A family comes together for the holidays, but before long starts falling apart. Just like every year, middle-aged sisters Susanna and Helena visit their parents' house with their families. But just like every year, Grandpa Lasse drinks too much, Grandma Ella has to take care of everyone, the kids are fed up and the sisters argue about the most pointless things. After Christmas, everyone separates and returns to their everyday lives. Tia Kouvo’s bitingly humorous, universally poignant debut digs into a question we can all relate to: Are we destined to remain stuck in the same patterns or can we ever change - and at last become a happy family?
Tia Kouvo is a director and screenwriter with a background in social psychology. Family Time is her debut feature film and it premiered at Berlinale in 2023. After the premiere, it has been screened at the prestigious New Directors/New Films -festival organized by MoMa and Lincoln Center, and gotten awarded at Transilvania International Film Festival, Brussels International Film Festival and Cinema Jove.
Selected director's filmography:
2018 We Retired People (short fiction) / Pensionärerna
2018 Family Time (short fiction) / Mummola
2018 Growing Pains (short fiction) / En nattlig konversation i Göteborg
2016 Doubter of Spring (short fiction) / Vårens Tvekare
2014 Chat with Me (short fiction) / Chatten
2011 Rio Rita (short documentary) / Rio Rita
IN CONVERSATION WITH TIA KOUVO
The idea of a family trying to get along but not always succeeding is something familiar to nearly everyone. What made you want to explore family relationships and this emotional territory with your first feature film?
The theme of family has been with me for so long, over many years. I’m interested in looking at people's behavior, specifically within the private setting of the home. I’ve of course also experienced family gatherings that come with their share of challenges myself. Why is it so difficult to be a happy family, actually? I wanted to approach the interactions inside a family very truthfully, show the disconnection but also the beautiful moments that make it all still worth it. I think in films it is too seldom realistically depicted what actually happens within the walls of our homes. And yet we spend the main part of our lives in our own homes. This is where we become the people that we are and where we nurture our most important relationships. So why don’t we look closer at what is going on in there? I once heard a filmmaker say in an interview that it would be horrifying for them to have to make a film that was set mostly inside a home. But for me, it’s the opposite – that’s the dream.
On one hand I could say Family Time was partially born from a sadness. I find myself thinking: isn’t it sad that things have to be this way? In some ways, everything is actually fine. But it’s not really. Even when people truly love each other, and it seems like they could just have a nice time together, still they somehow don’t succeed. It’s in part this underlying sadness that led to the need to make this film, to explore it and perhaps to better understand it. On the other side, I could say what’s really at the root of the film is love. But to explore love, I also need to explore all the things that get in the way of it.
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How did the family’s web of relationships come together and how much was inspired by real life? What was the key to balancing the collective family dynamic with all the individual characters and performances?
They are a mix of people I’ve known and seen, and myself, too. I already made two short films before with the same characters; one of them in film school in 2016 and the second one, also called Family Time, in 2018. The first one never got released because I knew I wanted to keep developing this idea and remake it. But the characters were already very established and real to me because I have been living with them in my head for a long time. It was very funny when we went location scouting for the house of the middle-aged couple Risto and Susanna, and we went to three houses. In two of them, the couples who lived there looked just like Risto and Susanna, and the men were engineers, too, like Risto. That was hilarious, it felt like we had really pinpointed something not only authentic but very common.
As I wrote the script, it was clear to me that the first part of the film will be focused on the group; I really wanted to show what it looks like when this family gathers and the problems that ensue. In the second part of the film, I’m trying to reflect on why things are the way they are. And I’m also looking for some kind of solution. I focused in more on the grandfather Lasse, his daughter Susanna and also the granddaughter Hilla. I wanted to look more closely at Susanna and Lasse, because they seem to have heavier or more urgent issues than others. By that I mean the issue of finding a connection to other people, but also to themselves. Hilla, the grandchild, doesn’t seem to have the same problems as the adults, and that’s why it was important to have her in the story. To remind us that something can be done, and that even if change is not easy to achieve - eventually, the time will come for the new generation, and they will make new choices. It was also important to make this intergenerational connection present in the film; to look at how patterns move from one generation to the next, but also how things change from one generation to the next.
