Everyday Icon: The Filmmaker

Ready to meet a positive force in today's film industry? Meet Rosa Karo, director of award-winning foreign film "The Italian Key."
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Curious about life as a female filmmaker? Meet Rosa Karo, an Everyday Icon that's as humble and kind as she is talented and successful. Her most recent film, The Italian Key, has already garnered a slew of international awards including Best Foreign Film and Best Feel Good Film, and she herself took home the Women Behind The Camera Award at the Tulsa Film Festival. We stole away a few moments to learn Rosa's inspired take on life, love and the pursuit of positivity...

Tell us a bit about your path to filmmaking - was this always in the cards? What has your creative path looked like thus far, with all of its twists and turns?

My parents are both journalists, and I grew up living and going to school in many different countries. As a child I was a total bookworm, I could easily read 2-3 books a day. I was always fascinated by storytelling, and of course fell in love with the film medium when I was old enough to go to the movies. The first movie I saw at the cinema was 'The Sword in the Stone' animation in the mid 1980s.

I went to film school in my native Helsinki and was at first most passionate about documentaries. The Italian Key is my first jump into feature-length fiction. After years of making documentaries, the world of fiction is, in a way, simpler and much easier to control. Also, the stories you tell aren't dealing with actual people (which is the great thing about documentary) - writing and directing fiction is morally less ambiguous because you aren't responsible for portraying real people. Characters can also just symbolically stand for certain things, especially when the story happens in a fairytale 'reality' like in The Italian Key.

What are some common misconceptions about your role in the filmmaking industry? About your work as a whole?

Making movies always reflects the paradox of the medium, which is to find a balance somewhere between art, entertainment, commercial viability and communicating a message, or an entire view of the world. There is no right or wrong approach - just finding your own voice and what you feel comfortable doing as your little individual effort, a tiny but never meaningless drop in the ocean of the ever evolving collective consciousness or zeitgeist.

I have lived and worked in many European countries and in general, Europeans tend to be more director-centric in their production approach. Probably due to many more local and pan-European subsidies, European film can usually afford to be a bit 'artsier' even within the 'mainstream', whereas U.S. films are more geared towards box office success.

I find it impossible to glorify or demonize either culture, each one yields its gems and the most important thing to us filmmakers is that one can, for a brief moment, touch the audience, make them smile or wipe a tear, or just feel a moment of happiness, love or gratitude - however you achieve it.

The Italian Key is unapologetically positive, even whimsical. What do you say to the critics who doubt its realistic nature?

The Italian Key is a pure escapist fairytale and has nothing to do with realism as such. But that doesn't mean it isn't relevant to people who might need this kind of 'soothing elixir' in which a happy end is guaranteed to each and everyone… It's a sort of fable with nods to many literary sources such as Frances Hodgson Burnett and Jane Austen books.

Even if the main character's story is not very realistic, the feelings she must encounter during her journey, such as loneliness and loss, are of course universal. To me, the central message is that we can encounter people and situations that help us rise beyond that and embrace life again in all its poetry and beauty.

You worked predominantly with females in The Italian Key. What have you learned about women and about yourself throughout this process?

Women's emotional intelligence and multitasking capacities are extremely useful in any production! This is a very 'girly' and mostly lighthearted movie, definitely aimed at the female demographic - so it makes sense to have women behind and in front of the camera, of course. The main character and her newly found friends (played by three real-life sisters) have a lot of screen time - all of these young women were very smart and professional from day one, even without previous experience on a film set.

The production was really 'family style' - we stayed and ate all together and everyone wanted to give a hand in one department or another if they had some free time. Naturally when you're on set you don't constantly think that you're a 'female filmmaker' - you just intuitively make decisions and your gender is part of the package.

In any case I feel that my style of telling stories is more a question of character and interests than gender as such. We've all seen male writers and directors excel in describing the female psyche and vice versa. So in the end it's probably about finding common denominators to reflect the human experience on planet Earth…

What do you hope to accomplish as a filmmaker?

It is virtually impossible to create anything without exposing your own view of the world and set of values - the more 'indie' the film is, the more freedom there is in terms of content. Personally I think that there are enough depressing, dark, twisted and sad movies out there, so I would like to contribute to the whole by creating films that will make the audience happy, that manifest the better qualities of human beings, that are somehow subtly spiritual and gently entertaining.

A first feature can really feel like another 'film school', you learn a lot about how to put theory in practice… I hope to continue to develop the craft of telling stories, and with time hope to establish a little 'fan base' of people who enjoy this particular genre and look forward to the next movie. It doesn't have to be a huge group of people, the movies don't have to be expensive to make, but I would like to be able to provide variety, or an alternative, to people whose needs are not fully satisfied by what's available now in the mainstream market.

What does work/life balance look like for you?

I believe it's really important to give yourself time off and allow oneself to be lazy and do 'useless' things. We live in such a hectic and stressful society and have such high demands and expectations towards others and ourselves. But especially in the creative field it's impossible to always operate at 'maximum efficiency' - it can easily lead to burnout and other health problems. I feel that when I'm writing and trying to solve something it doesn't help to force it, the solutions usually come to you once you stop trying too hard, and let your poor overworked brain take a break.

Another thing that contributes to our wellbeing is enjoying the company of loved ones, of course. Many truths sound like clichés nowadays, so at the risk of sounding like a self-help book, I try to remember to 'seize the day' and be mindful of the present moment. I have practiced meditation for years and find that it brings a nice balance and calm to an otherwise active lifestyle.

What are some core values that anchor your everyday?

I believe that in essence most people are prevalently 'good' - we all usually have more love, compassion and understanding than might be apparent at first glance. It's important to try and let go of feelings of anger and jealousy in both one's professional and personal life.

Everyone has their creative path - it isn't helpful to compare your 'success' to others or want something they have. There are authors who churn out a book a year, there are those who publish every ten years - I feel it's your motivation that matters: why are you doing it? To be famous? To be appreciated? To show someone that you could do it? Or to offer something into the world that you think can make a difference? To feel a part and parcel of the whole by contributing in a way that fits your talents and interests? Questioning one's motivation is a quick way to suss out if it's a sort of an ego trip. Obviously most creative endeavors also have a 'selfish' side, but trying to be humble about it never hurts. Films especially are such a collective effort that no one can take the full credit or blame for anything.

But don't be afraid of 'failure' or think about criticism when creating something. At the end of the day, anything you put your love, time and energy into and send out in the world has the potential to speak to someone and contribute to bettering someone's day or even enriching someone's life.

What are a few items you wouldn't want to live without?

I would love to say that I'm not materialistic and don't need anything, but I am a little attached to: my passport, my laptop, my Indian embroidered wool shawl, an extremely comfortable pair of shoes and anything that smells good (scented candles, essential oils, warm woody perfumes). This, of course in addition to family and friends, who are definitely not 'items' - but I would give up any and all material possessions before I would give up any of them!

p.s. Want to hear from another positive breath of fresh air? Meet Kirsten.