Jaak Kilmi and René Reinumägi: Revolution of Pigs (Sigade revolutsioon, 2004)
reviewed by Andris Feldmanis © 2010
Revolution of Pigs, which won the Special Jury Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival and received rather favorable reviews from foreign critics, serves as an intriguing example of genre mix-up, the portrayal of the Soviet past and the use of historical background in film.
This debut feature, which was also quite well received by audiences at home (ranking seventh by overall spectator numbers in 2004 in Estonia and first among Estonian films), of the young directors Jaak Kilmi and René Reinumägi opens up as a genre flick―an archetypical teen-summer-camp sex-comedy. The restless and willing high school youths with their hopes and dreams, mainly preoccupied with losing their virginity, arrive at a summer camp in the luscious Estonian countryside in the last years of the Soviet Union (the year is 1986). The official agenda is the annual competition between Young Pioneers’ teams from all over the country, in true Soviet spirit. American critics have compared the film to Ivan Reitman’s classic Meatballs (1979) with a more political background, and the beginning stages of the film clearly attest to the validity of this comparison.
The opening sequences establish a gallery of characters which borrows heavily from the American teen film tradition: the rather shy and thoughtful central character Tanel (Jass Seljamaa); his somewhat quirky and funny friend Futu (Vadim Albrant); the cool and distant Erki (Mikk Tammepõld), whose father (Peeter Tammearu) is working for national television and making a propaganda broadcast about the camp; the more intellectual Urmas (Uku Uusberg); the mature seductress, who is the target of the young boys’ fantasies (Anu Saagim); and of course the popular girls everyone is hoping to get off with.
To tame this explosive bundle of hormones and to inject some good old Soviet ideology in the veins of the youth, there are the camp counselors. Their mission is to make sure everything will go almost by the book. Among the counselors, a whole array of very different characters can be found: from the mild and friendly non-ideological guitar-equipped teacher (Tõnu Tepandi) singing with the kids at the bonfire, to the scary moustached wild-eyed dictator type (Arvo Kukumägi).
In addition to the competition between different teams, especially the confrontation between the central character’s group―Krootuse―and the so-called official conformist elite-group―Hundissaare―consisting of scarily tight and tanned bods and cruel minds, the main conflict of the film in fact starts to build up with the “extremist wing” of counselors, as they begin to use their power more aggressively―most evident in the party scene where they cut off one boy’s long hair by force. But the kids will not let themselves be bullied for too long and a revolution soon breaks out.
At this point it is necessary to shed some light on the production methods of the film. Kilmi and Reinumägi actually organized a camp for a few hundred kids for the duration of the shooting period, which also became the basis for a TV documentary about life during the making of the film, used as a promotional device (so much so, in fact, to give one critic a reason to maintain that by the time of the premiere there was probably nobody in Estonia who had not heard about the film already). This approach also meant, as the makers asserted themselves, that the hectic life of the real-life camp started to take over the initial script and they just had to go with the flow. This certainly left its mark on the finished product and, in addition to lending the film its vitality, possibly contributed heavily to some of its narrative difficulties.
About half-way into the film, Revolution of Pigs begins to deviate from its genre-flick roots and introduces a more ambiguous filmic language, which relies on picturesque shots of landscapes and symbolist imagery with resonant non-diegetic music (composed by Rein Rannap), rather than on the more traditional character-based and conflict-driven mode of storytelling. Symptomatic of this is the fact that the central character gets to lose his overdue virginity with the most popular girl quite early into the film. There are storylines which are easier to follow, such as the conflict between Erki and his politically implied father, which maintains its drama right till the end, but very often it feels like the film is moving from one set piece to another without consistent dramatic progression, and on some occasions also becomes quite disjointed from the central plot: like the cameo of Reinumägi as the TV-crew soundman idling at the camp, or the failed rape attempt at the end of the film. This generates a feeling of using separate scenes meant to represent certain cinematic symbols or clichés aimed at evoking certain (cultural) reflexes in the audience, instead of establishing a convincing continuous cinematic reality. The central symbol of pigs (as a metaphor for the kids and their revolution) from which the title is derived, is another example of this as it is hard to pin down its precise meaning and value in the context of the film.
Visually and stylistically the reality of Revolution of Pigs is as charged as the teens it portrays. The camera switches between sweeping crane shots and hand-held action sequences at the camp site, capturing the hectic youthfulness between a myriad of tents. These vérité-meets-MTV-style shots are doubtlessly one of the strong points of the film, giving the viewer an up-close feel of the life and energy at the camp, the vibrant colors complimenting this approach. In addition, the cinematographer Arko Okk demonstrates his skills with the contemplative and dreamlike shots of nature which have a slightly Tarkovskian flavor.
The stylistic choices echo the lavish visuals. The characters, mainly dressed in red pioneer uniform-shirts (with a few conscious exceptions), look like they have walked straight out of a hair salon called “This is what hair should look like in ’86”. As fashionable as the haircuts is the soundtrack filled with 80’s pop songs from Duran Duran and others.
