Should the Graveyard Keeper Keep his Daughter?

in 21st Riga International Film Forum Arsenals

by Alison Frank

A little girl named Lucia is the eponymous central character of Graveyard Keeper’s Daughter (Surnuaiavahi tütar, 2011). In the small village where she lives, deaths are a rare event: as a result, her father is often without work, while her mother has recently been made redundant. As her parents turn to drink, Lucia’s home life becomes increasingly unstable and her schoolwork begins to suffer. Her teachers decide to start an investigation: if Lucia’s parents are deemed unfit, she may be taken away from them. Lucia lives in dread of such a fate, but there is a glimmer of hope when her father finds short-term employment in Finland: there, the family lodges with a kind and gentle woman who works as a minister.

Director Katrin Laur has made a film designed to appeal to the audience’s emotions. Kertu-Killu Grenman, the actress who plays Lucia, has a highly expressive face that is at once innocent and world-weary, making her character immediately sympathetic. Yet what distinguishes this film is that every character is sympathetic. Graveyard Keeper’s Daughter could easily have been a moralising tale that demonised either neglectful parents or meddlesome authorities. While all characters have their imperfections, the audience is nonetheless able to understand every one of them on an emotional level. The mother is ashamed that she is neglecting her daughter, but cannot afford a detox programme to overcome her alcoholism. The minister introduces Lucia to the reassuring rituals of religion, but she also gets tipsy with Lucia’s mother and harbours regret at having no children of her own. Meanwhile, the school’s new young teacher has a genuine concern for Lucia’s wellbeing, but her businesslike approach betrays her simplistic understanding of the situation.

In spite of its seemingly well-rounded characters, the film leaves the audience wanting more: more information about the characters’ past, for example, or their current hopes, fears and desires. Even if the director prefers that characters’ thoughts remain implicit, more physical detail would help to create a richer, more compelling setting. Physical objects also have an important role to play in supporting the film’s themes, as shown by the few present in Graveyard Keeper’s Daughter. The minister’s positive influence on Lucia’s life begins with Pippi Longstocking books: she offers Lucia a spirited alter-ego by comparing her to Pippi, and introduces her to reading for pleasure, something Lucia’s parents never did. Similarly, when the teacher combs Lucia’s hair before a visit to the social worker, it underlines how neglectful Lucia’s own mother is. The only other notable objects in the film are Mars bars that Lucia tries to steal from the local shop: the action of stealing chocolate emphasises the family’s poverty and Lucia’s longing for simple pleasures, while the shopkeeper’s harsh reaction reflects the judgemental attitude of the family’s neighbours.

If Graveyard Keeper’s Daughter has a central message, it is that questions of child welfare can be complex. While in some cases it is clear that a child would be better off in foster care, most children prefer to remain in their own homes with their own parents: it is the authorities’ difficult job to judge whether a bad home environment can be improved. During the family’s stay with the minister, they attend their host’s Sunday sermon which, significantly, incorporates a parable about second chances. But waiting too long to intervene can have terrible consequences, as demonstrated by a disaster near the end of the film.

While its subject matter is serious and involves great anguish, Graveyard Keeper’s Daughter is not a depressing film, thanks to the honesty and humanity of its approach to character, as well as the odd moment of comic relief. Also important, though, is the film’s gentle and lyrical aesthetic. While the ‘graveyard’ of the title sounds macabre, visually it is a peaceful, sunny place, associated more with nature than death. Lucia and her best friend, a little girl with Down’s syndrome, run happily among the tombstones, appropriating half-dug graves in their games of hide and seek. The camera comes close to the actors’ faces to reveal their vulnerability and emotions, while frequent low angles demonstrate an affinity with the child’s perspective. In an era dominated by dualism, it is refreshing to see a film that considers every person and their point of view with respect and understanding.