Country Focus: Estonia
Estonia - International Film Guide Survey
by Jaan Ruus
2007-2008 was a successful period for the Estonian film industry. The feature films were produced, including an animated film and a theatrically released television feature.
In terms of international festivals, seventeen films were screened at 128 festivals, 26 animated films at 269 festivals, and ten documentaries at 34 festivals. The films received a total of 39 international awards and were screened in 55 countries. Far from an insignificant achievement for such a small industry. Locally, the 22nd Pärnu Documentary and Anthropology Film Festival, 12th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, 6th Matsalu International Nature Film Festival and 5th Tartu Festival of Visual Culture were all held in 2008.
Novelist Kadri Kousaar’s philosophical debut, Magnus featured in 17 festival programmes and was awarded both the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI Awards at Wiesbaden. It focused on suicide and parental neglect. Based on true events, the role of the protagonist’s father of the young man who took his own life, albeit under a false name. It was denied a domestic release following a court order, by the boy’s mother, which stated that because it featured private details of an individual without her permission, it could not be screened publicly for seven years. By this ruling, the court subordinated the artist’s freedom of expression to the constitutional right to privacy. This was the first time that the independent Estonian court ruled over an artist’s freedom of expression; it was also unprecedented that a work of art should be banned by the court.
Taarka by Ain Mäeots, which premiered in the summer of 2008, depicts the lonely and tragic life of Estonian folk singer Darja Pisumaa (1856 – 1933). Confining itself within the boundaries of an ethnographic film, its static and overly moralistic view of village life is given light relief by some of the minor characters in the film. The film portrays a tiny Setu ethnic group living in Southeastern Estonia, not far from the Russian border, whose lives are similar to those of the Sami of Finland, Sweden and Norway.
I Was Here (Mina olin siin), based on novelist Saas Henno’s bestseller, was warmly received by young audiences. Director René Vilbre and screenwriter Ilmar Raag have produced a fast moving adventure of a student at an elite school, who comes from a troubled family and who agrees to sell drugs to make some money.
Asko Kase’s December Heat is a patriotic, cliché-ridden, historically based love story that depicts the failed communist coup of 1924. It is the most expensive Estonian live-action to date (US $2.3 million).
Political documentaries dominated 2008. Meelis Muhu’s Alyosha is a detailed account of the conflict over the transfer of a bronze statue of a soldier, erected by Soviet soldiers in 1947 (popularly dubbed Alyosha), from Tallinn city centre to a military cemetery. Observational in approach, it covers three years of events, which culminated in riots and looting by Russian-speaking youths.
Estonian producers have also helped dissident filmmakers from neighbouring countries to produce films that the authorities would have suppressed domestically. Kalinovski Square, by Yuri Chashchavatsky, paints an ironic portrait of Bielorussian president Alexander Lukashenko before and after the presidential elections of March 2006. Revolution That Wasn’t by Aljona Polunina profiles ecstatic Russian idealists-revolutionaries during the Russian presidential campaign that culminated in Dmitry Medvedev being elected in March 2008.
Marko Raat’s convincing portrait of the artist Jaan Toomik, in Toomik’s Film, reveals one man’s deep concern for the world, as well as showcasing his performances and video art. Mait Laas’s The King of Time is a clever portrait of Elbert Tuganov and Heino Pars, founders of the Estonian puppet film, reconstructing the era between the 1950s and the 1990s and blending documentary footage with animation. The grand old man of Estonian animation, Priit Pärn, this time teamed up with his wife Olga Pärn, continues to explore unexpected forms of human communication in his new film, Life Without Gabriella Ferri.
Late 2008 saw the release of Liina Paakspuu’s Tree of Wishes. A pallid and faintly absurd comedy, it featured a group of young people and their struggles in life.
Altogether, Estonia produced four full-length features in 2998. With the exception of I Was Here all others are debuts. While the artistic levels of the films left a great deal to be desired, it does paint a hopeful future for Estonian’s film industry. Of these Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää’s The Visitor featured no dialogue in portraying a young boy’s terrifying experiences trapped in a forest. It premiered in the Venice Days programme.
The Estonian film industry continues to depend on state subsidies. Despite economic recession, film subsidies increased to US$9.1 million in 2008, up 12% from 2007. Funding will be frozen at the current level for 2009. The Baltic Film and Media School will carry on its work, but with considerable financial difficulties, as the Nordic-Baltic Film Fund, which has up to now provided much of the funding for the school, will close. At present the schools hosts over 300 students from thirteen countries. Thirty students graduated from the English-language Masters programme last summer.
Cinema attendance reached 1.6 million, up from 1.2 million in 2007. Despite the modest increase, the number remains significantly below that of original EU nations. On the other hand, domestic film attendance grew, reaching 14.3 percent. The fist 3D cinema opened in Tallinn. Cinamon, a company building a cinema chain in all the Baltic countries, opened a 500-seat, five-screen multiplex cinema in Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city. There are now three multiplex cinemas in Estonia, with an additional one opening in Tallinn in 2009.
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