Putting Lipstick on a Pig is a Finnish-Estonian documentary, directed by Johan Karrento. It tells the story of Päivi, a middle-aged woman working as an accountant, who steals 800,000 euro from her clients and gets addicted to online gambling. The film explores the aftermath of the case that has forever changed the life of a small community in Åland, an autonomous archipelago between Sweden and Finland.
You were born in Åland, so you probably heard about the case very early on. But when and how did you get the idea of making a film about it?
I know exactly when, because as soon as I heard the news that someone has stolen 800,000 euro from their clients, and it turned out that it was a middle-aged woman, I thought it was interesting. I’m very interested in what happens in a small community when somebody messes up. After that, it probably took me two years to call her and ask if she was interested in making a movie about it. Originally it was only about this woman, but then the victims’ stories and how online gambling works were added to picture.
We learn from the film that those victims are small business owners. Was it easy to convince them to talk about their personal experiences and share their thoughts on the case, including their accountant Päivi?
I didn’t really have to convince anybody, I think. I wanted to convince her colleague, who is not in the film, but she didn’t want to. As for the others, they felt like nobody was listening to them. This goes for all of them – even the gambling company. Nobody was paying attention to what they were saying. So everybody was happy to speak about this.
You’re very much present in the film, which probably has a lot do with your approach to documentary style. In 2005, you took part in the Berlinale Talents programme. Back then, you said your style that it’s ‘personal without getting exhibitionist.’ Was there any particular moment during the filming and/or editing process when you felt your presence was too much?
Oh, that was a long time ago, Jesus Christ! Well, it started one day when I was supposed to record the voice-over for the film. I was inside the summerhouse in Åland; it was incredibly hot there, and there was no wind outside. So I thought I could just record this outside as well. The way I set up my recording was that I had my camera there also, and just recorded the picture too. And the night before, I was watching movies to see what was a good reference film for this one, and I came up with Roger & Me by Michel Moore, who made a film about General Motors in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. I remembered this movie for so many years, and I could say that some bad things also happened in my hometown.
This is when I decided it is about my own hometown, and also about me. Along the way, I met a lot of people who said ‘there is too much of you in the movie’. Yeah, perhaps there is, and perhaps I’m an exhibitionist. But I’m also an islander, and although it has not happened to me personally, it involves me as well. I have the right to speak about this. And I think this made it a better story, with me standing in front of the camera. I think it’s more interesting visually, and I haven’t seen something like this before.
Making a film is always challenging. What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome technically, or with the storytelling?
To put a large story together in an understandable way, and to get the pacing right so it doesn’t feel too fast. Knowing what to take out.
The infographics and other similar elements used in the film certainly help the audience understand the story better. How did you come up with the idea of using these as a way of dosing the information?
I started with my handwriting, and I thought ‘this is an interesting font’. This film was being developed with another company at that point, but I happened to watch Straight Outta Compton one day, and Ice Cube was angry with his record label. I thought: ‘I’m angry too, so I’m gonna start my own production company’. So I started my own production company just to make this film. I didn’t want to have a branding, just a company name, and I wrote it with a magic marker. Then I thought, ‘Okay, I can write the titles this way too’. That’s what I came up with, just to make it even more personal – or make it a bit more punk, I guess.
The film's music is quite distinctive, sometimes it resembles the sound of slot machines, sometimes it adds a note of mystery. How was the music born?
We worked a lot on this, me and the composer. He had this theme he came up with, and he sent me a lot of stuff. And I think the sound designer was also extremely important – he was able to cut down the music a lot, and thus make it more distinct.
Geopolitically speaking, Åland is a special territory. It is an autonomous region of Finland but populated by Swedish speakers. In the film, you refer a lot to both Finland and Sweden, and draw comparisons. Was it difficult to find the right balance in giving Finnish and Swedish examples?
