Editorial: Discovering Estonian Cinema

By Eva Näripea, Ewa Mazierska and Mari Laaniste

© Eva Näripea, Ewa Mazierska, Mari Laaniste 2010

This special issue is the first attempt to provide English-speaking audiences with an overview of the past and present of Estonian cinema. In fact, the investigations of this field of cultural production presented in the contributions to this issue cover to a large extent an unmapped territory even on the domestic level, as in contrast to the relative liveliness of the filmmaking industry itself, film studies have always lain rather fallow in Estonia. As during the Soviet occupation, that is, for almost half a century, the local moviegoers and critics grew used to regarding cinema an alien “implant” puppeteered by Soviet-minded authorities in Moscow, it is not surprising to find that a fact sheet published by the Estonian Institute as late as 1999 summarizes the image of local film production on its home turf as follows:

The position of Estonian film in society has, throughout ages, resembled the function of a jester at the king’s court—nobody takes him seriously, he is ridiculed, even hated; at the same time, however, everyone is aware that he reflects courtly life in a distorted way.

Only lately, and especially after international audiences, as well as major film festivals, have taken notice of recent Estonian films, such as Autumn Ball (Sügisball, 2007) and The Temptations of St. Tony (Püha Tõnu kiusamine, 2009) by Veiko Õunpuu or The Class (Klass, 2007) by Ilmar Raag, has the local public opinion started to shift from its compulsory patronizing stance towards a more appreciative tone. At least in part this change also owes thanks to the increased state funding and the establishment of an infrastructure for distributing these finances through the Estonian Film Foundation and Estonian Cultural Endowment.

Yet while the new and internationally acclaimed works of Estonian filmmakers are responsible for creating the current face of Estonian cinema in today’s film world, they have also managed to raise an obvious curiosity in international audiences towards the less-known facets of Estonian film culture. This special issue is an attempt to cater to this hunger, as well as providing a deeper insight into the recent successes of Estonian cinema, by serving the readers some chapters of Estonian film history, from its early days, throughout the Soviet period and up to the post-socialist 1990s and 2000s, including narrative cinema, documentary filmmaking and animation; “purely” Estonian cinema and international co-productions; issues concerning the production and the reception of films. The editors have attempted to represent the many faces of Estonian cinema also by inviting contributions from both Estonian and non-Estonian film critics and historians. The essays adopt versatile methodological positions, partly reflecting specific interests of their authors and partly the richness of Estonian cinema itself.

Lauri Kärk’s introductory survey of Estonian cinema serves to provide a general historical context, a larger framing narrative to the remaining essays focusing on smaller episodes of the story. The first of these, by Virve Sarapik, concentrates on the pioneering steps of the local film culture, examining the earliest Estonian film writing from the beginning of the 20th century. Eva Näripea’s article investigates a brief, yet truly brilliant chapter of Soviet Estonian filmmaking, namely the works of an avant-garde filmmaker Jaan Tooming from the 1970s. In contrast, the central subject of Andreas Trossek’s contribution, Priit Pärn, is undoubtedly the most widely acclaimed Estonian filmmaker in the world. In his “rhizome-alphabet”, however, Trossek chooses to bring into light the relative “marginality” of Pärn’s position in the Estonian art world, as well as his internationally lesser-known works of graphic art. Mari Laaniste’s comparison of the ways how Estonians and Estonian-ness has been constructed by local filmmakers and by those from abroad reveals the conflicting mechanisms of identity- and image-building processes. Similarly to the previous authors, who have, in one way or another, tackled issues related to border-crossing and international exchange, Ewa Mazierska’s essay analyzes post-socialist Estonian cinema as a transnational phenomenon, arguing that, from the national perspective, the majority of recent productions appear somewhat “neutered”. In a certain regard, a comparable sense of hybridity is also the focus of Mari Laaniste and Leena Torim’s account of one of the recent successes of Estonian cinema, Veiko Õunpuu’s Autumn Ball; the authors concentrate on its portrayal of desolate urban spaces, still lingering between the antagonistic spatiotemporal orders of the Soviet past and the capitalist present. Finally, a mini-section introduces a slightly peculiar episode of our filmic heritage, and an example of multilateral co-operation, spanning from late 1970s to early 1990s—the work of the Polish film director Marek Piestrak. In addition to Ewa Mazierska’s interview with the filmmaker, Eva Näripea offers an analysis of one of his films, The Test of Pilot Pirx, a science fiction film coproduced by the Polish Zespoły Filmowe and the main Estonian studio Tallinnfilm in 1978. The reviews of the final section provide closer insights into some of the most important films from the post-Soviet period, with an exception of Kristiina Davidjants’s report on St. John’s Day, a documentary by Andres Sööt, who undoubtedly belongs to the ranks of most significant auteurs of Estonian documentary cinema.

Eva Näripea (Estonian Academy of Arts / Estonian Literary Museum)
Ewa Mazierska (University of Central Lancashire, UK)
Mari Laaniste (Estonian Literary Museum)

The editors would like to thank Birgit Beumers for creating this forum of discussion, as well as all the contributors for filling the space provided with insightful studies and perceptive reviews, laying thus ground for a wider debate on the past, present and future of Estonian cinema. Our very special thanks go to Andreas Trossek who has provided invaluable help in preparing this issue.

This special issue was edited with the support of the targeted financed research project no. SF0030054s08 Rhetorical Patterns of Mimesis and Estonian Textual Culture, Estonian Science Foundation grant no. ETF7679 Participatory Culture in Cyberspace: Literature and its Borders, Estonian Cultural Endowment.