Amkelwa Mbekeni: An African perspective of “The Marshal of Finland”

by , under Amkelwa Mbekeni

By Amkelwa Mbekeni

“They shouldn’t have made it in Kenya — that was a bad idea,” says a man I find myself sitting next to in a bus. I am in Helsinki, Finland, and seldom do I ever initiate conversation with a stranger in public transport, especially not here. It is as if there is an unwritten and unspoken rule that is observed by most within the Finnish society, but we are two Africans and in true African style, we do not hesitate to start exchanging pleasantries in this country where otherness is our relegated identity. He tells me he’s Kenyan and immediately my interest is piqued, for Kenya has recently occupied center stage in Finnish mainstream media. A moment earlier I had asked him the one question I had been itching to ask many a Kenyan national living in Finland: what do they think of The Marshal of Finland, the film recently shot in Kenya with a Kenyan cast about G.E. Mannerheim, Second World War head of the Finnish military, former president and national icon whose statue — on horseback — overlooks Helsinki’s main street, which is also named after him.

Erkko Lyytinen, a producer from the Finnish public broadcaster, Yle, and his Estonian colleague Ken Saan decided, in what can be described as an unusual move, to produce the much spoken of, long awaited and previously difficult to make film project on Mannerheim. Due to budgetary constraints, a decision was taken to do so in Kenya, using a local production company. Their initial estimation was that it would set them back to the tune of US$5000, however due to unforeseen circumstances, it is said the film ended up costing three times the estimated amount — and an unspeakable amount of public scrutiny.

I had been acutely aware that a heated debate had been ongoing around me, and I also had gathered that it had left a lot of feathers ruffled. Unfortunately, due to the language barrier, I had found myself on the outside looking in, which is why I felt the need to speak to more people; to find out more about the impact this film had on the society I live in. Somehow, someway, I felt involved.

Based on the sensationalist media coverage The Marshal of Finland took the country by storm, and elicited a reaction of outrage by offended members of the public. One tabloid claimed that “the people don’t approve of a black Mannerheim,” with the expected lack of explaining what is meant by ‘the people’. The allegation in general was that the Finnish public had been lied to and deceived by the Yle producer, who stood accused of having deliberately and underhandedly omitted to mention the fact that Mannerheim was to be played by an African and thus — according to them — making a mockery of the national hero.

But not only is the project about the actual film, it also is about a six part making of documentary series which portrays the chaotic and oftentimes frustrating process of filming in Kenya, having chosen to work with one of  the most affordable production companies available. The documentary is called “Operation Mannerheim”. Here’s the trailer:

The documentary was aired on one of Yle’s less viewed channels and its content didn’t create as much debate as all preceding speculation of the film hinted at, however it helped me gain more insight into what the whole furor and media frenzy was about. This documentary series also clarified the motives of the film’s producer and it appears that his intentions were good; very ambitious even if a bit naïve, and how this film was, to a large extent, his project. Amongst other things, the documentary told its own story of working with Kenyan people, and both directly and indirectly reinforced the already existing stereotypes of poverty, inefficiency, lack of punctuality of Africans and so on. Another predictable sad story of Africa from a western perspective, one could say.

It is common knowledge that for most foreign nationals in Finland, the language barrier is a real handicap. It often leaves one feeling a little disadvantaged when it comes to following and keeping up with public debates. Barring from seeing the face of one Telley Savalas Otieno, the lead actor playing Gustaf Mannerheim, on all manner of tabloid newspaper on offer, I was pretty much in the dark about the details of what the fuss was all about until the film and documentary came out and even then I was, to a degree, relying on interpretation by my Finnish husband. Incidentally, it was also when the film and the documentary finally did come out that the public debate for the most part ended. The whole thing, it seemed, had mainly been pre-emptive and based on assumptions, rumours and guesses.

The Marshal of Finland is told from an African storytelling  perspective in a setting where a bunch of children are seated around a fire, listening to a grown-up — a grandfather figure — telling the story of a hero from a faraway land. The young African children imagine this story based on their frame of reference with all the characters looking like people they know; African.

“I thought it was an interesting idea. I guess I was more relieved than impressed after watching the film itself,” says Wanjiku wa Ngugi, a Kenyan in Finland who is the founder and director of the HAFF – Helsinki African Film Festival, when I asked her for her thoughts. “In terms of actual production, sound, picture quality, development of the storyline — perhaps more work could have been dedicated towards these. Otherwise for me it just looks like the film was not the point of the project, but the documentary. And if this is the case, I can say a huge opportunity was lost.”

At some point the film was said to be a Kenyan interpretation of the story of Gustav Mannerheim.

The Marshal of Finland was not a Kenyan production,” replies Wanjiku, “It was a production done for the benefit of making a documentary, made to prove a point — or points — or introduce new ways of thinking about heroes, but what it most certainly was not, was a Kenyan film. It was just a film made in Kenya.”

