One frosty December day in Finnish Lapland almost 40 years ago, a Soviet missile streaked across the border and landed on the outskirts of Lake Inari. The incident rattled locals’ nerves and set off an international media firestorm, as journalists from across the globe raced to the remote Nordic region. Some speculated that the threat of nuclear annihilation wasn’t off the table for a small country sitting in the shadow of its massive, war-mongering neighbor — even though the reporters seemed to be providing most of the fireworks.
Finnish filmmaker Miia Tervo (“Aurora”) gives her own distinctive spin to these events in “The Missile,” a sophomore feature that’s being presented this week at the Finnish Film Affair in Helsinki. An absurdist dramedy about (international) borders and (personal) boundaries, the film pitches political satire against heartfelt comedy as it tells the empowering story of an abused single mother who gets drawn into the investigation surrounding the missile crash. In the process of uncovering the truth, she learns to stand up for herself. The film is produced by Kaisla Viitala and Daniel Kuitunen for Helsinki-based Komeetta Filmi with Estonia’s Stellar Film.
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“The Missile” begins with Niina, a single mother of two trying to get over her violent ex-husband, as she drives to her sister’s wedding. Suddenly she hears a loud bang from the wintry sky — what radio reports soon reveal to be a missile fired into Finland from the Soviet Union. The incident becomes the focal point of a global media circus, as nearly a hundred foreign correspondents descend on the tiny Finnish village: an invasion well out of proportion to what would wind up being an errant Soviet missile that wandered off-course.
Though it takes days for the government to officially respond, local hoteliers are quick to cash in on the sudden influx of foreign guests, while dishes like “Arctic rocket trout” pop up on area menus. Bakers prepare special missile-shaped donuts. A Finnish tourist board invites Santa Claus to visit the crash site. Meanwhile, Niina eventually finds herself getting drawn into the investigation for the local newspaper where she works as an archivist, often picking up the slack for an alcoholic colleague.
Speaking to Variety on the eve of the Finnish Film Affair, which runs Sept. 20 – 22, Tervo says she had been rehashing the mysterious and farcical events of that distant winter with friends not long ago and thinking about “boundary issues,” particularly among women in difficult or abusive relationships.
“You don’t know where you end and they begin,” she says. “You don’t have any personal boundaries. You just let everybody step on you.” It’s a trait the director recognizes in herself, noting that “when I’m faced with some kind of threat or fear of violence, I tend to make jokes or escape in a way that I am protecting myself.”
Tervo, who won praise for the complex and nuanced characters at the heart of her female-centric romcom debut, “Aurora,” which played at SXSW, wanted to bring that same vulnerability to Niina, an average woman who suddenly finds herself thrust into the corridors of power.
“I wanted to write a fragile and insecure woman,” she says. “I didn’t want to have this superwoman. She’s very strong. She finds the strength inside her, but these things are also really scary.” Tervo describes Niina “as a proactive hero in the midst of these men’s war games,” but also as a woman who is curious and funny and “has a chance to prove — mainly to herself — that she is capable.”
“The Missile” plots the trajectory of Niina’s growth against the larger geopolitical drama that unfolds in the wake of the missile strike. Finland, which was brutally invaded by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, has historically borne the brunt of incursions from its bigger, militaristic neighbor, and for Tervo, the parallel plotlines of her film raise similar questions: “As a nation and on a personal level, how do we protect ourselves? Do we protect ourselves?” she asks.
Those questions have taken on added urgency in the past year, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Tervo — who had already written several drafts of her script when the war began — admits that she might not have considered making “The Missile” had she started writing after Russian tanks rolled across the Ukraine border.
She decided, however, to move ahead, asking herself: “How can we approach these things to be sensitive enough and keep the humor and comedy adjusted to this state of the world?”
“The Missile” will be pitched to industry guests during a Finnish Film Affair showcase on Sept. 21 in Helsinki.
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