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Finland

Reetta Aalto • Director of Laughing Matters

“I just don't like to laugh at people”

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- We talked to Reetta Aalto, the director of Laughing Matters, fresh off its local premiere in Finland

Reetta Aalto • Director of Laughing Matters
(© Jarkko M Virtanen)

In her fiction feature debut, Laughing Matters [+see also:
interview: Reetta Aalto
film profile
]
, Reetta Aalto pushes a wannabe stand-up comedian Maria (Elena Leeve) onto the stage. Trying to stand out among the jokes about mothers-in-law, she and her fellow “rookies” turn to personal details of their lives, learning that real comedy is actually no laughing matter.

Cineuropa: Your screenwriter [Anna Ruohonen] did stand-up, but were you also trying to explore this scene on your own?
Reetta Aalto:
With producer Sari Lempiäinen, we are course mates from film school. It was her idea to commission this script from Anna. There weren't any films about stand-up in Finland, even though it's an up-and-coming trend. Unaware of all this, I happened to take a stand-up course led by Jamie MacDonald, who has this Feminist Comedy Academy, after which you get to perform in front of a live audience. When Sari saw that on Facebook, she went: “Reetta is the right director for this film.”

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How did you work on the characters' material so that it would feel spontaneous once they get to perform?
There is this common misconception that comedians just go on stage and start talking off the top of their heads, but most of the time, they are performing very well-rehearsed sets. Jamie coached our actors, and he pushed them to do a bit of stand-up as themselves, and even though there was just our own, welcoming gang present, some said they had been super nervous the night before. It felt very different from acting in the theatre or in films where you have a role, protecting you. Here, you’re expected to walk on stage more or less as yourself: you are the performer, the writer and the director. And you have to make the audience laugh. You can perform the exact same set, and in one place it will work while in another it won’t. It's not the material – it's the performance, the space you create with the audience.

There are moments in the film suggesting a typical romantic comedy, like an attraction between a pair of people who used to hate each other, or even a “training montage”. But then you flip it around, and instead of running, Maria is just gasping for air.
We certainly used the structure of romantic comedies as a framework, but we wanted to give it a bit of a twist and follow a feminist undertone more than anything else. In the running scene, we play with these clichés, with training montages, like the ones seen in Rocky or Flashdance, even though running has nothing to do with comedy. Or does it?

I guess that depends on how you run! Although Maria is not exactly your usual “quirky” comedy girl, and Elena Leeve plays her very subtly.
For me, comedy doesn't come from what I would call bad acting. I don't see the point in exaggerating something just to point out to the viewers that, hey, this is supposed to be funny. I would much rather place these people in the middle of an absurd situation. I am interested in a realistic world, and I like to portray people and phenomena that are recognisable. I don't think about “comedy” that much, but seek out what feels true. I just don't like to laugh at people.

It becomes a story about friendship, too, as these four people, competing for the title of best rookie comedian, form a specific bond – even though one tends to think of stand-up as a solitary activity.
We think of comedians as these lonely souls, but the truth is that they are often on tour. To be able to do enough gigs, you need to travel a lot, and you do that with your fellow comedians. It's still a relatively small scene, but they help each other, test out their material on each other and develop their jokes together. That’s Anna's experience. You can't make it alone – that's what every comedian needs to understand.

This group ticks all of the politically correct boxes: you have a person of colour and another who is non-binary. Is stand-up in Finland getting more diverse?
#MeToo had something to do with it, and #BlackLivesMatter – all these movements. The scene is quite diverse, but there is also this other world, a misogynistic and chauvinistic one, which at the beginning of our film pushes Maria on her journey. One of my gigs happened to be in a club where I was the only female performer. My set was #MeToo-themed, and there was a company celebrating its Christmas party or something: the audience was quite drunk and mostly male. The MC was really making a point of me being a woman, and it was horrible to go on stage with everyone expecting me to be the “sexy” part of the show. It went alright; they laughed a little. But all this has to change sooner or later. Nobody can listen to these endless jokes about female drivers.

In Finland, when I was a child, we used to have only two TV channels – we had a very unified culture. Now, the world is more open, and yet some still build their comedy assuming we are all the same. We need to accept the fact that not everything needs to be for everybody any more, whether it's comedy or films. Although I guess that's not what the financiers want to hear [laughs].

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