I think it’s difficult. It’s a storytelling issue, and a very interesting question also. It think it’s interesting to tell a story about a small thing that happens in a small place because this makes it relatable to other people. I think you have to help people a little bit along the way, to say ‘Hey, it is happening in Sweden, and it also happens in Finland’. There was a version pointing out that this happens in Hungary, this happens in Germany, the same thing. But finding the balance… I think it’s a gut feeling. When do I make it too broad, you know? All stories that affect you, I think, have to be particular and detailed. A guy sits next to a monkey called Steven. It’s somehow important that you know the name of the monkey. It’s an important detail. That’s my philosophy.
The film has its international premiere at the Warsaw Film Festival. Where else has it been screened so far?
In Åland, we had a premiere, and we showed it a couple of times. It was also on television in Finland.
How did the audience respond to it, both locally and in Finland?
People get angry when they realise what happens. I think that’s the response. Common people get angry. And I think a lot of festival programmers are just wondering ‘What is this?’ I’m sure that normal people like knowing this kind of things. They get agitated, you know.
Do you think your film will have any impact in this sense?
It already had an impact. I’m no saying that I did this, of course. There was a public outcry in Åland after the movie came out. We rented a cinema in the city and screened it for three days straight. There was a feeling of, ‘Where is everybody going to?’ And they were going to the cinema. I have never seen anything like this with any of my films. People were interested in this.
Months later, in the summer, the gambling company announced they’re going to put a cap on how much you can lose, so you can now only lose 30,000 euro a year, which is unprecedented. It’s only Veikkaus in Finland that has a cap, and now Åland. With the others, you can lose as much as you want. This is very important. This is something that happened.
Babak Jalali’s latest feature Land portrays the life of a Native American family living in a reservation in the United States. Every day a new challenge emerges and they must overcome it one way or another. After its world premiere at the Berlinale, the film had a special screening at the Warsaw Film Festival, which was a good opportunity to talk with the director about the key themes, the casting, the Indigenous communities, and some issues related to cinema.
Since you are not a Native American, first, I’d like to ask you why you wanted to make a film about a Native American family.
I’m Iranian, raised in England, so very far removed from Native Americans. About seven-eight years ago in London, I read an article in a British newspaper, The Guardian, about a specific reservation in South Dakota, in the United States. Originally - it is my own ignorance, because I was interested in the history of Native Americans, but I didn’t know about their contemporary life - there were two striking things in the article: one was the images, which looked a lot like my hometown in the northern Iranian border, near Turkmenistan. And what was really shocking was the statistics that was displayed in this article about this particular reservation: 40,000 people living there, 90% unemployed, 88% alcoholic, 40% diabetic, life expectancy for men 47, for women – 49. And, you know, for me it was quite shocking that in the middle of the world’s richest country people were allowed to live this way. So I went to this particular reservation and I spent some time there, and, for the next few years I kept going back to different reservations around. That’s how it started.
There is an ongoing discussion about who has the rights to tell the stories of Indigenous people, as Indigenous artists and film-makers say they want to tell their own stories. As you’re not a Native person, what the films depicts is not your experience, and looking at the credits I haven’t really found Native Americans in creative roles, such as a writer, producer, or anyone within the crew. So I’m wondering how the film was produced.
I preferred to get that input from the actors – it would have been bizarre if I had cast non-Native Americans. Because the film was entirely Europe-funded, we had spending obligations. I had to take the crew members from certain countries. That’s one. Two, we talked to many consultants along the way. For me, the important thing was the involvement of the actors in how the story was shaped and formed. Like, for example, if anything that was written by myself in the script we did run it by them. And a lot of the actors did experience many similar things in their own life, some of them – far more shocking things.
Whether I have the right to tell their stories is a very good question, something I’ve been asking myself since the beginning. You know, when I was in America, whether researching or travelling around in these years in the reservation, I’d say the majority of the Indigenous population were very supportive when I said I’m Iranian and asked ‘How do you feel about me making this film?’ Some, yes, said ‘what are you doing?’ But the majority were very supportive. What I found was that most people against the idea of me doing this film were the non-Indigenous Americans, so white, Caucasian Americans. They were more like ‘What are you doing?’
What was their argument against you making this film?
