Estonian film

World-famous Christopher Nolan is to shoot a movie in Estonia

The world-famous director, Christopher Nolan, is in the summer of 2019 going to shoot his new movie in Estonia – and no, it’s not April Fools.

The new spy thriller, titled “Tenet”, has already started shooting, according to a statement by Warner Brothers. It will be filmed on location across seven countries – including Estonia – and it is an action epic evolving from the world of international espionage. According to IMDb, the movie will also be filmed in Ravello, Italy and Mumbai, India.

Nolan, who also directed the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Dunkirk”, a Second World War movie that was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category, is directing “Tenet” from his own original screenplay, according to the studio. He’s “utilizing a mixture of IMAX® and 70mm film to bring the story to the screen”, Warner Brothers added.

The international ensemble cast is led by John David Washington and also stars Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, with Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh.

Estonian cameraman part of the crew

The film is being produced by Nolan and Emma Thomas. Thomas Hayslip is serving as executive producer.

Nolan’s behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Jennifer Lame, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, and visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson. The score is being composed by Ludwig Göransson.

Warner Brothers has slated the film for a 17 July 2020 release.

In Estonia, the production will be shot in cooperation with the Estonian movie studio, Allfilm, according to the Estonian media.

Christopher Nolan is an English film director, screenwriter and producer who holds both British and American citizenship. He is renowned as an auteur, making personal, distinctive films within the Hollywood mainstream.

Nolan made his directorial debut with “Following” (1998). His second feature, “Memento” (2000), was highly acclaimed, and in 2017 selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. He made the transition from independent to studio filmmaking with “Insomnia” (2002) and found further critical and commercial success with the “Dark Knight Trilogy” (2005–2012), “The Prestige” (2006), “Inception” (2010), “Interstellar” (2014) and “Dunkirk” (2017).

It is also worth noting that one of the most famous movie composers, Hans Zimmer, is one of Nolan’s most frequent collaborators. However, it is yet not known who will compose the original score for the upcoming “Tenet”.


Cover: Nolan (left) with the cast and crew of The Dark Knight at the 2008 European premiere in London (Photo by Ben Coombs/Wikipedia; shared under the CC BY-SA 2.0 licence). Correction: previous version of this article said that the Estonian cameraman, Mart Taniel, is also part of the crew, but according to Allfilm, this isn’t correct.

Estonian film industry aims to catch attention in Cannes

Estonia is represented with the pavilion at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival in France, showcasing the country’s movies and its movie industry, aiming to catch attention.

Under the leadership of the Estonian Film Institute, tens of Estonian movie professionals are represented at the festival, taking place from 14 to 25 May.

According to the Estonian culture ministry, the aim is to showcase Estonian movies and the country’s movie industry throughout the world. “At the festival, contacts are made, possibilities for worldwide distribution of Estonian movies are sought and movies are selected for the Estonian audience,” the ministry said in a statement.

In 2016, the Estonian Film Institute launched a cash rebate system, Film Estonia, to attract more international film productions to Estonia and therefore boost the local economy. The rebate fund, now worth €2 million, will refund up to 30 per cent of local production costs depending on the degree of involvement of local professionals.

Diverse shooting locations

The Film Estonia incentive and Estonia as a shooting location is also promoted in Cannes. “Estonia has very diverse shooting locations – you can find yourself in cities from the Middle Ages or in wild nature, as well as abandoned production buildings and modern industrial environments,” the culture ministry said in a statement.

The Film Estonia incentive supports the production of feature films, feature documentaries, animation films, animation series, high-end TV-drama and the post-production of all beforementioned works. An application can be made for international production service or co-production.

The Cannes Film Festival is an annual film festival held in Cannes, France, which previews new films of all genres, including documentaries from all around the world. Founded in 1946, the invitation-only festival is one of the “Big Three” festivals, alongside the Venice Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival.


Cover: A scene from “Truth and Justice” movie (2019). 

Truth, justice and an outsider’s affection for Estonia

Aaron Maniam, a Singaporean poet and policymaker, reviews “Truth and Justice”, an Estonian film based in part on the five-volume book series by A. H. Tammsaare.

As a poet, words are my main way of processing experiences and when I visit a new country, bookshops are among my first stops; even if all I can find are English translations, the poetry and fiction of a place help me get under its skin and feel the rhythm of its heartbeat.

I’ve spent the last six weeks in Estonia, conducting research for my PhD on digital government. I’ve found much to love – frozen waterfalls, sunset walks in Kadriorg park, how buckwheat is a powerful winter grain given its low glycaemic index, and the wonderful acidic sweetness of astelpaju (sea buckthorn) soda.

