Screenwriting in Kilpisjärvi
posted by Jérôme Le Mest on 24 March 2023

Every fiction is always, somehow, a documentary.

A documentary of human life and emotions. A documentary about situations humans actually have to deal with in the real world. A documentary about parts of the world that should be explored and brought to light. A documentary as a way to explore the concrete, human material with which great fictions can hopefully be given a chance to become reality.

I am a screenwriter. For the last few years I have been working on a TV series project with German, French and Finnish producers. My idea is to tell the stories of scientists living and working in a research station in the far north from a social, human, tender and joyful perspective.

Discovering Kilpisjärvi Biological Station and participating in the Ars Bioarctica Residency seemed like an absolute necessity to me. Could I really imagine, from my small Parisian apartment, what kind of lives and situations one may actually experience in Lapland, what kind of characters one may discover? Certainly not.

So there I was. A clumsy, anxious city dweller, lost in the middle of a white, frozen land. For a split second there, I lost track of the "necessity" that should have drawn me here. Minus 20 degrees, lost in the mix of white sky and white land on a cloudy day, worried that I might not be equipped enough for the cold, not knowing what kind of people I would meet, what kind of activities I should prepare myself for... What the hell was I doing here?!

I stepped out of the bus anyway. Luckily, Leena was already waiting for me at the stop. All at once, everything became easy, comfortable and joyful.

Coming to Lapland as a writer is somewhat of an odd position. Usually, visual artists, dancers, ethnographers, photographers, filmmakers, acousticians and so on come here to produce some kind of material work based on their experiences in and around the village. What was I going to do?

All I knew was that I was not here to write yet another post-apocalyptic thriller or a Nordic noir-style murder mystery. For me, all fiction contains a kind of comedy. The comedy of life. The way people act and interact with each other, the routines of daily life, the joy of new encounters, the adventures - big and small - that we all get to live. This is what I came for. To witness and participate in the comedy of life in a place so remote that you have to walk one mile across the frozen lake if you want to have lunch. It was just perfect. I had to feel with my eyes, ears and skin what it was like to live and work here. As my residency roommate Sanni put it, most artists need special equipment to document reality, but as a writer, my own body is my recorder.

Unlike most people at the station, I did not come here to explore the land, work on some immediate artistic project involving natural elements or fauna, or engage in scientific research. I was actually here to watch, listen, and live with the people who were doing just that. It was about opening my eyes and ears and spending time, like my fictional characters, in a world completely different from mine. Even if it meant falling off my skis twenty times in a row on a trail or feeling my fingers fall off from the cold. As a worthy representative of the Anxious City Dwellers Club, I was determined to keep my head up - that is, whenever possible - and live this adventure to the fullest - that is, as best as I could... And it all started with the daily meals. Obviously! Everyone gathered at the same time, twice a day, in the station’s cafeteria? It was destined to become my favorite place to explore.

Forget the powerful landscapes, the hiking on snow trails, the sauna and the aurora borealis. They were part of my journey, of course. And what a joy it was. Nevertheless, I was here not as a tourist, but as a fiction writer.

First and foremost, I was here to understand how everyday life was lived here. What did people do? What was their connection to the place? How did they mix and get to know each other? How did they maintain their privacy and solitude when they needed to? What kind of work were they doing here? What were the social activities? How did each of them deal with the cold, the fantastic light, the exhaustion of walking in the snow? How did they simply feel in this beautiful corner of the world, stuck between three borders, so far to the north?

But also... What languages did they speak? What did they eat in the station canteen? What kind of conversations did they, men or women, have in the sauna? What was it like to jump naked into the lake's cold water? How did they get around, walking, skiing, snowmobiling? What were they doing on the lake or up the mountains? What were their dreams and passions? What were their feelings from day to day?…

I will not reveal the answers to these many questions here. I do not want to spoil my TV show if it ever comes out some day. In my profession, spoiling is a crime. Not that there is any dramatic revelations about what I saw. My job is not to "spy" on anyone, nor to uncover some cute or dirty little secret. Every story is actually out there. I just love to witness them, in a very simple and direct way. In order to do that, I myself have to share my own stories, impressions and emotions.

So, in the end, every single thing was of interest to me. Fiction is about building an architecture of details that will create a constellation of emotions. I have seen so many touching details of life in Kilpisjärvi. I felt so many emotions. I have met so many good people who, each in their own way, were visibly affected by the time they spent here.

I am grateful for every person I have met, from our friendly and supportive guardian angels Leena, Hannu, Pirjo, Kirsi, Maija and all the Finnish and Sami workers at the station, to the artists I have had the pleasure of sharing this incredible experience with, starting with filmmaker and performer Sanni, researcher Jarkko and their two adorable children who were the life of our common house. Waking up to the sound of a little girl gently practicing her flute, knowing that I was going to spend the day in a very special, very remote place, is one of the million details that have made my life in Kilpisjärvi so rich and touching.

Not to forget, of course, the scientists whose work I was able to observe in the station and on the field, along with the many students from the University of Helsinki who use the station as an amazing writing retreat. They were all generous with their time, sharing their passions and stories with me. Each of them came to "live the adventure“. But they also came with a purpose. They carried their excitement and interest for their particular topic of research, they invested their time, energy, and emotions to make progress in their intellectual and personal endeavors. I am fortunate that my work has given me the opportunity to hear their stories and see them at work.

It is indeed a powerful community, albeit ever-changing. While the station's staff and collaborators live here on a permanent basis, most residents are here for a few days or a few weeks. But as with any summer camp for kids, great friendships and memorable moments remain. It just happens instantly, precisely because we are just passing by. After all, this is a land of nomads. The Sami crossed the lake and worshipped the sacred mountain of Saana long before the station and the village were built. This is still their land. Only visited by different kinds of nomads: scientists, students, tourists, artists. All share a common love for this unique part of the world.

Together, they live their lives in a fantastic white, black and blue environment. Before our eyes, the silent, snow-covered lake looks like an astonishing canvas on which distant, dark silhouettes draw traces towards unknown destinations.

At the end of the day, being part of the Ars Bioarctica residency in Kilpisjärvi is not simply the lyrical, breathtaking, romantic, fun, Instagrammable trip you might hope for. Of course it is. But it is so much more. It is about the human experience in its very concrete dimensions. Sometimes serious. Sometimes touching. Sometimes dramatic. Sometimes absurd. Sometimes frightening. Sometimes tender. Sometimes hilarious. It is one of those moments that make you physically feel the euphoria coursing through your lungs and veins. A moment that, when it is over, leaves you with a strong sense of nostalgia and a desire to come back soon.

In other words, a life-changing, unique architecture of details.

A constellation of emotions.