New Doc ‘Maija Isola, Master of Color and Form’ Promises to Go Beyond Marimekko

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Maija Isola, who died in 2001, was a Finnish designer of printed textiles. She created more than 500 patterns, including home furnishings and fashion company Marimekko’s most iconic print, “Unikko” (“Poppy”), in 1964 – ironically enough, right after the company’s founder Armi Ratia declared a ban on flower patterns. But a new Finnish-German production tries to look beyond the things that made her famous, showing Isola as a person and not just an artist, says director Leena Kilpeläinen.

Produced by Merja Ritola of Greenlit Productions, with sales handled by New Docs, the film will premiere at the Helsinki Film Festival – Love & Anarchy in September, alongside the company’s other co-production “The Other Side of the River.” It will be also shown as a part of the Finnish Film Affair lineup, with Greenlit Productions bringing two new projects to the event, including psychological thriller “Lex Julia,” currently in development, and documentary “Power of the People” by Mervi Enqvist, set to premiere in the spring of 2022.

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Trying to get to know the woman behind the iconic designs, who used to shy away from press coverage, Kilpeläinen started from her letters and diaries, helped by Isola’s daughter Kristina – also a textile designer. Following a plagiarism controversy featuring self-taught Ukrainian village folk artist Maria Prymachenko, whose work was recognised in Kristina Isola’s design “Metsänväki” (“Forest Dwellers”), she no longer collaborates with the company, issuing a public apology in 2013.

A book about Maija Isola her daughter co-authored, “Maija Isola: Life, Art, Marimekko,” published in 2005, proved useful to the director, however.

“When I read it, I found it so interesting. I just wanted to find out more. Half of Kristina’s house serves as an archive of her mother’s work: There are patterns, paintings, it’s like a museum. During these three years, I have been looking at everything,” says Kilpeläinen, admitting the idea for the film came much later. She decided to focus on Isola’s life outside of Marimekko, mentioning her childhood and interests.

“I decided very early on that I am not going to ‘touch’ Marimekko. I am mentioning Armi Ratia because she was the founder and they had a close relationship, but instead of this big business I focused on one person,” she says.

Calling Isola “a real cosmopolitan,” also because of her penchant for lonely journeys, Kilpeläinen was impressed with the designer’s imagination, discovering many similarities to her own personality along the way.

“When I started to read these letters and diaries, it became clear she had it already as a child. It’s something people lose later on, when they grow older, but not the artists. They hold onto their imagination their whole lives,” she says.

“I think I have been this way too and maybe that’s why so many things in her story touched me so deeply. When her sister left home, she was ‘talking’ to her through those letters and when I was reading them, I felt like she was talking to me, too. I have this sensation that I have been travelling with her now, making this movie. That’s what I said to her daughter: ‘I want to bring Maija back to life.’ ”

Kilpeläinen decided to show Isola’s paintings as well, finally introducing them to the wider audience.

“I wanted to find her works and use them in the film, so that people can see that she was a painter as well, not just the Marimekko designer,” she says, finding some parallels to the career of Moomin creator Tove Jansson, recently portrayed in Zaida Bergroth’s biopic starring Alma Pöysti.

“She really wanted to be a painter too, but nobody would call her that anymore once she started to draw the Moomins. Maija’s patterns always had something to do with her paintings or whatever else was going on in her life. She just followed her interests and they found their way into her work.”

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