“Father always spoke Finnish!” – Elina about her deceased father
This is a post to celebrate “The Day of the Finnish Swede”, a day for all Swedes of Finnish Descent and Finns who happen to live in Sweden.
Despite being a good 2-10 percent of Sweden´s population, Finns aren´t much represented in Swedish Media. Only a few Swedish movies feature a character of Finnish roots, and when it comes to the ever growing literature which is penned by immigrants or second-generation immigrants, people of Finnish descent are even less present. Susanna Alakoski and Eija Hetekivi Olsson, both Swedes of Finnish descent, have won awards and been best-sellers, but the fact that they write about Finns hasn´t really been acknowledge by the Swedish critics. Therefore it is a delight that the film “Elina – As If I Didn´t Exist” (2002) not only exists, but is a touching tale of courage and a enchanting, and completely underrated, cinematic gem. It is directed by Klaus Härö, who has also directed “The Best of Mothers”, another work of bright cinematic display.
“Elina” centers on a young 9-year old girl who lives in a rural area of Sweden in the year 1952. Both of Elina´s parents were Finnish immigrants, her mother being a single parent after the death of the father. After recovering from tuberculoses, Elina must return to school after a year of absence. Being a year academically behind her age peers Elina must reenter the school into the same class as her sister, Irma. The teacher of Irma´s class is the strict disciplinarian Tora Holm, who is both loved and feared in the small town Elina lives in. While at times generous, Tora is also frightening in her determination. Since it is strongly prohibited in the Swedish schools of the Era, Elinas mother warns her to never, ever speak Finnish outside of her home.
However when in school, Elina decides to help a fellow Finnish speaking classmate, Anton, since he, being of Finnish descent and newly arrived to Sweden and the school, doesn´t speak any Swedish. Elina speaks Finnish to help Anton come to grip with new the language. Unfortunately The teacher, Tora Holm, overhears them speak Finnish and without caring to know the context of the situation, decides this means Anton doesn´t get any lunch (a penalty for speaking Finnish). Elina tries to explain that Anton is at a disadvantage. Furthermore she points out that she also shouldn´t be allowed to have lunch since both of them spoke Finnish. These statements are dismissed by Tora. At lunch Elina, to protest the unfairness of the teachers actions, gives her entire meal to Anton. This starts a chain of verbal abuse Elina receives from her teacher. Elina becomes bullied, since she refuses to tolerate the discrimination she and Anton faces.
Despite “Elina” being a childrens film, it doesn´t shy away from showing how openly hostile people could be to Finns at the time, as well as to the poor. Since the death of her father, Elinas mother struggles to feed her three children and maintain a meager existence in a richer Swedish community in which they find themselves. The poverty Elinas family faces are constantly mocked by Tora. Tora also refers to the ability to speak Finnish as a sole reason to being poverty stricken, and even states that it´s “so hard to teach these finnsavages”. Today in Sweden Finnish is recognized under law as a minority language (as are the Sami language, Mäenkieli, Romani Chib, Yiddish, and Sign language). This status, as now conferred by Swedish law, means that every Swede of Finnish descent has a right to have access to their mother tongue, or a right to learn Finnish.
While it is of great importance that minority mother tongues, and the cultures which circulate around them, have found respect (at least in theory) in the Swedish State, it´s also crucial that films such as “Elina” show that discrimination and oppression have also been a part of the Finnish-Swede experience. On another note, the Sami in Sweden faced harsher discrimination and still continue today to be erased in Scandinavian society.
Elina as a protagonist is a fantastic, inspirational character. She is strong, fierce and believes in justice. She is brave enough to do this even when literally everyone else is against her, even her family. She feels pride in being Finnish and her sense of belonging and self-respect give her strength to avoid the shame in being different from the other Swedish children.
Also, Elina is also shown as having a substantial and binding connection with her father, which the movie implies to have been the person who has nurtured, and inspired, her sense of justice and concern for rights. The Finnish father, in “Elina”, gets to be portrayed as a kind, loving parent, which may not seem to be an important detail, however a commonplace, as well as unfortunate, stereotype of Finnish men in Swedish society, is that they are often drunken and violent hooligans who are commonly brutish and unremittedly uncivilized. In Contrast to this simplistic and one-sided stereotype, Elina´s father is a positive, nuanced portrayal of Finnish men. Granting a space for Finnish men to be allowed more three-dimensional roles in Swedish media without recourse to this overly represented stereotype is important to not only recognize the value of minorities in a society, but also to recognize the importance of the Finn to the history and development of Sweden.
“Elina – As if I didn´t exist” is a powerful film about discrimination and bullying. It´s a film that speaks of a personal history of the Finnish immigrants, but also speaks of the universal will to fight for what’s right.
So for The Day of the Finnish-Swedes, go have a sauna, munch on some Karelian pies and watch “Elina – As if I Didn´t exist”!