, fund us and/or share the link with your friends and network. If you want to collaborate with us, just send us a message. You can also follow us on Facebook and our website.

Karli [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
Karli [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
DBW: There are so many women directors creating films at this time all around the world whose work film lovers may not have yet had a chance to see. Could you tell us about a few films #DirectedbyWomen that you’d love to see reach a wider audience?

PO: There are many films on my ”to watch” list and there are a lot of directors who are interesting, both among the new and experienced.

If we strictly narrow this to upcoming documentaries made with shoestring budgets, I’m really looking forward to seeing Alexandra Kaufmann’s film Las Hermanas de Rocinante about abandoned horses in Spain. The film was crowdfunded in 2015 and will premiere early 2018. I met Alexandra when I attended ESoDoc 2014 and I’m intrigued by her ”quiet” style of witnessing the life of neglected animals and the people who care for them. You can check her earlier work Loving & leaving, about an animal shelter, on Vimeo. And whatever project my classmate from Turku Arts Academy, Miia Tervo, is currently working on, I’ll be really interested in seeing it because she has a unique style as well. She often explores the themes of identity and girl/womanhood, such as in The Seal (Hylje) and Little Snow Animal (Lumikko).

DBW: Anything else you’d like to share?

PO & AV: Thank you!

DBW: Thanks so much for taking time to talk about your work. I’m eager to see Burning Voices come to fruition. Keep us posted as you move forward.

PO & AV: We will. Thank you!

Mehwish [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]
Mehwish [Photo: Pirjo Ojala]

Support Pirjo and Anna.
Visit the Burning Voices IndieGoGo Campaign Project.