“Besides,” she adds, “it’s as if the film was set up to fail, for the purposes of making an interesting documentary, and it was therefore a poor production artistically speaking.”

Previously, a mainstream Finnish production company also had played with the idea to make a film about Mannerheim. The plan was for Renny Harlin, the most accomplished Finnish Hollywood director (cue Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, Deep Blue Sea etc.), to direct the film, but this project had publicly struggled with funding for years.

So having a Mannerheim film in the news was nothing particularly new.

Basically, as long as there has been talk about making a Mannerheim film, money has been the big issue and Yle, having no big budget either, employed the most cost effective means of production within the budding Kenyan film industry, while ultimately — one would assume — hoping for a high quality product.

Due to this small budget, the film is made under some unusual circumstances with often disastrous outcomes.

“If a production team is hired that doesn’t have much experience dealing with the production issues, much less dealing with a professional production of a film and with a minimalist budget, one can only expect the catastrophe that we saw on the documentary,” Wanjiku adds, “It is by no means a realistic standard of production of what Kenyans are capable of.”

Wanjiku wa Ngugi.

It had been frustration with the evident misinformation about Africa and African people that had lead Wanjiku to found HAFF. She had discovered that even Finland was susceptible to the negative representation of Africa and Africans in the news and Hollywood films. Having lived in this country for a few years, she has also been privy to the conversations that have been happening locally around issues of race and multiculturalism.

“It was disturbing how much hostility was showcased, but I think it also speaks to how Africans are viewed in Finland. And it all boils down to how much people really know about Africans. It is my hope that collaborations of this nature, if done genuinely, can help resolve some of the issues. It is important to note that there was also great support for the film, for the idea.”

At a press conference held before the movie premiered, a flustered Erkko stood in defense of his decision to film The Marshal of Finland in Kenya. As seen in the documentary, a few journalists bombard him with questions accusing him of wanting to provoke the people and for having no sensitivity towards how this film may affect the sensibilities of war veterans. It’s noteworthy to mention that, again, this is not a first time the story of Mannerheim has caused such controversy; in 2008, a twenty-seven-minute puppet animation suggested an alternative view on the Marshal’s sexual orientation.

This whole recent media driven debacle has been at least equally disturbing; mostly due to the apparent lack of awareness of the racist tone of some of the public views. Nothing can be said categorically, but if the bone of contention is the fact that Erkko failed to divulge ahead of time to the Finnish society that he would have an African to play the main role, then by logical extension, there seems to have been a problem with an African playing the main role. Even if only in the imaginations of African children as was the case in this film. The reason why this storyline was not a consideration in the public debate was because the offence was taken before the film was even out.

As the debate unraveled, more and more hostile responses were aired, on tabloids’ front pages (above) but especially via social media. One particularly unmistakable venomous tweet said only one word, “niggaheim”. This was tweeted not by a wayward, uninformed teenager, but by an opinion leader and journalist respected by many. This spoke volumes, and left me more confused about what to think of the whole convoluted story, wondering whether this was indeed a true reflection of the feeling of Finns by and large.

Considering that the face of Finland is gradually changing as more and more foreigners find their way here, the question of what effect this can have on relations between Africans and Finns after all is said and done, still remains. Has this even served as a mirror to reflect attitudes within a society?

“I thought that despite the backlash a conversation so badly needed in this country about race happened,” Wanjiku starts. “I think getting people out of their comfort zone is sometimes good — it may not look like it, but it really does help remove, people’s biased view of the world around them, even if only a little bit. In terms of a change between Kenyan nationals and Finnish society, I doubt that much difference happened as a result. I think it will take more than one controversial film to change how black people are viewed in this country.”

The debate around multiculturalism is a complicated one, compounded by the language barrier in Finland. Naima Mohamud, who is of Somali background, stated in a column in the nation’s leading newspaper that with this whole drama, the public broadcaster gave a lot of ammunition to the immigration skeptics and the ones leaning towards negative thoughts on multiculturalism. That it was the immigrants in Finland that got the short end of the stick as now the bigoted opinions expressed got veiled behind a shock of having a disgraced national hero.

Wanjiku, on the other hand, concludes on a more optimistic note, “I am hopeful. As much as the debate has moved to the extreme right, there are also others who are equally opposed to it.”

Perhaps by choosing to tell a Finnish story about a national hero, employing a foreign production company, casting foreign actors and shooting it in a foreign country, more than one story got told. A Finnish story was told using Kenyan actors, then the documentary with Finns telling a Kenyan story was made, and finally in Finnish tabloids, an African otherness story is told displaying extreme views as mainstream views.

But after all of this storytelling, the question is, at what cost have these stories been told?

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