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Memory of Water combines sci-fi and drama on a grand scale

A dystopian feature film directed by Saara Saarela and based on Emmi Itäranta's internationally acclaimed novel premiered in cinemas on Friday 2 September.
Elokuvaa kuvataan kärrystä päähenkilön pyöräillessä hiekkatietä
Noria(Saga Sarkola) during shoot in one of the main locations in Rummu prison, Estonia. Photo: Gabriela Urm

The film represents a new genre of Finnish science fiction, and a story on a grand scale. Set in the future, the film is a collaboration between top Finnish and international filmmakers, the result of a nearly ten-year process. The internationally co-produced film's scale, unique subject and mix of genres make it a unique production in Finland. With a budget of around four million euros, it is the second most expensive film directed by a woman in Finland, after film Hatching.

Memory of Water tells the story of a time when the world is running out of clean water and the military regime in power is tightly controlling scarce water resources. After her father dies, Noria (Saga Sarkola), the new tea master of a water-scarce village, discovers her family's closely guarded secret: a source of clean drinking water has been preserved in the wilderness.

When Noria discovers that water might also be found in the contaminated Lost Lands, she must decide what to do with the life-threatening information. With the help of her best friend Sanja (Mimosa Willamo) and water-solver Taro (Lauri Tilkanen), she is determined to find a way out of the water shortage, but can she trust them? Will the military regime withhold more water from the people? Can one person save the world from drought?

The film also stars Pekka Strang and Minna Haapkylä. It is scripted by Ilja Rautsi, produced by Misha Jaari and Mark Lwoff from Production company Bufo.

Awakening to the global water issue

Emmi Itäranta's novel Memory of Water was published in 2012 and Saarela read it the following year.

‘At the time, the media, such as Helsingin Sanomat and the Economist, were reporting a lot about water issues and that water was the "new oil" and would become a valuable currency. And we in Finland take water for granted’, says Saara Saarela, who is also a professor of film directing at Aalto University.

‘But Emmi's book questioned this and made direct references to water shortages around the world. Through it the global water issue and climate change got concrete for me. I wanted to address them and the film started to take shape in my mind.’

It is important that the protagonist is young, because younger generations live with the decisions made by others.”

Director Saara Saarela

Saarela says that for Itäranta, the story is about a protagonist who dares and stands up for what she feels is right. A young protagonist facing big issues that affect the nation was also an important aspect for Saarela herself. The story emphasises the discovery of courage, putting oneself on the line and in danger, and daring to act for the benefit of others.

‘It is important that the protagonist is young, because younger generations live with the decisions made by others’, Saarela points out.

Another key element of the story is the confrontation between two moralities. The film makes us reflect on how to act when we have to make decisions for the good of the planet – whether to make the most of natural resources or to protect them.

Extensive background work

The events of the film take place in an indeterminate future, but before the world of the film could be created, a lot of background research was required. This was done extensively by Saarela and her team, with water scientists Matti Kummu and Suvi Sojamo from Aalto University, as well as with environmental researchers. Sustainability coordinator Kaika Astikainen was also involved in the project in the beginning to ensure the eco-sustainability of the film's production.

To outline the world of the film, energy issues, modes of transport and issues of circular economy had to be addressed, among other things. A framework for the film was created in a "world creation seminar" with costume designers, set designers and other key professional groups, in order to make the film’s world concrete for the audience.

Memory of Water was filmed in 2020 in Estonia, Germany and Norway. Most of the filming took place in Estonia, in Rummu Prison and Tallinn City Prison, while the final scenes of the film, set in the "lost lands", were shot in northern Norway. Post-production and digital prints were made in Germany. In total, the production employed around 400 people during the filming phase.

The filming process started already in autumn 2015. The film was scheduled to be released in theatres in March 2022, but the premiere was postponed until autumn due to covid restrictions.

Saarela is pleased with the key decisions in the production that allowed the film to be made even during the times of covid restrictions: the film is in Finnish and both the actors and the core production team are Finnish. The team was always supplemented by a country-specific crew depending on the country of shoot. Most of the post production was done in Germany, supervised remotely by Saarela.

‘This has been a huge learning process, both in terms of international financing and post-production supervision. It has also been interesting to learn how to adapt the book into a film. They are two art forms with different ways of telling stories’, says Saarela.

Veden vartija -elokuvaa kuvataan synkissä olosuhteissa Tallinnan vankila-alueella
Crew and main cast in Tallinn prison, Estonia. Photo: Gabriela Urm

Read more:

Saara Saarela at the set of the movie Guardian of Water. Photo: Gabriela Urm © Bufo 2020

Saara Saarela to direct The Guardian of Water

The movie based on Emmi Itäranta’s award-winning novel Memory of Water has begun filming. The Guardian of Water (Veden vartija in Finnish) is directed by Saara Saarela, professor of film directing at Aalto University.

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