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Devil’s Bride: Saara Cantell

Please tell us about Devil’s Bride.

It’s a story about betrayal and atonement. These are the themes that I wanted to deal with. The main character is a 16-year-old girl, Anna, who tries to make up for something terrible that she has done.

The film is set in 1666, during the first systematic witch-hunt in Scandinavia. When I learned that there had been a witch hunt on the Åland islands, and that it is part of our local history, I was really surprised. All together sixteen women were sentenced to death and seven of them were actually executed because they were viewed as being in alliance with the devil. I thought it was really fascinating and terrible, and at the same time I thought it was a very interesting set-up for a story and the themes I wanted to deal with.

How reflective, then, do you think your film is of these true events?

The main character Anna and her story is fictional but otherwise the whole process of the witch-hunt follows real historical events. For example, many of the executed women are based on real characters, as well as the judge Nils Psilander and the Vicar.

Did it require a lot of research?

Yes, with Leena Virtanen, the co-writer, we did years of research for this. Leena even wrote a book that was published two years ago. It talks about the real historical events. But since we made a feature film, we naturally changed some things to make the story better.

How important is it to discuss our history, both good and bad?

The more we know about our history the more we can deal with things today. One of the things I find interesting is that in this particular witch-hunt the primus motor, judge Psilander, was really a man of belief. He was an academic and he definitely thought he was fighting on the good side. He was dealing with something he saw as pure evil, and he based his world view on scientific facts. I think that’s something really interesting to put in front of us today: What are the things we are blind about now? What are the witch hunts of today’s Europe? All these xenophobic ideas are much more common than they used to be, for example. I find this both terrible and scary. It is part of our human nature that we want to be part of a group and belong to our own clan. Unfortunately, we tend to seek the group feeling by projecting the ‘evil’ to somebody outside our own group. Throughout history the ‘others’ have either been Christians, Muslims, Jews or Witches – you name it. I think that is something that is an important reminder. It’s dangerous to demonise one group of people.

You revolve the story around love, revenge and false accusations. Were you more focused on showing drama or showing history?

I think the story came to life from several different elements. I wanted to deal, for my own personal reasons, with the theme of crime, guilt and atonement. Then I discovered the witch-hunts of Åland during the 17th century and became fascinated with these events. The other thing that was very important to Leena and I is to have a young female main character who was an active subject in the narrative. So often the young female characters are portrayed as naïve and passive, and they are mainly the objects of male characters desires. We were fed up wit that. We wanted to show a sixteen-year-old girl who is clever and full of life and she has just discovered her sexuality. In her youth she’s also capable of doing very stupid and egotistical things.

So you’d describe this as a feminist film?

I am a feminist, so I think one way or another every film I make is feminist. I think it would be impossible to make a film that would not mirror the way I see the world and the people. Stories are, in the first place, stories. If you put a label on it, whether it’s ‘feminist’ or something else, it can give the wrong impress. Because it’s a story and should primarily work as a story.

Witch-trials on the surface don’t look very feminist…

I wouldn’t say the witch-trials as a subject of a story are feminist or non-feminist, it’s always more about the way you see the characters. It’s about the kind of story you choose to tell and whose story, with whose voice you want to tell it. Who is the subject, the object or the victim? Of course, there’s a little bit of a misunderstanding that all witch-hunts have been very misogynistic and always against women. In Finland most of the witches were actually male. The witch trials that happened in Åland during the 17th century were in that way exceptional that they followed current modern academic ideas that were, unfortunately, really demonising towards women. In all their brutal ugliness they offer a fascinating point to a story.

Any discussion of witch-craft seems to show religion in a negative light. Were you concerned or worried about this?

The Vicar in our film is based on a real historical character, and according to all the court records he was actually quite evil. He really used this kind of psychological violence. We don’t know if he was really raping the women; that was something we added to make our story stronger. The dialogue in the interrogation scenes is based on the actual court reports. But we also know that the previous Vicar had been really kind and human. I think it’s more that there are different ways to use religion. When we talk about the 17th century in a small fishing village, everyone back then was very religious. There was no way to have a scientific explanation about how the world functions. When the church and the law allied together to fight against centuries-old habits, life became dangerous for the common people. Suddenly all the normal spells were seen as black magic. Even the Catholic Church had been much more understanding of the spells that the local people did. But after the reformation, the Lutheran Church took a much more strict attitude.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.