The features of a Shakespearean tragedy

Serendipitously, my visit coincided with the release of “Tõde ja õigus” (“Truth and Justice”), a film dramatisation of part of A. H. Tammsaare’s five-part novel series by the same name. The film has already broken multiple Estonian box office records. All Estonians study the series at some point in their education, usually after the age of 13 when they can start grappling with the novels’ weighty themes.

Tammsaare’s work is justifiably seen as the quintessential Estonian novel – although it is also a philosophical and cultural treatise. It follows the story of Andres, a man whose married life on a new farm, in an area called Robber’s Rise, begins full of hope and optimism but is gradually battered down and involves increasingly questionable personal decisions.

I was utterly spent after the film. Along with several others in the cinema, I simply stared at the screen, bereft of words as I ignored the rolling credits and pondered what I had seen. Andres had all the makings of a tragic Greek hero, complete with a tragic flaw – an unbending belief in “truth and justice” that made him easy prey for manipulation by his neighbour, Pearu.

But his story also had all the features of a Shakespearean tragedy – including the same relentless malevolence that whispers to Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and King Lear, invisible yet actively shaping events, whether in the form of the three witches or something, unnamed, “rotten … in the state of Denmark”.

Andres also reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s anti-heroes, all rolled into one: like Michael Henchard, Clym Yeobright and Jude Fawley, he is a “fettered god … of the earth”, trying his best to make ends meet despite choices cruelly circumscribed by poor luck.

Struck by the role of the film’s landscape

I was also struck by the role of the film’s landscape: shot and portrayed with loving, exquisite detail by producer Ivo Felt and writer/director Tanel Toom. The sweep and scale of history, as well as the inexorable passage of time, came vividly alive in panning shots interspersed throughout the film, each several minutes long.

At several points, the landscape seemed not just to come alive, but to be a character in its own right, driving the storyline and characters without speech, but with nonetheless steady and deliberate force. The winter scenes were particularly powerful, with endless ice and furious snowstorms capturing the harsh conditions against which Andres and his fellow characters’ lives played out. These scenes brought to mind the echoing sorrow of Edith Wharton’s novella “Ethan Frome” – equally tragic and set against a similarly icy, bitter natural world.

Some might think that I mention these examples of world literature because I think Tammsaare’s masterpiece can only be evaluated against an Anglophone canon. Nothing could be less true. The inadequacies are mine rather than his – my prior exposure has been mostly to literature of the English-speaking world, which has become the primary lense through which I view other great work.

Ranking right up there with the best of the greats

Imperfect as this approach may be, it has meant one thing: I can recognise greatness when I see it, and I have little doubt that “Tõde ja õigus” ranks right up there with the best of the greats.

In two hours and 45 minutes, the film taught me a great deal about the subtleties and nuances of the Estonian worldview. In particular, I was humbled to see the origin of the phrase I had already heard quoted by my research interviewees as an explanation for the success of Estonian e-governance: “Work hard, and love will come.” I hope to deepen my understanding of this phrase and its layers of meaning on subsequent visits, even as I learn the many other uses of sea buckthorn in a place of which I grow more fond, every day.


Cover: A still from the film.

Review: “Võta või jäta” – if being a good father means being a good citizen

Can the film submitted by Estonia to the Oscar competition suggest that fatherhood and citizenship share the same spiritual foundation?

Estonia has submitted Liina Triškina-Vanhatalo’s drama, “Take It or Leave It” (“Võta või jäta”), as the country’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film award. What makes it the right choice to represent Estonia at the next Oscars?

I do believe the film, whose main character is performed by the excellent Reimo Sagor, is a very Estonian movie and that it can beget some reflections about a social and political perspective on modern Estonia.

An Estonian drama

Erik (Reimo Sagor) had no plans but to go on with his job as a construction worker in Finland and getting money to enjoy a couple of beers and some decent one-night stands. One morning, he receives an unexpected call – he has a daughter. As the mother, his ex-girlfriend Moonika, refuses to look after the new-born, he must decide whether he agrees to put the baby up for adoption or to accept legal custody of the child and try to raise her as a single parent. Take it or leave it.

The film deals with many social issues. There is labour migration, which often means the frustration of having a poorly paid job. When the worker is married, then along comes a feeling of solitude for the one who leaves and for the one who stays as well. This can bring about drinking, unfaithfulness and other disruptive behaviours, until the family breaks apart.

The drama is also very Estonian in its representation. The depiction is essential, the dialogues are laconic, the music emphasises the gaze – those Estonian eyes that over the centuries have learned how rage can be dominated by dignity, and how lying can be as harmful as being lied to.

