Mannerheim played by Kenyan actor in YLE film sparking controversy well before premiere (ADDED 15.8.)
By Veli-Pekka Lehtonen and Jaakko Lyytinen
Helsingin Sanomat has learned from sources that the new film about Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was shot in May this year near the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Only one scene, depicting the Winter War, was shot in Finland. All of the actors were also Kenyan.
The newspaper Iltalehti reported on Tuesday that Mannerheim would be played by an "African-born" actor in a film produced by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE).
The actor in question is a Kenyan, Telley Savalas Otieno
HS contacted Telley Savalas Otieno in Nairobi on Tuesday.
"Yes, I portray Mannerheim in the film Marshal of Finland", the actor says, adding that the film was a magnificent experience for him.
The director and most of the production crew are Kenyans.
Marshal of Finland combines traditions of African storytelling and biographical elements of Mannerheim. The story mixes the African storytelling tradition and Mannerheim’s life story. The languages spoken in the film are Swahili and English.
The premiere of the film, which runs for about 50 minutes, is at the Love and Anarchy film festival in Helsinki on September 28th. It will be shown on the YLE Teema television channel later in the autumn.
The film concentrates on Mannerheim’s person and his human relations. Savalas Otieno says that Mannerheim was a difficult role to play.
"I didn’t want to portray him as stiff, even though I am stiff myself as the result of a traffic accident. But when I got the uniform on, I thought that this is what I was born to be: tall and stiff."
As an actor he was interested in Mannerheim as a conflicted person. The Marshal is unsure about matters of love, for instance. One of the characters in the movie is Mannerheim’s beloved Kitti - Catharina Linder.
"I wanted to show how Mannerheim’s imperfections. We will never know what it was like when the Marshal was alone."
Actor Telley Savalas Otieno was born in 1977. He has worked as a photo model in Italy. His résumé also includes jobs as a fruit picker, a tour guide, and as a teacher of English in Italy.
Now he lives in Nairobi. In an interview with the Kenyan newspaper The Standard last year he was described as "one of Kenya’s best actors".
Savalas Otieno says that the Mannerheim film project is the best film that he has ever been involved with. The role was also one of the biggest that he has had. Previously his roles have mainly been those of extras – in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Besieged by director Bernardo Bertolucci.
Telly Savalas Otieno got the role of Mannerheim through an audition, to which hundreds of people showed up.
"I saw a poster at the Kenyan National Theatre where they were looking for an actor."
"In a scene I was Gustaf and I was proposing to Kitty, a beautiful young girl. Mannerheim had a relationship with a very young girl, didn’t he? In the scene Kitty was stand-offish, and rejected the proposal, and Gustaf did not understand why."
Savalas Otieno believes that he got the role because they liked the chemistry between himself and the Kenyan woman who played Kitty.
He says that it was not until after the shooting that producer Erkko Lyytinen let him read a biographical book Mannerheim: the years of preparation by John Screen.
"I had not heard about Mannerheim before the film. Two months ago I read about him on the internet, and from the book, and I was amazed! If I had read the book in advance, I would have been afraid of this film."
Savalas Otieno says that the shooting took five days near Nairobi. The script was written by a working group which included Emma Taulo among others.
"At the time we did not know that this was such a revolutionary project", Savalas Otieno says. "Erkko was very nervous during the shooting, and we Kenyans tried to tell him to calm down – this is just a movie. Erkko said that this is not just a movie – this is a movie about Mannerheim."
"Now the roles have been reversed. I am the one who is afraid. Who am I to talk about Mannerheim?"
Savalas Otieno says that the film project is "crazy".
"Nobody in Africa has heard about Mannerheim. That is another reason why I like this film."
Helsingin Sanomat has learned from its sources that the YLE Mannerheim film cost just slightly over EUR 20,000.
In Finland a film actor is paid about EUR 800 a day, or about 1,000 US dollars. How much was Savalas Otieno paid?
"The budget was very meagre. Erkko explained the situation to me and I thought, maybe next time."
"I was paid, but a thousand dollars a day sounds unbelievable. That is about what I got for the whole film."
Is the Mannerheim film a war movie or a love story?
"A love story. It is a love story during wartime. A soldier falls in love, three times. This is something that has happened to me as well, and it helped me. Actually, someone should make a film like that: Mannerheim and the women."
How do you see Mannerheim now?
"Wow, wow, wow, wow", Savalas Otieno says at first. Then he starts talking about Kenya’s colonial history.
"I know that he was an imperialist, an aristocrat, and a monarchist, and that he was interested in military skills."
"But we could not have imagined that there have ever been countries even in the West that have fought for their independence."
The actor even compares Mannerheim with Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, as well as Jomo Kenyatta, the first Prime Minister of an independent Kenya.
"Kenyans are pleased that you Finns never took colonies in Africa. Through the film Kenyans are able to learn about the Finnish story, and their fight for self-determination. Mannerheim was not a Lenin, Stalin, or Trotsky. He fought for his country."
"Freedom fighters are different from imperialists – they are like Che Guevara - the ones who are on the side of the downtrodden. When Kenyans learn about Mannerheim they will like him."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 15.8.2012
Erkko Lyytinen, the producer of the film, is of no relation to Jaakko Lyytinen
More on this subject:
COMMENT: YLE tries to unmask a myth
Previously in HS International Edition:
YLE film about Marshal Mannerheim to be completed in September (7.8.2012)
Red ink casts shadow over future of Mannerheim biopic project (1.8.2012)
Controversial Mannerheim puppet animation wins prize at Tampere Film Festival (10.3.2008)
Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (Wikipedia)
Suomen Marsalkka / The Marshal of Finland - Trailer (YouTube)
VELI-PEKKA LEHTONEN AND JAAKKO LYYTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat