Post-communist Estonian Cinema as Transnational Cinema

By Ewa Mazierska (University of Central Lancashire, UK)

© Ewa Mazierska, 2010

The reader familiar with Estonian history might be surprised by the title of this article. Why consider transnational rather than national the cinema of a country which—after many years of non-sovereignty—emerged as an independent state? I will defend my position by arguing that my search for the transnational character of Estonian cinema does not preclude conceptualizing it as national too. Indeed, critics point out that films can be national and transnational at the same time (Ezra and Rowden 2006). Such conceptualization largely depends on the cultural perspective of the person who undertakes it, which includes, as Stephen Crofts argues, a very limited knowledge of the immense diversity of world cinemas (Crofts 1993: 60-1). This means that, what for one viewer might be a sign of specific national characteristics, might by another viewer (or the same viewer at a different time) be regarded as pertaining to transnational culture and identity. The perception of the national or transnational character of film is thus a derivative of the native or touristic experience of the researcher. Not being a native Estonian and never having lived in the country, I am thus particularly prone (and, hopefully, justified) to using a transnational approach.

However, I argue that on this occasion transnationalism lies not merely in the eye of the beholder, but also in reality itself. To demonstrate this point, let us begin with the very concept of “transnationalism.” In his article “Conceiving and researching transnationalism,” Steven Vertovec maintains that “transnationalism” refers to multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation-states; he reviews the various ideas pertaining to this term, concerning social formations that span national borders such as ethnic diasporas, and social networks transcending geographical boundaries, facilitated by modern technologies such as the Internet. These networks allow the recreation of national cultures on foreign soil and enable the creation of forms of solidarity and identity that do not depend on the appropriation of space. Another understanding of transnationalism discussed by Vertovec is that of “diaspora consciousness,” marked by dual or multiple identifications and loyalties. Those who possess such consciousness might feel simultaneously “here and there,” connected to their neighbors, but also maintaining strong ties with those living elsewhere. Thirdly, transnationalism can be perceived as a mode of cultural reproduction. In this sense, it is associated within the fluidity of social institutions and everyday practices, which are often described in terms of creolization, bricolage, cultural translation and hybridity. Vertovec quotes Stuart Hall, who observes that the production of hybrid cultural phenomena manifesting “new ethnicities” is to be found especially among transnational youth whose primary socialization has taken place with the cross-currents of differing cultural fields. Among such young people, facets of culture and identity are often self-consciously selected, syncretized and developed from more than one heritage (Vertovec 1999).

Ulf Hannerz (1996) argues that the idea of transnationalism is so widely used today, because the aforementioned phenomena pertain to a large proportion, if not to the majority, of contemporary people. Estonia’s citizens are no different in this respect. They are even in the vanguard of these processes; thanks to their above-average use of the Internet, including in parliamentary elections, and they are regarded as the least religious society in the world. In addition, Estonia lends itself to transnational treatment due to its position as a border state, its smallness in terms of surface area and population, and dependence on international organizations to ensure its sovereignty (Feldman 2000). These factors also explain why Estonia, after regaining independence, did not join the path of extreme nationalism observed in many parts of the former Soviet Union and some countries of the old Soviet bloc. As Gregory Feldman observes:

One might expect that the Soviet collapse would create a situation in which exclusive and chauvinistic nationalism would inflate the virtues of Estonian culture, re-awaken the cultural achievements of the past, and blatantly denigrate national minorities. Instead, the political and cultural shift to the right in the early 1990s was moderated by a series of international and domestic forces that even called into question the validity of such a distinction. To date, this situation has prevented radical nationalism from taking control of the Estonian political and cultural discourse since the international presence has not been entirely resisted. International ties are crucial to ensure that Estonia remains outside the sphere of Russian influence, which dampens appeals to exclusive nationalism and makes attractive other identities that align Estonia with larger political and cultural groups. (Feldman 2000: 413)

Other factors conducive to forging Estonia’s transnational identity are the layers of influence of different historical traditions which has been resisted, yet traditions have also played against each other, absorbed and reshaped by Estonian society (see Feldman 2000; Tamm 2008). The most potent symbol of this absorption is Tallinn’s Old Town, the oldest part of Estonia’s capital city, surrounded by a four-kilometer-long limestone Town Wall. As Eva Näripea observes, the Old Town has “always been an attractive source of imagery for visual media, especially so, of course, in connection with, but also in opposition to, the rise and development of modern tourism practices. […] it has also been the place for negotiations between conflicting ideologies and (national) identities, and an important arena for (re)presentations of power, resistance, and adaptation.” (Näripea 2009: 108); it is also an important arena for creating and testing post-national identities.

A large proportion of Estonian films made after the demise of the Soviet Union invite us to see Estonia and its inhabitants as nationally and culturally “impure,” absorbing various influences, indulging in hybrid styles and identifying themselves through other types of loyalties than those resulting from a shared national heritage, or simply not displaying any national characteristics, being somewhat “neutered.” These films also testify to their transnationalism, as they employ what can be described as “postmodern style,” marked—among other features— by extensive use of quotation and affinity to stylization. Equally, they do not address exclusively Estonian viewers, but international audiences as well, which is testified by a strong presence of Estonian films at European film festivals and the fact that they are routinely subtitled in English.

