Ruthless Times – Songs of Care
Interview with Susanna Helke, Finnish director of the film «Armotonta menoa – Hoivatyön lauluja / Ruthless Times – Songs of Care»
Living in the Canton of Ticino and being able to participate in the Locarno Film Festival is truly an outstanding experience. This globally acclaimed event is dedicated to celebrating the art of cinema and fully immersing oneself in its captivating atmosphere is an unparalleled opportunity. The Locarno Film Festival presents a golden opportunity not only to view brand-new and experimental films from around the world, but also to connect and engage with esteemed filmmakers, actors, and other industry professionals.
Last August, I attended the festival and watched a documentary that really moved me. After the screening, I had the opportunity to meet the director and asked her for an interview. The film was Armotonta menoa – Hoivatyön lauluja/Ruthless Times – Songs of Care, a documentary with choral “tableau vivant” scenes capturing the current crisis in the Finnish elderly care sector. The care workers’ anonymous testimonies are composed into choral songs, and the elderly citizens and nurses sing these songs playing with the economic jargon of our time. I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the Finnish director Susanna Helke for the following interview and to every member of her crew who contributed to creating this impactful and emotional documentary.
Cinema has the unique ability to capture the complexity and nuances of life while delving into significant issues in a compelling and stimulating manner. Susanna Helke’s documentary is a prime example of this art form’s ability to connect with viewers on a profound level, moving from the specific to the general and conveying crucial messages in the process.
24 Luglio 2023 – Intervista, Arte, Comunicazione, RicercaTempo di lettura: 18 minuti
24 Luglio 2023
Intervista, Arte, Comunicazione, Ricerca
Tempo di lettura: 18 minuti
Can you tell me the reason why you decided to work on the topic of the elderly care sector in Finland? Was it a personal motivation, or a commissioned work?
All the films I directed have come from personal motivations. Usually, I do not work on commission. In this case, I should say that we all experience aging. We get old, and our parents too. I still have both my parents alive. Interestingly,
despite Finland’s status as a wealthy welfare state, there seems to be a persistent struggle to provide adequate care for the elderly without constantly struggling with the lack of resources.
The media frequently report shortages of healthcare professionals, resulting in substandard treatment for older citizens in nursing homes who are often left without proper attention.
The issue of the ongoing crisis in the healthcare sector made headlines again in Finland in 2019. Shocking reports emerged detailing significant problems in certain healthcare facilities, causing a sudden chain reaction. This served as a catalyst for me to begin considering working on this specific topic. However, another factor that influenced this decision was that my partner, who is American, and I moved to the USA. Having lived in the US for a few years, in 2000, and then between 2006 and 2010, I deeply appreciated my society and my country, especially its healthcare system. In conversations with US citizens, they often expressed envy for the Finnish exceptional welfare and healthcare system compared to their own.
However, when I returned to Finland, I was taken aback by the sudden spread of the idea of privatisation across various sectors, including healthcare. This realisation shocked me and reinforced my desire to work on this topic. As public services began to decline and funding decreased, people started complaining, as the public healthcare system did not work. Some resorted to begging for healthcare, while others turned to private insurance as an alternative. This is a slow, almost invisible unravelling of the ethos behind the welfare state. Therefore, I decided to address this abstract and complex topic and find a subject that could be chosen for my film and would somehow reveal the situation to the public. The task proved to be challenging because these things are very abstract. How can you make a film about something like that? The crisis in the elderly care sector unexpectedly came to my attention, and suddenly, I realised: This is the topic!
Considering children… If you think of investing in children, it makes sense because they are future taxpayers. However, investing in older adults does not guarantee cash back. This brutality of weighing human life against money interested me
determining what kind of investment makes sense rather than recognising that, as human beings, we begin our lives as helpless people and may end up even more so. Moreover, some people need help and require care throughout their lives. Honestly, I don’t like to reduce human beings to their economic value, where human life is viewed only as a material or economic machine.
Creating a documentary like yours takes a preparation period in which you have to conduct interviews and field visits… it is a sort of anthropological research, isn’t it?
Absolutely. In particular, this project required years of research which I conducted with my colleague Markku Heikkinen. After the film ended, the movie producer counted how many names were on the list of credits, which contained hundreds of names, as we had met with many people during our research. Even though this is not a reportage or a fact-based, journalistic film, it was important to me that my premises were correct and had a solid foundation. I really wanted to study this topic, talking with hundreds of researchers, politicians, and healthcare professionals. The research was long and continued during filming because documentaries don’t have a script, but instead, have many storylines and a lot of material, like in this case. I started filming with some ideas but soon I realised that they were redundant and didn’t work. Therefore, it required constant work that continues while shooting.