Predominantly it was more like ‘It is not of your concern’, or just ‘Why telling such stories?’ Or they were concerned that it was going to be some form of, I guess, liberal propaganda, like situations, where I’m saying poor Indigenous people are being mistreated, look at what the whites are doing, this kind of things. Amongst the Indigenous population though, even the ones who were against the idea of me doing this, said ‘Better you than a Caucasian American’. Adding to the fact that there is a great deal presenting Native Americans in contemporary cinema.
You show this particular story, which offers a poignant reality, and it should be shown to people, but there is danger in it because maybe this is the only film they will see about Native Americans. So this will be the only Native reality they would learn about. But there are other realities, such as the ones of Native women running for office, or of those protesting in Standing Rock against Dakota Access Pipeline.
Yes, they are protesting, taking more actions. For sure, this is not at all a uniform representation of them. I hear what you’re saying about the constant representation of them as these people suffering in this way. I mean… The story I wanted to tell was more from an anger about how they were treated as opposed to telling an uplifting story, let’s say, about a woman running for office in Washington D.C. This is great and admirable, and I don’t want to downplay that. I think it is wonderful, but I don’t think it fits into the idea I had, and where that anger stemmed from.
And you know, I’m an Iranian, and, for example, there was a period in the mid-90s when Iranian cinema really exploded in the festival scene in Europe. A lot of those films were rural picture of Iranians, and the Iranian population living in Europe, in America and Canada, when they watched these films, you know, they were irritated and saying ‘Why are you constantly showing rural Iranians or poor Iranians, illiterate Iranians or farmers? You know we have doctors, we have surgeons, we have poets, we have authors. Why don’t you show that kind of stuff?’ And what I was taught and also confronted by, because my first film was about my hometown, which is also a rural area, when someone said to me that it’s not my responsibility to make Iranians abroad feel good about themselves, and 'Oh, we are also great and do wonderful things. Why are you always showing farmers?' My interest was to show a particular group of people and not an advertising board for progress, more of a presentation of something that is occurring.
No matter how many people become Indigenous rock stars, Indigenous politicians, this is happening and it doesn’t seem like it’s anywhere near stopping, you know. I haven’t seen anything that shows me 'Oh, actually things are happening that’s gonna stop this.' I don’t claim that my film is going to do that, by no means. I’m not one of those people who has faith in the power of cinema to make changes. Because if you want the cinema to make changes, then the director must be Spielberg, or someone who fills up multiplexes.
Arthouse cinema has no power to change anything because the audience members are like-minded people. But, of course, if they wanted to make such films, they wouldn’t sell all those tickets. The ones that sell are the ones with a subliminal message about Spiderman going up a building. Sony has such a subliminal message, and it gets through to people. I personally don’t believe in the power of unification and change, but it is possible to show sides of life people don’t regularly see. Certainly, Europeans and lot of Americans don’t know that this is going on.
So, maybe it is only Spielberg and other influential directors who have the power to change things, but there is a problem with representation. We don’t make such films because we think the audience won’t like them.
I think it’s a realistic thought. Right now making a film and getting it seen is far more difficult than 20 years ago. If you made a film then, the chance of getting a cinema release was still decent. Now it’s getting more difficult outside the spectrum of festivals. Because of that difficulty, it makes it more difficult for people to take risks – whether there are directors, producers or financiers coming and taking risks on something. Something like Spike Lee’s films in the 1980s. Someone took a risk on that guy and made these films, which are really important. It did make a difference, I think. Whether that’s to raise awareness of consciousness and everything. I don’t think those films could be made right now, in the current climate. If they were made today, they would be made in a much more obscure way, shown in a much more obscure setting as opposed to having Do the Right Thing on a billboard in New York.
Speaking of the hardships of filmmaking, what were some of the unexpected challenges you encountered while shooting?
Not that we didn’t expect them. A lot of Caucasian Americans don’t want to be involved in a project like this. I don’t mean only Republicans, but people covering a wide spectrum of political and social beliefs. And so we had a big problem getting involvement on the human level. Financially... let’s not even go there. The main problem was the bureaucratic nightmare of shooting a film entirely financed by Europe over there. Of course, it wasn’t an option to shoot somewhere in Europe. Obviously the plan all along was to shoot in a specific reservation.
