One of Finland’s most promising young film directors, Zaida Bergroth has reaped awards and accolades with her short films Heavy Metal and Glass Jaw. Marking her graduation to feature films, Bergroth’s anticipated full-length debut Last Cowboy Standing (Skavabölen pojat) premiered at the 20th annual Espoo Ciné film festival on 23 August. Based on a beloved play by Anssi Raivio, the film tells the story of two rambunctious brothers growing up amid a torrential family drama in the 1970s and 80s. SixDegrees sat down to interrogate the upcoming directorial talent at a preview screening.
How does it feel to be watching your very first feature film?
Well, I actually sneaked out during the screening. I was so heavily involved in all work phases of this film that I have consciously tried to put some distance between myself and the film. The next time I see it will be in Espoo Ciné, along with the audience.
Are you nervous about how the audience will react?
Oh yeah, definitely. It’s interesting to see if people are affected by the same things I am.
Zaida, that’s quite an unusual Finnish first name. Where does it come from?
Well, different relatives have told me different versions of it. One story goes that it comes from the name of a Russian ski champion who was popular at the time, but that has been firmly denied by my mother. The last time I asked her about my name, she told me they picked it simply because it rhymed with the name they gave my big sister, Aina.
Making Last Cowboy Standing has been a long and obviously personal process for you. How did you end up working on it?
I graduated from the University of Art and Design in 2004, and during my time there I had made a lot of short films written by others. For my diploma work I wrote a piece called Glass Jaw, which was very important for me. Previously I had been something of a performance- oriented student, directing technically and by the book, but lacking a personal connection to the work. Then one spring Friday I saw the play Skavabölen pojat at the Masala youth theatre, and I was just blown away by it. It dealt with themes I found fascinating, sibling relations and complicated family scenarios, and I loved the balance of humour and tragedy.
Many of your films have dealt with themes of childhood and adolescence. Nowadays there’s a lot of talk of “youth issues” in society. Do you think teens today are more troubled?
I wouldn’t dare to make such a generalisation. To me it is obvious that regardless of the time people can be troubled, and it’s important to try and recognise and help them. As a film maker I sort of shun talking about messages and intentions, but in a way I do wish that someone who sees Heavy Metal, for example, which is set in the 1980s, can recognise something in it that relates to his or her own life and find some kind of relief through it. I think the basic conflicts that young people face are the same from one era to the next.
You’re part of an upcoming generation of Finnish film makers. Not too long ago there was a lot of talk about a new golden age of Finnish cinema, now people are again talking about a crisis! What went wrong there?
I wouldn’t say anything went wrong. Those conclusions are drawn purely on the basis of attendance figures, and as a film maker you can’t preoccupy yourself with those things – the producer and distributor can do that. But I would love to see more films with a unique voice and film makers who are more daring and have the courage to make movies that are important to them. I think too calculating an approach takes you nowhere – young viewers are particularly sensitive to that.
Do you feel you have more economic responsibility now that you’re making a feature film?
I do feel like a part of my anxiety has to do with whether people will come to the theatres. With shorts you’re just hoping the film will go around the festival circuit and reach a lot of film buffs, and maybe get shown on Uusi Kino or Kotikatsomo (on TV). Now I am more anxious over whether or not audiences will find this film, and I do acknowledge the hopes and expectations of our affiliates. Whereas for my own part I am more or less hoping that it will in some way be meaningful to someone.
Birthplace and date: Kivijärvi, 1977
When I was a child my favourite toy was
The best part about my job is the moment
Is it possible to make a Finnish film without heavy drinking?
Yes, definitely. Oh, it absolutely is.
Why does alcohol play such a big part in so many films, then?
Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but it certainly says something about our society.
Thinking ahead to the future, what kind of project would you like to work on next?
It changes constantly. I always dream about making something more fun, lighter and easier. Working with hard subjects like this for years on end is pretty burdensome at times. But I think I have some kind of affinity for drama with a touch of something, leaning towards horror, even.
Last Cowboy Standing is released 4 September