held on May 3 - 9, 1997 in Jurmala, Latvia
European Documentary Film Symposiums Riga, 1999
Lauri Kärk
Documentary Films in Estonia

What happened in the last decade in Estonian documentary cinema? One of the first signs of changes was the film by Mark Soosar "A Man from the Island of Kihnu" with a sharp focus on modern problems. It was made in 1986. I should mention at once the first movie of a small alternative film studio, these studios emerged in the second half of the 80-ies, the film by Olav Noyland, a montage documentary film "Hitler and Stalin. 1939", finished by the 50-th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1989. That year was, in fact, the last one when cinematography was steadily financed by the state. The studio "Tallinnfilm" produced that year 15 documentaries and 24 newsreels. I’ll say straight away that last year we produced about 20 documentaries, "about" because we have many small studios now and we may not even be in the know about all films, 20 are those shown publicly. Now out of the great number of film studios which have the legal right to produce films only 5-7 produce documentaries really regularly. Besides, there are newsreels guaranteed by the state, 12 of them, each for 10 minutes yearly. The situation with them is paradoxical in the sense that they are the only ones made on the 35 mm film. One can enjoy the black-and-white images in newsreels, while documentaries are predominantly videos.

Now what about the money? This year the state provides 15 million Estonian crowns for the production of motion pictures, which amounts to a little bit over 1 million USD dollars. But this is meant for the whole industry, and it is hard to tell how much will be spent on documentaries. Some more money will be available via Kulturkapital. That is, we have practically two state sources, which is surely good. What is lacking in my view, is at least the theoretical possibility to attract additional sources. This is crucial, for state money should comprise not more than 75% of the overall film budget.

I should now like to discuss the changes visible on the screen, the changes in themes and stylistics. Starting from the second half of the 80-ies themes have changed a lot. Firstly, one can single out what might be called documenting history which materialised in our presence. Andres Seet did most in this respect. His films "The Dragon’s Year", "The Horse’s Year" were an intelligent chronicle of the years 1987 and 1990. Later he also remained faithful to a documentalist’s duty, creating a film about Paldiski and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from there in 1994. Still later followed "White Spots of History" and the wonderful film of Mark Soosar "Miss Saaremaa" where he managed via Molotov’s and Ribbentrop’s handshake to show Estonia’s fate in the course of the recent 50 years.

Now I shall discuss films dealing with contemporary problems formerly impossible to discuss. I should first of all mention the movie of Sulev Keitus about prisoners’ life, and also a well-known movie of Renita and Hannes Lintrop "Shura" (1990), a portrait of an elderly woman Shura, her faith, condition, satan etc., something that would, in fact, have been impossible earlier within the narrow limits set by censorship.

Under new conditions national problems become one of the most elaborated themes, the theme which as if did not exist as a problem during developed socialism. These problems raise interest not only here, but also in the West, and therefore it is possible to raise funds. These films are not about Estonians only, but also about other Finno-Ugrian peoples on the territory of the former USSR. Valentin Kuik’s film "The Flight" (1995) should be singled out, dealing with the life of a small Khanty people experiencing the pressure of various cultural influences.

Apart from that, one can single out movies aiming at new themes, new problems of our reality. These are the movies of young directors Arthur Talvik and Rein Gotov "The Kiss of Russian Metal and the American Dollar" (1993) and "A Prostitute’s Christmas" (1994), the latter was shown here. These are new themes that documentaries try to respond to, to present on the screen. Unfortunately, apart from the novelty of themes, these movies have little to boast of. This is particularly obvious in Arthur Talvik’s third movie "Freedom or Death" shot in Chechnya and trying to tell the story of the events which took place there. It is, though, just an incoherent out-of-context story about the life of one village. Documentation of life on the one hand, but superficiality on the other.

In recent years society has somewhat stabilised, and this is reflected on the documentary screen, at any rate in last year’s best films, mostly of the portrait genre. These movies require deep contemplation, being not just responses to something new, I mean films like those of Lina Kulles and Yuri Sillart. "An Adventure with a Lake" by Lina Kulles was initially a TV show which developed into something more significant. It is, in fact, a serious portrait film about Mark Soosar. The TV shows of the former camera-man and director of fiction films Yuri Sillart also developed into portrait films. "Antosha and Grisha" is the portrait of the cameraman Anton Mott and the director Grigory Kromanov. It was important for Sillart, on the one hand, that these were the people who had once worked in the cinema and were no longer alive, on the other hand, these film are special in the attitude to the people portrayed. They discuss quite freely and openly both their drawbacks as well as some matters which are usually a taboo for the press. But they do it respectfully and tactfully. Sillart does achieve here some new results in documentary cinema.

Summarizing, I should like to say that we are on the way to realizing our potential under new conditions, whatever is meant - the video, money etc. I see no particular problems in this respect. In this sense I am somewhat more interested in the second century of the cinema, documentary cinema in particular, under the new conditions of computer manipulation etc. But as such this does not mean an end to everything, it just means a transition to some broader and more interesting opportunities.

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