There is something that touches me in the typical Estonian expression, even though I haven’t fully understood the reason yet. That sort of poker face hosts the echo of the Livonian War and the Soviet deportations; the passion for music together with the appreciation of silence; and the humble, thorny solidity of the juniper wood.

There’s something more to this film, though.

When paternity turns into fatherhood

“Ta on täitsa minu nägu” (“She has got my face”). She has my features. This is how Erik explains why Mai cannot be but his daughter. He is full of ill-conceived pride for a likeness that is the primary ground on which he begins to build a relationship with his child.

But the face is not enough. “Take It or Leave It” is the story of a paternity that turns into fatherhood.

Throughout his troubled, painful path, Erik experiences an evolution that leads him to completely overcome the biological data and to make a surprising, overturning decision for himself and his daughter – thus landing so distant from any consideration based on blood.

Along the way, he and his daughter get to know each other. They give each other something that they couldn’t have taken for granted. Erik gives Mai a home; Mai gives Erik a purpose in life. And this changes things irreversibly.

What makes a father? To me, it is the same thing that makes a man: the assumption of responsibility.

Following a night spent at the mercy of a flirty and a quite alcoholic hoot, Erik realises that Mai comes first. Scared of losing her, Erik leaves his selfishness behind and musters all his energy to provide Mai with a safe and respectable environment. He chooses to devote his life to taking care of his daughter.

This is actually what virility means: it is overcoming instincts and presumed needs in order to put one’s moral strength at the service of a higher goal. It means steadiness in one’s resolution and control of natural aptitudes.

So, Erik undergoes not just a psychological change, but a spiritual one as well. By the way, the origin of the name Erik, which derives from Old Norse, tells us about a mix of significances like “one, alone”, but also “ruler, powerful”, and even honour and home. Definitely a virile name.

If we incidentally remind ourselves that in the ancient Roman culture, a woman could also be considered virile (the word “vira”, woman, shares the same root as “vir”, man) as long as she showed the same qualities of courage, reliability and stamina in her conduct, then I think we could take it a step further by saying that the assumption of responsibility is not only the bedrock of fatherhood but also of citizenship.

Father of the nation

Citizenship is also, in fact, not only a matter of blood. It is not about the right surname – even if, of course, a name can be a model and an inspiration, and that’s where the value of history lies. Citizenship is, most of all, a choice that needs to be honoured and renewed every single day. It is a form of devotion. It is the sacrifice of one’s ego, in order to make the nation safe and dignified. It is the effort at its preservation and its constant improvement. In this regard, in my opinion, we can talk about virile citizens – both men and women.

This film can be a suggestion of a conscious citizenship. Erik is an Estonia that grows and evolves. It can stumble but it is determined to stand on its own two feet and keep going.  An Estonia that takes responsibility and even the risk of opening its doors, while at the same time protecting its right to defend itself and its achievements from treason and sabotage.

I think being a citizen in this country must be a responsible choice – a choice that creates consequences for which a person is willing to assume responsibility – because by their deeds, citizens make a country look like the place they want for themselves and for their children, while at the same time they make themselves look like the country they have chosen.

Hence, they can say, “This is my country”, because “ta on täitsa minu nägu”.


Cover: A screenshot from “Võta või Jäta” (Allfilm).

Estonian movie “The Little Comrade” wins the best feature film award at the UK Film Festival

The Estonian movie about Stalinist tyranny, “Seltsimees Laps” (“The Little Comrade”), was crowned the best feature film at the UK Film Festival 2018 in London.

The movie is based on the autobiographical novel written by the renowned Estonian writer, Leelo Tungal, and tells the story of the six-year-old Leelo, whose mother was sent to a Soviet prison camp. Haunted by her mother’s last words telling her to be a good kid, Leelo vows to be on her best behaviour in the confusing grown-up world in the hope that it will bring her mother back.

“The Little Comrade” is not just a film about the painful Soviet occupation and the cruel deportations ordered by Joseph Stalin that brutally broke many lives apart, but is also a tale about the preciousness of family, a haven where people help each other without judging. It is a story about loyalty to principles and feelings.

A film about modesty

The Tallinn-based Italian journalist, Milena Spigaglia, who recently reviewed the movie for Estonian World, wrote that “The Little Comrade” was a film about the value of what the Latins called pudor. “To the English word modesty, I prefer the Estonian one, tagasihoidlikkus. To me it means so much more than decency or reserve. It is the jealous, silent, determined preservation of one’s own inner world. It is something deeper than hiding feelings – it is about a person’s will to defend their individuality and, on a national basis, to retain an identity.”

