Antti Kaarlela, Aleksi Puranen and Antti Kairakari write stories and put them to life in movies and multimedia artwork. Their movies and documentaries combine the personal and the political, interlacing the saddest and the hardest topics with the vibes that make you laugh so much you cry – only to carry on laughing again.
The ”whatever” in the Whatever group they formed in 2011 stands for the interdisciplinary arts they have been engaged in for years – alongside creating and developing the arts scene of Northern Finland which wouldn’t be itself without their influence.
In this TaikaTalk Antti, Antti and Aleksi kindly share the stories behind their artwork, telling about the dramedy of being artists in the North and people in the world (and we also speak about Britney Spears).
TaikaTalk: How has creating interdisciplinary art pieces – whatever – turned from hobby to business and what was the most challenging on this road – finding funding, fighting procrastination, doing accounts?
Antti Kaarlela: I tried doing many things in my life, not many of those were something I don’t love. I used to be a snowboarder and used to make a living out of that for a while. Then I turned to acting and started to make a living out of that. My sister’s husband once asked me: “Why do you always have to turn your hobby into your profession? Why can’t you just get a real job?” Things have gone this way, however: I like doing something, why not make money out of it if you can?
Aleksi Puranen: What I do right now is something I wanted to do for a long time. I first graduated as a Bachelor of Arts in 2006 and then as a Master of Arts in film screenwriting in 2012. I decided that I will give it all I can to make a living by doing what I love – yet there were times when I had to work on all sorts of jobs… Now I’ve been making a living from doing what I do for around 5 years – without having to work on construction sites or gas stations.
TaikaTalk: What about you, Antti Kairakari? You have once described yourself as a ”dancer/ director/ CEO/ DAD and occasionally human rights activist and a fisherman”.
Antti Kairakari: I don’t think hobby turning into a profession is that straightforward. And yet it is, in a way. I started dancing when I was four years old. The first time I got paid for it I was sixteen. It was a show I wasn’t too interested in, actually. They said they will pay me money for doing it and then it became really interesting and I did it (all laugh, would be the editor’s note, yet we didn’t, because it is a perfect example of how we enjoy the humour here in Finland: you don’t have to laugh all the time when something is really funny – TaikaTalk).
Thus the hobby was turning into a profession bit by bit. I studied in Oulu and graduated as a dance teacher. For years dance was the thing that I wanted to do. During school time, though, I turned a bit more to theatre – I still wanted to dance, it was the number one thing, but the theatre just came along. I went to theatre to work – just went to an audition and got hired. So theatre was never a hobby for me, it was always a profession. About ten years ago I started to feel that in this small town where I live with my family – Oulu – I achieved pretty much what I could achieve in the field of dance – and moved on.
TaikaTalk: You have been developing Oulu’s – and Northern Finland’s – arts’ scene for years. How has it changed through time, in your perspective? Does it look like you thought it would when you started the Whatever Group?
Antti Kaarlela: My vision back then was that the cultural and arts’ scene in Oulu would have been much more lively, bigger, diverse and spread out by now.
We moved out of Valve (the cultural space hosting art workshops and exhibitions in the centre of Oulu) to Hiukkavaara (the ex army barracks cultural space hosting art events quite far away from the city centre ) around three years ago – we are not in the centre anymore and don’t see much of what people do in arts, especially now when we’re so tied up with the things we do that we don’t look outside that much anymore.
When I was working in the theatre (for years!), I had a feeling that theatre – while being in the centre – was isolated from the rest of the city. We would sit and work there saying we’re part of the community, but at the same time we didn’t really see what was happening with the other people in the city. Now I have the same kind of feeling. We’re focused on taking our productions to bigger areas in Finland or internationally, that’s where we sell. Our focus is out of Oulu, that’s why we might not see the processes in the city that much anymore…
Antti Kairakari: The thing is that we have grown, as Antti described, having moved away from the grassroots. When I see theatre plays or get to know music or visual arts created here, I think the city is lively. I just don’t know all the artists anymore. Which is a pity, but then again it’s also great: I don’t think it’s healthy that at some point we knew everyone – there wasn’t an artist in the city we didn’t know or haven’t met. Now it is different – and good.
There are a lot of things happening in Oulu also thanks to us (all laugh). Life has led us to where we are and what we’re doing. It feels like we made shoes and were wearing them for a while in the cultural scene of Oulu. Then life happened and we grew out of those shoes. Ten years ago when we established Whatever Group we had no clue where we’re going. For the first five years we were basically having fun with the idea that we are, in fact, a company.
Antti Kaarlela: It was whatever.
Antti Kairakari: And it’s really fun to do whatever.
Antti Kaarlela: It is a life-led-us-there kind of thing.
