THE LEARNING CURVE – Memory of Water, Finland’s first attempt at sustainable film production


In 2015, the film production company Bufo acquired the film rights to Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel Memory of Water (HarperCollins, 2014, original Finnish Teemestarin kirja, Teos, 2012) and began planning to make the film with director Saara Saarela and scriptwriter Ilja Rautsi. In June 2018, Bufo recruited me for the production, as what was, as far as we know, Finland’s first sustainability coordinator. My job included the ecological planning of the production of Memory of Water, in other words, seeing to it that the film was made in as sustainable a way as possible. This article is about running this pilot project for sustainable film production, about the learning curve from an ambitious initial plan into a harsh reality, and about the project’s expected and unexpected end results.

Ecological values and sustainable development spread to the western audiovisual (AV) industry from other branches of “hard industry”, which began measuring and reporting on their corporate social responsibility. In the USA the non-profit Environmental Media Association (EMA) was founded already in 1989. In the 2000s and 2010s, in the USA and various European countries different “green initiatives” were proposed in the audiovisual sector, the common factor being that they published a guidebook, checklist, or best-practice guide for ecological film production. Several schemes, such as PGA Green in the US and BAFTA albert in the UK, also launched carbon-footprint calculators tailored for audiovisual productions, which made it possible to measure the CO2 load from an individual production.

Academia took an interest in the new ideology of production almost immediately. Hiltunen and Rainio have noted how “themes of the environment and nature became a source of greater interest for film researchers around 2010 with the ecocritical turn in research.”(1) Thus, in Academia people began paying more attention to the link between production processes and the natural world. In 2016, Pietari Kääpä described how “[the] recent material turn in media studies gestures towards a new type of media studies, one that considers the role of the media industries as massive utilizers of natural resources.”(2) 

The relationship between a film production and its environmental impacts is not straightforward. According to Nadia Bozak film as an art participates in the exploitation of natural resources and fossil fuels: “embedded in every moving image is a complex set of environmental relations.”(3) Nevertheless, academic research on the relation between films and environmental themes has often focused on content, or on historical evidence of how productions have been made in a way that is harmful to the environment.

Sonya Helgesson Ralevic reminds us that historically the original definition of the greenhouse effect and the invention of film almost coincided during the 1890s. This being the case, the two have been intertwined right from the start; “to situate cinema culture within an interdisciplinary fossil fuel discourse invites a wide range of considerations, including the material conditions for filmmaking, distribution and screening, all of which can show how film is entangled both directly and indirectly with the fossil fuel economy.”(4)

Many academic researchers have brought up the inadequacy of the ecoterminology used by the audiovisual sector: there is talk of various “green initiatives”, but without defining more precisely what the term “green” means in this context. Mette Hjort sums up the problem by saying that the terminological distinction between green/sustainable/ecological filmmaking is yet to be made clear. According to Hjort’s own definition; “it is useful to distinguish between “green” and “ecological” filmmaking: the former is defined by the avoidance of environmentally deleterious practices, while the latter entails additional ambitions.”(5) This terminological dilemma also became familiar during the production of the film of Memory of Water.

Big plans – i.e. how it all began

I first heard the term “green filmmaking” in 2012 when I was on an Erasmus exchange at Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany, and it was a pivotal “eureka” moment for me. Suddenly I had a term for something that combined two of the biggest objects of my interest; filmmaking and sustainability. In 2016, I graduated from Aalto University as a producer with an MA thesis in Green Filmmaking – Ideology, Pioneers and Practices. 

In 2016, sustainability was a non-issue in the context of the Finnish audiovisual industry. (Albeit, Anne Puolanne, together with Outi Hartikainen, had written their thesis for Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK) on the topic as early as 2012. This is evidently Finland’s first thesis on sustainability in the AV industry.) Some of my acquaintances working in the industry considered the subject of sustainability interesting and asked to read my thesis when it first came out. One of those people was Mark Lwoff, a producer at the production company Bufo.

A few years later, in the spring of 2018, I bumped into Mark in the street, where he ex tempore pitched to me the idea of filming Memory of Water, and that the film could be Finland’s first pilot project of sustainable production. The production would need someone to coordinate the planning and execution of an integrated ecological whole – would I be interested? At the time, I had already promised to work on another project, but the contract had not yet been signed and the opportunity seemed too good to miss. That is how I became part of Bufo’s and the Memory of Water team.

Director Saara Saarela tells how the idea of making Memory of Water as a green production had its beginnings at an eco-lecture at an EAVE (European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs) co-production workshop in Italy in the spring of 2018. At that time, there was virtually no talk of sustainability in the AV industry in Finland, nor was it considered important. According to Saarela: “The lecture prompted me to think about how disposable and high-consumption filmmaking can be.” Bufo’s other producer, Misha Jaari, says the same: “Making a film is not a very green (thing to do). The basic idea of the work is to use, consume and dismantle.”