Spigaglia elaborates, “At the end of the film, Tungal and her father go to the train station to welcome the mother back from a Siberian prison camp. The mother and the little girl are barely able to look into each other’s eyes. No kisses, no hugs. Just a mute, dazed, grateful silence – and a bunch of flowers. And indeed, is it possible to give back what they took away? Can screams and jumps for joy erase the pain? A glimpse in their eyes say it all – we are still here, the past has been staunchly guarded, protected and preserved.”

The UK Film Festival, established in 2011 and screening in the heart of London, aims to champion great films but, in particular, is seeking work from those filmmakers who might not yet have had the chance for a prestigious public screening of their work.


Cover: A screenshot from “The Little Comrade”.

Ahto Valter – the Estonian who sailed around the world

It took nine years of detective work to finish a documentary about Ahto Valter, the first Estonian to sail around the world; this layered story about a hero from a past era takes the viewer on a journey through time.

This article is published in collaboration with the Estonian Film Institute.

Ahto Valter (1912-1991) was the first Estonian to sail around the world under the flag of his country. In 1930, his brother Kõu and he crossed the Atlantic Ocean (Tallinn-Miami) on a 26-foot motorless sailboat. From 1930-1933, he sailed across the ocean five times with his brothers Jariilo and Uku as his companions, among others.

He moved to the United States in the 1930s where he worked to propagate nautical tourism and as a marine inspector. From 1938-1940, he took his son, wife and a few other companions and sailed a boat built in Estonia and sailing under the Estonian flag around the world – from New York to New York.

An untold story inspires a documentary

About nine years ago, the documentary filmmaker, Jaanis Valk (39), happened to read a book about Valter. He found out he was the first Estonian to sail around the world and he did it even before the Second World War. “I’m a history buff, but this was new information to me,” Valk admits.

After that, he started investigating what happened to Valter and whether it was material for a documentary. “I was most drawn to the fact that Valter’s story is untold to this day. He was forgotten because of the years of occupation in Estonia. Many don’t even know who he was or that he existed,” Valk says.

The film includes material gathered in the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa. “These have been years of intense detective work for me,” the documentarian says.

The first year and a half were spent figuring out if there even was enough material about the sailor in existence. “During the First Estonian Republic (the Republic of Estonia before the Soviet occupation; there is no ‘First Republic’ of Estonia – editor), people talked a lot about Valter. When he was 17 years old in 1930, he took a tiny boat from Paljassaare Peninsula in Tallinn to New York. But there wasn’t any material about his trip around the world in Estonia,” Valk notes.

But then, some unique footage came to light in Canada and the documentary team knew it was possible to tell the story. “I found out there was film footage of Valter in the film archive of the Republic of South Africa. But from the moment that I got in touch with them, it took nine months to actually get the material. It would have been a real shame if that footage had been missing from the film,” Valk says.

He found out about the footage in South Africa through a diary kept by one of Valter’s travel companions, which described their arrival in Africa and how a cameraman came on board. “The diary named the title of the chronicle. If it hadn’t, we would have never found it because the title had nothing to do with Ahto or Estonia.”

Valk gives another example of his detective work. “Ahto’s son, Ted, sailed around the world when he was 14. In an interview, he says his godmother was Australian, he was christened in Lagos and his godmother’s father was the Australian Chief Justice.” He found a professor at a university in Australia who had done research on that judge. With his help, he found Ted’s godmother’s descendants and they had some photos he previously didn’t know existed. “These kinds of tidbits of a conversation or facts are the type of things that helped lead one thing to another over the years,” Valk explains.

Two eras, two stories

The documentary is about stories from two different eras: one story is told through the diaries of Ahto’s father, Rudolf, and the other through Ahto’s own diaries. Rudolf talks about his family and Ahto growing up, while excerpts from Ahto’s diary describe his trip around the world from 1938 to 1940. One story starts where the other ends and they are tied together by a father-son relationship, the story of a family, societal changes and the war that broke their family apart.

“I decided on an atypical approach to my documentary – I used parallel editing because of a sentence Ted said. He said his father always lived in the present and the future but never in the past. I wanted to use Rudolf to show Ahto’s developing years and who he finally grew up to be,” Valk says. “This isn’t just Ahto’s story, it’s also the story of an era. We are talking about a time when a whole lot was happening in the world. When one era ended, another one began. That’s the story of World War Two and how it broke up families.”

The film shows us the restless spirit of an adventurer, his chase after a dream and his sadness. During one of his adventures, the Second World War started along with the catastrophe it caused. We hear about the hard times through his father Rudolf. On purpose, the only “talking head” style interview in the film is Ahto’s son Ted.

