Estonian film A.D. 2000

Despite clear signs of a crisis, 26 feature films were produced in the 1990s. Quite a few of those films could attract wider interest, if only the insufficient financial means had not influenced the technical quality. The worst period has been the last five years. In 1992, Roman Baskin's allegorical Peace Street (Rahu tänav) was short-listed in the category of best male actor, for the European film award Felix. Festivals have remained the major distribution channel for Estonian films. The first to break that circle was Sulev Keedus's Georgics (Georgica, 1998), an impressive story about the friendship between an old missionary and a young boy on the island used as a testing ground for bombing. Influenced by Russian cinema, with traditional topics of European culture thrown in, Georgics is undoubtedly one of the most poetic films in Estonian cinema. At the same time it sums up the period when the Moscow-educated Estonian film-makers were mostly influenced by the East.

Younger film directors choose different film cultures as landmarks. The new wave of the 1960s, the style-sensitive mannerism and the new French film are currently marking the borders of the testing ground where various film-making strategies are being tried out. In the 1990s, the film faculty at the Tallinn Pedagogical University has been educating feature and documentary film directors whose first work has already attracted attention. The films that influence world cinema find their way to Estonia more and more frequently. The Black Nights film festival which started in 1997, gives an overview of the best European films and is becoming an attractive arena for Scandinavian cinema.

Domestic films have had a contradictory effect upon the Estonian public. A slightly ironic reception shortly after the premiere on the one hand; deep loyalty for films made a few dozen years ago on the other. From the contemporary production, light-weight comedies are more likely to stand the test of time than an internationally recognised serious film. The audiences seek their changing identity via domestic films, just like national cinema seeks its own via international recognition. Such movements need not be contradictory.

At the moment, the film industry has reached a situation that rather resembles the very beginning. The oldest surviving Estonian feature film, the 10-minute The Bear Hunt in Pärnu County (Karujaht Pärnumaal), was produced in 1914. The serious intentions of the film-makers are demonstrated by the fact that in order to give the impression of a coloured film, all 15 000 frames were coloured by hand. What at first sight seemed an ordinary farce, actually contained a fierce anti-Baltic German note. The German land-owners, having heard of a bear roaming in the forests, decide to hunt it down and shoot it, but the bear chases the heavily armed men off. The film appeared just before the municipal elections in Pärnu, thus also serving the political aim of supporting national-minded political forces led by the local journalist called Karu. The Bear Hunt was shown in Pärnu without cuts, but the censors reacted quickly and the film was later shown in a 'modified' version.

In the spring 2000, perhaps the most ambitious Estonian feature film project The Bear's Heart (Karu süda) was waiting to get started again. The reasons for suspending the making of this film were mostly of an economic nature; confusion in Russia in financing the project has forced the film-makers to find new partners. It is a story about a young man in Siberia who goes hunting every day, thus getting to know local life, the power and dangers of nature. The film culminates in a scene where the injured hunter kills the bear with whom he has become friendly. Bear hunting has also been depicted in a farce called Sunday Hunters/Bear Hunt (1930). According to an old belief, killing a bear gives the killer the animal's might; it is a serious test, an initiation of a real hunter. For Estonian cinema it has been a test too — whether the film-makers will manage to overcome the difficulties caused by prevailing circumstances or not.

Several short films display an ambition to escape the familiar cultural space, to experiment with technical innovations and test the audiences. Digital cinema with its fast rhythm, offers new angles primarily for documentaries, but the new brave reality is also attracting the makers of feature films. Killing a bear is no longer a guarantee for success.

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