Have the people in the reservation you visited seen the film?
Not yet, we’re still trying to show it somewhere in North America. Our sales agents have, let’s say, particular responsibilities they need to cater to before it is shown in reservations. The actors have seen it.
Based on the screenings organised so far, how would you describe the audience response?
We premiered in Berlin, at the Berlinale, and so far we released in the cinemas in France, and it’s gone to festivals. Based on the festivals or the screenings in France I went to, it’s been good. Many times that question comes up: ‘How come you made this film? You’re Iranian, not Native’. That’s the question I get often. But overall it is positive. Some came and said they had no idea this was happening, and have more questions about it. Others were asking how we found the actors, how we cast the film.
And how did you cast them?
For seven months, we did an open call in the United States and Canada, for Indigenous people, so not just actors but anyone, both urban and rural Indigenous population. There was a huge response, many people were coming. For me, it was not important at all that they were actors or not, or having any set experience. It was more about their personal experiences, and their presence as well.
Based on some quick research, the actors playing the family members are not from the same tribes. This somewhat strengthens the stereotype that they are all the same. Wasn’t that a problem for you?
They are not the same, by any means. That’s why I set it in a fictional reservation – Prairie Wolf doesn’t exist. Originally, the film was supposed to be shot in Pine Ridge, Lakota Sioux, South Dakota. Then we were supposed to shoot in New Mexico, Navajo. At different times – in Montana or in Wyoming. If it were in Lakota Pine Ridge, they would have been all Sioux, if it were Navajo, all would have been Navajo, if it were Montana, they would have been all Crow, for example. But that proved impossible casting-wise. And it’s primarily for that reason, once it was decided that there were not going to be an Indigenous language spoken in the film, that I set it in a fictional reservation. I don’t allude to what tribe they resemble or are similar to, regarding shared heritage or history.
As for a final question, why did you decide to shoot it in English?
The reality of contemporary life is that they mostly speak English. Amongst the elders, there is still a smattering of Indigenous tongues. Younger generations want to take up Indigenous languages but they are a minority. The common language amongst the generation is English. My actors speak Indigenous languages: the mother Mary, the young Joe, the young boy. They do speak it, but the majority who auditioned or among those whom I met in the reservation when I was there, it is not that common. Plus, I wanted it to be a contemporary setting. I avoided certain things like sweat lodges, for example. A lot of people actually go to reservations to visit casinos, sweat lodges and things like that. I purposely left those out, because I wanted to keep the focus on that particular relationship between Indians and whites – on a local level, the custodians. On the national level, the military.
Maori filmmaker Barry Barclay coined the term Fourth Cinema to describe Indigenous cinema, referring to films being shown more or less exclusively on the festival circuit. Besides Sundance's Native Program, started in the 1990s, Berlinale also launched its NATIVe programme in 2013, and several smaller film festivals choose to select exclusively Indigenous productions. Nevertheless, there is no real consensus on what Indigenous films really are. Scholar Houston Wood, author of Native Features, suggests positioning them on a continuum of non-Indigenous and Indigenous films, taking into consideration the crew members involved, the actors, the topics covered and the style used. Interestingly, the Canadian festival imagineNATIVE only accepts a title if a key member of the creative team, be it the director, the writer, or the producer, identifies as Indigenous; Jason Ryle, the artistic and managing director, would also prefer to treat Indigenous films as if they were German or Swedish and not as a genre, as it often happens nowadays.
Keeping all this in mind, Iranian-born Babak Jalali’s latest feature LAND comes across as a rather controversial case. In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate about who exactly should have the rights to tell Indigenous stories. Looking back at many classics such as Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and Dances with Wolves by Kevin Costner, the outsider’s perspective has always been more prevalent, probably as a result of Native people being oppressed, and their homeland -- colonised. Thanks to the democratization of filmmaking, though, more and more Indigenous people are starting a career in cinema and bringing their own stories to life. Consequently, the number of Indigenous films, of various formats and genres, has increased in the past few years, and several of them have received recognition and/or prestigious awards. Yet, Babak Jalali’s film exemplifies how outsiders still dare telling stories without including Indigenous talent in the creative process.