Paradoxically, Estonia’s leaning towards transnational cinema (or at least its opposition to nationalistic cinema) was expressed by Estonian critics and filmmakers in the context of the greatest box office success in post-communist Estonia, Names in Marble (Nimed marmortahvlil, 2002), directed by Elmo Nüganen, which is a patriotic “heritage movie,” opposing many of the trends described above. While critics and filmmakers alike recognized the extraordinary success of Nüganen’s film, they also pointed out that it is an exception in Estonian cinema. For example, the critic Jan Kaus said: “Estonian hits have treated various national characteristics through irony, through a sort of eradicating prism. ‘Names in Marble’ was probably the first film to treat patriotism sincerely and in a positive light. Elsewhere, mockery and anarchy prevail” (Kaus 2003). The scriptwriter and director Andres Maimik added: “Direct emphasis on nationalist sentiments is indeed, in my opinion, a bit old-fashioned; national identity is not a special sign for me. I thought that the sweeping nationalist sentiments of the late 1980s and early 1990s were well over, but the unexpected success of ‘Names in Marble’ proves otherwise. This film, relying on the structure of myth and fairy tale, was a hit. However, I do not think that other Estonian films will enjoy any greater success because of this one ‘mass film.’ The interest in films remains modest, and this prevents the emergence of a more pretentious ‘mass film’” (Kaus 2003). Judging by the entire post-communist film production in Estonia, including Elmo Nüganen’s new film, Mindless (Meeletu, 2006), the assessment offered by Kaus and Maimik is correct. Films celebrating nationalism are made in Estonia, but transnationalism prevails.

In the remaining part of this essay I will consider two aspects of transnationalism in Estonian films. Firstly, the representation of Estonia and Estonians as culturally in-between, at the cross-roads, typically situated between East and West; this section focuses on films set in the past. The second part concerns films set in the present, where I argue that the stories they tell come across as universal, rather than country-specific. In each section I shall discuss three films, which should allow me to illustrate a specific trend, but avoid boring the reader with repetition of similar examples and arguments.

Between East and West

malevThe foreign element that Estonian directors most frequently recognize and criticize in their culture is Russian or Soviet. Almost half of Estonian films made after the fall of communism overtly or covertly deal with the country’s Russian or Soviet past. Among them are the most renowned and popular films from this period, such as Men at Arms (Malev, 2005), directed by Kaaren Kaer, All My Lenins (Minu Leninid, 1997), directed by Hardi Volmer and Revolution of Pigs (Sigade revolutsioon, 2004), directed by Jaak Kilmi and René Reinumägi, which I will discuss in this section; other examples are Autumn Ball (Sügisball, directed by Veiko Õunpuu, 2007), or the previously mentioned Names in Marble. At the same time, these films do not simply depict the Russian and Soviet colonization of Estonia, but simultaneous attempts from the West to conquer the country, or Estonian resistance to Russian/Soviet pressure by appropriating elements of Western culture, or balancing the pressures from East and West in a bid to forge a distinct national identity.

A symptomatic example of this trend is Men at Arms. Set at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the film refers to the Livonian Crusade: the German and Danish conquest designed to colonize and christianize the territories of modern Latvia and Estonia, and to the resistance of the colonizing forces by Estonians under Lembitu of Lehola, the chieftain of Sakala county. This regional, and later national, leader managed to assemble an army of 6,000 men, but was eventually defeated and killed by the invaders, which led to centuries of Estonia’s subjugation to Teutonic rule. The foreign oppression was punctured by Estonia’s attempts to regain independence, ultimately achieved in 1991. This narrative, conforming to the well-known template “The Great Battle for Freedom,” is—as Marek Tamm observes—the prevailing version of Estonian history first created and popularized in the 1930s (Tamm 2008: 505). Yet this narrative is not a true description of what happened since the days of “ancient freedom,” but only a dominant discourse on Estonian history perpetuated by national celebrations and monuments (Tamm 2008: 505). Accordingly, it can be contested by telling different or older stories in a new way. Such a re-interpretation of history can be found in Men at Arms. In its spirit to unmask and subvert the dominant version of history, it bears resemblance to some British films, especially Monty Python and Carry On productions, where what nationalistic historians regard as “foreign oppression” is presented as a way to civilize the colonized people, who are lagging behind their more culturally advanced “oppressors.” A seminal example of this approach is the representation of Jews under Roman rule in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), directed by Terry Jones. What is construed as “The Great Battle for Freedom” turns out to be a more problematic struggle, whose participants often act against their vital interests and do not understand the meaning of their actions. Moreover, this Battle is accompanied by smaller battles, such as in-fighting, which complicate the History taught at schools.

In line with this subversive tradition, in Men at Arms Kaaren Kaer attempts to replace the Estonian “grand narrative” by a series of overlapping and conflicting “mini-narratives,” which subvert its simplicity and question its nationalistic character. National stereotypes are exaggerated in order to undermine each nation represented and, in a wider sense, to make fun of nationalistic virtues such as courage, honor and the will to defend one’s country at any price. The Germans are thus ruthless, aggressive and blood-thirsty. This image conforms to the dominant representation of the Teutonic crusaders immortalized, for example, in the work of the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, The Teutonic Knights (Krzyżacy, 1900), which was also adapted for screen by Aleksander Ford in 1960. Even more so, this portrayal recycles the image of Nazis in films about World War II. In this way, Kaer not only ridicules the official version of Estonian history, dominated by “The Great Battle for Freedom,” but also pokes fun at the custom of projecting backwards contemporary representations of nations.

In a rather stereotypical manner, Estonians are presented in Men at Arms as simple, peace-loving peasants. This simplicity, however, amounts to utter backwardness, stupidity and the inability to foresee any danger, as Uru, the film's protagonist, discovers upon returning to Estonia from Germany, where he was brought up as a Christian by a French monk. Thus we can deduce that the Estonian nation is not only at risk of being colonized, but needs to be colonized to avoid perishing entirely in the modern age.

malevRather than focusing on the German-Estonian conflict, Kaer complicates the historical scene by representing the period of the crusade as a time of competition of different nations and ethnic groups for European as well as regional and national domination. Apart from the Germans, who want to colonize Estonia because of their ambition to be the leaders of Europe, there are also the French with an insatiable appetite for tasty Estonian frogs, and even Mongolians, revealing their Drang nach Westen without knowing where the West is. There is also talk of Russians who are all too willing to help their neighbors to free themselves from the clutches of foreign invaders but, of course, at the price of being involved in their future affairs. Estonia itself is not a passive victim of these colonizing attempts but has ambitions of its own to be a leader of the Baltic region. Moreover, Estonians are here not a homogenous nation, but a collection of different ethnic groups, each speaking a different dialect and enjoying its own way of life. It is worth adding that this was the case with most peoples which later created specific European nations, such as German, Russian or French. Hence, at the time when Men at Arms is set, these people did not have any natural “national identity;” it had to be inculcated and, paradoxically but inevitably, this role was taken by people like Uru, who were half-foreign and outsiders.

The mosaic of competing interests presented by Kaer brings to mind the conflicts within the European Community, which Estonia joined at about the time Men at Arms was produced. The parallel between old and new times is made explicit in the film, when one of the characters says “This is like the European Union.” Uru himself can be regarded as a man who understands the intricacies of political operations in a globalised world and attempts to exploit them to the advantage of his small country. He is particularly aware that Estonia cannot win on its own terms and be entirely sovereign. Its only way to succeed is, as Feldman argues in relation to contemporary Estonia, by tempering its nationalistic ambitions and balancing various external pressures (Feldman 2000).

Uru can also serve as a metaphor for a post-Soviet Estonian: he hates the foreigners who tried to bring him up as a Christian, not least because he saw all too well the gap between noble Christian ideals and the selfish and cruel behavior of the Church luminaries. Upon returning to Estonia, he discovers that he cannot free himself from the teaching of his oppressors; it has become an integral part of his identity, as conveyed by his distaste for the “first night” rule, which proclaims that every new bride has to be deflowered by the village elder before having sex with her own husband. Like Uru, after gaining independence, Estonian society realized that the Soviet legacy cannot be shed overnight, perhaps never, not least because Estonians still live in housing estates built during the Soviet era, rely on trade with the countries of the former Soviet Union and have Russian neighbors. Destroying this past would be tantamount to destroying part of their own identity.

malevThe subversive take on Estonian history conveyed by the narrative of Men at Arms is augmented by its style. The narrative is fragmented, with gaps and abrupt shifts in time and space, which makes the understanding of events difficult, especially for the foreigner unfamiliar with Estonian history. The depiction of battles diverges from the dominant representation of military scenes offered, for example, in Ford’s The Teutonic Knights or Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938). The battles come across as confusing affairs, whose participants have no clue about the military might of their opponents, the direction of their actions, or even the purpose of the fighting. Moreover, Men at Arms, not unlike in Monty Python films or Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), includes animated inserts, which provide a summary of the history of medieval Estonia. In these inserts, cut-out people walk on a map of Europe, which conveys the arbitrariness of political decisions involving nations and ethnic groups, and the insignificance of individuals vis-à-vis the forces of history. These inserts also point to the arbitrary character of history, or at least modern versions of history, still dominating school curricula in Europe, where individuals are represented as marionettes set in motion by forces much greater than themselves. By juxtaposing live action with animation, Kaer ultimately draws attention to the gap between official history and the actual past.

Set seven centuries after Men at Arms, All My Lenins also adheres to a vision of Estonia as a country which is too weak to gain independence on its own terms, and can only do so by exploiting conflicts between its neighbors, on this occasion Germany and Russia, fighting on opposite sides during the First World War. Moreover, the man who has a plan for Estonia’s sovereignty, Aleksander Kesküla (1882-1963), like Uru in Men at Arms, is a cosmopolitan, a “transnational” Estonian. We meet him for the first time when he lives in Bern, has wide international connections and is even married to a Swiss woman. His cosmopolitanism, however, does not make him any less of a patriot, at least not in his own eyes. On the contrary, he believes that in order to serve his country best, he has to stay abroad and make international contacts. Kesküla’s plan is to convince the Germans to invest in the Bolshevik movement or, more precisely, in Lenin, whom he regards as a guarantor of Russia’s peace with Germany and, ultimately, of an independent Estonia. For this reason, he wants to find Lenin’s Doppelgänger, so that his plan does not collapse in case of the real Lenin’s death.

In his desire to resurrect an independent Estonia, or even create the great Estonia on the remnants of the Tsarist empire, Kesküla comes across as a nationalist. For him, having one’s own country is a natural aspiration; he believes that if one’s language is Estonian, one should be entitled to live in Estonia. Moreover, he correctly predicts that the Great War would lead to the dismantling of the old European empires, such as the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, and the creation of nation states on their ruins. However, his nationalistic stance is counterpointed in the film by an anti-nationalistic discourse which is, meaningfully, not embodied by the Bolsheviks, but by an American, whom Aleksander meets in Bern. This man uses the language we associate today with the European Union, saying that “new states mean new borders and border controls,” which are not good for the global circulation of goods.

The continuous changes of the setting, following the numerous trips undertaken by Lenin and Kesküla, create the sense that Aleksander is everywhere and nowhere. He drifts between the East and the West, without stopping anywhere for a longer period of time. Even in his beloved Estonia he stays only for a short while. Estonia for him is, in fact, an imagined land and an imagined community, not a living experience—to use the phrase coined by Benedict Anderson (1991). Moreover, he conforms to the image of a modern nationalist, as discussed by Anderson, because his emotional closeness to Estonia is encapsulated in his continuous interest in and engagement with the news from his country reaching the rest of Europe, chiefly circulated by the press.

leninsLenin, like Kesküla, believes that he is important for his country’s future because he has an external perspective on its affairs and shapes his ideas through contact with foreign views. However, the long stays abroad leave such a mark on him that he becomes a Westerner rather than an ordinary Russian. As if to confirm this view, both Lenin’s and Kesküla’s roles in their countries’ affairs are challenged, and eventually they are stripped of their claim on Russian and Estonian nationality. Lenin becomes dislodged as leader of the Bolsheviks by a group of his well-trained Doppelgänger, who are more Lenin-like than Lenin himself. Similarly, it turns out that for Estonia Kesküla is not a true Estonian either: his pro-Estonian conspiracy not only fails to attract the appreciation of the fellow Estonians, but he is considered a German spy. As the closing titles inform us, Kesküla never returned to his native land, but died in exile in Spain.