Valk remembers his meeting with Ted was sad in a way. “I never heard my dad talk in Estonian,” Ted said unhappily and explained how sad it made him to never have had the opportunity to meet his grandparents.

The footage from the 1920s to 1930s shows a type of Estonian negativity. We see the young, enterprising Ahto get rejected from the yacht club and how he gets recognition abroad sooner than he gets it at home. That’s an attitude we still haven’t been able to shake, Valk admits.

“It does bother me that we don’t know how to support our thinkers or innovators here. But as soon as they’ve come up with something – whether that’s Skype or the Minox camera – we beat our own chests and say they are made in Estonia. We should improve our ability to recognise people who do things with a sparkle in their eye. Who cares if they’re not successful right away? At least, we are ethically in the right later when we call their achievements Estonian,” Valk says.

He gives a specific example of this with Ahto’s attempts to get funding for a boat motor from the Cultural Endowment. His application comments read, “We were unable to inform him of our negative decision because he had already left for America.” “Ahto couldn’t wait to find out if they would fund him or not. He had a restless nature,” Valk notes.

Colourful brothers

Even though the documentary is focused on Ahto and his trip around the world, the film sheds light on the whole untraditional Valter clan – Ahto’s brothers were also sailors and travellers who searched out foreign lands and didn’t want to stay behind in Estonia.

Valk says there’s enough material for a film just about Valter’s brothers. “Jariilo Valter married an Italian woman who he met when he fell overboard in the Mediterranean Sea and the woman saw him and saved him. He later married the same woman,” he says. “Kõu saved a whole lot of Estonians by taking them West on his boat when the Soviet Army invaded. He later fled to Sweden, then the United States with his wife and children.”

But when asked what kind of a person world traveller Ahto Valter really was, Valk falls deep into thought. “He was a restless dreamer. Estonia was too small for him. Not because of the regime or the people, but just because you find yourself stuck at a certain point. You want freedom and discover that your sails will give it to you. Out at sea, he felt responsible for his own actions and independent of anyone else’s decisions. That was his biggest reason for sailing,” Valk says.

“But if you are asking about Ahto’s personality, then, goodness, I don’t know. I can guess, and I’ve tried to do that in the film. But who knows what the truth really is.”

The documentary, “Ahto. Chasing a Dream” (2018), is written and directed by Jaanis Valk, the cinematographer is Erik Norkroos, the editors are Erik Norkroos, Kersti Miilen and Jaanis Valk, the sound designer is Horret Kuus and the producer is Erik Norkroos.


Cover: Kõu and Ahto Valter. Read more from the Estonian Film Magazine. The Estonian Film Magazine is published since 2013, twice a year, by the Estonian Film Institute. Every issue informs the readers on the news about the Estonian film productions, publishes reviews of new titles and interviews with film professionals. 

Estonia sends a drama about fatherhood to join the Oscar race

Estonia has submitted Liina Triškina-Vanhatalo’s drama, “Take It or Leave It”, as the country’s submission for the foreign language Academy Award.

The film is about a 30-year-old construction worker, Erik, who unexpectedly finds his ex-girlfriend at his door with the message that she has given birth to their daughter. The woman isn’t ready to be a mother so, if he doesn’t want the child, she’ll put her up for adoption – take it or leave it!

This long, complicated, at times even comical path to becoming a father turns a regular man into an everyday hero – a “superman” who is ready to fight for his fatherhood with tooth and nail. The main character is played by Reimo Sagor for whom this is a lead role debut in a feature film.

“Take It or Leave It” was produced by the experienced Estonian producer, Ivo Felt, for whom it is not the first time to compete for an Oscar glory. In 2015, the Felt-produced “Tangerines”, an Estonian-Georgian collaboration (directed by Zaza Urushadze), made it to the nomination list and another film, “The Fencer” (directed by Klaus Härö), was shortlisted in 2016.

Universal theme

According to Felt, “Take It or Leave It” tells the story of a regular man growing into being a father in a straightforward and non-moralising manner. “Liina Triškina-Vanhatalo’s modern take on this theme is effective and moving but it doesn’t underestimate the viewer. We believe the film will find an audience outside of Estonia and we will do everything we can to make that happen,” he said in a statement.

The film was selected by the committee led by the Estonian Film Institute. According to the committee, Triškina-Vanhatalo has tackled the complicated and serious themes of single parenthood, inter-country economic inequality and the latent migration found in developed, Western countries as well as the age-eternal, human responsibility we have for our own future as well as that of our close ones. “The story should speak to a wider audience than Estonia and Eastern Europe because the whole western world is faced with the same problem today,” the committee said.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hand out Oscars for the 91st time on 24 February 2019.