Aleksi Puranen: Ten years ago I imagined Oulu would probably be more diverse and bigger when it comes to arts and culture. My focus, however, has always been on film-making, I’m not that much of the all-range artist as both Anttis have been: it has always been films and TV series for me, so I might not have seen that much outside of my own field.
First time I worked with Anttis was in 2015 and then I joined Whatever group full-time in 2018. Maybe back then I hoped to exist on the inside of the arts’ and cultural business’ scene – without really knowing what that means. Now as a company we are on the inside, but it feels there is no inside anymore…
TaikaTalk: Sounds dramatic! Speaking of which – your work includes very funny entertaining pieces – and pieces addressing very dramatic and crucial topics, such as refugee crisis, human rights violations and fighting violence. Is it hard to balance between those things? Many people in entertainment industry, even though personally supporting human rights and being able to at least sign a petition against the injustice or donate something to the Red Cross, avoid hard topics. Do you feel outsiders in this context or has the situation been changing recently?
Antti Kairakari: One of our projects in progress has a really strong social and ethical core. But it’s a comedy. It will be miniseries for YLE called Sukset Ristissä (”A talented, but troubled girl wants to forget her skijumping past and reconcile with her father, until she meets a stubborn old skijump coach, who hasn’t forgotten the glory days of this dying sport”, says the official description on Whatever Group’s website). That’s a story with a strong human rights message: we are looking at the refugee crisis and integration processes. But the story itself is light, because life is funny…
Antti Kaarlela: It is supposed to be a dramedy – somewhere in between drama and comedy. But the issues that we tackle – especially the backstory on refugees – are big. I’ve always liked the fact that you can use comedy and all sorts of funny things to tackle the big issues. It is important for people to be able to do that. I believe that entertainment and serious things or big issues do not contradict each other: you don’t have to choose between them.
When I was working at the theatre as a young actor, a lot of people would say that they don’t want to do the entertainment side of the cultural business. Even back then I thought there is nothing wrong in doing entertaining pieces: it can be well done entertainment going deep into subjects such as human rights and refugees.
TaikaTalk: That also eliminates the border between the personal and the political inside the audience: politics is everywhere, and everything is personal. How do you feel about that, Aleksi?
Aleksi Puranen: I consider myself a comedy man and a comedy maker. I enjoy making people laugh. Comedy is never only about jokes. Especially in Finland comedy involves quite a bit of pain… When I’m coming up with something I consider funny there’s always a deeper meaning about the challenges the society faces.
Antti Kairakari: Aleksi has just tried to claim himself as a comedy writer, but that is not the whole truth. The next piece that’s coming out is a show called ”Evil Side” (”After her friend is found murdered in a small fishing village in Northern Finland and the collective suspicion points toward her, bullied and outcast Johanna must prove her innocence”).
Antti Kaarlela: That’s a thriller.
Antti Kairakari: And a horror movie.
Aleksi Puranen: Murder mystery.
Antti Kairakari: With terrible things happening.
TaikaTalk: That sounds like fun (all laugh).
Antti Kairakari: It’s quite far from comedy but is weirdly working to make us laugh.
Antti Kaarlela: It has got social issues. It captures the problem of bulling at school.
Antti Kairakari: A young teenager girl is in the centre of the story… Actually – we haven’t talked about it at all yet, but take Britney Spears. Have you seen her interviews from twenty years ago when she was a really young girl? You can see how badly she was treated. She was of the age my daughters are now, and old men were bullying her. And the whole world was laughing at her: ”Look, this girly girl is free to be bullied because she wants to be a girl”.
TaikaTalk: Britney Spears was actually a heroine of my first ever feature text for the big media. It was amazing how much more she became in her realness of depression and mental health challenges – more than could have ever been happening with just a glamourous pop star image.
Antti Kairakari: There is something in that picture which is so disturbing. I’m glad that we are processing it in our work now.
TaikaTalk: Do you feel lonely on the art scene with such an approach – mixing the serious and the entertaining – or is there any change in the field? Might it have been triggered by the Corona pandemic? Could it have pushed the art towards solidarity by having blurred the line between the personal and the political, as artists have personally experienced tragedies and problems and had to react to political and social changes caused by the pandemic? Do you feel topics like domestic violence, military aggression, police brutality, etc are likely to be more addressed by art now?
Antti Kaarlela: I’m not sure if Corona has anything to do with it. In Finland there is hardly a strict division between arthouse and commercial mainstream things. Even though we’re aiming to do commercially successful things, we still can claim to be artists: commercial success doesn’t take us away from the artistry.
One of the things that led us to dreaming and actually doing films and TV is that we did a really good theatre piece called ”Ovi” (”The Door”). The budget for the whole piece was probably 35 thousand euros – it was a big budget for doing a theatre piece. At the end of the day only 250 people saw it. And we were feeling that it does not make any sense: putting months into building the piece, working your ass off, investing heart, soul and money, thinking this is the best thing you’ve ever done so far – and then only 250 people see it! That’s when we started thinking about how we can reach more people.
