Estonia's enduring film industry
Edith Sepp is the chief executive of the Estonian Film Institute, a body working with the Estonian Ministry of Culture in all aspects of the film industry here. Estonia has a long and proud cinema history and was an important centre of movie making in the Soviet Union, a system which highly valued film as both art and propaganda. Since independence Estonian filmmakers have distinguished themselves internationally, punching above their weight at festivals from Cannes to Berlin to Park City. Tallinn Arts spoke to Edith about the bygone days of Estonian film and what's to be expected down the line.
Could you tell us a bit about the origins of Estonian cinema? During Estonia's first independence, was there a thriving film scene?
In 2012 Estonian film celebrated its 100th anniversary. The legend goes that in 1912, the photographer Johannes Pääsuke used his camera to shoot the very first scene called “The Flight of Utoshkin”. This is considered the beginning of filmmaking in Estonia. The first actual film was a short political satire called "Bear Hunt in Pärnu County" ("Karujaht Pärnumaal") which was shot in 1914 and allegorically addressed the election battle between Estonians and Baltic Germans.
Apart from production, Estonian film was always innovating and developing during Czarist and Soviet times. The first cinema screening took place in Tallinn in 1896. As it is today, cinema was a very popular choice for leisure activities.
During the First Republic, Estonians produced mainly comedies and adventure stories. The first feature length film was produced in 1925, called “Shadows of the Past” (Mineviku varjud). The story was about the Estonian fight for independence. From the 1930s onwards, many documentary films were produced and The Estonian Cultural Film Studio (Eesti Kultuurfilm) was established in 1931. Since the market demand was mainly concerned with American and German films, the film studio stopped producing features and made only documentaries, or to be precise, films that showed Estonian life.
Nonetheless, having a film studio was important considering the size of the nation. “Eesti Kultuurfilm” became the predecessor of “Tallinn’s Film studio”– the biggest and most influential film studio in Estonia was set-up by the Soviets in 1940, after Estonia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Lenin said the greatest of all art forms is film. The films produced at this time were basically propaganda.
But this did not stop the development of Estonian film in the long run. From 1954, the studio created independent feature films and from 1957, a new genre – the puppet films- which turned out to be the most innovative genre of all for Estonians. They were produced at the studio’s branch called “Nukufilm”. In 1963, the entire studio was renamed “Tallinnfilm”. This is where I started my career as a film developer in 1986.
The Soviet Union is recognized as having a very innovative and influential film industry. What did the Soviet occupation do to Estonian cinema?
As time went by in the Soviet system, were Estonian filmmakers able to have more freedom to make the kind of films they wished? Did an Estonian style develop independently from Soviet cinema?
My personal view is that we should be honest in evaluating the Soviet influence on Estonian film art. Maybe there is also a hidden reason why present decision-makers are reluctant to support the film sector. As one of my good friends and legendary Estonian filmmaker Jüri Sillart once said “Estonian film did not start with sweating together in a sauna or in the community halls with dancing, singing and making music together, this art form was brought in by
'foreigners' – therefore it has not grown close to the Estonian heart …” I hope this concerns only financing of films.
The films that have artistic value were produced from the 1960s onwards. This was the period when Estonia started to educate its creators at the Moscow Film School (VGIKI’s) and the result was mind-blowing. As Jaan Ruus has said “Cineasts created their own worlds, even though it was a national art form that was funded by the state and inspected by the censors.” Film makers created their own language telling their own stories and that is considered the start of Estonian national cinema. Nowhere can an artist be totally free from pressures, sometimes it even creates fantastic results, but let the history speak for itself. The best Estonian films of all time were produced during the Soviet era, according to the Estonian film journalists’ poll in 2002. The top five films were “Spring” by Arvo Kruusement in 1969, “Madness” by Kaljo Kiisk in 1968 , “The Ideal Landscape” by Peeter Simm in 1980 and “Last Relics” by Grigori Kromonov in 1969. The best film since the restoration of the Estonian Republic in 1991, is in 5th place. The film “Georgica” was made by Sulev Keedus in 1998.
