An Interview with Director Johan Karrento
Putting Lipstick on a Pig is a Finnish-Estonian documentary, directed by Johan Karrento. It tells the story of Päivi, a middle-aged woman working as an accountant, who steals 800,000 euro from her clients and gets addicted to online gambling. The film explores the aftermath of the case that has forever changed the life of a small community in Åland, an autonomous archipelago between Sweden and Finland.
You were born in Åland, so you probably heard about the case very early on. But when and how did you get the idea of making a film about it?
I know exactly when, because as soon as I heard the news that someone has stolen 800,000 euro from their clients, and it turned out that it was a middle-aged woman, I thought it was interesting. I’m very interested in what happens in a small community when somebody messes up. After that, it probably took me two years to call her and ask if she was interested in making a movie about it. Originally it was only about this woman, but then the victims’ stories and how online gambling works were added to picture.
We learn from the film that those victims are small business owners. Was it easy to convince them to talk about their personal experiences and share their thoughts on the case, including their accountant Päivi?
I didn’t really have to convince anybody, I think. I wanted to convince her colleague, who is not in the film, but she didn’t want to. As for the others, they felt like nobody was listening to them. This goes for all of them – even the gambling company. Nobody was paying attention to what they were saying. So everybody was happy to speak about this.
You’re very much present in the film, which probably has a lot do with your approach to documentary style. In 2005, you took part in the Berlinale Talents programme. Back then, you said about your style that it’s ‘personal without getting exhibitionist’. Was there any particular moment during the filming and/or editing process when you felt your presence was too much?
Oh, that was a long time ago, Jesus Christ! Well, it started one day when I was supposed to record the voice-over for the film. I was inside the summerhouse in Åland; it was incredibly hot there, and there was no wind outside. So I thought I could just record this outside as well. The way I set up my recording was that I had my camera there also, and just recorded the picture too. And the night before, I was watching movies to see what was a good reference film for this one, and I came up with Roger & Me by Michel Moore, who made a film about General Motors in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. I remembered this movie for so many years, and I could say that some bad things also happened in my hometown.
This is when I decided it is about my own hometown, and also about me. Along the way, I met a lot of people who said ‘there is too much of you in the movie’. Yeah, perhaps there is, and perhaps I’m an exhibitionist. But I’m also an islander, and although it has not happened to me personally, it involves me as well. I have the right to speak about this. And I think this made it a better story, with me standing in front of the camera. I think it’s more interesting visually, and I haven’t seen anything like this before.
Making a film is always challenging. What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome technically, or with the storytelling?
To put a large story together in an understandable way, and to get the pacing right so it doesn’t feel too fast. Knowing what to take out.
The infographics and other similar elements used in the film certainly help the audience understand the story better. How did you come up with the idea of using these as a way of dosing the information?
I started with my handwriting, and I thought ‘this is an interesting font’. This film was being developed with another company at that point, but I happened to watch Straight Outta Compton one day, and Ice Cube was angry with his record label. I thought: ‘I’m angry too, so I’m gonna start my own production company.’ So I started my own production company just to make this film. I didn’t want to have a branding, just a company name, and I wrote it with a magic marker. Then I thought, ‘Okay, I can write the titles this way too.’ That’s what I came up with, just to make it even more personal – or make it a bit more punk, I guess.
The film’s music is quite distinctive, sometimes it resembles the sound of slot machines, sometimes it adds a note of mystery. How was the music born?
We worked a lot on this, me and the composer. He had this theme he came up with, and he sent me a lot of stuff. And I think the sound designer was also extremely important – he was able to cut down the music a lot, and thus make it more distinct.
Geopolitically speaking, Åland is a special territory. It is an autonomous region of Finland but populated by Swedish speakers. In the film, you refer a lot to both Finland and Sweden, and draw comparisons. Was it difficult to find the right balance in giving Finnish and Swedish examples?
I think it’s difficult. It’s a storytelling issue, and a very interesting question also. I think it’s interesting to tell a story about a small thing that happens in a small place because this makes it relatable to other people. I think you have to help people a little bit along the way, to say ‘Hey, it is happening in Sweden, and it also happens in Finland’. There was a version pointing out that this happens in Hungary, this happens in Germany, the same thing. But finding the balance… I think it’s a gut feeling. When do I make it too broad, you know? All stories that affect you, I think, have to be particular and detailed. A guy sits next to a monkey called Steven. It’s somehow important that you know the name of the monkey. It’s an important detail. That’s my philosophy.
The film has its international premiere at the Warsaw Film Festival. Where else has it been screened so far?
In Åland, we had a premiere, and we showed it a couple of times. It was also on television in Finland.
How did the audience respond to it, both locally and in Finland?
People get angry when they realise what happens. I think that’s the response. Common people get angry. And I think a lot of festival programmers are just wondering ‘What is this?’ I’m sure that normal people like knowing this kind of things. They get agitated, you know.
Do you think your film will have an impact in this sense?
It already had an impact. I’m not saying that I did this, of course. There was a public outcry in Åland after the movie came out. We rented a cinema in the city and screened it for three days straight. There was a feeling of, ‘Where is everybody going to?’ And they were going to the cinema. I have never seen anything like this with any of my films. People were interested in this.
Months later, in the summer, the gambling company announced they’re going to put a cap on how much you can lose, so you can now only lose 30,000 euro a year, which is unprecedented. It’s only Veikkaus in Finland that has a cap, and now Åland. With the others, you can lose as much as you want. This is very important. This is something that happened.