What is your approach? How do you do that?
I often meet people several times before shooting, getting to know them well, and I rarely engage in spontaneous filming. The cost of filming is very high, and taking the whole crew with you requires efficiency, which needs much pre-planning. Although I do not write a script, many ideas are premeditated for the documentary part of the movie. However, this movie also included the choir scenes. In this case, I planned everything in advance. The choir scenes have nothing to do with documentary filmmaking. They are fictional, shot similarly to music videos. Those scenes were shot during the fall (2021). All the singing scenes were—except for one—shot last fall. We had to wait because of the pandemic, and we had over a year and a half when we couldn’t film anything.
There are topics in your film that are extremely important in the healthcare sector these days. You mentioned privatisation as the main theme. There is also the use of technology… I noticed a social and political message in your film. What role do you think a documentary like yours can play?
I don’t make journalistic films. It is better to write articles if you are mainly interested in information. Films speak to us in a different way.
It was essential to try to capture political issues as well. However, facts alone are of no use. For this reason, I used songs and singing, and I found that this idea was very powerful. I was shocked to see how strongly people experienced it. Some people have cried. The secret weapon was these songs, and the singing. Anna-Mari Kähärä composed the nurses’ songs by singing multiple tracks as a demo, and then the music was recorded with the choir.
As you say, your documentary has many parts where nurses or elderly people sing some lyrical songs. The lyrics of these songs come from anonymous testimonies about their working conditions and the deteriorating quality of nursing homes. Why did you decide to use songs to convey your message?
The anonymous survey conducted by us served as the core element of the film. We received an overwhelming number of responses from nurses who work with older adults, which provided valuable and compelling material. Almost all of them were reluctant to appear on camera and discuss these issues publicly. I wanted my film to contain a broader representation of workers and not be merely a story of a single person or few people because I felt this film was not about a single character or a small group of individuals but rather the broader systemic issues in the healthcare sector, this corruption, this corrosion that is happening in the healthcare sector in general. It is a problem that exists in many contexts in Finland. Therefore, I wanted to have many voices. And as I couldn’t have many people speak in front of a camera,
I decided to use songs as a way of representing the voices of the nurses and people. By singing these songs in their work attire, they were able to convey a powerful message as a collective voice.
It added a powerful and memorable element to the film that is emotionally intense. Moreover, songs are an excellent way of conveying a message, as they are easy to learn and remember and can be sung at any time during the day. As someone once said, creating a population requires laws, a great novel, songs, and food—all essential elements of identity.
I’m thinking about the choir in Greek tragedy… the choir had a social function of criticising society and gods. In your documentary, the choir serves as the voice of a part of Finnish society.
The idea of using a Greek tragedy choir in my film wasn’t a conscious decision, but upon reflection, I can see how it serves as a criticism of the current state of affairs. In Finland, choral music holds significant cultural value. It’s a popular hobby, and almost every workplace has a group of people who sing in a choir… Choral music is a language of the country that brings people together and fosters a sense of community.
My last question is about introducing technology in the healthcare sector, which is one of the many aspects analysed in your documentary.
In the film, there is a scene where a robot is introduced into a nursing home. Yes, the topic of digitalisation often comes up when discussing how to reduce expenses and cope with the challenge of decreasing the number of employees in nursing homes. They think that technology is a kind of magical solution. However, they don’t understand that caregiving entails more than just medical procedures, feeding, changing diapers, and other tasks. It involves providing human contact and presence, which are the most expensive and time-consuming aspects of elderly care. These cannot be replaced by robots.
Finland is a country that places a strong emphasis on technology. Digitalisation is a key aspect of this, and engineers are highly valued for their expertise. For example, in my documentary, I showed a robot project that brought together a team of young, enthusiastic engineers from different countries and various universities and research institutes to develop this pilot project because it had received EU funding. You have funds because these projects are considered cool and innovative. In my view, the issue is not solely about saving money by investing in robots that are cheaper than human nurses. Rather, the problem lies in how we can find additional funds to hire more nurses.
In the healthcare sector, the primary focus should not be on financial gain but rather on providing quality care to patients.