In-Between Forms and Genres

in 63rd International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen

by Marcin Adamczak

Among many special screenings in the rich programme of the International Oberhausen Short Film Festival 2017, the retrospective of Jaan Toomik had a special place. The level of artistic quality and mastery in the film form presented by the Estonian artist distinguished itself even in comparison to the best contemporary works presented in the main competition (where Toomik was head of jury). Toomik’s background is originally in painting and art, and his oeuvre consists of videos, performances, short films and a feature debut (Landscape with Many Moons, 2014). Seven carefully chosen works were presented during the retrospective in Oberhausen.

Father and Son (1998) is one of the best known works of the artist, who formerly focused on painting. This exceptional short video, lasting less than 3 minutes, opened new paths for his career in the audiovisual field. It was quite challenging from the production side: artists are skating circles on the ice whilst completely naked – in obviously below-zero temperatures. The sound is a chorus song performed by the artist’s son. The video is often interpreted as a meditation on fatherhood and the relations between singing and skating. However, another interpretation is also strikingly tempting: Toomik appears from an empty, frozen and sunny distant landscape, making circles with a smile that impresses the viewer with its recurrent rhythm, before going back and slowly disappearing in the distance again. It’s a perfect and unpretentious metaphor of the circle of life, where the image “from ashes to ashes” is transformed into “from ice to ice”. The circles on the ice, which are the main organizing principle of the film’s movement, are pointing to the direction where the son becomes father, then son, and then father in an eternal pattern.

Invisible Pearls (2004) is a documentary with brilliant irony regarding its topic, which is putting pieces of plastic or metal into the penises of prisoners in post-Soviet Estonian jails. An admirable aspect of this distinguished piece of film-making is Toomik’s ability to get access to the prisoners and obtaining footage without any compromises. Jaanika (2007) counterpoints an off-frame narration about spiritual quests with incredibly strong images of awful interiors of abandoned flat. Untitled Action (2013) is an abstract and ambiguous two-minute film, when Toomik is going back to his sense of humour and irony. On the other hand, Untitled Action 2002 (2002) is a record of his uncompromising physical and performative abilities.

The most outstanding pieces of Toomik’s works are Oleg (2010) and Communion (2007). The former is re-enactment of a traumatic episode in the artist’s biography. Toomik served in the Soviet Army at the beginning of the 1980s and indirectly witnessed the suicide of a soldier bullied by his comrades. The re-enactment of the past has a very self-conscious cinematic form, where both the cinematography and the mise-en-scène are particularly artificial in form, which leads to the effect of a distance to pure emotions and an inaccessible past. Communion is again an art work which escapes a single interpretation. The film is usually read as a sign of men’s fear of responsibility and of being tied down. It is quite convincing in this movie; however, Communion could also be interpreted as the desperate scream of hunger of any metaphysical dimension of life. The religious ritual presented in the film is as mechanical, empty and boring as the subsequent sexual intercourse. In Communion, neither religion nor sex can offer any significant meaning in life, any strong tempting emotions; therefore the only way is to find something else to fill life – or shout in desperation in the forest. Toomik’s extraordinary achievement in this film is to achieve in eleven minutes more depth and philosophical observation than we can find in many hours of feature films.

That way, the retrospective of Jaan Tommik was a brilliant example of a master of the short film form and the artist’s capacity for uncompromising penetration into the darkest corners of life and desperation.

Edited by Birgit Beumers