Is Kesküla’s story thus proof that one can be a true Estonian while living in exile or, on the contrary, becoming an emigrant or exile equals losing one’s link with one’s country? In my opinion, Volmer’s film points in both directions, suggesting that one can feel emotionally close to one’s fatherland while living abroad, but also that this sense of closeness is based on shaky assumptions, which might not survive the test of reality.

Kesküla’s continuous movement between East and West, and the fact that the film is made from the perspective of somebody who knows what the future holds (for example, at one point, it is suggested that the idealistic Lenin will be replaced by Stalin, who is an ordinary criminal), is reflected in the film’s visual style, which juxtaposes cinematic traditions pertaining to different epochs and countries. Part of the film has a contemporary look, at other times it resembles a collection of old postcards or photographs. Moreover, All My Lenins shows different stylistic influences, such as German expressionism, Russian formalism and Socialist Realism, epitomized by Chapaev (G. and S. Vasil’ev, 1934). In the part of the film set in the West we see, for example, a preponderance of staircases and shadows. The various European towns look very similar to each other, which brings to mind the Soviet practice of using Tallinn’s Old Town as a location for films set in the West (Näripea 2004: 135-6; Näripea 2009). Hence, while Kesküla travels from one capital to another, a viewer familiar with the uses of Tallinn’s Old Town gets the sense that, in fact, he did not venture very far.

pigsRevolution of Pigs is justly regarded as one of the best movies made in post-communist Estonia, as demonstrated by the Special Jury Prize at the Moscow Film Festival in 2004 and the glowing reviews it received. The film is set in 1986, at a summer youth camp, celebrating the 46th anniversary of Estonia’s joining the Soviet Union. This is also the time of the Afghan war, which led to the mobilization of young men across the Soviet Union. The camp leaders are Estonian veterans of communist movements, as well as people who joined political organizations to advance their careers. They encourage the participants to work and play together in order to build a better, more developed society under Soviet leadership. The highly ideological character of the camp is reflected in the posters of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and of ordinary men and women painted in Socialist Realist style; in the red banners and red shirts worn by the participants; in the music played during the opening ceremony; and in the semi-military character of the official activities of the campers. Yet, the youngsters treat these signs merely as a façade, behind which they can follow their own agenda and indulge in their own culture. This perfectly fits the description of “transnational culture” as discussed above, because it is marked by cultural translation and hybridity. We shall also add the concept of “self-colonization,” as the young Estonians happily adopt elements of Western or, more specifically, Anglo-Saxon culture in the form of fashion, music and lifestyle, including ostentatious promiscuity, hedonism, individualism, pacifism and rebelliousness. Cultivating and developing the imagined links with the West even appears to be their main strategy to resist the pressure from the East. The idea that Estonians fought Soviet colonization by acting as if they were Westerners is confirmed in a different context by Eva Näripea who writes, “precisely this aspect of Western-ness [of Estonian culture] proved to be a way of undermining the system from within… It is worth emphasising that the three Baltic republics were commonly referred to as the ‘Soviet West,’ which, in turn, also obviously reflected in their self-image” (Näripea 2009: 113). In Revolution of Pigs, these links with the West are very rich and versatile, as suggested by the various styles of music and dance during the evening party, which include disco, punk and break dance. There are very few Western films which can compete with Revolution of Pigs in its ability to evoke the specificity of Western popular culture of the 1980s.

pigsThe self-colonization seen in this film represents, in a more general sense, a way of dealing with seclusion and forced separation from the surrounding world, as Petra Hanáková argues in relation to the situation in Czechoslovakia during the 1970s; it helps remain culturally self-sufficient (Hanáková 2008: 118-9). Of course, in the adoption of Western lifestyles Estonians were not alone in the Eastern bloc in the 1980s. Virtually throughout the entire region the West constituted the cultural norm, at least for young people. Yet in each country Westernization took a different shape. What is interesting about the situation depicted in Revolution of Pigs is that the pressure of Soviet culture from one side, and Western pop culture from the other, leaves the young people little space to develop a distinctive Estonian culture. Hence, when their unofficial leader addresses Ronald Reagan in an open letter,[1] writing on behalf of the campers and, by extension, of all Estonian youths and demanding to “have the right to be different” and “maintain our culture and traditions and stay Estonians now and forever,” it is difficult to say what this means—apart from using the Estonian language. However, this in itself was a significant achievement, taking into account the small size of Estonian population and the colonial policies of the Soviet rulers. As Tim Unwin observes, “being Estonian was itself a way of opposing Soviet rule” (Unwin 1999: 165).

The lack of emphasis on Estonian culture, or what an outsider would identify as such, suggests that the film is made by an insider who takes his culture for granted. Like Estonian culture, the landscape is inconspicuous: there is nothing unique about the place where the teenagers find themselves. However, avoiding picture-postcard views can be seen as a way to show Estonia as experienced by Estonians, because natives in their ordinary practices rarely ponder on the beauty of their surroundings; they take them for granted. The deliberate playing down of the distinctiveness of Estonian culture and the country’s landscape must be seen in the context of earlier cinematic representations of Estonia, especially by Soviet directors in Socialist Realist manner, in films such as Light in Koordi (Valgus Koordis, 1951) and Andrus Finds Happiness (Andruse õnn, 1955), directed by Herbert Rappaport. In these films, elements of Estonian folklore were torn away from their natural context and displayed on screen as if in some kind of preserve; in a similar vein, the rural spaces were carefully chosen and beautified, as if to be displayed for tourist consumption (Näripea 2008: 198-200). Kilmi and Reinumägi’s opposition to this tradition of depicting the Estonian countryside is also conveyed by foregrounding the negative effects of human intervention in the landscape epitomized by the pile of dead and rotting pigs from a nearby collective farm, which the campers find on their walk.

pigsThe gap between official (Soviet) and unofficial (Western) culture of the youth camp is underscored by different camera positions and movements, as well as codes of lighting and color. During official ceremonies the campers are shot from a low angle, which creates the effect of monumentalism. This effect is strengthened by the fact that during these ceremonies young people are static, typically standing and waiting for speeches to be delivered by their aged leaders. The panning shots then show rows of young people gathered in one place, standing close to each other while lacking any real contact, which contrasts with the rhetoric of togetherness that informs the official ethos of youth brigades. The communist ceremonies take place during the day, as the teenagers can be contained only in daylight. By contrast, at night, when they are not supervised, the camera is on the same level with their eyes, making them all equal. In such scenes, typically during play, we also get a sense of continuous, often frantic movement, which cannot be controlled or limited. The dichotomy—static Soviet versus shifting Western—culture can be regarded as a clue why Soviet culture was eventually defeated in its struggle for world hegemony: it did not want, or was unable, to change.

