‘Sielunmaisema: the Risto Rasa Project’

Matt Carlson
transforms the magic
of Finnish poetry
into a short film
that premieres
in Minneapolis
this weekend

One of the coolest things about Sielunmaisema: the Risto Rasa Project is that it started out as a mystery.

“I had gotten accepted to a month-long artist residency in Finland,” says Matt Carlson, the Minneapolis-based writer and director who created the film. “I wanted to make an experimental documentary kind of thing using poems and poetry, you know, as an inspiration … because I really don’t know that much about it.”

That was in 2017, and the Loyola film grad had yet to make his first visit to Europe. When he arrived on the other side of the pond a few months later, he began transforming the inspiration into a 32-minute film based on the “Haiku-type poems” of Finnish writer Risto Rasa.

Sielunmaisema: the Risto Rasa Project premieres this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

The first part of the film’s title is taken from a Finnish word that means, according to Carlson’s translator, “your soul’s landscape, something that hits you in the center of your chest, something that you always carry with you, something that reminds you immediately of home.”



How and when did you get the idea for this film? I found out that I had gotten accepted to a month-long artist residency in Finland taking place in 2017. I was one of two filmmakers in the residency and I would get to spend the month working on an art project. I wanted to do pre-production and production on a film. I started researching Finland and learning as much as I could and I found that there are a lot of cool poets there, and I started thinking maybe a short film about a poet would be cool. I came across Risto Rasa’s poetry and meditated on it for a few days. I wanted to make an experimental documentary kind of thing using poems, poetry, you know as inspiration. I emailed Risto Rasa just to ask him if I could use nine of his poems and shoot mini-sequences of them. He said yeah sure and volunteered to meet with me and be part of the film. I really liked all of his poetry. They’re like short, nature Haiku type poems. I could relate on a personal level, and a lot of it was abstract and kind of personal in nature like my work and I thought combining the two could be something.

What kind of a guy is Risto? He invited me over to his flat in Tampere, Finland’s second largest city. I met him around noon and his wife had made us all like a whole lunch spread. It was funny because he really didn’t speak English at all. I had a translator from the residency, Ida Mantere, who I had convinced to come along. She would give me the spark notes on his answers to my questions.

In what way is the film more exciting than the description suggests? An audience should expect to see a guy reading his poetry with related images and short stories over the top. That is kind of what it is, but it’s weirder than that. I had Risto record each of his poems once, and I visualized his poems in one-to-three minute film vignettes. I used recorded poetry, music, and sound effects that I recorded in the woods of Finland. We were in the middle of nowhere in Finland. I would hike into the woods and jot down any words I could think of that related to his poems and my life. I would think of imagery and scenery related to that and craft a mini-short.

Matt Carlson
Matt Carlson

What was the most challenging thing about making this film? I conducted a 90-minute interview, and we went all over the map. The hardest thing was deciding what to include, what informs the direction of the film, and what the topic of the film was about. I used the 90-minute long-form interview to tie the vignettes together. It’s like you’re on a rollercoaster and you come back out and get a breath before going on the next one. Editing a language that I do not speak was another challenge. I solved it with a lot of back and forth between my translator.

What was the most enjoyable thing about making this film? The biggest, most time-consuming part was the post-production, but it was really enjoyable. It took me about a year to edit it, in collaboration with (Reel Chicago Staff Writer / Cinematographer) Joey Filer. When I work on these sequences and put images together with the music and sound effects and experiment a little bit, and then there’s that moment that clicks and a light goes on and you realize this is the direction we’re going to go and you get the tingles, that was the most enjoyable part. When that spark happened.

Risto Rasa

How did you select the music? I got the music from three or four different sources. My friend Cole Johnson is a Chicago musician in Pilsen. I asked him if I could use a song or two and he gave me free reign of his music library. His music is lo-fi, atmospheric, and nostalgic, and the whole film has a big nostalgic feel. I also pulled some music from an artist called lower case noises. I probably went through like 30 or 40 songs to figure out which ones would fit.

What happens to Rasa’s poems when they are translated? Translation is a huge verb. It’s a big thing going on in this film and it’s happening on different levels. The first is that we’re translating the original poems from Finnish to English. The second is that we’re translating from English to film. It’s kind of like going from one to two to three. I’m presenting the Finnish, the English, and the video. It’s basically not the same poem. It takes on a whole new form, a whole new life. Even if you don’t translate a poem, it can mean many different things to many different people. It’s kind of like a tree, there’s a trunk with all these different branches.

What is the Finnish language like? Finnish language is very staccato. The words are very long. They have these really long words that mean things that we really don’t have in English. Sielunmaisema means the soul’s landscape, something that hits you in the center of your chest, something that you always carry with you, something that reminds you immediately of home. That is how my translator Ida Mantere described it to me. It kind of felt like I was in a fantasy fairy tale land in Finland. The people are very humble and they’re very good listeners.

What can you to tell me about the cast, crew, writers, and gear? I shot it all on a Canon D Mark III. I brought two or three lenses, a wireless lovelier, and a shotgun mic. I edited in Premiere and After Effects. Joey Filer is the producer and he was probably the biggest hand in this film besides me. And my Aunt Jodie Burke helped by creating one of the two-minute vignettes.

What is your quick bio? I got interested in film as a ten- or eleven-year-old. I got a camcorder and I would mess around with it all the time, shooting things with my friends and creating things out of nothing. I got into television production in high school in suburban Minneapolis, and I was anchor for the Friday news program. I had a teacher who worked on Charmed. I went to Loyola University and studied communications and film. I leaned more towards docs than narrative shorts. I became a huge David Lynch fan, and took what I was good at and started experimenting and messing around with software and effects. Thesis project was “You Are Not Machines,” a five-minute short based on a Charlie Chaplin speech. In Chicago, I worked at a small marketing video boutique agency called Ensemble Media in Uptown. They make videos for museums and non-profits. They’re awesome. Now, I’m a video storyteller at 3M. Making a doc series about scientists right now. It’s a really awesome gig.

For more information and tickets to the April 20th screening at 3:30 pm, click here.

Send your indie film updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.