"Born American" is a movie of firsts: It is the first international co-production shot entirely in Finland; it is the feature-film debut of Finnish director Renny Harlin--and it is the first Finnish film ever to be banned in that country.
Scheduled to be released in the United States in April in more than 800 theaters, "Born American" clearly aims at mass American audiences with its "Rambo"-like view of the Soviet Union, MTV-like images and music. But Finnish censors see things differently.
"I'm told the film has been banned because of its violence and that it might hurt Finland's relationship to another country," Harlin said recently after a screening of his film here. "They didn't say what country, but it's obviously Russia. But for me, this is an action-adventure film. I am not a politician."
Yet the story does have political elements: Three Americans (played by newcomers Mike Norris, Steve Durham and David Coburn) cross the Finnish border into the Soviet Union as a prank--only to find themselves hunted and imprisoned by torture-loving Soviets. A corrupt U.S. envoy would rather forget that they exist, so the three try an escape on their own--blowing up most of Lapland in the process.
Similar action films, such as "Rambo" and "Commando," have received Finland's seal of approval, as Harlin believed his film would--until recent events proved otherwise.
"Directors like Milos Forman and (Constantin) Costa-Gavras make films with political statements," he continued. "What I seek in a film is an interesting story, good locations. We would use the deserts of the Sahara or the Atlantic Ocean--but we have Russia next to us."
The 26-year-old Harlin is something of an anomaly. As the director notes, "There's really no (movie) industry there to speak of. About 10 films a year are produced, and nine of those are government-produced. Basically, the government says what films can be made. Occasionally an independent comedy comes through."
Harlin studied film at the University of Helsinki, making short movies there and for Finnish television. "Born American"--which he co-wrote with Markus Selin--is his first feature.
"The project started about three years ago," he explained. "The other screenwriter and I are great American film buffs--we love John Ford, and see every American movie we can--and we just chose this story as a good action-adventure film. That's the genre I want to work in."
After Harlin convinced the American company Cinema Group of the project's marketability, the film maker found himself working with the kind of budget unheard of in Finnish film making, he said. (Cinema Group, while refusing to divulge the film's budget, acknowledged that at between $2.5 million and $5 million, it is the most expensive Finnish film ever made. The previous record holder, "The Unknown Soldier," cost $2.5 million.)
"Movies in Finland are made for the equivalent of about $30,000," Harlin said. "Usually a film maker makes one film in about five years, if he's lucky."
Harlin believes that even if "Born American" never sees a Finnish theater screen, the film already has done Finnish directors a service. "It's shown them that films can be made outside of the government, films with bigger emotions and wider subjects that will be noticed internationally.
"I didn't expect the picture would be shown in Russia," he added, "but I did expect it to be shown in Finland."