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Compartment No. 6 conquers the world – with authenticity and universal humour

Finnish cinema once again attracted international attention when director Juho Kuosmanen's latest film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. What is the film’s recipe for success?
Hytti nro 6 -elokuvan ohjaaja ja päänäyttelijät: Juri Borisov (vas.), Juho Kuosmanen ja Seidi Haarla
Director and protagonists: Juri Borisov (left.), Juho Kuosmanen and Seidi Haarla. Photo: Henri Vares

Juho Kuosmanen could already be described as an expert in Cannes, the Mecca of the film festivals. His graduation film at Aalto University, Painting, won the top prize in the Cinéfondation competition for student films in 2010. The Smiling Man, his first feature film, won the second prize in the festival’s Un Certain Regard category in 2016.

Last summer, the director’s second feature film Compartment No. 6 went on to win the festival's second most prestigious Grand Prix prize, shared with Iranian Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero.

What is Kuosmanen's recipe for success? The film director has no straight answer.

‘At least we spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the script, for example. It probably reflects in the end result.’

The director says he was happy with Compartment No. 6 when it was made, but the success came still as a surprise: ‘Getting into the festival and winning an award there is the sum of so many factors’.

What Kuosmanen's films have in common is that they are full of humour, even if they are not really comedies.

‘Perhaps they stand out in the festival offerings because they are not heavy. There is a certain humour in them that seems to appeal to people. However, it is our own humour.‘

The director says he feels it a bit contradictory to talk about a recipe for success, as the filmmakers have tried to create a good film for themselves first and foremost.

‘I think calculating would be seen as false fishing, and at the same time there’s a risk of losing one’s own ability to judge.’

He means that if you start basing your solutions on imagining other people’s preferences, it will turn difficult to judge for yourself whether a scene is good or not.

We have been lucky to have been encouraged to do our own thing, right from school."

Director Juho Kuosmanen

Feedback gives you faith and courage

As the film was screened in Cannes, Kuosmanen thought it felt much longer than before. He listened to the audience’s reactions, wondering why there were few smiles at some points at first. But he says he has learned from experience that while you can hear the laughs, you can’t hear the audience’s other reactions.

‘At first it was an agonising wait. But it helped that felt I had succeeded in what I was trying to do. I’m trying to think that if I'm happy with the film, that's enough.’

Although it’s not always easy, he knows how to let go.

‘How others experience the film is no longer in my hands in that situation. Peoples’ own background influences their experience.’

When the film ended and the applause started even before the credits had properly started, the director could believe that it went well. The audience exploded in applause.

‘We have been lucky to have been encouraged to do our own thing, right from school. And that the humour, which we find funny, has also been funny for others. The feedback that people find in our films a reflection of their own lives has given us faith and couragement.’

Actors make the film

The film was shot in Russia, produced as an international collaboration and features people from different countries. The challenges ranged from the usual language barrier and assembling a Russian crew to hiring trains from the Russian railways.

Finding the right venues required 25,000 kilometers of train journeys.

For director Kuosmanen himself, the biggest challenge is always finding the right actors. ‘It’s through them that the film ultimately happens: between these two people and their interaction.’

In Compartment No. 6, the relationship between the protagonists does not necessarily follow any conventional pattern.

‘Personally, I think they are some kind of soul mates. It's great that people have caught on to that idea’, Kuosmanen rejoices.

Hytti nro 6 -elokuvan tekijäjoukkoa kuvauspaikalla junassa
Compartment No. 6 crew working on scene in a train. Photo: Sami Kuokkanen

What is the director's guiding principle in filmmaking?

‘I guess it's mainly about trying to catch some vague feeling and asking people if they see the same thing: do you recognize what I'm trying to say, can you capture those feelings’, Kuosmanen ponders.

The director states that the film and its themes are not place-specific, but deal with universal hopes, fears and feelings.

‘Film is a humane, people-centered art form, and our films are very much focused on the human being – he or she is in close-up for most of the film. It certainly makes it universal’, Kuosmanen says.

Authenticity and honesty

What about that recipe for success?

As clichéd a recipe for success as authenticity, or daring to be naïve might sound like, these are important factors in all we do.’

Kuosmanen says he is also lucky to have been able to choose who he works with. He has been making films together with his friend from his youth, producer Jussi Rantamäki, ‘for almost an eternity’.

He thinks it’s important that the people closest to him share the same worldview and view on humanity, so he doesn’t have to explain to them things that are difficult to verbalize.

‘You get caught if you try to lie or pretend otherwise. It helps to keep the art honest and genuine.’

It’s important that we are able to train filmmakers with a voice of their own. Storytelling plays a big role in this.”

Anna Heiskanen, Head of department

Having worked on many top Finnish film and tv productions, production designer, lecturer at Aalto University Kari Kankaanpää sees a few clear, distinguishing factors behind the success of Compartment No. 6. Above all he praises the director.

‘Juho is both a very good storyteller and a skilled listener, and he has his own strong vision. He brings out the best in people and makes all aspects of production shine’, Kankaanpää says.

‘The lens of the camera works both ways: if the team has a good spirit, it shows in the film.’

For this film, Kankaanpää also got to be on set to supervise the production design to ensure it matched his own. This is not often possible in Finnish productions. He also found the team not only very good, but also of a sufficient size, which is too rare in Finnish productions.

The production company Aamu is also to be commended. According to Kankaanpää, there is a difference in the way they approach the production project—whether cash flow or heart dictate the work.

‘In this case, working with the director and the production company is like coming home.’

What is important is originality, storytelling and versatility

The success of Finnish cinema and talented filmmakers is based on long-term, high-quality education. Aalto University's Department of Film, Television and Scenography ELO is doing well in Nordic and European comparisons and is an internationally sought-after partner. In addition to domestic competitions, the students' work is highly successful in international competitions.

How are the successful filmmakers trained?

‘It’s important that we are able to train filmmakers with a voice of their own. Storytelling plays a big role in this’, says Anna Heiskanen, head of the department.

‘We can’t offer a recipe for success to anyone, but we can teach the storytelling in as many ways as possible and support filmmakers’ growth in making films with their own voice. Our role is to provide the tools and support.’

Compartment No. 6 has been sold to more than 100 countries, giving it a wide theatre release worldwide. It premiered in Finland and Russia in October and early November in France and other countries. By the end of November, the film had received more than 100,000 viewers in Finland and France, and a particularly warm reception in Russia.

The film, praised by critics, has clearly found its audience. Compartment No. 6 is also well placed on the Oscar shortlist, so its success story has not yet been written.

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Hytti nro 6_elokuva_näyttelijä Seidi Haarla. Kuva: Sami Kuokkanen / Elokuvayhtiö Aamu 2021

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