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BLACK NIGHTS 2023 First Feature Competition

Eeva Mägi • Director of Mo Mamma

“Watching cinema is like having butterflies in my stomach – it’s a feeling I would like to elicit with my films”


- An intriguing new voice in Estonian cinema, the director reveals some of the secrets behind her deeply touching and personal movies

Eeva Mägi  • Director of Mo Mamma
(© Virge Viertek)

We sat down to speak to Eeva Mägi, who has just presented two films simultaneously at the Tallinn Black Nights International Film Festival: the hybrid, semi-autobiographical Mo Mamma [+see also:
film review
interview: Eeva Mägi
film profile
, which scooped one of the two Special Jury Prizes given out in the First Feature Competition (see the news), and the heartbreaking documentary Who Am I Smiling For?, conceived as a letter to a little girl from her dying mother, and shown as a Baltic premiere. We asked Mägi about her overall approach to filmmaking and discussed concrete details about her most recent works, as well as her upcoming feature-length project.

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Cineuropa: You touch on some sensitive topics in your short films, but also in your features: alcoholism, child custody, trauma, the loss of loved ones. What makes you dig into such issues?
Eeva Mägi: I have also been thinking about that. It’s not that I necessarily want to tackle them when I start making a film, but things occur to me and affect me, so I develop a feeling, especially towards the people involved. Sometimes, they are very personal stories, like in my short The Weight of All the Beauty, featuring my father and uncles who drank themselves to death. Not that I wanted to cover the topic of alcoholism; it’s the other way around. I wanted to better understand what happened to them and eventually found beauty in it. I am always trying to seek poetry and elements of enchantment in these very harsh themes.

Mo Mamma is a semi-autobiographical story, dealing with a mother-daughter relationship and involving private amateur footage. Why did you choose the hybrid genre?
When I went to film school, I actually wanted to do fiction, but that year, only the documentary programme was available. And somehow, it happened that now I have this weird style – I stage things a lot, and I modify all of the facts without meaning to. Mo Mamma was inspired by real-life events and, more precisely, by one hysterical night I had with my mother after we saw my grandma at the hospital. However, I decided to insert the family archival footage while entrusting mine and my mother’s roles to professional actresses, because only about 30% of the story is based on true events; the rest is pure fiction. We did not have the full script ready at the beginning. I only had the fight scene, so each morning, I would write the episode that we would be shooting that afternoon. The impact of the actresses while on set was huge, as the camera was rolling and some scenes just happened. I also fully trust my cinematographer, Sten-Johan Lill, who is very talented. Visually, I was trying to express the sensation of a ghost flying around.

Mo Mamma is also about grief, and Who Am I Smiling For? goes further in the dissection of this feeling. What was it like being close to this family at such a delicate and critical moment?
The mother contacted me, since she wanted to leave a poetic testimony to her daughter, who was only three at the time she died. It was the first time that I had made a film upon a character’s request. We knew that we had to start shooting right away because Mari did not have much time. And while we were shooting, I was still looking for the form, how to build up the film. I wanted to avoid the journalistic approach, so I looked for a more essayistic one. And then, in order to avoid putting death in the centre, I focused on the mother’s attempts to explain to her eldest son that even when she passes away, she will still be around. This film preserves bits of her presence. In the end, the grandparents admitted that the process was like therapy for them.

It seems that you prefer remote locations or intimate settings, rather than busy or crowded environments. Is this a conceptual decision, or is it perhaps because of low budgets?
In the case of Mo Mamma, we had the location booked for a week for another project which did not get funding, and I felt that I had to make a film at any rate. So, I wrote a script suitable for this location, and that’s how the movie was born. However, regardless of budget or setting, what is important for me is to elicit this very strong feeling in the viewer, comparable to the one I had when I first went to the cinema as a child. For me, watching cinema is like having butterflies in my stomach – it’s a feeling I would like to elicit with my films.

What about the project that didn’t get funding?
It’s a feature-length fiction called Werewolf - the Road to Immortality, about a priest who gets hit on the head while ringing the church bell and begins to hear the voice of Jesus Christ. I have been developing it for many years already, and every time I get a rejection, I have to develop it in a new way since I cannot submit the same script.

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