Antti Kairakari: It has got much to do with the political side of it – we have always thought that the things we do are a part of the discussion which is going on in the society, and we are contributing to it through the pieces of our art.
Antti Kaarlela: The ever-going discussion about the world around us.
Antti Kairakari: We might be introducing something new or commenting on something that has existed before – but I’ve always seen art as a platform for discussion and dialogue. If you think of art that way, it means you have to have someone listening – the audience. If art is political you especially have to have an audience. Just as Antti said. That time it was not actually 250 people. It was 70.
Antti Kaarlela: Ok! I must have made it look more positive in my memory…
TaikaTalk: Well, the Corona reality with its restrictions has made three people in the audience a positive number (all laugh).
Antti Kairakari: It just felt so wrong that we are investing that much money for something that only remains in the small bubble – it doesn’t affect the society. At the same time we did a small video commercial for the show. And it had ten times more views than the show itself. That is how we decided: ok, so we reach people through video – let’s focus on that. It never was a straightforward path, but since Aleksi came along five years ago we knew exactly where we would love to go and we have been struggling.
TaikaTalk: What was the OVI piece about?
Antti Kairakari: It was a love story about fear and lovers uniting after decades.
Antti Kaarlela: Yes, it was about love and longing for doing…
TaikaTalk: One of the pieces you were addressing the refugee crisis in was ”Top Spot – spotting the top talent” – a pilot of TV series you made about people in Africa dreaming of building a life in Europe. What happened to the series – did it develop anyhow?
Antti Kaarlela: Not so far. We almost sold the whole thing in Norway, but they wanted to implement the idea themselves… We were so new to business that we thought we could work this out better with somebody else, so we didn’t make that deal with Norway and apparently missed the whole thing. It was, however, a really good idea and is the same one we’re addressing in the drama we’re currently developing.
TaikaTalk: In one of your Instagram posts you wrote that UNICEF “End Violence” campaign inspired you to do your own posters. The three posters you created capture people in masks and a little girl. First they scare her, then they pass her by while she sits abandoned holding the ”End Violence” sign, and then one of the people stops, puts the mask off and reaches out to her. Why are you optimistic about solidarity towards the victims of abuse? What do you think is apt to make people stop wearing the mask of indifference?
Antti Kaarlela: I hope we’re going towards solidarity, justice and generally the situation where people are good to each other. My original training is anthropology, though, which allows me to say that history hasn’t shown strong signs of people being able to evolve over being mostly shitheads.
Antti Kairakari: Statistics show differently. We are now living in the period of time that is more safe than ever.
Antti Kaarlela: That is true.
Antti Kairakari: It’s safer and brighter than ever. It doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be forces against it, but the change often needs only one person to give a hand to someone.
Antti Kaarlela: At the same time you can only do what you can do…
TaikaTalk: What feels in your approach is you are trying to get bigger audiences to deliver some humanitarian values, yet you still would perform for one person because one person can make a change by putting his mask off. Wouldn’t you?
Antti Kaarlela: As many of those ”ones” as possible is something we seek.
Aleksi Puranen: Everything I work on, all the stories I come up with, show that I really love happy endings. I can’t write a sad or bad ending or have a pessimistic attitude towards where we’re going…
TaikaTalk: Do you think the Corona time has a happy ending?
Antti Kaarlela: Strangely, the Corona – in professional terms – has become a good thing. The company ”Whatever Group” suffered financially, but faced the process of opening the doors to new ways of communicating, to reappreciating Zoom, for example. Before the Corona we were a production company in Oulu and were a little stuck in that status. Now, all of a sudden, it doesn’t really matter where we are. We’re talking to people in Berlin, and Munich, and London, and it doesn’t matter that we’re here in Northern Finland. Paradoxically, it feels so much easier to be in touch with people because of the Corona. We have been making the Corona-reality into our advantage building a network that would have taken us years to build without the pandemic effect.
I’m sure there will be good things that come out of the Corona once the restrictions are gone – I do believe in its happy ending thus. The world has actually changed for the better. There used to be quite a number of people in Finland who would say that a pessimist is never disappointed. My take on that is that the pessimist is actually just always disappointed…
Antti Kairakari: That’s also a question of balance. We’ve recently had a big discussion about the panic…
Antti Kaarlela: What panic?
Antti Kairakari: Don’t you remember: we need to stay on our toes…
Antti Kaarlela: You mean the joke of a Harvard’s professor…
Antti Kairakari: Yes.
Antti Kaarlela: Success, he said… Then I don’t remember…
Antti Kairakari: That’s panic!
Antti Kaarlela: Success creates certainty. And certainty creates failure. So his thought was: only paranoid people succeed, only paranoid people survive.