The coolness of the film, however, also leads to one of its problems: as it starts out with the wild-at-heart teens looking like from an 80’s-coming-back special issue of a last year’s fashion magazine, and appropriate tunes blasting in the background, it seems more like the harsh counselors are the true, albeit reactionary revolutionaries (considering also that the year is 1986 and the Soviet Union was entering the perestroika period). The overall atmosphere is quite liberal and daring, the kids do not seem to be overly oppressed; quite the contrary, they tick all the appropriate western pop culture boxes, exemplified by the out-of-the-blue break dance sequence (an homage to the Western pop culture influences infiltrating the Soviet Union?). That is also probably the reason why one of the motifs in the film is the (indeed rather distant) threat of being recruited into the Soviet Afghanistan war―it seems like the perfect dramatic device to make the revolution more plausible.
This in turn leads to one of the main points of the discussion after the film’s release in Estonia: its use of historical background. Many argued that the film is inaccurate in depicting the camp-life, overplaying the strong ideological pressure from the counselors and the usage of ideological Soviet rituals or indeed the Afghanistan-recruitment-threat (again, especially since the year is 1986).
Arguably it was not Kilmi and Reinumägi’s goal to make a historically accurate film, but to use the political background to emphasize the dramatic premise of the film: the confrontation between different generations, the old and the new, the ever-rebellious nature of youth and standing up for the cause. However, in using the historical background, the film inevitably draws on the so-called “historical capital”―knowledge and experiences of the past that are shared by certain parts of the population (Sorlin, 2001: 37). This is not simply about getting the facts straight, but about the past as a point of communication. By using historical names for the pioneer teams or evoking the exact year when the events take place, Revolution of Pigs apparently wishes to instill at least some level of factuality.
The fact that the film portrays the realities of the communist era in Estonia makes the question of historicity especially intriguing. The everyday life during Soviet occupation is still a kind of taboo subject and the period is very often perceived as a “gap” or “blank” (as the ethnologist Ene Kõresaar terms it) in the history of Estonia, something to be forgotten―an object of anti-nostalgia (a term by anthropologist Rijk van Dijk) (Kõresaar, 2008: 764-5). On the other hand, Kõresaar also draws attention to another kind of nostalgia: the material nostalgia for the later years of the socialist era which in turn gives a retro aspect to the socialist period (Kõresaar, 2008: 765-6). This kind of ostalgia (a nostalgia for the past of the former GDR, or Ost-Deutschland) is probably best known from Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! (2003).
Revolution of Pigs combines elements from both of these types of nostalgia. On the surface there is the elaborate retro, lending the film its stylistics, making it almost a costume drama (probably appealing most to Western audiences or younger generations). Underneath, however, lies the anti-nostalgia: using the blatant terrorizing counselors as metaphors for the totalitarian state, it completely removes (or forgets) all the nuances in the portrayal of Soviet reality at this specific time. The problem from the dramatic point of view is that these competing nostalgias create an imbalance in the narrative premise of the film (the liberal lighthearted and nostalgic retro versus the simplistic totalitarianism), especially when met with “historical capital” from the viewer’s side. The imbalance is exemplified by the aforementioned increasing fragmentariness of the film’s storyline as it progresses, relying more and more on individual scenes and symbolism.
The film’s finale leads to the rebelling kids deciding to write a letter to the U.S. President and claim Estonia’s independence. In today’s context this has more to do with grand national narratives (the nostalgia for Estonia’s Singing Revolution, for example) than the youthfully egoistic and nihilistic goals that the title Revolution of Pigs would suggest. It gives the film dramatic weight (as was the case with the threat of being drafted for the Afghan war featured also in the story), but struggles to organically fit in with the already faltering motivations of the characters or the narrative flow. This conflict between using historical context and combining it with fiction remains unsolved throughout the film.
Revolution of Pigs makes a welcome and often entertaining filmic foray into the territory of Estonia’s Soviet past, but its shortcomings only underline the difficulties in dealing with the subject matter, be it more or less historically. And indeed Kilmi has made efforts to tackle the subject in his later films such as Touched by the Unknown (Kohtumine tundmatuga, 2005) and Disco and Atomic War (Disko ja tuumasõda, 2009) with different approaches, though still connected to the theme of nostalgia.
Andris Feldmanis, Estonia
Kõresaar, E. (2008), “Nostalgia ja selle puudumine eestlaste mälukultuuris. Eluloouurija vaatepunkt,” [Nostalgia and its absence in Estonian remembrance culture: The view of a biography researcher], Keel ja Kirjandus, 10 (October), pp. 760-73.
Sorlin, P. (2001), “How to look at an ‘historical’ film,” in Marcia Landy, ed. The historical film: History and memory in media, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp. 25-49.
Sigade revolutsioon, Estonia, 2004
Color, 98 min.
Directors: Jaak Kilmi and René Reinumägi
Script: Jaak Kilmi and René Reinumägi
Music: Rein Rannap
Director of Photography: Arko Okk
Production Designer: Inessa Josing
Editing: Lauri Laasik
Cast: Jass Seljamaa, Evelin Kuusik, Lilian Alto, Uku Uusberg, Arvo Kukumägi, Tõnu Tepandi, Peeter Tammearu
Producers: Anu Veermäe and Mikko Räisanen
Production: Rudolf Konimois Film (Estonia) and Crea Video (Finland)
Jaak Kilmi and René Reinumägi: Revolution of Pigs (Sigade revolutsioon, 2004)
reviewed by Andris Feldmanis © 2010