Cover: Screenshot from “Take It or Leave It”.

Review: “Juured”, an Estonian documentary about women who are not ashamed of their wounds

Six Estonian female film directors share their intimate experiences and show us that facing pain is an act of freedom.

Is it a coincidence that the words “juuksed” (hair) and “juured” (roots) are so assonant in Estonian? Perhaps they share more than a vague sound. Almost all cultures consider hair as a symbol of an individual’s identity and energy that constantly regenerate itself. When a woman cuts her hair, she probably wants to leave a part of her past behind – because sometimes we need to sever our roots in order to fortify ourselves and start from anew.

This is what, in my opinion, Nora Särak, Aljona Suržikova, Kersti Uibo, Moonika Siimets, Anna Hints and Heilika Pikkov suggest us in the documentary, “Juured” (“Roots”). Each one of the authors – six Estonian directors of different age and experience – tells us her own personal story interwoven with pain, doubts and hopes. Each one of them faces her struggle to learn to let go. Cutting away part of their roots is the only way to get free, not from a man, nor from a place or a rule, but from the cage of their own torment.

Acceptance is the key

Sometimes we need to let go early plans and previous, comfortable certainties to know who we are, just like Nora does. She is daring and full of the burning desire to stay as close to his beloved – so much so that “sticking heads out of the car window is the most possible distance” between them.

Aljona is the strength of motherhood. Her generosity as a woman is overtaken only by her magnanimity as a director. She films the loss of her baby – can someone ask more of an artist? Aljona lets go of his son, and along with him a grief that could not have been described but exposing it.

Kersti is the wisdom of ageing, which is still capable to save a childlike gaze, where boundaries, comparisons and frustrations have no room. Only an amazed, silent stare is possible in front of the awareness that one of the existence’s rules prescribes that something has to die so that something else can be born.

Moonika introduces us to Tiina and Ülo, and shows that sometimes collecting things can mean the attempt to hide our lack of self-confidence. Once we let go of our regrets, we will let go of things along with them.

It can also happen that we need to let go the burden of our anger and grudge. Anna is the understanding that true forgiveness doesn’t wait for conditions to be fulfilled. She also realises that respect and gratitude do not mean love – learning to love is more difficult than learning to fly, as Nora argues.

Heilika’s story is the testament to a different age, and also a reminder that sometimes, in spite of our pains and troubles, it is worth to keep our roots alive.

The pain of creation means freedom

Nora, Aljona, Kersti, Moonika, Anna, Heilika: each one of these women is Estonian. Like everything in Estonia, it is not the width that matters, but the depth. The tales of their roots are short but intense.

Each one of these women is an artist. They leverage their sorrow to convey the meaning of their human path. As Emil Cioran says about books – and I think we can adopt this reflection to art as a whole – what makes them interesting is the amount of the suffering they hold. We are not captivated by ideas, rather by the author’s anguish, their screams, their silence, their sentences loaded with their unsolved questions. What is not born from pain is fake. Art needs to search among wounds, it is wound itself. And sometimes it is a danger because it questions the roots we rely on.

Each one of them finds a way to cope with suffering. Filming a documentary expresses their profound necessity of honesty. Here actually the medium is the message. They decide to reject lies and easy solace to embrace a truth that can be merciless, but, above all, liberating.

In none of these stories there is a “lender of last resort”: the presence of a man turns out to be secondary. Even God is not mentioned. These women define their identities by themselves, their choices and their power. All of them have in common the resolution to abandon shame and to embrace the courage to expose their wounds. In this respect, they are modern women making the decision that life is always worth living, no matter how hard it punches.


Cover: A still from the “Juured”.

“Seltsimees Laps” – not only a movie about Stalinist tyranny, but also on Estonian modesty

The Tallinn-based Italian expat, Milena Spigaglia, shares her thoughts on the new Estonian movie about the Stalinist tyranny, “Seltsimees Laps” (“The Little Comrade”).

When I was a child, I asked my mother – who passed away a few years ago and simply loved to take care of her garden – if plants understood that we trimmed them not to hurt them, but for their own good. She told me they probably did.

This is the immediate memory that the beginning of the Estonian movie, “Seltsimees Laps”, based on the autobiographical novel written by Leelo Tungal, brought back to me. In the movie, a six-year-old child asks her mother if trees can understand what we say, if they can listen to us when we are in trouble. She replies, they probably can.