As the title implies, LAND focuses on a territory co-habited by white and Native Americans today, and reflects upon the hardships of the latter group, which to this day is still facing discrimination. The film tells the story of Mary Yellow Eagle and her family, their everyday struggles, and their interactions with the local white community. It looks like the Yellow Eagle family is destined to serve the role of the ‘typical’ Native American family that mainstream audiences are taught to recognise. Just like them, many Native Americans live in reservations, are unemployed and addicted to alcohol or other illegal substances. Moreover, suicide rates are higher than for any other racial or ethnic group. Mary’s oldest son, Raymond, has left his alcoholic past behind and is now working to provide for his family. Mary’s youngest son has just been killed – or committed suicide – in Afghanistan while serving in the US military. Her middle child, Wesley, is unemployed and an alcoholic, whom she drops off at the local liquor store every morning. He spends his days with his girlfriend and pals, leaning against the wall or resting their elbows on their knees, showing little signs of life. This image can only be perceived as devastating and poignant, just like the fact that hundreds of Indigenous women go missing or are murdered every year. The film does not however explore this specific topic, electing instead to depict only one Native reality.
In this reality, verbal communication occurs solely to disseminate important information, as a reaction to conflict, or to express resistance and frustration. The main conflict emerges when the youngest son dies. The fact that Native Americans serve in the US military might surprise some people, as they are basically fighting on behalf of those whose ancestors took their lands away. As a matter of fact, Native Americans already fought on the US' side during WWII, and some Navajo veterans were in fact invited to the White House not a long time ago. Donald Trump's most-beloved national symbol, the American flag, indeed plays a crucial role in LAND. Despite the family's protests, the US Air Force insists on a military funeral for the youngest Yellow Eagle brother, so Major Robertson shows up with a coffin covered by that flag to remember him as a national hero who has died for his country. ‘He died for his work, not for his country’, says the mum to the Major earlier in the film, indicating her resistance to accept the USA as their homeland.
Mary Yellow Eagle and the rest of the women in LAND in general are either pulling the strings or outright leading their communities. As the conflict around Wesley escalates, the owner of the Bob’s Liquor Store accuses Mary of not being able to control her people anymore. She acts like a sheriff from an old Western, a genre openly referenced in the music of the film and in the typography of the credits as well. Considering the portrayal of Native Americans in Western films, the issue – and importance – of representation becomes crucial. Regardless of her age, Mary’s character demonstrates strength and faith in the future of her family and community. That is why it raises eyebrows that the family members speak English at home as if their Indigenous language has already disappeared. Similarly to other countries, the USA forcibly sent the Indigenous youth to boarding schools, separating them from their parents to assimilate them into the American dominant society. However, knowing that the actors acting as a family belong to different First Nations, the use of English makes perfect sense.
Foreign filmmakers such as Jalali usually miss out on this kind of nuances, and therefore they falsely strengthen the existence of one cohesive group of Indigenous peoples. Sometimes even Indigenous peoples are forced to act on the stereotypes known worldwide to achieve commercial success in cinemas. Without a systemic change and Indigenous filmmakers telling their own stories as they see fit, Indigenous cinema will never be able to amaze the masses and showcase diversity in terms of their ethnicity, interests, life, genre, and style. Babak Jalali’s LAND sits somewhere in the middle of the continuum of Indigenous and non-Indigenous productions. The vast, never-ending landscape in static long shots illustrates the essence of the Indigenous peoples’ respect for nature. It also counts as a characteristic element in Indigenous films. On the other hand, close-ups and medium shots take turns to fully capture the emotions on the characters' faces, mostly confined to interiors. The sparse dialogue, the long takes, and restrained acting result in a film with a measured tempo that probably seemed suitable for the contemporary life of some but not all Native Americans.