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Winning celluloid success

  • 2008-11-19
  • By Matt Withers

ESTONIAN HIT: Sugisball (Autumn Ball) has won international acclaim for its depiction of life in Tallinn's suburbs.

TALLINN - Hampered by limited financial backing and a miniscule industry, Estonian filmmakers obviously lack the muscle to compete with the cinematic powerhouses of Hollywood and Bollywood 's but nor do they want to.
With a focus on artistic innovation, both in terms of direction and scripting, Estonian film couldn't be further away from the cliched flicks flung off the production lines in Hollywood, Bollywood or even Nigeria's "Nollywood."
With Tallinn's renowned "Black Nights" film festival about to commence, The Baltic Times takes a deeper look at Estonia's long tradition of filmmaking.

Reels of time
Estonia has been making films ever since "Bear Hunt in Parnu district," a 12 minute short shot in 1914 by Johannes Paasuke. Its first feature length production came in 1922 with the now lost "Shadows from the Past."
Ivi Tomingas, director of the Estonian Film Archive, told The Baltic Times that Estonian filmmakers produced roughly 20 films and many more documentaries prior to World War II. Tomingas said the Soviet influence was so strong that Moscow's approach to filmmaking dominated the industry, and while many good films were produced there was a noticeable lack of stylistic diversity.

"During the Soviet times, the main film producer was "Tallinnfilm," which was under the control of Moscow. The first so-called "professional films" by Estonian filmmakers started in the early 1960s 's although the film education was given only in Moscow," Tomingas said.
By contrast, today's generation of Estonian filmmakers have studied around the world -- no longer restrained by the limitations of the Iron Curtain, the stylistic landscape of Estonian cinema is being molded by international influences.

And although there are a wide variety of styles currently being practiced in Estonia, the industry remains largely united by a 'quality over quantity' ethos 's an inevitability given budget limitations. Without the availability of multi-million dollar special effects and big-name actors, Estonian filmmakers are left with little choice but to concentrate on mastering the actual craftsmanship that lies at the heart of good cinema.

A new wave
While Estonia has a long and proud history in filmmaking, it is only in recent years that the Estonian film industry has truly flourished.
Estonia's new wave is only just getting off the ground. With the post-Soviet '90s characterized by a lack of public interest in local film and an even greater lack of funding, the industry lay practically non-existent till the turn of the new millennium.

"During the '90s state film financing was rather unstable and not sufficient. Audiences were not interested in local films. The breakthrough for local films came in 2002 with the historical film "Names in Marble" which got more than 167,000 admissions," Karlo Funk, head of production and development at the Estonian Film Foundation, told The Baltic Times.

To put the industry's ensuing overhaul in perspective: in 2000 not a single Estonian film achieved theatrical release, yet only last year records were broken as nine local-made films played at cinemas.
Most importantly, the Estonian new wave has made inroads abroad. Only a few weeks ago on Nov. 10 "Autumn Ball," a film by Estonian director Vello Ounpuu, took the Grand Prix at the prestigious Brussels International Independent Film Festival.

Similarly, Priit Parn and Olga Marchenko's short animation "Life without Gabriella Ferri" has enjoyed international acclaim this month, taking the Grand Prix for independent short at the Holland Animation Film Festival.

 "Four films, "Lotte," "Class," "Autumn Ball" and "Magnus" have been shown at prominent festivals 's Venice, Berlin, Cannes, Karlovy Vary 's and are winning awards. Considering the competition and limited budgets of Estonian films, we are more than content with the situation," said Funk.
And while Funk denies there is an overarching style to account for the success of the Estonian new wave, she said there is a commonality in addressing contemporary social issues as subject matter 's although the methods in doing so may vary greatly. Likewise, the Estonian Institute said that Estonian film often presents real issues in an abstract fashion, likening the industry to a court jester.

"The position of Estonian film in society has, throughout the ages, resembled the function of a jester at the king's court - nobody takes him seriously, he is ridiculed, even hated; at the same time, however, everyone is aware that he reflects courtly life in a distorted way," the Institute states.

A tentative future
There are still significant obstacles preventing this goal from being achieved 's and none more pressing than the global economic downturn. Since 2004, the Estonian government has increased the industry's funding by 50 percent, facilitating the training of filmmakers, the production of films and their representation at international film festivals.
With increasing pressure to make budget cuts, film industry funding is increasingly appearing a susceptible target for cutbacks.

The 2009 budget has already seen 324,000 kroons (20,700 euros) chipped off the Estonian Film Foundation's allocated funds and there are fears that larger cuts are set to come.
"To be a sustainable industry, film production would have needed an additional 1.5 to 2 million euros in 2009. Perhaps the positive trend will continue during the first half of 2009, but after that production companies will face problems," Funk said.  

What remains to be seen is whether the promising talent recently exhibited is enough to entice independent financial backing for promising Estonian films, or alternately will the industry's fate be pegged to that of its national economy?