TaikaTalk: Feels so good to hear that!
Antti Kaarlela: It does! We were thinking of it in terms of the business: you have to always be on your toes, you have to be – in that sense – paranoid of what you’re doing wrong or what you could do better. Always evaluating.
TaikaTalk: One of your movies – The Swamp Affair – is about a woman who gets stuck in the swamp realizing she is also stuck in a relationship. The swamp is a powerful image. What is the most nasty swamp you think the world is stuck in currently, the one you are probably paranoid about, – nationalism, chauvinism, ignoring climate change, etc. – and what is the way out?
Aleksi Puranen: Injustice does make me feel angry. ”The Swamp Affair” came out of the female perspective of a woman being unhappy in a relationship. And the swamp felt like a perfect place for the story – a woman was unhappy in a relationship and dumped her husband in the swamp! I’m not sure if I had really found out what my swamp is – I’ve been quite happy for the past few years, we’ve been working hard… Corona is one thing though that I wish we really could get rid of. It’s not something that happens with the snap of your fingers, however…
Antti Kaarlela: I don’t think Corona is something I can personally be angry towards. It just is. I do hope that we get out of that swamp, but still there’s no reason to be angry about it. Injustice, or rather stupidity is something that makes me angry: all those people who don’t think what they do and what consequences it has.
Antti Kairakari: If there’s one really big thing we the people need to be afraid of, it’s the climate change. Of course, there’s also injustice, the social and political issues that we need to tackle. But the climate change is scary and huge.
Antti Kaarlela: Though I feel it goes along with the rise of the right wing populism which is keeping us away from tackling issues that are truly important. Those people can stop behaving or misbehaving, just go away, it’s not that hard, – and then we can work on the climate change…
TaikaTalk: How does it feel to work with Santa and elves? It is curious how Santa is the face of Lapland – and Finland – for the outside world, while heroes of the “Reindeer Spotting: Escape from Santaland” – the documentary about drug abuse in the region – are more symbolic for those who live there. Do you feel the conflict between the perception of Finnish cultural heritage from the outside and from the inside? Is it why your Santa seems more human and less glamorous, so that people can relate to him?
Antti Kaarlela: I went to New Zealand when I was a young man, and when they displayed the Maori culture for tourists, it was not at all what the Maori living out there were having: the culture displayed for tourists was not the one they could relate to. The market forces have made it into something else to make it more ”sellable”. One can see the same type of exploitation of the Saami culture and the whole Finnish culture in Rovaniemi, marked by doing things that would sell. It’s a big thing I don’t consider right, yet you can’t control the market.
Antti Kairakari: I see it a bit differently. Santa is a global story and a tale. He’s been living in children’s minds for quite a while – and we need those kinds of promising tales. We also need other tales and stories, ”Reindeer Spotting” being one of them, it is in a way as true as Santa. The exploitation of Saami people is luckily more or less passed in the tourism industry. I don’t mean to say that it’s something that does not deserve to be tackled in the Finnish and/or European society, but things have progressed. It’s good – thanks to the work of activists within the Saami community and around it, – though things have to progress even more . The work of the activists has made a difference and I hope it continues and we see someone giving a hand. It’s always about a few people who can make a difference.
You need to see the perspective to appreciate the change that has occured – in the same time you need to see the work which is not done. Rovaniemi is my home town, I grew up there. There are thousands of stories in the city. Santa is one of them. ”Reindeer Spotting” is one of them. Me going skiing when I was eight years old is one of them. Me fleeing the city when I was eighteen – for forever – is one of them. Me coming back in a few years is one of them. They don’t oppose each other.
Antti Kaarlela: The whole thing – the world we live in – is big, and we try to not perceive it in a narrow way. How were we treating the Saami culture as Finns? It used to be much worse in the past. It feels right to say it out loud: our people have been mistreating Saami people. That actually led me to thinking about something else: I’ve taken my daughter to Corona test recently and we were talking in the car. She told me – she takes a bus to school – that once there were ninth-graders sitting close to her and an eighth-grader sitting next to them. The ninth-graders started bullying the eighth-grader, taking his cap off, pushing him, saying things like ”If we see you again on the school bus, we’ll beat you up”.
My daughter told me: ”That was so wrong, but what can I do?” I asked her to tell me the names of those guys so I call the principal and tell about the incident… That whole thing – together with Antti’s words – got me thinking that in the society we would need a way of having a general whistleblowing line that you can call and say ”Hey, this thing is really-really wrong, do something about it!” And somebody takes a call and does something about it.
Antti Kairakari: Isn’t that odd?
TaikaTalk: Santa seems to be the only one who can actually answer that call.
Antti Kaarlela: Somebody has to do something about things that are wrong – and we are trying to do our part.
Whatever Group was talking with Lölä Vlasenko