Family gatherings, Christmas, holiday arguments – all come with their share of stereotypes in film and life. How did you hope to approach them differently?
I wanted to make a film about Christmas that isn’t a Christmas movie. I didn’t feel any pressure maneuvering that territory, because I felt that Christmas is, in most of the films that I’ve seen, depicted in a way that I don’t recognize from my own Christmases. It’s funny actually, the very first small seed for Family Time was planted about ten years ago now, when I was at my grandparents’ place. It was a couple days after Christmas Eve, I was watching TV, and there was this American Christmas movie on. In that exact moment, I felt like what I was seeing was so fake. Maybe I was just jealous of this happy American family. But anyway I got a paper and pen and wrote down a question: what if I made a film that shows our Christmas? It felt very tickling, the thought of it. Could a film like that even be possible? Many stones have been turned since that moment but it’s fun to think that something of the initial small, scary-just-to-think idea is still there. And we actually shot the film at my own grandparents’ place, so the circle has now been closed.
I really didn’t have any straightforward references on the subject of Christmas holidays, but for the family setting and following multiple characters over a certain unified theme, I looked more to inspirations like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Todd Solondz’ Happiness.
What about the humor in the film? What were you looking for and how did you find its specific bittersweet tone?
I love humor that just happens in everyday situations, when people just happen to say or do something funny without realizing it themselves. Often it is based on the situation itself; a person not understanding how they are perceived by others. Or just looking at a person doing something mundane can be funny! When we laugh at those qualities, it’s because we understand the absurdity of it. It also has to do with the point of view I think I have towards us as humans. In a way, I see us as very small and petty. On the other hand, I take people’s lives with the utmost seriousness. Maybe there’s something Nordic about it, I’m not sure. I would say people like Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismäki have a similar kind of humor; on one hand taking ordinary life very seriously, but at the same time, it generates laughter.
Most of the movie is set indoors, but visually the film also feels dynamic. What was your concept in terms of the visual approach to the scenes?
Me and the cinematographer Jesse Jalonen have been having a dialogue about the visual style since we made the short version of Family Time (2018) together. We talk and plan intensively, we create a meticulous storyboard, we experiment with different angles in the real locations. Then we’re evolving and adapting that with the actors, tweaking all the way through the shoot.
When it comes to the grandparents’ house in the film, it is my (late) grandparents’ real home, and I wrote the script for this place. For me this was a fantastic thing both artistically and practically, because we could go there many times over several years to plan exactly how the film would look. I hope that this contributes to a natural feeling in the film, and that things feel connected and organic.
What I also knew from having made the short film in a similar style was that if I’m going to keep the viewers’ attention for two hours with scenes like this, there has to be more of a dynamic. I don’t want to bore the viewer, I want them to enjoy. So I knew I wanted to go close and far; to go outside the house sometimes to get a bit of a break. For me, the story is the images. The images are intertwined but they are also there for themselves. In this way, it was important for me to create a sense of movement just with the images. They move us forward as much as the plot, and it was important to me that they vary in rhythm, length and perspective.
The youngest family members, the kids, bring confrontation but also wisdom and hope to the film. How do we learn from older generations, or not? Can we have any hope for the future of our own families?
I think the learning happens both ways. In Family Time, I am looking at the older generation critically, but also with warmth. I try to find an understanding as to why things are as they are. The multigenerational perspective is important because we are still very much shaped to be the people we are in our families. And in Family Time, I’m looking at the difficulty of being together, how hard it is to feel good in your own skin, and this is usually very connected to what kind of family we are brought up in.