But there is also an issue with cinema attendance. In the 70s, one Estonian visited the cinema 23 times a year while in 1980 it was 10 times and in 2000 only 1.2 times. The Soviet era seems to have been good for film, from a certain point of view. Film is the most universal form of art. This was understood well by the Soviets. But this also created a certain mind-set of subsidies. This is still kind of a challenge, which we try to come to terms with today.
What happened with the Estonian film industry after independence?
The main challenge of the film industry after independence has been financing. Since we were financed by the Soviets, support was cut off. Somehow the argument was that film can survive without support. Film was, and still is, constantly compared to Hollywood. Market rules can regulate without the need for intervention. Can European film-production really survive without subsidies, especially considering it is representing a very small language group? These were tough times for filmmakers in Estonia.
But the film industry had grown deep roots by 1997 and the film foundation was established by the Estonian Ministry of Culture, with the task to share and distribute the national film budget.
But what kind of films do Estonians like today? According to a poll made in 2012 when people could vote for their favourite films between 1991-2011, 1st place was taken by “Autumn Ball” shot in 2007 by Veiko Õunpuu. The film was released in Venice – the highest honor any Estonian art-house feature film has ever received. The best animation film was “1895” by Priit Pärn. This film was shot in 1995 and is a story about the life of the brothers Lumiere.
Who are some of the classic filmmakers of Estonian cinema?
From the early years, Johannes Pääsuke, and later Arvo Kruusement, Grigori Kromonov, Leida Laius, Kaljo Kiisk, Peeter Simm, Sulev Keedus, Veiko Õunpuu.
For animation Priit Pärn, Janno Põldma and Heiki Ernits, Rao Heidmats to name a few.
Documentaries film makers start with the golden three: Andres Sööt, Mark Soosaar and Rein Maran, and from the younger generation Marianna Kaat, Jaak Kilmi, and again Sulev Keedus.
What characterizes the Estonian aesthetic in film? Does it resonate with other Estonian art forms; literature, painting, music?
When we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Estonian film, the jury had to choose one prize for the most "Estonian" motif in national film. The options were: darkness, meaningful close-up of the eyes and a bare tree. The jury chose the bare tree. In my opinion, the well-known "Scandinavian" sorrow, deep and dark landscapes, low horizon and overwhelmingly close skyline, all affect our way of seeing the world and reflecting it back onto the big screen.
The “best” films, or most recognized we have produced, are in darker tones but things are changing and there are exceptions. But we are very much part of Estonian art in the larger understanding of the word. Film carries the greatest possible relationship between visual art, architecture, music, literature etc
Who are some of the great actors?
Lembit Ulfsak (Lead character in “Tangerines”) was the actor of the century and Elle Kull was chosen as the best actress of all time. I think we'll keep it like that for the time being.
Is funding an issue in Estonian film now?
Funding films is an issue everywhere. I recently spoke to my Australian colleagues who have enormous budgets but their filmmakers are still complaining. In Estonia, funding is an issue that can’t be solved overnight but over years I think the situation will get better. It is not only one thing that needs improvement, it is the general development of the industry. Everything has to be in balance and then anything is possible.
Director Arvo Kuursement and DOP Harry Rehe on the set of "The Spring", behind the camera. In front of the camera Arno Liiver (Arno) and Kaljo Kiisk (Lible).
Excerpt, or shot, from the very first Estonian short feature film "Bear hunt in Pärnumaa", 1914.
Arvo Kruusement on the set of "The Spring" (top bench, on left hand side) together with DOP, Harry Rehe with camera. In front of the cameras main chracters- Kiir (Margus Lepa) and Toots (Aare Laanemets)
Veiko Õunpuu's feature "Autumn Ball" (2007). Main character played Rain Tolk (Mati)
The Bare Tree was nominated in 2012 as the most used shot used in one hundred years of Estonian filmmaking. Veiko Õunpuu's feature "The Temptation of St Tony" (2009). Main character Taavi Eelmaa (Tony)