Memory of Water by Saara Sarela | Actress: Saga Sarkola | Cinematographer: Kjell Lagerroos | Production company: Bufo

I began working at Bufo in September of 2018 when the film’s artistic expression and the realities of its production were only just being investigated and considered. Besides the production department and Saara Saarela, the core team consisted of set designer Otso Linnalaakso and costume designer Tiina Kaukanen. (Cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos joined in May of the following year.)

Even though Saara and the rest of the team welcomed me with open arms, we immediately came up against the challenge that nobody – including me – knew what “green filmmaking” actually meant in practice. One positive thing, in any case, was that I got to participate in the pre-planning of the film right from the start. Especially since it involved piloting an ecological production, this felt very important. The broad outlines of the production are drawn at the pre-production stage, so that, since the aim is to minimise the production’s environmental load, it is essential to take this into account right from the outset.

At Bufo, I shared an office with production manager Kaisa Roover and line producer Tiina-Mari Pitkänen, and I was free to attend production meetings. Sustainability issues or observations were deliberately brought up at every meeting, so that we would all get used to sustainability being one normal concern among others. Bufo initially paid my wages at their own risk and one of my most important tasks was to apply for continued funding for my own job. A considerable number of applications were made to various funding bodies.

In November 2018, I was invited to be Bufo’s representative to talk about our ongoing pilot project at Finland’s first Green Production seminar run by Creative Export Innovations Oy/Kati Nuora. The seminar was held on the Finnish Film Foundation’s premises at Cinema Kino K13 in Helsinki, with both Finnish and international speakers. The seminar attracted a healthy audience and, at least to my ears, the feedback was enthusiastic. Also observing the event was Anne Puolanne, who I now met face to face for the first time. As I see it, the seminar was the opening shot in the Finnish AV industry beginning to be aware of and interested in the environmental impacts of its operations.

The German journalist Birgit Heidsiek, who had been a speaker at the Green Production seminar, invited me to the Berlinale film festival in February 2019 to take part in the Sustainability in Motion panel discussion as Bufo’s representative. Before the occasion, we got to know that the Promotion Centre for Audiovisual Culture (AVEK) had awarded Bufo’s pilot project a Vieterituki development grant. This was the crucial initial funding that made it possible to carry on the project. Now, we knew that I would be able to stay on at Bufo and that the pilot project could be carried out.

Reality bites

Memory of Water is based on Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel, which won several prizes and nominations when it was first published and has subsequently been translated into more than fifteen languages. “I wanted to write about the effect of climate change on the availability of drinking water and to link it to the theme of coming of age” Itäranta unpacks the background to the work. The story takes place in a dystopian future, where clean water has become a scarce resource and a tool of power and oppression. “The main protagonist of Memory of Water has to grow up under difficult circumstances into someone who takes responsibility not only for herself, but also for her community and the surrounding world. I see this as humanity’s collective challenge in the face of the climate crisis.” There were other companies interested in the film rights, but Itäranta was impressed by director Saara Saarela’s approach: “I think Saara understood the heart of the story and saw what was fundamental to it. That is why I believed in the project.

Memory of Water by Saara Saarela

The connection between the original work’s eco themes and the film’s sustainability pilot project seemed obvious. In the words of Misha Jaari, “More broadly considered Memory of Water is a story that speaks on behalf of nature. We could not have considered making Memory of Water in good conscience or without feeling we have double standards unless we tried to make it an ecological production.”

Somewhat contradictorily, it was also evident right from the start that Memory of Water, as a rare genre film in Finland, would be a bigger-budget-class international co-production. Saara Saarela says that, especially at the start, she also had her doubts in aiming for a green production, “specifically due to the size of the production, its international nature, and the endless tight schedules and budget”. So-called “runaway productions” that go abroad in pursuit of funding incentives pose an ecological dilemma: The more the various stages of the work on the production spread to different regions or different countries, the bigger the film’s ecological footprint becomes.

In the case of Memory of Water, we decided to approach sustainability through the practical matters that we ourselves could affect. The main emphasis was on taking ecological sustainability into account during the shooting. In my job I took part in planning the different sub-areas of production, such as: where the film would be shot; how the crew and filming equipment were to be moved from one place to another; where the crew would be accommodated; what kind of catering would there be; as well as where the materials needed for shooting, such as sets, props, and costumes, would be resourced; and how they would be recycled after the shoots. I was also involved in listing potential stakeholders and partners in collaboration that had ecological values and ways of working. Added to that, I consulted HODs, i.e. heads of departments, who have artistic responsibility for the film, about how they could do their work in a more environmentally friendly way.

