The Kenyan Finns

What would happen if you made a film about a key figure in Finnish history and cast Kenyan actors in the lead roles?

The Kenyan actor, Telley Savalas Oteinno, who plays Finnish national hero, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, in the film "The Marshall of Finland" (still from the film).

The film, “The Marshal of Finland,” about Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the country’s first post-World War II president and national icon, has left Finns divided. At the heart of the “debate” is not his his war record (he led Finnish forces, alongside the Nazis, in an invasion of the Soviet Union), but the fact that the  film was shot in Kenya with an entirely Kenyan cast playing the Finnish roles.

The production was a collaboration between the Finnish public broadcaster YLE who forked out the money for it, a Kenyan production team (including actors, director and writers) who largely created the film, and an Estonian production company which has been in charge of the intercontinental link up.

‘The Marshal of Finland’ is described as “combining traditions of African storytelling and biographical elements of Mannerheim.” The actors speak Swahili and some brief English. Most of the production crew were Kenyan; the director is a Kenyan, Gilbert Lukalia. Much of the negative reaction to the film in Finland, disguised as questions about costs to the tax payer, really revolved around black actors playing Mannerheim and his wife and mistress.

Finnish nationalists also felt insulted that a national hero was played by non-Finns. Finnish media made much of the fact that “a dark-skinned actor” played Mannerheim. The lead actor, by the wau, goes by Telley Savalas Oteinno. The Finnish producer has received death threats.

Here‘s the trailer.

The film was aired on Finnish TV last month.

The whole media circus that  followed in Finland – mainly the work of the country’s tabloids newspapers – has created this unquestioned and inaccurate image of a nation feeling insulted, all based on anecdotal evidence, i.e. online comments in story threads. Examples: “How can we waste money on such?!” or “Our license fees go to some foreigners.”

The film is still available online, so you can watch and judge it for yourself — if you’re fluent in Finnish (for the subtitles) or Swahili. Here.

Further Reading

Reading List: Mutt_Lon

The books that the author, a Cameroonian novelist, has been reading share an ethics of political engagement, a quest for identity and cultural inventory, and an ear for the voices and harmonies of African languages.