What does sisu mean to you? Most Finns will tell you that sisu is perseverance, guts, grit, or willpower. They’ll probably also quickly mention that sisu is a Finnish concept that has no translation in other languages. When prodded, however, many Finns will give a lengthier explanation of what sisu means to them personally, whether it’s holding on through rough times, not giving up, or simply a way of thinking that encourages getting more out life. The answers vary, but ultimately hold true to the ideal of Finnish persistence.
In his nonprofit documentary “SISU: Family, Love & Perseverance from Finland to America”, Finnish-American filmmaker Marko Albrecht explores the meaning of the Finnish word sisu through a tragic lens. Revolving around Marko’s family and a series of heartbreaking events, the film delves into life, death, family, and of course, the sisu that helps them get through it. Taking place in both Finland and the United States, the film recounts the ups and downs from his family’s history that we all experience at various points in our lives, from the simple joy of a well-heated sauna to the harrowing loss of a much-loved family member.
We spoke with Marko to find out more about the documentary and the nonprofit that it supports, so read on to find out what he had to say about the making of the film, his perception of sisu, and his experience growing up as a Finnish American. Afterwards, be sure to give the film a watch — Marko has generously given a 50% discount for Ink Tank readers. All proceeds, donations, and grants will go to the SISU nonprofit, which is dedicated to organizing events and projects to help troubled teenagers who have experienced tragedy in their lives.
Can you tell us about yourself?
My name is Marko John Albrecht. I am a father, husband, brother, son, dual-citizen American-Finnish entrepreneur, producer and filmmaker. My beautiful wife Danielle and our twins Aksel and Ariella live in New Jersey, close to NYC.
My mother Päivi Kylliäinen left Turku and went to Chicago to be an au pair when she was in her early 20s in the mid-70s. Shortly after, she met my dad, John Albrecht, a Chicagoan of German-Italian descent, and they married 4 months later.
They had my brother and I in the early 80s. My dad was an architect with the city and a great father, my mom was amazing by raising us with the utmost love and instilling her values. My brother Mikko and I grew up Finnish in the Windy City. Our entire life in the city of Chicago was and influenced by Finland, and still is even now. We had strong Finnish cultural influences daily, from our sauna to our home’s interior design, to the sports we played, our food, our morals, and manners. Holidays like Christmas, our name days, and even May Day with Sima in my young teens were especially important. Our school projects were often about Suomi.
Our parents saved money for our epic summer trips to Finland every other year; to visit family, celebrate Juhannus, and play all summer outside with our cousins.
I look back and see how much of a blessing and life changer it was getting away from chaotic Chicago summers and going across the world to live a Finnish summer life for 3 months. Being in nature at our cottage in Lyökki, traveling across the country to visit family in Forssa, Piikkiö, Turku, and Tampere. Saunas, swimming, Midnight Sun, “kokkos,” and hockey camps with Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne.
Those were some of the best memories and times of my life, and they were all caught on video. Which brings us to your next question!
Can you tell us about “SISU: Family, Love and Perseverance from Finland to America”?
This film is a nonprofit documentary about how my family overcomes tragedy with love, faith, courage and SISU.
After my wife gave birth to our twins in 2011, I started to compile a video memorial to introduce them to their Mummi, my mother Päivi – who passed away tragically when I was 16. I wanted to show them the history of my Finnish and American family. I had hundreds of tapes, films, photos, and letters from my family archives.
Just after I began the project, my Uncle Heikki, my mother’s surviving brother, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.
He was told he had 6 months to live, but he powered on for over 2.5 years. The documentary mostly takes place in 2012-2015 as I traveled back and forth from New Jersey to Turku, visiting with family and documenting the bittersweet but amazing last years of my Uncle Heikki’s life which included the birth of his grandson, his wedding, Juhannus celebrations at our ancient summer home in Lyökki and my children’s first trip to Finland.
I also needed to find out more about our history, so in those trips I conducted interviews with my family about sisu, our past, and our family in general. In edit, I used our old videos and photos from 1900 up until current day. So the documentary shows our family’s story, how we overcame tragedies of the past and how we use sisu to live the best life possible.
What does “sisu” mean to you? What role does the concept play in Finnish American culture?
To me sisu is our driving force, our faith, a light, a spirit of courage, strength, determination. Morals and values that guide and empower us to be the greatest we can. Sisu is a lifestyle and mindset of sheer tenacity that Finns have and can inspire in others.
My aunt Pirjo says sisu is a man, a will and a way. My uncle Heikki said sisu is taking charge of your own life and getting up anytime you fall. My dad says it is not accepting what is supposed to be reality.
In the documentary, my cousins, uncle, aunts, brother, dad and wife all have their own definitions, but a similar mindset of sisu. I’m sure all people have a slightly different version of sisu.
Official stats say there about 700,000 AmeriFinns – not a huge dent in the USA population. But sisu has played a role in America since the 1600s. You still find sisu in the entire Finnish American community and people of the past, from politicians (John Morton, who signed the Declaration of Independence) to A-list actors, astronauts, athletes, entrepreneurs, and scientists. Finnish culture stays alive through pride, family, groups, nonprofits, events like Finland Center Foundation in NYC, Finlandia Foundation and FinnFest USA. Our children go to NYC Suomi Koulu. I have friends who have done some great research on sisu, written plays about sisu. There are also sisu clothing lines, and the concept is popular with crossfitters and athletes.
Our film was just given a very warm Finnish winter welcome in Hancock, Michigan for SISU screenings at the Finnish American Heritage center inside Finlandia University. The street signs are in Finnish and English, 40% of the people there say they are of Finnish blood, there are Finnish stores, and restaurants like Suomi Cafe. The Finnish American Reporter’s Jim Kurtti even set up a wood-burning sauna with a snow avanto for me! The Hancock community and others like it are a testament to Suomalainen SISU and Finnish culture in the USA.
Can you tell us about the SISU nonprofit, and are there any future projects in the works?
After taking 3 years to complete the documentary, I didn’t (and couldn’t) take the traditional approach of distribution. I also didn’t want to see such a personal story on saturated content channels. I wanted to use the film to raise funds through donations– in a nonprofit sense.
In turn, I founded SISU nonprofit org in 2015 with the goal to inspire courage, faith and self-reliance to underserved youth who have gone through tragedy. We will use grants and donations to produce films and events that inspire SISU.
The first idea I’m working on with some great high school friends is an inspirational, modern day for teens in Chicago in the summer of 2016. All support at sisufilm.org will go towards this.
There is also my video and marketing company, essential creative. We are always working on cool new things as well.
Ultimately, SISU will continue to be a pillar in my life, shaping my existence with courage and faith and guiding both me and my family.
Thanks Marko, for taking the time to answer our questions! “SISU: Family, Love & Perseverance from Finland to America” is a fantastic film that will appeal to Finns, Finnish Americans, and anyone looking to add a little sisu to their life. Watch the trailer above, and rent or purchase the full film through Vimeo. To find out more about the film and the SISU nonprofit, click through to the Sisu film website. Ink Tank readers can enjoy a 50% discount by applying the promo code “inktank”. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!