The cross-cultural character of Revolution of Pigs was captured by foreign reviewers who linked it to examples from their own culture. Leslie Felperin wrote: “Estonia’s rousing Revolution of Pigs is an unlikely but surprisingly successful cross between Ivan Reitman’s Meatballs and Lindsay Anderson’s If....” (Felperin 2004); one could add here Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), the Polish film Recipe for Life (Jak żyć, dir. Marcel Łoziński, 1981) and, most importantly, Is It Easy to Be Young (Vai viegli būt jaunam?, 1986) by Latvian director Juris Podnieks. Podnieks’ documentary is concurrent with the action of Kilmi and Reinumägi’s film and practically deals with the same issues, such as the war in Afghanistan, Soviet authoritarianism and the use of Western popular culture (punk, break dance, Hare Krishna) as a form of resisting Soviet cultural and political pressure. Revolution of Pigs can be even seen as a tribute to the work of Kilmi and Reinumägi’s Latvian “cousin,” who died at the age of 42. However, the fact that similar films were made almost twenty years apart suggests that the problems did not disappear, marking not only history, but also the present.

In Search of Universal Meanings

The second trend in Estonian post-communist films I describe as “universalism.” In films of this category the national background of the characters is insignificant, and their decisions are motivated by values which are transcultural and can broadly be described as modern, or even postmodern. This trend is reflected especially in love/romantic stories, which constitute more than half of Estonian films set in the present. Or, to put it differently, the fact that such a large proportion of new Estonian films are love stories, thus focused on private lives, already testifies to their universal character. Unlike films set in the past, whose main characters are always male, their protagonists are typically women. These women act, rather than simply look, resisting the legacy of patriarchal culture (which typically constitutes the background to their stories) and exhibiting a determination to shape their own lives. The women often act because men are unable or unwilling to act, somewhat thwarted or unprepared for the obstacles and challenges of post-communism and post-modernity. Metaphorically speaking, while the Estonian past was male, the Estonian present and future appear female in their screen depiction.

highwayA film that illustrates this tendency well is The Highway Crossing (Ristumine peateega, 1999), adapted for screen by Arko Okk from Jaan Tättes's play of the same title. Described by an IMDb user as Indecent Proposal, only a thousand times better, it concerns a young couple, Roland and Laura, who after many hours of hitchhiking and being soaked by the rain, seek shelter in an isolated and dilapidated house, owned by a man named Osvald, who initially comes across as unfriendly eccentric. Upon finding out about the couple’s predicament, he agrees for Laura, but not Roland, to stay in his house; surprisingly, the couple accept his offer without disputing their host’s motives. The next morning Osvald, in Laura’s absence, suggests to Roland that he should break all ties with Laura and treat her as a total stranger in exchange for a magic sum of a billion dollars which Osvald apparently got from a golden fish. Roland agrees, as does Laura, who regards this sum as a passport to eternal happiness. Later Roland changes his mind and tries to dissuade Laura from sacrificing their love for money, but she wants Roland to accept the deal. The wager, however, is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, most likely a member of the Russian mafia, who announces that the money hidden in the boxes does not belong to Osvald and demands its return.

As the description suggests, the universal nature of Okk’s film is conveyed by its very story, which is a modern re-working of the popular fairy tale about the fisherman and the golden fish who grants him three wishes. Okk, however, does not attempt to “Estonicize” this fairy tale, but leaves it as bare as possible. The film is set in the countryside, in a forest and by a lake; but like in Revolution of Pigs, the landscape looks indistinct: it could be Russian, German, Danish, or Estonian. The director also deliberately withholds information about the background of his characters: we do not know where they started their journey or where they are heading; we only learn that Osvald worked as a sign-painter, who relocated to the countryside, most likely because he got bored with the buzz of the city life. Laura introduces herself as a housewife who earns extra money by doing translations and Roland works in a large advertising firm. The occupations of these people point to their transnational character: in their work they metaphorically have to cross national borders.

Laura’s and Roland’s values and aspirations are by no means specific to any geopolitical formation, but typical for the postmodern age that is, by and large, of a material nature. They perfectly, in an almost caricatured way, suit Irving Howe’s idea of “mass society,” where man becomes a consumer, himself mass-produced like the products he absorbs. They show that they belong to this formation when they define themselves by their possessions and their talk about money even before entering Osvald’s house. Another sign of their identification with postmodern society is their obsession with images, as opposed to “reality,” which brings to mind Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra (see Baudrillard 1983; Denzin 1991). Osvald shows Laura a magazine with her photograph in a seductive pose, at the beach, apparently taken without her knowledge. He claims that he fell in love with her image, and to possess her became his greatest dream. Laura is enchanted by her own photograph; she wants to be the woman from the magazine. Moreover, Laura is a favorite name used by authors of noir and neo-noir films; the eponymous character in Otto Preminger’s film made in 1944, and the murdered young woman in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) were both Lauras. In all these films, images of women haunted men; the women functioned merely as images, overshadowing their real existence. Another significant name is that of Laura’s companion Roland, which was a favorite name of medieval minstrels: the name alludes to the fairy tale structure of Okk’s film.

highwayHowever, references to film noir and fairy tales underscore the difference rather than the similarity between the characters of The Highway Crossing and protagonists of these genres. Laura rejects the role of a passive princess, a trophy, for which the knights have to fight; she attempts to take control of their exchange by asking Roland to remove himself, at least temporarily, from her life, trying to manipulate Osvald. Unsentimental and ruthless, she comes across as a much stronger person than her two “un-knightly knights,” and only loses when the mafia’s messenger appears on the scene, thus making a point about the elusiveness of money in post-communist times. But even then she proves to be more determined than her male companions.

