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Hot Docs Jots

Christy Garland on Cheer Up and on Upending the Traditional Sports Narrative

As we establish ourselves firmly in the deep summer of Toronto, Hot Docs mets up with Director and Producer Christy Garland to talk about her Festival pick Cheer Up, and the life-cycle of a film that began several years earlier, the way all great relationships start: a producer-to-producer meet cute at Hot Docs. An observational documentary about Finland’s worst ranked Cheerleading team and the aspirations of its coach and cheerleaders, Cheer Up participated in Hot Docs Deal Maker in 2013, and received Corus-Hot Docs Completion Funding in 2014.  


Hot Docs: You had the world premiere of Cheer Up at Hot Docs this year, which is your second world premiere at Hot Docs. What was this Festival experience like?

Christy Garland: It was really fantastic. All the screenings were sold out and we had wonderful Q&As. The Finnish Film Foundation was able to fly in our three main characters (Miia, Patrcia and Aino) as well as most of the crew. It was what you would hope for in a premiere: to have everyone who contributed to the film be there.

It was also fantastic because these young women had trusted me with sensitive material from their lives—very painful and vulnerable moments—so I don’t think they anticipated how rewarding it would be to screen to an audience who would really empathize with them. That was also a privilege for me, as the subjects haven’t been able to be part of the premiere for the last few films I’ve made. We got wonderful reviews and Hot Docs was really lovely in the handling of the film.

HD: What is Cheer Up?

CG: The film is about the ambitious coach of the worst cheerleading team in Finland. She goes to the U.S. to see if she can learn from the very best cheerleaders in the world and comes home to push her team to be number one. Shortly after however, life gets in the way for her and two of her cheerleaders. Personal battles become more important than the team, even though being on the team serves to support them as a second family.

The film is an alternative to typical sports films that are all about winning. Those films teach you that if you put all you have into it, you’ll be rewarded in the end. I thought making a film about the worst cheerleading team in Finland would give me a really interesting opportunity to tell a story about how it really goes for most people and to celebrate what’s really important in life, versus what we are told supposedly defines success. That’s why the film was important for me to make. I knew the personal life stories of my characters would offer a much more meaningful story than winning a trophy in competition.

HD: Did you find it difficult to find your characters within the team?

CG: Miia, Aino and Patricia allowed us to follow them around for three years.  Miia (the coach) was very welcoming when we were first researching and exploring the idea of even doing a documentary. Her personal story is the anchor that the rest of the stories hang onto. Aino came to our attention the second time I went to Finland. We were shooting one of the practices and I noticed this girl who was wearing all black—absolutely not like someone who wanted to be on a cheerleading team. She looked like she was going through something and like she was about to quit, which appealed to me right away as I thought a lot of young people would identify with her character. I also really loved the idea of making a sports film where one of the characters quits the team right away. I met Patricia when we were bouncing the cheerleaders on a trampoline in slow motion. It started to rain and we only got to shoot Patricia. I showed her the playback and she suddenly spoke perfect English. I had been shooting for two years so she finally started to trust us, and we chatted. I learned she was 16, that her mother had died a few years prior and that she was no longer living with her father.

With my films, I try to catch stories that are unfolding with strong, sympathetic characters. Patricia brought the soul of the film, the emotional payoff that gives the film depth. Getting over the death of your mother and learning to accept a new definition of family— that’s the heart of the film and I was so lucky that she was generous enough to share her story. 


HD: Was the subtle and observational style of the film another way of being resistant to the sport film genre?

CG: I really loved how quiet the characters were. Mass culture is just so shrill and loud and everything is flashy with quick cuts. To be quiet and reflective are qualities that aren't really celebrated. I wanted to make a film that really contrasted those two worlds: cheerleading, with the costumes and loud music, versus their private lives, solitude, and people trying to get along and figure out their lives. These girls’ lives in the Arctic Circle were very quiet—there was never music or TV blaring—and it was really nice to play with the contrast of those two different environments.

