· Reviews ·

5 Estonian Documentaries

These 5 movies give some sense of the topical and stylistic approaches of Estonian documentary-making heritage.

Woman From Kihnu (1973)

On the small island of Kihnu off the western coast of Estonia people have their own colorful culture and traditions. Mark Soosaar investigates trough the eye of a camera how the generations turn and pass but the people and the culture still stay the same.

The Woman from Kihnu is notable for the sense that although the traditional use of storyline is missing from the film it still manages to carry a distinctive mood from start to finish.

By that token the film breaks some traditional rules of linear storytelling and presents scenes in a more irregular manner. Things just happen at exactly the right moment and the filmmaker just happens to pass by exactly when they take place, for example when a woman is looking through a window her husband disappearing into the distance.

Some parts of the film are shown in negative which makes the characters seem graphic and generalized.  Old traditions of dance and fishing are told in song. The interviews give insights into the personal thoughts of the Kihnu people, their personalities, hopes and wishes, and more generally – their culture.

Although Soosaar spent only a limited time on the island he has captured the whole cycle of life. The film revolves around an old lady seems to be ephemerally there. She sings her old songs about love and the pain love creating a feeling that nothing ever changes. The singing old woman states the thesis of each part of the cycle in her song. When the young people find themselves, she sings about the pain of love in her youth. When the couple ages, she sings about how the kids continue to love her even after the passions from her life have passed.

Maybe it is because of that old lady that the film seems to be circular. Starting off on a graveyard people where come together, the first scene symbolizes the end of life. But in the same moment it is a new beginning because we see the young people find a partner, marry, and have kids. And as the kids get older they start mimicking adults. Some years pass and kids grow older and go on fishing dates with boys. A ladybug appears and the boy and girl find each other. Again they become adults and marry. The woman guards the house and the man goes to work. A scene of the two walking together into the distance completes the story. A new scene of the graveyard completes the whole cycle.

Despite all the storms the old tree from the graveyard still keeps standing every funeral, like the people of Kihnu who seem to be saying: “As long as we know our history and traditions, we are still strong”.

The film creates a strong emotional response and in many ways the strongest point of the film is the visual language that conveys all these cultural ideas. Because this is such a colorful film the variety of hues from the red of the Kihnu woman’s dress to the intense blue of the sea the colors seems to best express much of what Kihnu really is.

Original Title: "Kihnu Naine". Released: 1973, Estonia. Length: 48 min. Director: Mark Soosaar. Reviewed: December 1, 2007.

Jaanipäev (1978)

Estonians, a nation of peasants and countrymen has moved into the cities. Sööt follows how the old traditions (such as making bonfires on the Midsummer Eve) struggle to survive in the urban desert between the Soviet concrete buildings.

The old ways of the people have been destroyed, their countryside culture is left dead in the past and the people are put inside grey boxes called houses. The sound and visuals of the city are strange and dismaying. People are so busy and the city is noisy and dirty. Constructions, people running. Police siren goes by. Very fast and disorientating for the peasants and countrymen.

All of this is a great example of visual storytelling. There is no dialogue, and there is very little emphasis on anything but the visual image.

The kids are playing in the construction yards with rockets and planes, nothing natural in sight. There is the Tivoli to entertain oneself and there is the popular music – none of resembles what people were use to in the countryside so they stay inside their house. But people do come out of their big Lasnamäe houses to go to the Jaanitule bonfire.

Old songs with lyrics the like of “Laske vanad tantsud valla tõstke piigad taeva alla” bring back memories for some and for others this is just a memory from the long gone past. Still, some of the ideas of agrarian romanticism are deeply rooted.

But after the Jaanipäev everything is the same once again – people living in big houses everyone in his own little cubicle, every windows just the same.

Original Title: "Jaanipäev". Released: 1978, Estonia. Length: 19 min. Director: Andres Sööt. Reviewed: December 6, 2007.

Arnold (2002)

Director Urmas E. Liiv follows the controversial life and struggles of the aspiring Estonian Pop-Singer with alleged disabilities Arnold Oksmaa.

When someone wins the second place on a Eurovision contest for people with disabilities isn’t he entitled to same kind of treatment as regular pop-stars? Arnold Oksmaa certainly thinks he is, and he isn’t bothered one bit by the fact that in such a contest everybody who isn’t first is automatically a shared second place winner.

Although Oksmaa skillfully invites media attention, the media also feeds on his alleged but controversial mental disabilities. Throughout the film it is far from clear who is using who. On one hand Oksmaa seems to be enjoying every minute of his media fame, and trough the use of media he is able to make a name for himself to better his life. On the other hand though the way people from television, radio, and most of from yellow newspapers clings on his every word waiting for the next outrageous thing he could say or do is clearly an inkling to their interest of selling their product.

Because the film is quite disorganized and seems to be just following Oksmaa around there are some sequences that could’ve been left out without hurting the film. Indeed making the film more concise and balanced would have improved it from a journalistic perspective.

Although the director himself Urmas E. Liiv doesn’t shy away from ethically questionable practices such as letting Oksmaa film his birth-mother without asking her permission neither telling her what the footage is going to be used for, the general public may find such deeds disturbing or plainly wrong.

