Baltic Cinema
A brief introduction to Baltic cinema with no facts or figures.

Estonian film is like sex. When it's good, it's really, really good. When it's bad, it's still better than nothing.

- Anonymous

In the year 1700, the Russian tsar Peter the Great started the Great North War -- everything had to be great with these guys -- to gain access to the strategically crucial Baltic Sea. His campaign came to be called "a window to Europe" and this phrase has since then become part of the modern Estonian history and collective conscious. In the year 2014 an Estonian-Russian politician, Yana Toom, was the surprise winner of the elections to the European parliament, much to the chagrin of the conservative political forces. The visual image of Yana Toom's campaign success was a TV spot with her valiantly opening a window to let fresh air and birdsong into the stale room. In a short clip the politician managed to link the tsar Peter's imperial advance to modern day, capitalizing on a turn of the phrase, which has survived 300 years and stayed regionally as potent as ever. The implications of that clip are limitless, but clearly Yana Toom adopted the tsar's notion of this geographical area acting as a gateway. The window as something that leads to something else.

A gateway is exactly what Estonia (and generally the Baltics) has been in the big world politics throughout the years and centuries. Fate has placed us straight on the frontline, actually several frontlines. Here runs the demarcation line between the East and the West, Europe and Asia, Orthodox and Roman Catholicism (both controlled by the animist pagan beliefs of the old), socialism and capitalism, the Nordic, Baltic and East European. In these struggles we have somehow managed to hold our own, but the role has always been that of an intermediary. What's wrong with being a "window to Europe" then? The problem is that a window itself doesn't exist outside the meaning that has given to it by outside force. In order to become real, it has to be signified and defined by someone else, and even then its role is simply to reflect, to let through, to introduce and connect the two sides of any given duality. A window, in essence doesn't exist, it's a non-entity. Peter saw through it, to the West, not paying attention to the window itself. Yana Toom opened the window to metaphorically connect the inside to the outside. The window again being only means to achieve that. Ironically, the only way you see a window is when something is wrong with it: when it's smudgy, cracked or dirty. Is that the only way we can escape our intermediary non-existent role? Is this an apt comparison?


Let's start with the East and the West. First, it has to be said, that the cinema history of all the Baltic countries can more or less be defined, chaptered and understood through this one big historical event that is the Soviet Occupation. Whether we want it or not, it is simple and easy to see our film history divided between the pre-war First Republic stage, the Soviet cinema period, and the post-communist era. Have we already reached the fourth stage? In the immortal words of a Chinese diplomat, when he was asked, what he thinks about the French Revolution: "I think it's too early to tell". In the Soviet times, the film studios in the Soviet Union were handled pretty much like the collective farms, reminding both the studio system in the United States, or UFA in Germany – every member State had one centralized film studio that employed everyone from technical personnel to the directors. Precious few actors were signed on as "professional film actors". In Estonia for example, there were two: Lembit Ulfsak and Eve Kivi.

All the three Baltic studios – Tallinnfilm in Estonia, Riga Film Studio in Latvia and Lithuanian Film Studio - often participated in, or initiated projects, that had a rare but valuable link to the Western civilization. Adaptations of Western books (Agatha Christie, Jack London, etc.) demanded Western film sets and faces that could believably characterize Brits, Americans, or in case of war films, Germans. Speaking of Germans, I would advise to watch an Estonian documentary called Nazis and Blondes (Fritsud ja blondiinid, Arbo Tammiksaar, 2008).

The main topic of the film is to introduce countless Baltic actors, who were hired to play Nazis in the countless Soviet propagandist war films. Apparently the Baltic actors looked Germanic enough to fit the role. The probable side effect was that for the Soviet powers it only heightened the sense of "the other", when talking about the Baltics. We might have only played the role of the Nazis in the films, but after a certain persistence in the character, the act becomes difficult to distinguish from reality. Current daily political accusations of "nazism" by the Russian media might be fuelled by this fixed preconception rooted largely in cinema.

Describing the "Westernness" of the Baltics, let's look no further, than the two examples that link Andrey Tarkovsky to the Baltic States. After choosing the Baltic actors to play two of four main roles in his science-fiction adaptation Solaris (1972) – the legendary Lithuanian Donatas Banionis in the main role of Kris Kelvin and the Estonian Jüri Järvet as the troubled doctor Snaut, he once again thought of the Baltics some years later, when he came to shoot his Stalker (1979) in Tallinn and other locations in Estonia.

