Andres Sööt: St. John’s Day (Jaanipäev, 1978)

reviewed by Kristiina Davidjants © 2010

During the past decade Estonian documentaries have focused on examining the past rather than looking towards the future. One of the reasons for this is that, having lived for a long time in a society where part of the official past had been deleted from the general view, documentary filmmakers enthusiastically tried to eliminate the white spots in history following the collapse of the Soviet Union; this coincided with audience expectations. Thus, filmmakers who had to carefully balance their films in the past were finally able to breathe easier and address previously prohibited themes. However, it would be unfair to say that no penetrating and insightful documentaries were made during the Soviet era: one of the undoubtedly successful authors of that genre was Andres Sööt.

Sööt’s camera has always been observing: already his first film, which had marked his breakthrough, The 511 Best Photos of Mars (511 parimat fotot Marsist, 1968), established the rules according to which the author played. In this very charming documentary we see trendy young people and dignified ladies spending their time in cafés in Tallinn. The colorful gallery of human types is accompanied by the music of the Beatles, the poetry of Artur Alliksaar, and a scientific text about life on Mars. By its nature the film of the Martians in Tallinn exemplifies well the mentality of the Thaw period. Yet the poetry and other characteristic features would soon disappear from Sööt’s work, and are entirely absent from St. John’s Day, made ten years later.

johnIn 1975 Sööt read in the local daily newspaper Noorte Hääl a critical article of the St. John’s Day celebrations organized for the townspeople. The following year the filmmaker went to see such a celebration with his own eyes, this time still without a camera; the following year he took his camera along, and yet another year later, in 1978, the resulting documentary St. John’s Day premiered. This is a film about one of the most important Estonian national holidays—summer solstice, an ancient celebration, when bonfires are lit and parties held all over the country. Sööt’s St. John’s Day also deals with the loss of traditions in an increasingly urban society and portrays a country that has decided to destroy any element of individuality in its citizens. Finally, this is a film of an era that we usually call the stagnation era, a film about life during the Brezhnev years.

St. John’s Day starts with the circle of the sun above a forest. The beginning of a new day. A shot of a new suburban residential district, whose uniform buildings also form a circle. The townspeople are getting ready for their daily routines. An elderly person observes from his window some children outside playing on a carousel that is making the most dreadful noise.
Tallinn’s Old Town, the clock strikes nine. Another clock with no hands. We see people gathering before the door of Tallinn’s biggest department store. The doors open, the crowd shoots towards the shelves. In subsequent shots of the city, the filmmaker shows us people rushing around and a big poster—“Everyone to the big St. John’s Day celebration!”—being put up.

johnSoon night falls, and the people of the new residential areas get ready for a party. A sign “Lighting fires strictly forbidden. Fine: 10 rubles” can be seen at a picturesque location, and at the same site a band is tuning the instruments by a bonfire that is being prepared. Patriotic songs are sung, folk dancers perform, people are pushing each other, the militia observes the situation. One of the dancers quickly finishes a beer, gives the bottle to a sailor next to him and dashes into the dance circle. The bonfire is lit and the party is in full swing.

The only verbal role in the film is given to a visitor from Azerbaijan who is too surprised to understand the party. His traditions foresee different communication patterns for a party, where contact between people is much tighter rather than have everyone get drunk as quickly as possible. In the same out-of-place manner as the guest from Azerbaijan feels like an extraterrestrial, the St. John’s Day of the townspeople unfolds. Dances where people prop each other up are performed, a man unsuccessfully tries to throw a box into the bonfire but is too drunk to complete his mission, while the eyes of a young girl on whose face the camera lingers reflect her intoxication. The gallery of characters is supplemented by some chatting men who have beer bottles in every pocket and in their hands. A soft rain starts, people take out coats and umbrellas, traditional tunes are replaced with more modern rock’n’roll until the sound as well as the image disappear.

The sun rises; it’s a new day again. People slowly walk home along the shore. Morning fog and noises, as the bed of the bonfire is emitting smoke on the devastated party ground, and a woman is collecting empty bottles. Three militiamen walk past, smoking. We are back at the new residential district; again, there is an elderly person at the window together with other residents. The camera pans away from the windows and we see a concrete building on top of a ground similar to the place where the bonfire had been lit. The circle is complete.

Sööt’s St. John’s Day is an extremely simple film, whose strength lies in the talented filmmaker’s ability to see the world and his skill in communicating his vision to the audience. The majority of Estonians traditionally lived in the countryside for the last thirty years, yet most of the population has now moved to urban centers, to impersonal apartment blocks where each flat resembles the next, because the layout of the apartments and the furniture are all the same. The individuals have no choice in—small or important—issues concerning their lives, and the possibilities for their entertainment are also very limited. If the authorities decide to organize a party, the masses go there. Through Sööt’s camera we see how such centralized “nationality” is in fact a pathetic performance of rituals where the meaning is long lost, and all that is left is a homo sovieticus staggering around, intoxicated by alcohol. Although apparently all this happens in a very Estonian way—why otherwise would a visitor from Azerbaijan refuse to call this event a “party.”

johnThe censors did not set extensive restrictions on the film, but nevertheless its journey to cinemas was not smooth all the way. The Central Committee of Cinematography, which in the past decided about a film’s distribution, found that the real life of Estonia is shown from a very undesirable angle and therefore a compromise was reached whereby the filmmaker would add an explanatory title at the beginning of the film, clarifying that St. John’s Day is a legacy of the past. In addition, it was required that the film’s only speaker from Baku had to be taken out. For some time, this “improved” version was shown, but since the negatives of the film were preserved, the director was able to restore his original rendition a decade later, during the final years of the Soviet Union. In this version we see his interpretation of the Soviet-era St. John’s Day: he says that there is no point in celebrating St. John’s Day in that manner because its organization is silly and it is sad that people living in the city no longer have any wishes. And we also see a film which catches the moments, expressions and environment of the era, all of which make up the Zeitgeist. It is easy to describe the Zeitgeist, but it is difficult to catch it on camera, and the rare cases when this has been truly achieved deserve viewing over and over again.

On 4 February 2009 Andres Sööt, the author of more than seventy documentaries, celebrated his 75th birthday. In 1963 Sööt graduated from the All-Union Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow as director of cinematography. Between 1954 and 1957 he worked as assistant cinematographer at Tallinn Film Studio, from 1963 to 1972 at Tallinnfilm, from 1972 to 1980 for Eesti Telefilm, and from 1980 to 1984 again at Tallinnfilm as director and cinematographer. His filmography includes many of the most important Estonian documentaries.

Translated by Kaidi Talsen

Kristiina Davidjants, Tallinn

Jaanipäev, Estonian SSR, 1978
Black and white, 20 min.
Director: Andres Sööt
Script: Andres Sööt
Director of Photography: Andres Sööt
Production: Tallinnfilm


Andres Sööt: St. John’s Day (Jaanipäev, 1978)

reviewed by Kristiina Davidjants © 2010

Updated: 24 Feb 10