While thematically The Highway Crossing is a relative of the film noir, stylistically it resembles Dogme 95 films due its extensive use of a hand-held camera, a simple plot, a small number of characters, and temporal and spatial limitations. Okk apparently attempted to repeat the success of his Scandinavian “cousins” by making a low-budget modern morality tale, understandable practically everywhere. He partially succeeded: The Highway Crossing proved one of the most successful Estonian films (see “The highway crossing of Estonian film”), although internationally it could not compete with films such as The Idiots (Idioterne, dir. Lars von Trier, 1998) or The Celebration (Festen, dir. Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), partly due to its limited international exposure and partly because the story comes across as more contrived and the characters lack the psychological depth of Dogme films. Thus, paradoxically, universalism on this occasion is a factor in the film’s inability to reach transnational audiences.

Like The Highway Crossing, Set Point (Täna öösel me ei maga, 2004), directed by Ilmar Taska, takes issue with the consumerism of contemporary Estonians and the chance for women to direct their own lives. Two female characters are initially represented as victims of male hedonism and promiscuity. Evelin is the wife of a rogue cop, Harri, who wants to get rid of her, hiring a gang of henchmen; Alis is the pretty girlfriend of a rich bully, who uses his power to control and humiliate her. These two women meet in a café in Tallinn’s Old Town, where Alis is waiting for her boyfriend and Evelin recuperates after a row with Harri. When Alis’s boyfriend arrives, chastising the skinny beauty for eating a cake, Evelin reacts: she kills him outside the café, but the murder is attributed to the henchmen, who arrive that very moment in order to kill Evelin.

setpointThe killing becomes a liberating experience for both women. Alis ceases to be a “kept woman” and befriends Kristofer, a teenage boy who was a witness to her boyfriend’s death. Evelin not only prevents her husband from killing her, but confronts his behavior. Each of the women turns out to be different from the way men perceive them; both refuse to be a commodity or a support for a narcissistic male ego. Both, in a sense, prove to be “modern women,” if not liberated economically, then at least psychologically.

As with the protagonists of The Highway Crossing, we do not learn much about the characters’ history; they remain sketchy and mysterious. The fact that they belong to Estonian society is unimportant. They enter into conflicts with each other or forge alliances irrespective of their national background. What matters is their compassion and solidarity, observed especially between the two women, as they ultimately refuse to live according to the script role written for them by their men.

However, extra-diegetic context sheds light on their identities, or at least encourages us to inscribe our knowledge about the actors onto the characters they play. Alis is played by Carmen Kass, a supermodel of Estonian origin. Kass is “transnational identity” incarnate; she proved successful internationally, but also remained an Estonian patriot and unofficial ambassador of her country. As an ultra-thin model, Kass also signifies the danger of the capitalist commodification of women, but also, thanks to being a successful businesswoman (she owns her own modeling agency), she represents women’s successful resistance to this danger. Maria Avdjuško, who plays Evelin, also connotes a transnational or at least “impure” identity, as she is the daughter of a Russian actor father, the well-known Viktor Avdyushko. Peter Franzén, who plays Harri, is a Finn who played in a large number of popular Finnish films and television series, but also appeared in Names on Marble, the most commercially successful Estonian film of the post-1991 period. Similarly, father and son Ilmar and Kristjan Taska, who directed, scripted and produced Set Point, are Estonians who lived a large part of their lives abroad, working in the film industries of Italy and the United States. Set Point was even perceived as an attempt of expatriate Estonians to show their “brothers” how to make a “professional” film. Finally, Priit Võigemast, who plays Kristofer, a young and sensitive man, who facilitates connections between the other characters and attempts to understand them, is a true Estonian. Together, the creators of Set Point embody the most important identity narratives which circulate in post-communist Estonia, from European, Finno-Ugric, Nordic to a “reconstituted state and society” (Feldman 2000: 413-8). Perhaps these sometimes conflicting narratives will lead to a more cohesive identity or make way for new narratives. Whatever the outcome, at the time the film was made, its cast and crew excellently reflected the melting pot that constitutes Estonian society.

setpointStylistically, Set Point comes across as an amalgam of some recent postmodern films. The mixture of thriller and melodrama, and the narrative structure with two stories running in parallel but crossing each other, the focus on women and the preoccupation with shiny surfaces and meaningful details, often presented in close-ups, recall the French “cinema deluxe” of the 1980s, epitomized by Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981) (see Powrie 1997: 109-20). The style of editing, with repeated flashbacks of scenes that happened only recently, the slowed-down motion, the focus on material objects, and the use of voice-over brings to mind the films of Wong Kar-Wai, such as Fallen Angels(Duo luo tian shi, 1995) and In the Mood for Love(Fa yeung nin wa, 2000). Both Diva and Wong Kar-Wai’s films also deal with the renegotiation of identity in countries which comprise citizens of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as is also the case in Taska’s film. Some of the stylistic devices, such as representing multiple versions of the same events, illustrate that the characters’ identities are not fixed.

The most distinctive visual element of Set Point is Tallinn’s Old Town, where most of the narrative is set. It comes across as a universal, gothic city, with endless cobblestone streets, historical buildings, although their history is never brought to the attention of characters or viewers. The way the Old Town is represented repeats, to some extent, the old Soviet views of this part of Tallinn, for example, clearing the streets of “ordinary people” and de-historicizing it (see Näripea 2009: 111). However, it also offers a new vision of the Old Town, showing it as a trap, an oneiric labyrinth from which the characters cannot escape. This effect is largely achieved by setting the film at night and amplifying the noises of women’s high heels on the cobblestones. The extensive use of the Old Town helps to render Set Point both as a universal and distinctive film.