A complex tale

“Seltsimees Laps” (“The Little Comrade”, directed by Moonika Siimets) is not just a film about the painful Soviet occupation and the cruel deportations ordered by Joseph Stalin that brutally broke many lives apart – even if the plot explains us their reality from the point of view of a thoughtful, intuitive little girl who must suddenly cope with the forced absence of her mother. She will try to do her best to be a good girl to make her mother come back soon – with changing fortunes, so giving life from time to time to touching or funny situations.

It is also a tale about preciousness of family, a haven where people help each other without judging. It is a story about loyalty to principles and feelings. “I will wait you until the end, even longer if needed,” says one of the songs that the Tungal family sings during the patriarch’s birthday. Waiting means devotion, but also the inevitable change, not only for those who are waiting, but even more so for those who are awaited. Nevertheless, Leelo Tungal’s experience points out that recognising each other again is possible and waiting acquires a sense in itself – freed from the events’ contingency, because it turns into a path of personal growth and awareness.

It is a story about the forests and the bogs that offer hiding places to resistance heroes, and protection to a child’s hopes and secrets. Estonia means the healing power of nature.

And for sure, this is a film about the profound intelligence that lies in the sense of humour, even when it is unintentional: it happens that the grown-ups Tungal must cope with show the same naivety and awkwardness of the little girl who has to work hard to decipher their thoughts.

A film about modesty

But first and foremost, “The Little Comrade” is, in my opinion, a film about the value of what the Latins called pudor. To the English word modesty, I prefer the Estonian one, tagasihoidlikkus. To me it means so much more than decency or reserve. It is the jealous, silent, determined preservation of one’s own inner world. It is something deeper than hiding feelings – it is about a person’s will to defend their individuality and, on a national basis, to retain an identity.

The word itself expresses an intimate intent of holding back (tagasi hoidma). It means to keep emotions under control, to keep them hidden, not for fear or shame, but because of the perception of their true value. The stronger the feeling, the more intense is the desire to keep it quiet – a big sorrow leaves us without words.

But in my opinion, it also means to hold back memories and customs, to save them just as they were in the past (tagasi), to keep them stored (hoidma) so that they can help us standing up against difficulties and let us believe in better times to come. The Estonian tagasihoidlikkus is the extreme defence against the invasion, because no occupation can destroy propriety intended as the firm possession of oneself. In this sense it has nothing to do with “modesty”: it is an expression of pride.

At the end of the film, Tungal and her father go to the train station to welcome the mother back from a Siberian prison camp. The mother and the little girl are barely able to look into each other’s eyes. No kisses, no hugs. Just a mute, dazed, grateful silence – and a bunch of flowers. And indeed, is it possible to give back what they took away? Can screams and jumps for joy erase the pain? A glimpse in their eyes say it all – we are still here, the past has been staunchly guarded, protected and preserved.

History explained

After watching this beautiful film, I understand better the era of the Soviet occupation and what it really represents for Estonian families. I understand better the memorial events that are held at Tallinn’s Freedom Square. And perhaps, I understand better the Estonian character. Now I know that behind discretion there is a painful history. Behind the apparent aloofness, there is a resolution: do not surrender to self-pity. Behind the dark humour, there is the effort to play down troubles.

And behind every smile there is a true understanding, that does not need many words. After all, to have a good talk you can always rely on trees. Do they listen to us? They probably do.


Cover: A screenshot from “Seltsimees Laps”.

New Estonian documentaries to celebrate the country’s centenary

Many long-awaited Estonian documentaries will premiere in 2018 and all of them are fitting in their own way to celebrate the 100th birthday of the nation.

This article is published in collaboration with the Estonian Film Institute.

The new documentaries look to the past more than to the modern day. We can say the trend started in 2017 with the most successful documentary domestically and at festivals – Terje Toomistu’s “Soviet Hippies”. In the film, the anthropologist, Terje Toomistu, reveals the recent history of an occupied country through a new spirituality. She shows us the souls who found an alternative lifestyle and breath of fresh air in the hippie movement. The documentary is travelling to a lot of cinema screens in other countries in 2018 and spreading its fun message of peace and love.

A trip around the world

Another long-awaited film that will hopefully travel to a lot of festivals, “Ahto: Chasing a Dream”, has been completed and will premiere domestically in March 2018.

It talks about globetrotter Ahto Valter, the first Estonian to travel around the world. At the age of 14, he was already working as a sailor on the fanciest ship in the Baltics, the Stormbird, and by the age of 17, he’d sailed his own boat to America. Although his life was full of other exciting adventures and twists and turns, his most remarkable feat was his trip around the world in 1938, where he sailed under the Estonian flag with his wife and 14-month son Ted as his companions.

