The invisible beautiful Estonian film.
By Abdul Turay
Published Postimees 3 May

This time I will move away from talking about politics and talk about culture. Since it is the 100th anniversary of Estonian cinema I might as well add my 50 cents to the debate.
Kevade (1969)

Lets borrow metaphor from that eh...em.... “masterpiece” of contemporary American cinema, Shallow Hall, starring Jack Black.


There is a scene in film where Jack Black asks his co-conspirator that if he was dating the most beautiful women- Linda Carter if you're interested- would he care if everybody else thought she was ugly?”

“No!” his companion says without hesitation

“Because everybody else would be wrong.”

Let's push that concept up a gear. Male readers, would you rather date someone beautiful and invisible or someone plain and visible. How vain are you? Is there point in dating a model if no-one else can see her?

The Estonian film industry is both beautiful and invisible.

Some Estonian film pundits would have you believe that Baltic film is known in the West, that at the very least Estonia has always had a reputation for high-quality animation. Don't believe a word of it. Take it from me, for the average film buff, Estonia's main contribution to World cinema is the fact that Tarkovsky's science fiction classic Stalker was filmed here.

Latvia has it better time. Eisenstein was born there and the city still has architecture built by his father. That is why it is so important that they get this anniversary right. It's a chance to show the World the true beauty of Estonian cinema.

And yes it is possible for a small country to draw attention to itself with a very talented film maker and the right distribution. I've known people who ended up going to Finland because of Aki Kaurismäki. This is not true for Estonia yet. Anyone who has watched more than one Estonian film has an interest in Estonia already.

The main problem is distribution. I found this out when I got chatting with an American who had been coming to Estonia for a few years. He wasn't married to an Estonian, Estonia was simply his personal hobby.

He proudly reeled off a whole bunch of Estonian and Baltic films which he has seen, Sugisball (Autumn Ball), Class, Revolution of the Pigs, Georg (about Georg Ots) and December Heat and smaller indie films from across the region that I had never heard of.

He hadn't seen Kevade (Spring), he hadn't seen Viimine Reliikvia (The Last Relic). He hadn't even heard of them.


I am quite knowledgeable about Baltic film, especially Estonian film,” he confidentially told me.

It's completely impossible to watch classic Estonian films outside of Estonia. It defines the limits of the internet as a distribution tool. Try purchasing Sügis(Autumn) or Mehed ei nuta (Men don't cry) from the World's biggest online retailer, Amazon. You won't find them. You have better luck with Sügisball, that you can actually stream and watch on you PC, if you live in the US, not anywhere else though. Hence the glib smugness of my American friend.

As things stand, even for somebody who is already an Estophile to watch Estonian film, you have to physically live in Estonia.

The next problem is more subtle and it follows on from the first problem. Film is medium for understanding a culture. The films that mean most to the people aren't necessarily the ones the critics likes.

The Oskar Luts trilogy is closer to the Estonian soul than more contemporary films because it reflects the way Estonians have always lived, these films are about the land. Every Estonian has seen Sügis, not every Estonian has seen Sügisball.

The rhythm and cadence of these movie is so well known, it's like static, white noise. When a person in a reality TV show, soap or in real life says:“Bring me my axe” or “The rats took the cabbage iron and didn't bring it back,” or “How many times, do I have to kill the same man,”it resonates. An Estonian understands what this means and have an emotional response to it. His/her mind harks back to the other times they have heard the phrase, where he/she was, what he/she was doing.
We foreigners don't have this emotional background.

This cuts both ways of course. Anglo-Saxon culture comes with its own cultural baggage.

It is a truly Anglicised Estonian who has an knowing emotional response to the film Avatar when a character says: “You're not in Kansas any more, you're on Pandora.”

I am sure an old flame didn't understand me fully when I said to her: “Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.”

As things stand, even for somebody who is already an Estophile to be able to really understand Estonian film they have to watch it with Estonians.

Some things just get lost in translation

There is a scene in the TV show Wikmani poisid, based on Jaan Kross semi-autobiographical novel, where old man Wikman is telling one of the students off for working in the market. The schoolboy says he has no choice he needs the money.

Eventually the school master relents but jokingly tells him him he can't wear a school cap or a black beret because:“Inimesed ütelevad et Wikmani possid ei ole ainult turukaupmehed, nad on ka Vapsid.”



People will think Wikmann boys are not only market sellers but also Vaps”*

How on Earth do you translate Vaps into English, or any language for that matter? The way they translated it was simply “fascists.

It was only when I had lived in Estonia a couple of years that I realised I had completely misunderstood it.

Give foreigners a chance to discover classic Estonian film. They can bring a new level of appreciation to the film. Estonian tend to watch classic Estonian films like zombies. They have seen these films so often and from such a young age that they have stopped thinking what these films are actually about.

A foreigner with a critical eye is going to notice that Viimane Reliikvia is really all about money.
The abbot wants the relics so that pilgrims will come to the monastery and pay the monks to prayer for their sins. At that time, monasteries could get very rich by selling salvation. They even have a little cottage industry selling figurines of the Saint Birgitta. A souvenir shop for the Medieval tourists. But it's all useless if they don't even have the relic. The film is anti-clerical and anti-capitalist, from a Soviet point of view it's ideologically sound.

A foreigner may go on to explain the concept of a MacGuffin and how the film has similarities to everything from the Maltese Falcon, to Hitchcock films, to the Indiana Jones movie.

Since followers of Estonian films are Estophiles, we what we want out of a film isn't actually what the average person wants.

Sügisball sucks because you get this film out to practice Estonian and then nobody says anything for the first 10 minutes.

Poll's diaries is worse because it is in German.

Mina olin siin” is brilliant because you learn some emm...useful words immediately.

I have one last vital thing to say. Be careful if you lend a Estonian or Estonian-themed film to an Estophile. I once recorded a very rare film called Letters from the East and lent it to a Estophile friend. Mikk Mikiver and Kaljo Kiisk are in it. It's really interesting to see them talking in English.

The film is about an British Estonian woman visiting Estonia for the first time in 40 years in the early nineties. Unfortunately I didn't realise that the story was so close to my friend's personal story that she couldn't bare to part with it. I never got it back, For four years I have tried and failed to get a copy of this movie. If you have a copy could you get in touch.