Estonia Wakes Up By Marita Nyrhinen

in 23rd Warsaw International Film Festival

by Marita Nyrhinen

Estonia is quite a small country, with only 1,3 million inhabitants. But its national cinema has developed very quickly. The Estonian public has discovered their native filmmakers, and this year’s box-office sales have more than doubled last year’s. During the Soviet era, Estonian animation films were particularly respected, and filmmakers like Priit Pärn and Mati Kütt were awarded many international prizes. Now, it’s the younger generation’s turn, as Estonian feature filmmakers find they have lots of different, interesting stories to tell.

Estonian films were well in focus at this year’s Warsaw International Film Festival. Four features and eight shorts were screened, for a total of twelve entries. The New Films, New Directors International Competition presented Kadri Kõusaar’s Magnus and Veiko Õunpuu’s Autumn Ball; the Warsaw Competition screened Ilmar Raag’s Class (Klass). Finally, in the “Free Spirit” section, was Andres Maimik and Rain Tolk’s 186 Kilometers (Jan Uuspõld läheb Tartusse).

It was great to note that these four Estonian features are very different — in style, atmosphere and technical execution — and they seem to give quite an interesting overview of today’s Estonian film. The common theme to three of the films was loneliness and self-destruction. The fourth film, 186 Kilometers, is a crazy comedy with lot of nationalistic humor.

Estonia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Kõusaar’s Magnus, based on actual events, tells the story of a teenage boy’s relationship with his father. It also explores the responsibilities of parents. Estonian rock star Kristjan Kasearu plays the young Magnus, who was seriously ill as a child. Depression and a loss of will have stayed with him, and he’s finally decided to take his own life. The role of the father is played by the non-actor Mart Laisk. Magnus’ father is not exactly ordinary; he’s a small-time criminal who makes his living transporting prostitutes into Germany. Laiks plays his part with real passion, especially in the epilogue; his closing speech stops the show. In his own life, Laisk went through similar experiences to his character.

In Raag’s The Class, young people have serious problems. An entire class of schoolchildren teases two boys, in a very violent way, for reasons that are never made clear. Eventually, the bullied boys cannot endure the torment, and they finally retaliate with guns. The film offers much to ponder. Why don’t children speak to their parents and teachers about their problems? Why don’t adults see that something is wrong with the kids? What makes kids behave badly and act violently? And, finally, what can civilized society do to stop school teasing? What is most disturbing is the suggestion that the cycle of abuse continues after school, as bullied kids become bullies themselves.

Õunpuu’s Autumn Ball follows six lonely adults living in Soviet-era tower blocks, exploring the loneliness and inability to communicate with other people endemic to urban living. The film opens with a scene of young writer, Mati, is lurking outside of the balcony of his ex-wife. His marriage is over; he approaches other women, but not very successfully. August is a single man living a boring life, and his interest in little girls is suspicious. The single mother, Laura, is a soap-opera fan who doesn’t trust men at all. Maurer is an architect utterly obsessed with the welfare of humanity, neglecting his wife within their fancy apartment. So, she meets Theo, who seems to offer everything she wants from a man, except for social status. Even if the theme of the film is loneliness, there is also hope — and lots of humor, even slipping into absurdist black humor.

Estonians can make crazy comedies, too. Maimik and Tolk’s 186 Kilometers is an Estonian version of Forrest Gump, following the fictional actor Jan Uuspõld — acted by an actor named Jan Uuspõld. He’s a loser; when he gets fired from the theatre, he becomes the Viking queen Helga. But he is humiliated by the others, so he decides to travel to Tartu, another town. On the way to Tartu, he meets some strange rural folk, and things get interesting. 186 Kilometers is a black comedy, with actors performing as their real-life heroes and celebrities playing themselves — and each other, too.