A Finnish Author and Independent Documentary Filmmaker Talks About Finland's Unspoiled Nature and Free Access to its Exceptional Public Education

A Finnish Author and Independent Documentary Filmmaker Talks About Finland's Unspoiled Nature and Free Access to its Exceptional Public Education

What I know of Finland brings to mind gleaming lakes, staggering northern lights displays, the forests of fairytales, saunas, reindeers, Santa Claus, and the music of Finnish composer Jean (Johan Julius Christian) Sibelius. In my opinion, The Sibelius Violin Concerto, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world.

What I didn’t know was that the Finns love games. All kinds. One of them is a competitive wife carrying race that draws entrants from around the world. They even found a way to celebrate and acknowledge the crippling fear of failing. They call it the day of failure. A role model for the day, celebrated on October 13, is Rovio, the Finnish creators of Angry Birds. After trying 52 other games and being nearly bankrupt, the company hit it big with the mobile game.

Angry Bird logo
Angry Bird logo

There is also a tragic side to Finnish history and culture. It wasn’t that long ago that Finland was invaded by Russia in the Winter War of 1939-1940. The aftermath of that war had a severe impact on the economy and the people of Finland.

For Elina, a Finnish author and documentary film maker, that history is personal.

About Elina

I met Elina at the 2016 Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavik. She gave a workshop called Writing the World. (I wrote about Elina on May 19 in my 3rd installment of my 9 Days in Iceland series.) We talked afterwards and she graciously agreed to be interviewed for a post on Finland.

Elina lives in Helsinki with her family.  Her biggest challenge is balancing family life with the various artistic projects she is working on. She likes to ride her pale pink bicycle around the city to meetings, conducting writing workshops, doing interviews, shooting her new documentary film, and promoting her books.

Bicycles in Helsinki
Bicycles in Helsinki

My Conversation with Elina 

Please look out a window in your home and describe what you see.

I see a big, green soccer field with children and adults playing on it.

Outside Elina's window
Outside Elina’s window

Which languages do you speak?

Finnish, Swedish, English, some Spanish, and very basic French.

How does your culture impact your writing and films? 

Finnish is a very small language, spoken by only about 4,9 million people, so being an author who writes in Finnish feels sometimes very lonely, since it is relatively difficult to get translated. At the same time, I love the Finnish language passionately.  Writing is very much about exploring the beauty of our language.

What do you want the rest of the world to know about Finland? 

After two traumatic wars, Finland was a poor country. Almost every family lost someone in the war.

But the Finns started to develop a social and educational system that provides every child with equal opportunities, regardless of the family background. As a result, Finland managed to rise socially and economically to the same league with other Nordic countries, even though the starting point after the war was very different for them.

That part of our history is personally very important to me. All of my grandparents, especially on my mother’s side, came from extremely poor backgrounds. My grandfather died in the Winter War. My grandmother had to raise my mother alone, working long hours as a housemaid for a rich family.

Without our current educational system that focuses on children’s equal opportunity, my mother’s life and my own would have been very different.

With what aspect of your culture do you identify the most? 

Spending time in unspoiled nature, swimming naked in the lakes, and going to sauna.

Finnish house in the woods

Finnish house in the woods

Finnish Sauna

Finnish Sauna

Please describe your favorite time(s) of year in Finland. 

Spring, summer and early autumn. I love the spring and summer, especially the first warm days, when people start hanging out outside in the parks, and everyone looks more relaxed and smiling than before.

What brings you joy?

This is a lovely question. Right now there are many things that bring me joy. I love spending time with my children, who are now in the fantastic age of exploring the world endlessly and analyzing things in their very personal way. I love having long conversations with them.  Lately, we have been talking about Swedish princesses, human rights, communism, xenophobia, friendships, and a bit more about Star Wars.

I’m also endlessly interested in other people’s stories, opinions, and the way they see this world. Working as a documentary filmmaker is a great excuse to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Also, I’m always moved when people who disagree about everything, respect each other despite their differences.

What frightens you? 

Birds. I have a phobia of them, especially pigeons and seagulls – and there are loads of them in Helsinki.

On a more serious note, right now I’m frightened about the raise of xenophobia in many European countries, including Finland, and the gap between the rich and the poor getting wider in many places.

If I came to your home for dinner, what would you serve me?

I would love to invite you for dinner! I don´t eat meat, so I would serve you Finnish mushrooms, fish, and berries. We would start with salt cured raw salmon with black islander bread, continue with white fish, chantarels, summer potatoes, and have blueberry pie, made of hand picked blueberries from my in-law’s summer cottage, and home-made ice cream. Most likely my husband would cook. I would sip champagne and chat with you.

What does Finland do well? What do you wish it did better?

The best part of my country is, or at least has been, that the society has been concretely built on the idea of equal opportunity. Apart from free public high quality education, that means also affordable high quality public daycare that allows parents to balance work and family life.

What I wish it did better is related to those things – right now I wish we would appreciate more the good, unique sides of our social system, and do more to improve and develop it, instead of letting it break.

Speaking of Finnish schools, is the glowing information about them in Michael Moore’s documentary, Where to Invade Next, accurate? 

Not all of it is true, even though there is still a seed of truth.

It is true that Finland has the shortest school day and school year in the western world, but Finnish students do have homework. They do very well academically. One reason is the educational system. The main objective of Finnish education policy is to offer all citizens equal opportunities to receive education. Most education is publicly funded. There are no tuition fees at any level of education. In basic education also school materials, school meals, and commuting are provided free of charge.

Also, the focus in education is on learning rather than testing. There are no national tests for pupils in basic education in Finland. Instead, teachers are responsible for assessment in their respective subjects on the basis of the objectives included in the curriculum.

And the teachers in Finland are brilliant.

What is your opinion of Chicago and the United States? 

Chicago is easy. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor, is very, very hot.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about the United States now, is the day Barack Obama was elected first time. I lived in Africa, in Zambia, then, and everybody there was following the election closely. Just after he was elected I walked around a poor Lusaka compound, and everybody was singing, dancing, and waving at me. “I could never believe that the white people in the US would vote for black man to become their president”, said a friend of mine, a young Zambian guy. He started crying. “This is huge. This changes everything. This is the first time in my life when I feel that black people can actually be respected by white people.” That was huge, and the beauty of that moment is also my most important opinion of the United States.

Who or what inspires you? 

Other people’s stories. I sometimes dream that I could just travel the world, give people head massages for free (that’s my special skill), and listen to their stories.

What one word best describes your country and its people? 

Kesämökki. Cottage.

Door to Finnish cottage

Door to Finnish cottage

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