And there is hope, absolutely! I hope the film leaves the viewer with a positive feeling, after everything. Although change is slow and sometimes difficult, people are still worth the fight, and time will inevitably change things, eventually.
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Elina Knihtilä is an actor and a Professor in Acting at the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. She graduated from the Theatre Academy Helsinki (nowadays known as the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts, Helsinki) as an actor and with a Master of Arts in Theatre and Drama, in 1996. Before her professorship, she has worked as a freelance actor for approximately twenty years and performed in several several theatre roles at theatres including Q-teatteri, the Finnish National Theatre, and Ryhmäteatteri. She has served as the Chair of Q-teatteri’s board and been part of the artistic planning group for the international theatre festival Baltic Circle. She has also appeared in several movie and TV roles during the years. She has been honored with a Jussi Award twice and a Venla award, and been part of the manuscript work groups of several TV comedy series. She is also the president of WIFT Finland (Women in film and television Finland).
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Ria Kataja is a Finish actor known from her roles in films such as Black Ice (Berlinale Competition 2007), Force of Habit (2019) and Aurora (Best international feature film in Edinburgh Film Festival (2019). She was awarded as the best theater actor in Finland in 2015 and received the best acterss together with Outi Mäenpää from their roles in Black Ice at the Festroia Film Festival in 2008.
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Jarkko Pajunen was born in 1970 in Varkaus, Finland. He studied literature and theatre science at the University of Helsinki and later went on to study acting and gratuated with an MA from Theatre Academy of Helsinki on 1997. As an actor, Jarkko has worked in numerous films, TV series, theatre performances and radio broadcasts. He also work as a writer and has written among others short stories, plays and radio plays.
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Tom Wentzel (b. 1947) has had a long career at the Helsinki City Theater, one of the biggest theaters in Finland. He is also known for his numerous TV, cinema and animation roles.
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Leena Uotila is a well-known Finnish actress. Her portrayal of Solveig in the Finnish TV-movie Solveigin Laulu (1974) made her a breakthrough star. In 1976 she received a Jussi award (Finnish Oscar) for her role in the film Rakastunut rampa).
Leena graduated from the Finnish Theatre School in 1971. She began her career in the TV film Lokki (1971) in the role of Nina Zareznajana, based on a play by Anton Chekhov. She has performed in various theaters, including Ryhmäteatteri, Lilla Teatern, Helsinki City Theater, and the National Theater. Leena also served as an acting teacher at the Theatre Academy from 1983-1988.
Her latest movies are; Free Skate (2022), Ladies of Steel (2020), Ihmisen osa (2018), Off Key (2015), for which she received a nomination for Best Actress in the Finnish Film Academy Awards. She has acted in over 80 TV shows and 30 movies throughout her career.
Tom Wenzel as Lasse
Leena Uotila as Ella
Elina Knihtilä as Helena
Ria Kataja as Susanna
Jarkko Pajunen as Risto
Elli Paajanen as Hilla
Director: Tia Kouvo
Screenplay: Tia, Kouvo
DOP: Jesse Jalonen
Production Designer: Nanna Hirvonen
Editor: Okku Nuutilainen
Sound Designer: Jorma Kaulanen
Make up Designer: Heidi Huovinen
Costume Designer: Mirva Mietala
Composer: Sveinung Nygaard
Producers: Jussi Rantamäki, Emilia Haukka
Co-producers: Fredrik Lange, Kristina Börjeson
Line Producer: Paria Eskandari
1st AD: Aija Ronkainen
Re Recording mixer: Erik Clauss
Original title: Mummola
International title: Family Time
Duration: 116 min
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Original language: Finnish
Countries of production: Finland, Sweden
Production Companies: Aamu Film Company
Co-production Companies: Vilda Bomben Film Ab, Film i Väst
With the support of: Finnish Film Foundation, Yle, Film i Väst, Swedish Film Institut, Aurora Studios, Torino Film Lab