We drew inspiration for the process of creating a future world hit by a water shortage not only from Emmi Itäranta’s original work, but from other sources, too. For instance, the HODs and I went to meet a water researcher, an energy researcher and a future researcher. According to Saara Saarela, the meetings with the experts provided a concrete foundation for the artistic work: “The meetings framed the artistic choices, i.e., based on those discussions, we made decisions about the forms of energy used in the film, the visible materials and the means of transport.” Saarela says, “The principle of green production brought a new dimension, or rather a set of values, to the directing, that was interesting to explore and aim at.” From a sustainability coordinator’s viewpoint these consultations were also useful in articulating and planning the sustainable production as a whole. One of the professionals we interviewed also gave us a golden tip: “Don’t talk about green production, it means nothing. Use the word sustainability.”

Saara Saarela had begun as a professor of film directing in the Department of Film, Television and Scenography at Aalto University/ELO Film School Finland in 2018, and because I too was an ELO alumna, we got the idea of applying for Aalto University seed funding for the Bufo pilot project. As a partner we found the supervisor of my MA thesis, Jaana Sorvari of the Department of Built Environment at the School of Engineering. To our delight the project was granted seed funding and as a result we held the Sustainability in Filmmaking (SUFI) seminar at Aalto University in May 2019.

At the event Memory of Water was presented to students as a case study in sustainable production. The speakers were the film’s HODs and other professionals. One thrilling moment at the seminar was water researcher Suvi Sojamo’s lecture on whether the story’s dystopia suffering from a water shortage could happen. According to Saara Saarela, Sojamo’s lecture was an eye opener: “It is important to get a researcher’s backing and a scientific basis for the film’s claims, even if the story is totally speculative fiction. I understood that it is a matter of a global balance that affects the entire planet, which we can all influence together. This made Memory of Water an important film, a plea for a more sustainable use of natural resources,” Saarela says.


Because the Finnish AV industry was lacking knowhow about sustainable production, one of the aims of the pilot project right from the start was the creation of a guidebook. For my MA thesis I had listed US and European “green production” guides, but not one of them seemed to suit the Finnish production style, conditions or infrastructure. As the Memory of Water project advanced, the idea that Finland needed its own guidebook grew even stronger.

Setting Finnish guidelines for sustainable production was also an important part of Aalto’s seed funding project, so my work as sustainability coordinator increasingly began to be focused on that. On the other hand, I began to feel writer’s block and to wish I had a colleague with whom to take the work further. In spring 2019, I sent the text draft of the sustainability guide to Anne Puolanne and asked whether she might help by giving feedback on the version. I very quickly got the text back “full of red pen” – wise and insightful comments. One thing soon led to another, and Anne came on board as the second author of the guidebook.

We tried ensuring that our guide was not just a “copy” of foreign eco-guides, but rather, that its content would be tailored to Finnish production conditions. We wanted the guide to cover sub-areas, such as the importance of advanced planning, content and scriptwriting, motivation, communications, and monitoring and reporting sustainability, which we had not seen dealt with in other guides. For us authors one important thing was also that the guidebook would be distributed openly and for free, so that everyone interested in the matter would have free access to it. Fortunately, this was also in line with the funders’ policy.

Anne Puolanne came up with the title “Ekosetti”, (directly translated as “eco set”) which refers to the way that, in future, every location, or “set”, should be ecological. We sent versions of the guide to be read by many AV-professionals in Finland and abroad, because we wanted to make sure that the advice in the guide was realistic and practicable. As the guide was being finished, it began to be clear that, as the funding for the sustainability pilot project was running out (and as the film production was grinding through the intricate wheels of co-production funding) that the guidebook would become the most important concrete result of the pilot project to the funders.

Fight for survival

Producer Misha Jaari describes the funding process of Memory of Water as being “terribly difficult”, saying how “re-scheduling shoots for one reason or another changed good plans on many occasions”. When shooting planned for autumn 2019 had to be cancelled and moved to spring 2020, Saara Saarela remembers feeling quite devastated at first: “We had been building a world and investigating the sustainable mode of production for a long time already and the work felt more important than ever. But I still believed there was a way to get the film made.”

Because the shooting of the film was postponed, I couldn’t stay to wait for it to be done – in such a situation moving on is normal for any AV-sector freelancer. Misha Jaari remembers: “In the end, the production had to give up on the work input from the sustainability coordinator and the mood in that respect was very gloomy. One of the biggest goals of the film was not achieved. A lot of work had been done on being ecological, but making the film turned into a fight for survival and in that situation only things that end up right in front of the camera survive.”

The sustainable production guide was, nevertheless, brought to completion in good order. Ekosetti – a Guidebook to Sustainable Audiovisual Production in Finland was published in September 2019 at the official opening of AVEK’s new production year. The guidebook met with a positive reception in the industry and up to now it has been downloaded from Ekosetti’s own website almost 3000 times. The number of downloads is even greater for the guide’s English version, which appeared in 2020, and was made with the support of the Audiovisual Producers Finland (APFI ry), which is the association for Finnish content producers in the film and television industry.