Finally, The Scoundrel (Lurjus, 1999), directed by Valentin Kuik, is a somewhat different film, because it is not based on an original script, but adapted from a short story by Vladimir Nabokov entitled “The Scoundrel”, or “An Affair of Honor” (Podlets). Nabokov’s story is set in Berlin in 1926-7, among Russian emigrants who settled there after the Bolshevik revolution. Its protagonist is Anton Petrovich who, after finding that his wife has an affair with a man called Berg, challenges the latter to a duel. However, being a coward, Anton Petrovich fails to show up for the duel, seeking refuge in a hotel and imagining that his opponent flinched too, allowing him to save his face and return home without feeling ashamed.

As with so many other works by Nabokov, after establishing the precise time and place of action, the author does not bother with detailed historical background. This sketchiness allows the filmmaker to fill the background with details of his/her choice or even transport Nabokov’s stories to different places and times. Kuik realized this quality and explained his choice of literary source thus: “Nabokov’s stories are easy to adapt to Estonian circumstances; his stories, including The Scoundrel, could be set anywhere. The Scoundrel was concise and dense, the conflict and moral stance were universal’ (Kuik, quoted in Tuumalu 2005). Needless to say, Kuik’s words not only shed light on his approach to Nabokov’s original, but confirm that Estonian filmmakers in the post-communist period consciously attempt to furnish their works with universal meaning.

lurjusKuik preserved the basic plot of “An Affair of Honor,” but transposed it to Tallinn of the late 1990s, changing the Russian-sounding Anton Petrovich into the more international Henrik. At the time, Estonia was still a new and troubled democracy and in this sense bore a close link with the Weimar Republic, when Nabokov’s story is set. In other respects, moving the Nabokov story to post-Soviet Estonia was risky, because duels are highly infrequent in the present. If duels were regarded as anachronistic in 1920s Berlin, they are even more so in Estonia at the end of the twentieth century. The director, however, chose a man who decides to solve his romantic problems in such a dramatic way to illuminate the discordance between him and his environment; this discordance is the main subject of his film. Henrik’s insights are balanced with those of his wife, Evelin; unlike Anton Petrovich’s wife, who does not have a voice of her own and is only spoken about in derogatory terms by other characters in Nabokov’s story, Evelin is as important in The Scoundrel as Henrik.

The disharmony suffered by Henrik concerns several aspects of his existence. He feels out of place in his job as a clerk, working in the newly established Estonian Pensions Department (shot on location in the real Pensions Department in Tallinn). He is awkward with his more successful old school pal, Berg, whom he meets in a club, and has little in common with his old mates and relatives, who nostalgically gaze into the Soviet past and whom he asks to be the seconds in his duel with Berg. Henrik’s sense of displacement is revealed by the fact that he drives an old Soviet car and that he and Evelin live in Lasnamäe, a Soviet residential district consisting of high-rise blocks of flats built during the 1980s, which became synonymous with Soviet backwardness and neglect (see Näripea 2003). It is also reflected by the state of his apartment, which looks as if undergoing renovation, with walls covered with newspapers; in reality, nobody is decorating it. The half-done-ness of the apartment speaks of Henrik’s inability to get rid of the past and to keep up with the changes of time, to adapt to new social and economical conditions. It also shows that Henrik and Evelin do not have enough money to finish the renovation.

Henrik’s life is also disharmonious because he lives in the city, but yearns for life in the countryside, close to nature, as is evident from his gesture of smelling the earth, which reflects also his desire to be a true Estonian: the countryside played crucial role in preserving Estonian identity during the Soviet rule and rural identity was an important factor in forging Estonian national identity post-1991 (Unwin 1999).

Contrary to the tradition of equating the female element with nature and the country, women in The Scoundrel (Evelin, Henrik’s boss, and Evelin’s sister) belong firmly to the urban world. Yet paradoxically, in rejecting nature, Kuik’s women come across as more natural than the men, because they do not need any extraneous elements to complete or enrich their identity, instead accepting the way they are. They might live in an artificial environment, but they here feel secure. By contrast, the men’s obsessive insistence on the need to obey traditions, blackmailing each other into sticking to the old rules and even faking their link with the noble past (like that of Henrik’s second who pretends that his ancestor was a Russian prince) suggests that they are uncomfortable and insecure in their own world.

Kuik constructs Evelin as a loving wife who, nevertheless, becomes frustrated by her husband’s behavior, marked by his lack of attentiveness to her erotic and psychological needs. Therefore, during her husband’s trip to Germany, she surrenders to Berg’s charms, who is only too willing to take advantage of Henrik’s absence. Henrik discovers her unfaithfulness upon returning earlier from the trip, and he challenges Berg to a duel. Between his preparations for the duel, the cuckolded man imagines this event. On the first occasion, instead of shooting at Berg, he shoots himself in the head. Subsequently, Henrik imagines killing Evelin who, in her attempt to save Berg, covers the latter with her own body, leaving Henrik devastated. The fact that Berg is missing from these duels points to the importance of Evelin in Henrik’s “affair of honor.” His duel, unlike that depicted by Nabokov, is more about the relationship between husband and wife than about the man with whom the wife had an affair. Such a representation conforms to the way we think today about extra-marital affairs, namely as a problem between the married couple, not between the lover and the cuckold.

Henrik, like his literary predecessor, fails to take part in the “affair of honor,” although it is not clear how he avoids the duel. Unlike Nabokov, who scrutinizes Anton Petrovich’s “desertion,” thus illuminating his weakness and lack of dignity, Kuik leaves the circumstances of Henrik’s escape blurred, sparing us any details of his protagonist’s cowardice. We only see how Henrik finds himself on the streets of Tallinn, drunken and confused, after his journey in the car driven by one of his seconds to the site of the duel, or the series of imaginary duels. His walk through nocturnal Tallinn not only comes across as a more dignified reaction to his failure to defend his honor than Anton Petrovich’s stuffing himself with food in a hotel, but suggests that life (understood as moral, as opposed to only biological activity), did not end with the aborted duel, because it was only one of his many attempts to create himself. We expect that he will keep wandering and looking for new directions.

