Heart of the issue
Director Hanna Maylett and producer Anita Kurvinen discuss how eight-part drama Pala sydämestäni (Piece of My Heart) explores the challenges of the Finnish child welfare system through the eyes of two social workers.
Take a thriller flavour, add a dash of mystery and sprinkle on a pinch of realism, all set within Helsinki’s child welfare service, and you have the recipe for Finnish eight-part drama Pala sydämestäni (Piece of My Heart).
Written by sisters Aino Lappalainen and Anna Lappalainen, the YLE series introduces Rita and Laura, two childcare workers who strive every day to make life better for children in distress. Together they work under extreme pressure, where one wrong decision can lead to catastrophe, all while Rita (Lotta Lehtikari) harbours some dark memories of her own childhood and the more inexperienced Laura (Niina Koponen) faces the challenge of balancing her demanding job with family life.
Each episode deals with a different childcare case, set against the backdrop of Rita’s attempt to solve the case of a missing child, Elli. To find out what has happened to her, Rita will be forced to dive deeper into her own consciousness. The series also follows the story of Jasmin, a 16-year-old girl who has been left alone after a turbulent childhood.
“It’s about helpers and those they help, and how their roles sometimes turn upside down,” says producer Anita Kurvinen, speaking during ahead of the premiere of Piece of My Heart during Content Nordics On Demand. “Each episode deals with a different childcare case, but there are also several more layers. With our main character, Rita, we ask what happened to her in her childhood and what has happened to a missing child called Ellie, who Rita is constantly looking for through the series. It also explores Laura’s work in social services.
“We follow their daily work and how the decisions they make affect our characters’ personal lives. We also have this social layer discussing the future agenda for children’s wellbeing, and how Rita’s new boss Jyrki struggles to find a path between a political agenda and a commercial one. Why would someone want to make money from these kinds of services when we are talking about children? This is the bigger picture above the personal stories.”
Director Hanna Maylett describes Rita and Laura as “the real heroes of the welfare society,” two committed professionals who carry out their job with passion and dedication whatever challenges they face.
“I see them as very complex characters who also have some personal issues,” she says. “Rita is a loner. She is passionate about her work, even obsessive, but at the same time she suffers from the mistakes of her past and the wounds of childhood. Laura is dealing with the boundaries of work and family life, and she also has issues with her deceased father. There are many levels to these characters.”
The subject of child welfare was recently examined in Danish drama Ulven Kommer (Cry Wolf), but Piece of My Heart marks the first time the topic has been discussed in a Finnish TV drama.
“The Finnish welfare society is breaking up and we wanted to explore this issue: where is the child today who is not seen and who needs care?” Maylett says. “It’s a really universal theme as well. In Finland, we haven’t really explored this child protection and welfare society theme before. We’ve seen all kinds of crime series, but this topic hasn’t been explored before this series.”
“Of course, it’s a common theme all over the world,” adds Kurvinen. “But we have managed to discredit this negative image of social work. When I first saw this script and I read it, I thought, ‘Finally, something other than crime.’ As a topic, child welfare is not very sexy and commercial because they are [real-world] problems. But our job at YLE, a public service broadcaster, is to use these kinds of stories and examine social issues.”
Kurvinen first met the writers in 2015, when they discussed the main characters and the story. “But there was no ending,” she recalls. “I was very anxious to know what happened to Elli and I was also fascinated by the thriller element that is combined with the show’s realism. Piece of My Heart is a unique and successful combination of realism, mystery and a pinch of thriller.”
Maylett joined the writing team to collaborate on the final drafts, helping to find a balance between the case-of-the-week stories and the long-running puzzle surrounding Elli’s disappearance. She then began work on how to realise the stories visually and, in particular, the dreamlike sequences Rita’s her past that continue to haunt her.
“We really wanted to increase the mystical imagery of Rita’s trauma and her past,” the director says. “That really bound everything to together for us. It was not a struggle but it was an interesting development process in terms of how to balance the different strands of the series, because the approaches were totally different. I just felt the whole thing came together when we found the right images and the right way to show Rita’s trauma.
“I wanted to bring emotional authenticity to the characters. They are the key in this kind of series. That’s why I wanted to be really close to the characters with the camera. With the visual concept, we found this idea of featuring all kinds of homes belonging to the children in the story, showing the warmth or coldness of the homes. The mythical elements of the story also provided us with great visual potential and I wanted to explore the subliminal elements of the past. We aimed for highly cinematic aesthetics.”
Shooting for Piece of My Heart, which debuted in Finland in March, was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic last spring, with just 10 days of its 105-day schedule left to be completed when the production – led by YLE’s in-house drama team – was forced to pause.
“Our editors were already editing the series and were waiting for those last days’ footage, and then we shot them in the beginning of June, ” Kurvinen says. “Almost all of the post-production went online.”
“For the first time in my career, I was editing remotely. It was really interesting,” says Maylett, who visited the editing room in person just twice during the completion of the series. “That was a really new way of working. At the end of the day, it didn’t really affect anything artistically or process-wise, but Covid certainly did affect our way of working.”
Following its launch in Finland, where it continues to be available on YLE’s Areena platform, the show will also air across Scandinavia and has been sold to US streamer Topic by distributor YLE Sales.
“Maybe audiences might think it’s too tough to watch but, once they start, they want to watch all the way along,” Kurvinen says of the series, which is among the nominees for the Golden Nymph Awards that will be handed out this month at the Monte Carlo Television Festival.
“When I first read the script, I really binge-read it,” adds Maylet, who says feedback from the show’s viewers suggest many of them have watched all eight episodes in quick succession. “They start with one episode and then they watch all through the night. I really hope this has the same effect on the international audience as well. There is emotional quality in this series. It really hooks you in. The characters are dealing with very universal matters and when we are dealing with children and their pain, it is something the audience can relate to. They really want to see how it ends.”