Funding for Memory of Water was ultimately raised and shooting scheduled to begin in Estonia in 2020. The challenges in the production by no means stopped there, as, a month before shooting, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic struck. Saara Saarela remembers: “When Covid stopped everything and we could no longer get into Estonia at all (where most of the shoots were due to take place), the feeling was totally unreal. On the other hand, I soon understood that this was a global standstill, and nobody else could work either. Fortunately, we were able to react quickly and to devise a back-up plan, which we were then able to carry out.” The film was finally shot, starting in late summer 2020, in Estonia, Norway and Germany.

End results – what have we learned from all this?

Researcher Mette Hjort has aptly described the intentions, but also difficulties or failures, as part of sustainable filmmaking: “Problematic actions resulting from certain intentions do not, however, invalidate the intentionalist approach. They merely show that ecological filmmaking is an endeavor that admits of failure as well as success, the latter being predicated on the actual realization of the requisite intentions.” In the light of this way of thinking, Memory of Water’s ecological intentions can stand close inspection – even though the end result did not match the original aims. Although Memory of Water did not turn out to be “Finland’s first sustainable film”, it was in itself the first pilot venture in the realm of sustainable production in Finland – and as such an important experiment. 

Memory of Water finally premiered in autumn 2022. The author of the original work, Emmi Itäranta, says she recognises in the film the book’s themes of growth, responsibility and sticking to your principles under pressure. “What were particularly powerfully carried over into the film, as I see it, were the ideas of hope and survival that are fundamental to the book. I do not, however, see the book and the film as companion pieces, rather, I see them as independent and different. That is exactly what I hoped for, since novels and films are totally different means of expression, and I see the film as having to dare to move away from the original text so as to function on its own.”

The Memory of Water film’s sustainability pilot project and the Ekosetti guide that is its offshoot were, as I see it, important catalysts for a discussion on the relationship between an audiovisual production and its environmental impacts in Finland. Since 2019, the Finnish AV industry has taken a big “ecological leap”, which can be seen in the way sustainability is talked about, how it is implemented in productions, and how funders, commissioners, and stakeholders (such as equipment rental firms and post-production companies) have begun to pay attention to it.

In the Corona spring of 2020, APFI ry set about assembling an “AV-sector green round table”, which developed into a national AV-sector sustainability project. This is an exceptional initiative, including from an international perspective since it is backed almost without exception by the most important players in the audiovisual industry in Finland. Anne Puolanne now runs the project at APFI.

The Memory of Water sustainability pilot project changed the direction of my own career completely, leading, for instance, to doctoral studies and the founding of a new Nordic eco-alliance. During these three years, I have been able to lecture on sustainability in many media schools, and those lectures are always the highlights of my work. A new generation of filmmakers is growing up in a very different world than their predecessors’, and it has been a joy to see how for many representatives of the younger generation a working life that complies with sustainable development is already a requirement and self-evident.

Kaisa “Kaika” Astikainen is a Finnish producer, filmmaker, and audiovisual sustainability specialist.  Since 2019, she has been working towards a Ph.D. in ecologically sustainable filmmaking at Aalto University. Astikainen is a founding member of the Nordic Eco Media Alliance (NEMA). |

Astikainen’s photo by Anne Ahn Lund

  1. Hiltunen, Kaisa and Rainio Minna: “Elokuvan ja median tutkijat ja tekijät luontokysymysten äärellä (editorial)” in Lähikuva, 1-2/2022 Ihmisen ja luonnon suhde.
  2. Kääpä, Pietari: “Environmental issues in Nordic media” (article) in Journal of Scandinavian Cinema, Volume 6, Issue 3. Publisher: Intellect, 2016.
  3. Bozak, Nadia: “The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources”, Rutgers University Press, 2011.
  4. Ralevic Helgesson, Sonya: “Stuck in the Truck: Oil Dependency, Acceleration, and the Nature of Catastrophe – An Ecocritical Reading of The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)” Stockholms universitet, 2020. 
  5. + 6) Hjort, Mette: “What Does It Mean to be an Ecological Filmmaker?: Knut Erik Jensen’s Work as Eco-Auteur” (article) in Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, Volume 10, Issue 2. Publisher: Berghahn journals, 2016. 

    *Kalle Kinnunen’s book Veden Vartija – Teemestarin kirjasta elokuvaksi (Teos, 2022) has been used as source for this article. 
    **Translation from Finnish to English: Mike Garner

This article was commissioned by IHME Helsinki for the Moving People and Images Journal (MPI Journal) and the Finnish translation of the article is available on the IHME Helsinki website.