After his nocturnal peregrination, Henrik returns home and learns from his seconds that his honor was saved, because Berg did not attend the duel. Unlike in the case of Anton Petrovich, who only imagines that his affair of honor finished honorably for him, Kuik’s humble clerk was truly lucky. In the last scene Henrik meets Evelin, who also returns to their apartment and puts her hand on his arm. It is impossible to say whether this tender gesture takes place in reality or is only imagined by Henrik, but a realistic reading of this scene is plausible. The Scoundrel thus ends on a more optimistic note than Nabokov’s short story. Moreover, its optimism does not result so much from the fact that Henrik saved his honor, but from a couple overcoming marital problems.

Like Set Point, The Scoundrel has a somewhat unrealistic, dreamy atmosphere, which is the result of the extensive use of dream sequences as well as episodes with an unclear ontological status and unexpected shifts between locations and planes of actions. Kuik’s method consists of showing things rather than explaining them, which might at first confuse the audience, but repeated viewing pays dividend.

lurjusTo an even larger extent than in Set Point, Tallinn here comes across as a “neutered” city, without any landmarks or, indeed, distinct objects. The director foregrounds places that mark the transitory and mediated character of contemporary Estonians, such as a petrol station, a bus stop, a telephone box and wide, empty streets. The fact that most of the outdoor scenes are set at night adds to the difficulty in constructing a coherent space from the locations. In the exterior scenes very little color is used, although hues of blue prevail, creating the impression of Tallinn as a cold city, both metaphorically and literally. Some scenes are set in the Old Town, and Kuik here refers to earlier cinematic uses of this location, showing a film shooting in progress, as Henrik trespasses on to the location. It seems that this film is made by people who have no connection to or interest in the Old Town; they do not even care what they are shooting.

The Scoundrel can be interpreted not only as the story of a marital triangle and its resolution, but also as a metaphor for the conflict between different cultural strands and traditions for the privilege of creating Estonia’s new face. Seen from this perspective, Henrik comes across as the epitome of post-communist Estonia, searching for a new identity. He is uncertain whether to stick to old traditions or embrace new ones; whether to choose an urban or rural path; whether to opt for culture or nature; whether to adopt a Russian or Western lifestyle. His uncertainty about the course of action finds its visual parallel in his apartment awaiting decoration, and in the blurred contours of Tallinn, which he sees from the balcony of his apartment. The apartment, the city and Henrik all seem unfinished.

The three films discussed in this section, as well as others (such as Jüri Sillart’s Golden Beach [Kuldrannake, 2006]), belong to magic realism, a literary and cinematic style which is particularly pertinent for societies experiencing social, economic and cultural inequalities or upheavals, for example from colonialism to post-colonialism (Jameson 1992; Mazierska 2000). To an extent, this also applies to post-communist Estonia and the Baltic republics (Kelertas 2006). The magic is frequently a means to facilitate an imaginary overcoming of discrepancies and inequalities, bringing justice and prosperity to those who are harmed and marginalized, or just allowing them to find a place in an unknown or hostile universe. Likewise, magic realism is a way to furnish with an identity those who suffer an identity crisis, as is the case with many—particularly male—characters discussed in this section.

The argument is supported by the analysis of recent Estonian literary works. Maire Jaanus, discussing Emil Tode’s novel Piiririik (1993), gives the impression that the protagonist and his environment are rather similar to the characters and places in films such as Set Point or The Scoundrel. For example, the novel’s protagonist lives somewhat outside history, in “monumental time,” and in a space which is not realistic, but mixes different ontological orders: past and present, dream and reality, here and elsewhere. Moreover, she argues that this Nordic-Baltic-Estonian version of magic realism captures the fractured identities of contemporary Estonians and, more importantly, their desire to maintain such fractured or impure identities:

Young Estonians seem to want something less single-minded, and more plural, uncertain, and unpredictable. A new, more inclusive ethics of time would, alongside national historical time, accept the need for fundamental temporalities. […] This new, enlarged ethics of time allows breaks within itself, for the appearance of ghosts, hallucinations, and distorted sensations of inexplicable strangeness. […] The new generation lives on the edge between two attitudes—an impetus toward renewed participation and insertion into European and global history and ambivalence toward, even radical refusal of the subjective limitations imposed by this history. […] This generation is more interested in the psychic than the historical. […] This new generation is, on the one hand, more transnational, more global, more post-anthropomorphic, and, on the other hand, more interested in its own irreducible difference than the last. It wants recognition of its specific identity, although it knows this identity to be unstable, transgressive, plural and fluid. (Jaanus, 2006: 221-2)

Although Jaanus’s conclusions may be rather general, especially since they are based only on one novel—no matter how important—, my perception of Estonian post-communist films, and especially those that deal ostensibly with the post-1991 period, concurs with her diagnosis. These films all attest to Estonia’s acquisition of a transnational identity. They also bear witness to the difficulty and complexity of this process.


In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my claim that new Estonian cinema can be approached as both national and transnational. In fact, considering Estonian cinema as transnational cinema inevitably raises questions about the country’s national identity, past and present. Equally, it allows and encourages the comparison of Estonian films with others made in different places and at different times. The result of such a comparison is the perception of Estonian cinema as being in dialogue with European and world cinema, but is equally able to speak with its own voice; that it not only draws on cinema as a pan-national institution, but also contributes to it. The main challenge is to make this contribution visible. I hope this essay is a modest contribution to this objective


1] The fact that the teenagers regard Reagan and the United States as their only possible savior from Soviet clutches looks ironic in the contemporary context, but in the Soviet bloc of the 1980s Reagan epitomized the hope of true freedom for Eastern Europe.

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