A Director's Inspiration:
An Interview with Ben Strout

Where did you get the idea to make Fire and Ice?

As a professional documentary producer/director/writer, I am always looking, reading and thinking about new ideas for programs. This documentary began in May of 2003 when I was asked in a brainstorming session with colleagues if I had ever thought about making a film about The Winter War. I had to say no, not because I had rejected the idea, but because I knew so little, I had never even considered it.

From that question, we began several months of research. This included reading several books on the subject, including Frozen Hell by William Trotter and studying all the Internet sites. I became convinced that this was an important piece of history – one that had been virtually forgotten by the West, virtually unknown in Russia and because of uneasy relations with Russia, almost never discussed publicly in Finland. Yet because of its influence on the course of World War II and the issues that it raises today, I felt it was a subject that deserved attention.

What did your research uncover?

There were several themes that emerged from the research and were expanded in more fully developed versions of the script:

  • A superpower’s invasion of a tiny neighbor with expectations of a quick victory
  • The secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that allowed two rival powers to swallow up smaller nations and launch a world war
  • The unity of purpose that developed among factions against a common enemy invader
  • The total mobilization within Finland that involved almost everyone
  • The unbelievable extremes of temperature in which the war was fought
  • The unorthodox tactics that were improvised by the Finns
  • The unintended consequences of war for all involved

These themes became the touchstones for the next stage of production.

What was the process in making the film?

In November of 2003, we began making direct contact by phone and e-mail with people in Finland. It was a networking process that led us to identify possible sources of information and interview subjects. And we developed new information that informed a preliminary shooting script and production plan. The production plan called for three, two-week shooting trips to Finland and Russia.

On the first trip in April of 2004, we conducted our base line interviews with veterans, historians and civilians who had direct experience of the conflict. On the second trip in September, we conducted additional interviews, then crossed the border into Russia. We filmed scenes depicting the build up to war on the old battlefield of Summa and visited the Taipale battlefield. We also filmed in Vipuri and St. Petersburg. On our final trip in February 2005, we shot recreations of winter battle scenes in Finland.

Returning to home base, we began logging all of our tapes, reviewing them and then writing an edited script. Picture editing began in June and a 78 minute director’s cut was completed in July. Graphics, audio effects and music production followed. The final audio mix was completed in August.

The final part of the process began at the end of November, when we created the 56 minute version of the program for television.

What do you think the reaction with be to Finnish and Russian audiences?

For young Finns and Russians, this is by no means an old story. This history is etched into their DNA, if not their consciousness. Young Russians, of course, have much to learn about this period. Much of the history of this period has still not been fully revealed or confronted.

Finns take pride in their defense of their country during the Winter War. But young Finns must deal with the lessons of the war - that they cannot depend on anyone other than themselves for their security that they must be prepared, that geography has not changed, even as they pursue peaceful relations with their huge neighbor.

There is one thing both Finns and Russians who have seen the film agree - it is historically accurate. Getting beyond this consensus is more difficult to achieve, especially when we move to the issue of the so-called Continuation War that began in 1941. Finnish historians continue to probe the causes of this war and the nature of their alliance with Germany. But Russians need to be reminded of their alliance with Nazi Germany during the Winter War. There needs to be more debate inside Russia about the history of the Soviet period in general and this period in particular. Dialogue between the two peoples should be encouraged and I hope that will result when this film is shown in those two countries. There are the huge changes going on inside Russia. Relations between Finland and Russia are a like weathervanes in tracking the direction of those changes.

Why is Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia important for American audiences?

The Winter War is off the radar screen for most Americans. It was for me when I began the project. It is a fascinating story of epic proportion. It also contains issues that should concern Americans.

America’s conflict with the Soviet Union was our most important foreign relations problem for half a century. Today Russia remains a world power with vast supplies of energy. It remains an important global power and its future is not at all clear. Understanding Russia’s history is vital in understanding Russia today and its future. Finland, a bridge between Russia and the West, offers us a unique perspective and insight into the balance of forces in the Baltic region.

History never repeats exactly and there are no perfect parallels but following World War II, the United States became a true world power. As a superpower, the United States has projected its military power against smaller nations. These experiences have not always gone well for us. American troops and American leaders have faced unexpected difficulties. War always leads to unexpected consequences and Americans would do well to consider the experience of other nations. And we would do well to remember the lessons of the Winter War. To paraphrase Dr. Reis, strength of numbers and advanced technology are important, but more important is skill and will. Without the will to fight, nothing else matters.

I hope the film will stimulate American viewers to want to learn more. And finally I hope they will gain new respect for all those who suffered and sacrificed during that cataclysmic conflict.

What was the most poignant aspect of this project?

One face of war is its inevitable tragedy. The pain of loss, the death of loves ones and the destruction of homes and nations. On a personal and individual level, uncovering and recording the tales of public and private trauma is an awesome undertaking because the other face of war is in its nobility of purpose, self-sacrifice in defense of home, ideals and country, the intense unity of purpose of people fighting against a common enemy.

These stories of individual mourning and national mourning and the tales of personal and communal heroism, become the essence of a nation’s history, immortalized in books, films and memory.

What was the most challenging aspect of the production of this film?

The production of Fire and Ice was organized from a city in the American Midwest. It involved interacting and communicating with people in cities thousands of miles away, in three different languages and an eight hour time difference. Yet during filming, Americans, Finns and Russians managed to find ways to understand each other, to work together and to put aside any differences, to find a common purpose in creating art. Perhaps there is hope in this for all of us.

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When to Watch

Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia premieres February 1, 2006
Check your local listings.