Ilppo Pohjola











Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Ilppo Pohjola


Director's Truth

Transcript of Ilppo Pohjola’s informal introduction to P(l)ain Truth at the ISEA 94 / Nordicil film seminar.


Contextually, the main body of my work discusses issues related to sexual identity and formally seeks to challenge traditional film-making methods.

For me it is very important that the chosen audio-visual style in one way or another matches the subject matter or the context of the film. – These two things cannot be separated.


P(l)ain Truth describes how a biological woman turns into a biological man. It is based on a real case and real events. It tells the story of a transsexual called Rudi. The basic idea behind the film is to tell the story without any kind of voice-over, commentary or dialogue, solely by using visuals, music and sound effects.

I call P(l)ain Truth ‘a symbolic documentary’ for reasons that are important to me. – It is not a traditional documentary that records events, people and places, so-called reality, as it exists in front of the camera. Nor is it a dramatised documentary or a drama that reconstructs certain events, people and places. It is not trying to reconstruct reality. – It is simply a film about emotions. And what am I trying to do? I am trying to reconstruct the emotions that this person had to go through during this transformation from a biological woman into a biological man. I concentrate on reconstructing these emotions.


As I said, the story of this transformation is told without any kind of voice-over, commentary or dialogue, simply using visuals, music and sound effects.

When I started working with the idea of P(l)ain Truth I looked for a means of total expression or a method for creating an integrated form. It can be argued that my work is partly influenced by feature-film storytelling conventions, partly by experimental film-making methods, or by video-art editing styles, theatre-set design. But if I personally try to deconstruct the film and talk about its form, for me there are three important elements. First of all, there are ‘images’, secondly there are ‘music and sound effects’, and thirdly there is ‘graphic design’, which is used instead of dialogue. I will go through each of them briefly.


I include in ‘images’ the overall visual style and the action: the cinematography, lighting, set design, Rudi the transsexual her/himself and the actors.

The narrative is told by quite simple images. They are almost like those in any conventional feature film, in a way, there is nothing special about them. Images just flow on from one to another. I wanted to keep them quite simple.

The action itself is also simplified in that there is not actually that much happening. There are events such as Rudi examining her/his body in front of a mirror, breaking the mirror, burning her/his childhood photographs, and so on. But even when the events are this simple they are highly significant and symbolic. All these events are typical of all transsexuals and are used to illustrate certain things in the transsexual’s life, e.g. burning old photographs symbolises the transsexual’s hatred of her/his anatomic sex.

This method of simplifying action and symbolising events takes this single transsexual experience onto a more general level and describes something that is common to all transsexuals. – I wanted the action and events to be so simple that they would work as symbols of something greater.

This method of simplifying action and of symbolising events was also used in the set design and in the music and sound effects.

There are only three main sets. A school, a home and a hospital. All the sets are very theatrical, and have very obviously been constructed. – They are made of the used scaffolding that you can get from building sites. And there was actually some old cement on them. – But again: The sets are not trying to imitate or reconstruct realism, they are there to illustrate the content or the symbolic value of these places. They are not symbols of the places themselves, but of what the places represent. E.g. school is a representation of what society expects of a child. The home represents the individual person’s privacy. The hospital, especially after the correctional operation, is a place of rest or a symbol of change.

In P(l)ain Truth there are only two real locations: an elevator and a swimming pool. These locations are used to symbolise Rudi’s communication with other people. The elevator is used before the correctional operation and the swimming pool afterwards. The elevator is closed and claustrophobic, because at that point she is not comfortable with her body. The swimming pool is the opposite, because he is satisfied with his body and that the change has taken place. And, of course, there is water - the symbol of birth.


The second element in the film is ‘music and sound effects’. Traditionally, film music either accompanies or illustrates a character’s emotions. Sound effects are used in the same way. They more or less illustrate the action or to reflect the situation of a character. So, in a way, music and sound effects are not supposed to be noticed. They are part of the image. Their purpose is secondary in that they support everything in the image, rather than working against it and the action.

I wanted the music and sound effects to be part of the content of the film. So that they are a more organic part of the total form. – A form that expresses the emotions that first she and later he had to go through during the transformation.

Most of the music was composed by Glenn Branca. I chose this because it is a sort of ‘transition music’. The piece is a symphony, but is played on approximately fifty electric guitars. The music grows layer by layer, as each layer of electric guitars is added. So there is a sort of tonal curve that starts from somewhere very low, and grows and grows. This music also exists in between two different traditions: classical and rock music.

Additionally, film music is normally used in short clips. I wanted one continuous piece of music lasting about twelve or thirteen minutes.

Again: the sound effects in P(l)ain Truth are not only supposed to illustrate the events or the action. They are symbolic, emotional and powerful. They are not just sound effects. They are more like icons of the meaning of sound. I have tried to incorporate them into the total form to represent the emotions of the main character.

There are three main sound effects. There is a teacher’s stick and the banging noise it makes, there is a glass breaking and there is flowing water. Again: The teacher’s stick represents external authority, society’s power and control over the individual. The breaking glass represents the transsexual’s hatred of her own body. And the flowing water is a symbol of change or recovery, of rebirth.

I wanted the sound effects to be so basic that they turn into direct, disturbing icons of the events and of Rudi’s emotions, so that the whole film turns into an emotional experience. – You not only watch the film, but also feel it deep inside yourself.


The third element of the film is the text, or I should say, graphic design, which is used instead of dialogue or voice-over. – It is important that, even though these texts come more from the tradition of graphic design, they are not informative.

Graphic design is traditionally regarded as a balanced combination of typography, illustration, space and composition. In traditional graphic design these elements are arranged to work together as a design. But now, new technology has changed everything so that these separate elements are arranged to work together as a visual unit, combining together in one, single image. – If you look at ‘new typography’, you can’t tell what is text and what is image. It is all combined.

The text in this film is not meant to be informative in the sense that you can read or understand every single word that you see on the screen. – The text works differently than in traditional graphic design. – In this film the purpose of the text is secondary, in the way that music is normally used in feature films.

What I have tried to do with the text is to make it work with a combination of different elements. First of all, the text has a secondary meaning. It is a part of the image. Text is either superimposed over an image or is used as a compositional element in an overall textual image. Secondly, the text has two meanings in this context, on the one hand, it is used as a design element and, on the other hand, it has a symbolic value. The text, again, represents society, its power over and expectations from an individual, and illustrates how society controls the person’s sexuality, sexual identity and body.


P(l)ain Truth is ‘a symbolic documentary’. On a personal level, it tries to describe the painful and paradoxical situation that a transsexual faces – he or she feels imprisoned in ‘the wrong body’. On a cultural level, it describes how the medical and social treatment of transsexuals depends heavily on society and on other people’s definitions. And this is because medical science today still treats transsexualism as a mental disorder, and nothing else.

On a formal level Plain Truth or Pain Truth tries to look for a cinematic style that matches its subject matter; a cinematic style that illustrates society’s presence, power and control over the individual; a cinematic style that describes the transsexual’s inner feelings and deep emotional changes during the transformation.



15 min
35 mm/1:1,66/Dolby surround
4K DCP/1:1,85 Pillarbox 1:1,66/Audio 5.1
Written & directed by ILPPO POHJOLA