Some other sequences of questionable nature include the parts that show of Oksmaa’s mentally deranged girlfriend and her mother, and the sometimes private or highly personal things they say. As much as these sequences create entertainment value they also meddle with the lives of people who might be unaware or not be capable of understanding the effects of media. Also some of the more personal details about Oksmaa himself are depicted in cartoons and caricatures which verge on the offensive.

Ethical questions in documentary filmmaking only begin arise once something interesting is happening. They mainly concern two areas. Firstly, the area of privacy – whether we can show something that oversteps common courtesy and decency, or is openly and without justification offensive towards a person in the documentary. And secondly, the area of participation – whether the filmmaker should intervene if something perceptibly indecent is practiced by the subjects.

There are at least two schools of thought that take different views on how a documentary film should take these areas of ethics into account, and describe how a documentary should be made. One school – let’s call them the conservatives – takes the view that a documentary filmmaker must be like a fly on the wall. One’s own ideas and perceptions cannot enter into the final product. Although many agree that objectivity and impartiality in filmmaking is a near impossibility the conservative documentary-maker will try to get as close as possible. Personally, I would consider this view to be the inferior one.

The second school – let’s call them the creative filmmakers– start out on the premise that as it’s impossible to be objective one might as well include one’s own ideas and personality in the film. One of the rationales is that by being creative one can prevent the film from becoming a sort of a ‘walled garden’ that does not the background and disguises all the ethical hurtles and possible effects that the presence of a camera can have on the situation under the flag of ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’.

I would consider this open and creative approach to documentary filmmaking superior. This way the documentary maker can ‘open the film up’ and make it more transparent to the viewer, which will help the audience understand some of the ethical dilemmas that may arise.  As in gonzo journalism the creative filmmaker must not abandon the truth. Only by making the filmmaking process more open can the filmmaker aspire to creativity and truthfulness at the same time.

It is inevitable the documentary filmmaker will get into situations that present ethical dilemmas. In these situations it is imperative that whatever the decision of the filmmaker makes – to show it or not to show the disturbing content – the viewer must understand why the filmmaker is there, that such a dilemma exists, and why such a decision is being made. This gives the audience enough information to make an informed decision develop an opinion.

In practical terms the case of Arnold is a good example. Although some might not agree with the decision of Urmas E. Liiv it is made clear that such decisions are being made and that some of the sequences may be unethical. For example when Arnold goes to see his mother we clearly see that Liiv gives the camera to Arnold and we also clearly see Arnold lying to his mother. That is where the viewer can make a decision. Another example lies in the sequences where Arnold is told to act in a certain way and positioned by the filmmaker – we also see clearly that this is being done and he is being directed.

Where it is unclear whether something is ethical or unethical the power of judgment should be passed over to the viewer, the audience itself must decide whether what is being done is ethical or not.

Released: 2002, Estonia, Length: 52 min, Director: Urmas E. Liiv. Reviewed: January 16, 2008.

Jonathan From Australia (2007)

Estonians have always been waiting for the white ship but it never came. Sulev Keedus in holding a mirror up to the society and one sees that there are people who are desperate.

This is working class life in Saaremaa. Some of them drink; most of them have spent their life working without finding any meaning. Others have lost their family, or are losing it slowly day-by-day. Still others are losing their sanity. Some go to get treatment for drinking but they rarely feel any hope.

The film is divided into multiple parts by the name of the main character. Each has their own problems but one woman stands out in particular. For me she’s the only one who can make an emotional connection.

She says you clean; you wash clothes; you bring firewood; and prepare dinner. That’s what you do all day and that’s all that life is really about.

First her child died of meningitis, and then she had three more. She dreams of her own house – a beautiful yellow house. She wants to the forest to live alone. Don’t want to be here in the village – “I’ve always said I don’t want to be here”. Would have some chickens, a cow. Now she has dreamy eyes. The village corrupts her, she says, it has made her drink. She doesn’t want to talk about it. “I can never forget my child,” is all she can say.

In the village there are feelings of inferiority complex.

When the village county fair held in Mustjala there is a quest star – a singer introduced as Jonathan from Australia.

Original Title: Joonatan Austraaliast. Released: 2007, (Estonia). Length:  90 min. Director: Sulev Keedus. Reviewed: September 29, 2007.

To Shura (1990)

Aleksandra, an elderly woman living in Eastern Estonia tells her life story of forty years of work on top of a coal mine.

An elderly woman tells the history of Estonia trough her own life experiences. She works in a coal mine. Coal is transported in carts and the dust is put in big piles that eventually become the great mountains of coal dust.

All of this resembles or symbolizes what Estonia does trough the hard work of its people. She has worked on the mine for forty years as have worked all the other people throughout Estonia during their difficult and demanding lives.

Perestroika means that everything is getting more expensive.  And Aleksandra doesn’t like it. Neither does she like the corruption that is eating away at the wealth of her nation.

Communism is spoken of on one radio channel, ideas of religion and god on another. She does believe in god, and she says that the Satan is always at work. So God can never stop from working either.

In the morning she goes up the stairs, very slowly. In the evening she comes down the stairs, very slowly. She has that singular commitment to that place and that work that makes her and icon on top of that coal mine.

Release: 1990, Estonia. Length: 18 min. Directors:  Renita and Hannes Lintrop. Reviewed: September 19, 2007.

Written in 2007 at Tallinn Baltic Film & Media School Documentary class with Renita Lintrop.

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