HD: Liisa Juntunen was your Finnish co-producer. Did you notice differences in producing style informed by differences in culture?

CG: Liisa from the very beginning did support telling the girls’ real stories: personal stories contrasted with the world of cheerleading. She was also enormously supportive of, but maybe didn’t anticipate, the observational style throughout and the complete lack of interviews. We shot 14 times in Finland and once in Texas, all the while the character’s lives are dictating what’s happening in the story and we are capturing it as it unfolds. It was challenging, but ultimately the right decision.

We were just at Edinburgh International Film Festival in June and during a Q&A someone asked how we got so under the character’s skin. I always say that we owe it to Patricia, Aino and Miia because they trusted us and were very brave and generous for allowing us to film their lives. But Liisa said that very few Finnish filmmakers would have been quite so intrusive. She couldn’t believe it at first, but then the girls were open to answering the questions.  It’s an unwritten rule in their culture that you don’t ask the kinds of questions I was asking. From a Canadian standpoint it might not seem very intrusive to ask how they were getting along with their families or if they felt lonely sometimes, but Liisa said she saw a completely different story come out that would not have been told with a Finnish filmmaker necessarily.

HD: As a Canadian coming into a Finnish environment, and not being able to speak the language, were there negotiations made in regards to following events that you thought were interesting versus what the rest of the team found most compelling?

CG: It did take some convincing to prove that Aino was compelling because she was quitting the team. We didn’t disagree strongly on it and Liisa very quickly realized Aino was a very special character. For me, it always comes down to whose story is going to connect with an audience, who are audiences going to see a little bit of themselves in. Patricia and Miia’s stories were easier to summarize. Aino was trickier; she was the quintessential teenager, she was searching. And I thought, she is going to be the one who ends up travelling, she’s going to try on a bunch of different things, but Patricia didn’t understand our interest in her. So I wrote her a letter and explained to her why I thought she was so excellent and why her story was interesting, so she could trust me and see where I was coming from.


HD: You had come through Hot Docs funding channels, taking Deal Maker meetings at the Festival in 2013 and receiving Corus-Hot Docs Completion Funding in 2014. What opportunities came out of these events?

CG: Liisa and I actually met at Hot Docs. She accidentally picked up my glass of wine at a party. It just so happens that a week before I had met a Toronto-based ex-cheerleader and cheerleading consultant, who told me about this team in Finland, and I mentioned this to Liisa. So Hot Docs was a big part of the film getting made even at that point. When we participated in Deal Maker we got Super Channel on board, which was obviously crucial—one of the very few broadcast licences available in Canada. I’m on my third international co-production right now and its really showed me how different the Canadian financing system is compared to the European one.

And then we got the Hot Docs completion funding, one of the very few ways you can get cash flow to help you make the film while you’re making it. It’s extremely difficult to secure interim financing and its something I still struggle with. I really do like doing co-productions, but I find it’s often very difficult to hold up the Canadian end of the co-production (getting a broadcast licence, getting interim financing, etc.). If there was anything that made it possible for Cheer Up, it was Hot Docs. That completion fund was a miracle. We didn’t have to finish and deliver the film before ever seeing a penny. This isn’t how it works in Finland. We had a bit of rough footage and we immediately got €25,000 in development funding from MEDIA and then more from the Finnish Film Foundation. They realize that documentary, in any form, needs to be agile; sometimes you just need to grab the camera and shoot. That is the art form and it’s what we still value from the golden days of the early Canadian documentary.  Now, you can’t make those films unless they are financed  through credit cards. It’s really threatening to the art form. So many films that push boundaries could be made, but are stalled at crucial early stages. In my case with Cheer Up, Hot Docs was the one thing that made it possible in this country. So I’m very grateful for that.

Learn more about Cheer Up here: 

www.facebook.com/cheerupmovie/

@ChristyGarland

Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo. 

To read more Hot Docs filmmaker Interviews visit The Director's Notebook on Hot Docs Jots. 


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