Throughout the years, director Jaanis Valk has been collecting unique archive material and conducting interviews with people who remember Valter. Ahto left the independent Estonia as a free man and never saw his country free again due to the complications of World War II. His feats remained largely unheard of due to the Soviet propagandist treatment of history.

Now there is an ethnographically and historically dignified documentary full of fabulous archival footage, allowing people to relive Ahto’s trip around the world.

Taming a wild country

The DocPoint festival’s 2018 opening film in Estonia and Finland was a fast-paced and politically suspenseful Estonian documentary about the first post-occupation government of Estonia, run by the 32-year-old prime minister, Mart Laar. The title, “Rodeo: Taming a Wild Country”, gives a pretty obvious clue to how tempestuous a time it was, taking a country from the grips of a crumbling, socialist giant into the blissful arms of capitalism. They were wild years full of wild actions that we are still telling legends and writing books about.

The film portrays one historical perspective of how a country was saved from its economic collapse by the help of friends abroad. Thanks to the reforms that took place at the beginning of the 1990s, Estonia still enjoys a “good boy” status in Eastern Europe. But all of that came at a price.

Directors Raimo Jõerand and Kiur Aarma – both of who have had their films screened by many TV stations around the world – have made a surprisingly humorous film about the difficult decisions made.

Struggle in nature

Thanks to a special fund created for the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, two very special documentary projects are also in the works. Estonia’s noble nature documentary tradition is being carried by the brightest star of the new generation, director-cinematographer Joosep Matjus. He has spent very little time in the city these past few years as the filming of Estonian nature has demanded the best out of him.

His documentary, “The Wind Sculpted Land”, takes us through snowy winters, bright green springs, voluptuous summers and colourful winters. The film is a story told through the adventure of the young moose yearlings – it’s about their hard struggle to manage on their own and peculiar interactions with the wildlife that surrounding them.

In a land shaped by wind, many different strollers inhabit nature. Some by wings, some by paws, some living on flesh while some gently chew on grass. This film will give the audience a unique view of the nature and the behaviour of moose, following them for a whole season. The film takes place at one of the largest coastal meadows in Europe, in Matsalu National Park, located on the west coast of Estonia.

A female perspective

The second documentary project made for Estonia 100 brings together six female Estonian documentary filmmakers from different generations – Nora Särak, Aljona Suržikova, Heilika Pikkov, Anna Hints, Moonika Siimets and Kersti Uibo. The collection of short documentaries, “Roots”, tells six very personal stories. They are stories about birth and death, being alone and together, great joy and great sadness. They are told honestly and bravely from a female perspective.

The authors are well known female Estonian directors between the ages of 29-61 who are also mothers, daughters and wives; and why not lovers or world travellers. The central symbol of the collection is the root, a vital organ. Roots don’t have leaves, but they may grow buds that sprout above the ground. The root is the beginning, the origin, the starting point, the cause. The six short films are joined together by talented puppet animation director Anu-Laura Tuttelberg’s fantastic animations.

A journey into the soul of a man

Award-winning director Jaak Kilmi’s new documentary film, “Girl From Nowhere”, tells an unbelievable story about a KGB agent who left the Soviet Union for the US, and his daughter Ieve Lešinska, who had to change her identity and name and forget her Latvian heritage. This is a true political thriller from the Cold War era – a story that can be found, despite the uniqueness of each case, in many societies from behind the Iron Curtain. It’s a very personal and emotional, crazy family story about identities broken by political games and searching for one’s past – made as a co-production between Latvia, Estonia, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Another sweet tidbit for the true cinephile is being made in cooperation between the three Baltic countries. The film, “Baltic New Wave”, is like a journey into the soul of a man through the history of poetic documentary filmmaking from Baltic countries. This is a story about a unique phenomenon in the history of cinema – the Baltic school of poetic documentary and its creators.

The filmmakers from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania broke the dogmatic poster-like propaganda documentary tradition in the Soviet Union in the 1960s by creating films that were totally different: humane, meaningful and poetic.

The journey leads to the grand masters of Baltic poetic documentary – Uldis Brauns, Aivars Freimanis, Mark Soosaar, Andres Sööt, Robertas Verba, Henrikas Sablevicius, their films and a unique collection of archival material. The film will enrich the canons of all three countries celebrating their 100th anniversaries this year in a touching and uplifting way. It will also serve to draw light to one special place in the history of world cinema.


Cover: A screenshot from “Ahto: Chasing a Dream”. Read more from the Estonian Film Magazine. The Estonian Film Magazine is published since 2013, twice a year, by the Estonian Film Institute. Every issue informs the readers on the news about the Estonian film productions, publishes reviews of new titles and interviews with film professionals. 

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