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Martti Helde • Director

"I'm guided by my inner feelings - what gets me going, what is important to create for society"


- Cineuropa chatted to director Martti Helde in the wake of the success experienced by his feature debut, In the Crosswind

Martti Helde  • Director

Since its international premiere at Toronto, young Estonian filmmaker Martti Helde’s first feature, In the Crosswind [+see also:
film review
interview: Martti Helde
interview: Martti Helde
film profile
, has been hailed as a groundbreaking debut. The Stalinist mass deportations of tens of thousands of people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are relived through a series of letters written by Erna, who has been imprisoned in Siberia. However, the striking visual approach overshadows the epistolary narration. In the Crosswind consists of 13 meticulously composed tableaux vivants, with the camera gliding through the diorama of figures frozen in time at a contemplative pace. The film has just won the Ecumenical Jury Award at the 30th edition of the Warsaw Film Festival for being “a cinematic requiem... A contemplation of suffering, eternal human dignity and hope through an artful combination of pictures, words and music.” Cineuropa spoke to Helde about his feature. 

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Cineuropa: Why did you choose this historic moment of deportation to Siberia for your feature debut?
Martti Helde: Originally, In the Crosswind was meant to be a short documentary film. During the Thessaloniki documentary pitching forum, the audience and our future distributor (Deckert Distribution) led us to think that we should really consider making it into a full-length feature. That’s when the movie started to gradually grow in terms of its scale and content.

On the other hand, I’ve always been interested in history. There are so many untold stories from pre- and post-war times that need to be told and remembered. The generation that lived through those experiences is disappearing all around us, which means that it’s our last chance to share these stories. In this way, we, the younger generations, will be able to remember them.

Why would somebody in his 20s choose to depict such events?
I grew up surrounded by wartime stories. My grandfather fought in World War II and also survived a prison camp. Those stories and people’s experiences from that time were very familiar to me already at a young age. As these topics affected me in my childhood, I was concerned that the younger generations might not hear these stories, so it felt very right to record them somehow.

I have never identified myself by my age – or thought that I’m too young to explore tough subjects. I’m always guided by my inner feelings – what gets me going, what is important to create for society and the community. With In the Crosswind, I was convinced that four years of commitment was the least that I could give from my side. I did it out of my respect towards my ancestors and those who had to live through it, because thanks to these people we can live more fulfilled lives.

What was the preparation process with your DoP, Erik Põllumaa, like?
Our creative work was largely based on visual-art mediums. We analysed the portrayal of a human body both in painting and in sculpture. As the visual language of our film is just like a walk through a sculpture garden, referencing other films didn’t benefit us as much as visual-art mediums did. 

The preparation work was mainly built up around finding the feeling – we tried to find words and visual resources that would express this feeling via visual language. In addition to our active pre-work with the cinematographer, our production designer, Reet Brandt, and costume designer, Anna-Liisa Liiver, also played a significant role. Our idea was to create a coherent visual whole among all of the departments involved – everybody would tell this story using their own means. For this reason, we spent days and weeks together – viewing photos, drawings and sketches. We were looking for solutions, tools that would express the feeling in the most effective way. Sometimes a certain choice of costume would contribute more than the actor or actress.

Various works by a number of authors inspired us, and the nature of each scene affected our references and the authors from whom we got inspiration. Some of the most obvious influences were the works of Jean-François Millet and Caspar David Friedrich – they came the closest to what we had imagined on several occasions.

Living sculptures are an intense way of re-enacting the events of the deportation. How did you come to this decision, and how long did it take to stage all of the compositions and shoot them?
The stylistics of the film had already been visualised right from the start. The idea for a similar form came from one of the letters that fell into my lap. In this letter, a deported Estonian wrote: “Here in Siberia, I have the feeling that time is standing still, that our bodies have been brought to Siberia but our souls are still in the summer in Estonia.” After reading these lines, I knew immediately that I wanted to create a similar feeling for the viewer. My hope was that the audience would feel just like the people in Siberia. A tableau vivant felt like the only infallible solution.

The preparation process was different depending on the complexity of the scene. The pattern was that it took between two and four months to prepare one scene; this period was followed by a single day of shooting. After each shooting day, we had a few free days, and so immediately after, we started preparing the following scene. Because of this way of working, the development, preparation and production took place over the course of four years. Altogether, more than 700 actors participated in the film. 

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