Shot twice (as the lab in Moscow couldn't handle the more precious Kodak film stock), Stalker linked Tarkovsky to Estonia and he ended up playing a prominent role in the upsurge of new Estonian cinema in the end of 1970s, curating two out of three short films in the omnibus film Dandelion Game (Karikakramäng, 1977), where the early works of the directors Peeter Simm and Peeter Urbla got enough push to move on to greater things.


The Estonian new wave of young filmmakers at that time – Simm's Ideal Landscape (Ideaalmaastik, 1981), Urbla's much-maligned paean to the West Schlager (Shlaager, 1982), slightly bergmanesque Happy Go Lucky (Nipernaadi, Kaljo Kiisk, 1983), Nest of Winds (Tuulte pesa, Olav Neuland, 1979), and Christmas in Vigala (Jõulud Vigalas, Mark Soosaar, 1981) – seems to coincide with a similar vibe in Latvia. Their most famous documentary maker Juris Podnieks started making films and winning awards around that time, only to transcend completely and make a definitive manifesto on the lost generation of Latvian youth caught between punk attitude and ideological brainwash in his Is It Easy to be Young? (Vai viegli būt jaunam?, 1987). The film was more "Western" perhaps in its frank depiction of reality and observational style.

Thus it was clear, that we represented "the West" for the East. For the USSR, the Baltic States were a sort of Potemkin village, a façade that resembled real life in at least a minor way. There was a Western capitalist-materialist breeze blowing through these countries. We weren't completely cut off from the world. North Estonia especially had an advantage in seeing the Finnish TV channels. A fact that resulted in unbelievable and ridiculous propaganda wars, well charted in a mockumentary called Disco and Atomic War (Disko ja tuumasõda, Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma, 2009). Let me use a football metaphor: we were the best teams in the fifth league. Slightly more well off than the other republics, but light years away from the average normal life standard.

In the events of 1990-1991 and the newly stated independence for the Baltic States, the tables turned completely. The functioning production models collapsed. In Latvia the transmission of the national film heritage from the State sphere to private sphere resulted in films and film rights being bought and sold to sources still unknown today. Suddenly the big players of the fifth league were allowed to play with the top teams and the picture wasn't pretty.

For the West, the Baltics largely became to epitomize the Wild East, soaring crime rates, flesh for sale and nonexistent morals. The European filmmakers finally had a green light to film in the Baltics, and mostly their depiction was bleak. Swedish director Lukas Moodysson claimed in the opening titles of his Lilja 4-ever (2002) that it is taking place in a non-descript post-socialist country, although it was set in Estonia. A much brighter look on Estonia has been cultivated by Aki Kaurismäki, for whom Estonia seems to represent a certain Shangri-La, an exciting escape from the Finnish drabness in Calamari Union (1985), Shadows in Paradise (Varjoja paratiisissa, 1986) and more prominently in Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana, 1994).

Estonian film at the time was grasping at straws, trying to make sense of the collapse around it. There was no financial support, or any system whatsoever.

The beginning of the 90s also rushed in a significant documentary movement in Lithuania. Lithuanians themselves often regard their recent documentary production more highly than the feature films. The documentary works of such filmmakers as Šarūnas Bartas, Audrius Stonys and Arūnas Matelis was radically for a more personal, existentialist cinema.

The past was a joke and the present was an absurd pseudocapitalist farce, so instead of voicing political opinions explicitly, they tackled loneliness, the meaning of life and the fleeting existence. The stories are oft told through the perspective of people on the margins of everyday life.

It seems that this shift in how we are perceived by the cultures around us, is something that still occupies the collective subconscious of the Estonian film universe. It is still important to define who you are between the East and the West.


In cultural and language theory things can be defined by their absence. "The absence of a term in a language does not imply the absence of the concept"1. Often Estonian film chooses the method on non-communication to deliver its message. Bruce Lee taught "the art of fighting without fighting". Estonian film has mastered "the art of communicating without speaking".

Estonian film history has been a story of disruption and instability. First, the temporal disruptions: the severest of them being the period from 1932 to 1947, when no Estonian films were shot at all. Secondly, the psychological and ideological disruptions: during the occupational regime, non-speaking, or implying became an art form in itself. In film, all the double entendres were weeded out by a row of commissions.


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