A Romani woman looks on with a frown as Katrina Lillqivist talks about the plight of the Romani (gypsy) people in Eastern Europe. Giving her company is a rakish bear with beads and strings around his neck and a low slung belt which slips to his hips listens on. All of 30 cm high both puppets are creations of Katrina Lillqvist, renowned Finnish puppet animation artist.
The activist-film maker started off learning film editing in Finland, the early 80s, when the video revolution took the country and the world by storm. “And my college was hit. Nobody was interested in film making and the college was locked,” Katrina says. She had to find an alternative place to learn and her search led her to the Prague Film School, in erstwhile Czechoslovakia. With great difficulty, she says, she got into Czechoslovakia and enrolled in the college.
She pursued courses in animation and puppet theatre, two media she thought, would keep her in touch with film making. The subsequent upheaval in Eastern Europe did not augur well for people, let alone artists. Katrina’s plays, because she addresses issues such as racism, discrimination and human rights concerns, target an adult audience. Some of her films such as the Kafka trilogy – Rider on the Bucket, The Chamberstorch and the Country Doctor, The Maiden and The Soldier, Faruza or Mile Bala Kala Hen have as the main theme some contemporary political issue as their kernel.
The Country Doctor, from the Kafka trilogy, was adapted to tell the story of the children in Sarajevo. “I spoke to many children who had suffered immense cruelty. They had shocking stories to tell but I could not make a documentary on them. It would reveal their identity. I had to tell their story so puppet animation was the best medium,” Katrina says. That is not to say she does not make fairytales. Faruza, a fairy tale, tells the story of an imaginary place where women and girls are forced to wear copper masks. It also served a tool of conversation with new immigrants in Finland and educate them about the rights of their womenfolk. “Sometimes if you say things this way, chances are that you will be heard,” Katrina says. And it didn’t make the men angry, she adds with a chuckle. Persecution of Romani people (gypsies) features in Mila… It comes as a shock when Katrina says that the Romanis still face discrimination. In fact one of her friends and collaborators, Margita Reiznerova, a Finnish Romani had to flee to neighbouring Belgium to escape persecution from extremists. “They had a problem with her work. They burnt her works and threatened her,” Katrina says. She scrunches her short mop of red hair thoughtfully and says that when Eastern European countries were under socialist rule open racism was not encouraged.