‘Cheer Up’ is a feature documentary by director Christy Garland set in Finland that reworks ideas of success and failure, of womanhood and of family. Garland’s film shows us early on that a team seemingly only triumphs when its individual parts are strong and in sync. Unfortunately, the cheerleaders of the ‘Arctic Circle Spirit Ice Queens’ are always slightly out of sync. The film follows the lives of two cheerleaders, Aino and Patricia and their Coach Miia, and drops us deep into their personal lives wherein they navigate hardships beyond the tricks and flips of cheerleading, yet simultaneously discover their team can be an epicentre of warmth in the bitingly cold Arctic Circle. Learn more about it below in a conversation with Christy Garland about the making and messages of her film.
The Australian premiere of your film ‘Cheer Up’ was just screened at the For Films Sake Festival in Sydney. Can you describe what your film is about, and tell us how you first heard about the film’s protagonists, the ‘Arctic Circle Spirit Ice Queens’?
It’s a film about the pressure to win, and how we define success for ourselves, and what actually makes for a meaningful life in our culture of accomplishment, contests, talent shows etc.
It follows Miia, the loving coach of a team of cheerleaders, and they live up on the Arctic Circle, in Finland. And as competitive cheerleaders, they sort of suck unfortunately. Miia’s sick of losing and not being taken seriously. But while she and her team get busy pushing themselves towards #1, life happens to her and Aino and Patricia, two of her most troubled cheerleaders, and it becomes a question of what will be more important to you when look back in year’s time – a plastic trophy? Or something else you went through that made you who you really are?
I was at a party and I met an ex-cheerleader who was a consultant and had worked with the team – she told me one of the hardest things was getting them to smile. I loved the idea of a cheerleading team that struggles not only to succeed, but pressured to smile. I felt like that might be a great metaphor for the pressure of being a young woman. Soon after that I met Liisa Juntunen, a producer in Finland. She couldn’t believe there were cheerleaders in Finland at all. We flew up to Rovaniemi six months later and we fell in love with the team immediately.
There is a toughness to the young women in your film. Their lives are complex. Your documentary allows the complexities of their lives, and their emotions, to come through to the audience in a directly honest yet humble way.
What prompted you to make a documentary about young women, and why did you hone into the experiences of Aino, Patricia and Miia?
A lot of depictions of young woman nowadays, particularly in reality TV, is focused on competition, pettiness, ‘voting people off’, catfights, and winners vs. losers. I wanted to make a film that showed women to be what they are – complex, compassionate, wise beyond their years and strong. I wanted to make something that wasn’t mean spirited. I focused on Miia, Aino and Patricia because they all were going through things that I personally relate to, and I felt that audiences would too, of all ages.
Miia, at 29, feels the same kind pressure to succeed and win, as we all do, no matter what we do for a living. Patricia has experienced the death of her mother, and done so courageously, and because I dread the day I lose a parent, I admired her for her strength. And Aino – I could just tell she was a searcher, she was one of those people that doesn’t easily fit in, and needs to find her very own way in order to be herself.
A recurrent theme in the film, fundamental to cheerleading, is trust. We watch the young women in your film deal with ongoing family frustrations, witness their relationship struggles and (literal) falls. How important is cultivating trust in a filming environment and how did these young women respond to opening up and sharing their experiences?
Yes I love how the mental blocks in the actual sport have a lot to do with trusting whether you will be caught by your friends after doing a double somersault in the air.
As for cultivating trust while filming, it’s vital, and I think your true intentions as a filmmaker, whether you’re conscious of it or not, determines who allows you to film them, and what you end up capturing in a person’s life.
For starters, I don’t speak Finnish so that was challenging, and apart from Miia the coach, they were all quite shy, especially at the beginning. So it took time for them to trust me, over three years of shooting, but I think what helped is that I was very honest with them about why I felt people would identify with their stories. Patricia, at screenings, has confessed that the first time she discussed her mother’s death was to us, on camera, so she believes that she used the experience for therapy.
Although I make documentary films, I choose subjects that have some autobiographical connection to my own life and there was something about each of the three characters that I strongly related to. They allowed us to get close to them once they realised that sharing their stories would make others feel less alone, so it was courageous and generous of them to show their pain and sometimes even humiliation, especially nowadays when young people are so in control of their image.
And I couldn’t have done it without Liisa the producer and Sari Aaltonen, the cinematographer – as the film developed they were able to direct my attention and the camera to things that I would have missed, either because it happened in Finnish, or it was some cultural nuance I would not have recognized. And their relationship to the girls, particularly brilliant Sari, helped build that trust.
Shots of snow-covered Rovaniemi and its slow, still atmosphere help set the mood of your film… a bit of a contrast to a classic, perky, ‘Americanised’ cheerleading film! How much time did you spend in Finland over the course of filming and what did you observe about this unique environment and the culture there?
We shot a lot – about 14 times over the course of three years. Finnish culture is not where you’d expect to find cheerleaders. I don’t think I’ll offend anyone by saying, generally, Finns aren’t known for being overly effusive, they are very reserved and they smile only when they have a good reason to smile. But for me their restraint made them much more fascinating, as we get to know them in the film and discover what made these women tick. There’s an authenticity and spareness to their expression, and I think that creates an interesting relationship with an audience who will naturally draw closer, if you know what I mean.
And finally, the setting was so unexpected – the icy Arctic Circle, with reindeer wandering around the highways, the midnight sun and very long dark winters. So seeing such an American sport, filtered through Finnish culture and all those unexpected elements just seemed like a film I hadn’t seen before. I also liked how we all go through things and sometimes think life sucks, or we think we suck, meanwhile you see that they are watched over by this majestic landscape, which I hoped would underscore how temporary life’s curveballs can be.
The For Films Sake Festival aims to, “shift the conversation from the ‘worthiness’ of female filmmakers to their innovation in the face of gross disparity”. What is your experience with disproportion/disparity in the film industry – have you been met with any challenges as a female in the industry?
Challenges in documentary filmmaking affect us all male or female on most levels I think…but as for disparity of opportunity, I don’t know to be very honest, perhaps, maybe even likely, but I can’t dwell on it. One thing I have to say is that I’ve noticed the work is really starting to speak for me, I’ve just concentrated on making films I haven’t seen before, and trying to refine my craft with each new film, and that has reflected on how I’m perceived as a director I think.
That said, it would be fantastic if I got a call out of the blue to just direct something for some other producer, based on the three features I’ve done so far, but I know that’s not something that happens as easily for women as it might for men.
Who are some innovative women in the film industry we should be aware of?
Phie Ambo (Denmark) is constantly pushing her films in interesting, philosophical directions, and I adore the way Lucy Walker tells stories.
What are you currently working on?
My next film is about a very rebellious, headstrong teenage girl living in the West Bank who struggles against her circumstances, negative expectations and her own personal demons as she tries to make it through boot camp and get a job on the police force. Another very compelling female character who gets stronger as she learns how to care about and connect emotionally with others and ultimately to belong to something.