– or: Estonia as seen through the Tartu City Library’s DVD shelf

As you might remember from my last blog post, I like to study the Estonian language to learn more about my own Finnic language heritage. I also like to study Estonian culture & history, but my time is mostly taken up by reading Semiotics. There’s a course called ”Insights to Estonian Culture, Film and Museum” in Tartu University that I’d like to endorse to all international students, but alas, so far I haven’t been able to take the course myself because each semester I’ve had some compulsory courses overlapping with it. So instead I’ve had to make the most of my library card in the City Library, renting interesting looking DVDs there.

Note: I’m talking about the Linnaraamatukogu here, not the Ülikooli raamatukogu. If you don’t already have a library card there, I suggest that you go get one right now. The address is Kompanii 3/5, near Raekojaplats. On the 3rd floor are foreign books and you can apply for a library card there (it’s free). If you don’t speak Russian or Estonian, I’d suggest to take for example your tutor with you to help, as the librarians want you to register your address and some other information. You can even have your library card integrated to your ID card (oh those e-Estonians) and after that you don’t really need any language skills to borrow (”laenama”) and return (”tagastama”) your stuff (unless you forget to return your stuff in time, shame on you…).

Got your library card ready? Good.

This is my introduction to Estonian cinema, as I have stumbled upon it DVD by DVD in the Tartu City Library’s 4th floor. For every movie here listed I’ve included a reference code (e.g. [791E MAL]) in the Library’s DVD shelf and a link to the item in Ester.ee, but most of these you can find just by walking to the Music section on 4th floor and checking the DVD shelf (labeled ”Eesti filmid”) just next to the librarians’ counter. If you’re not in Tartu, well, maybe you can find these movies on the Internet, I mean I think most of these are sold in Rahva Raamat or Apollo if not on Amazon.

All that being said, this is not any sort of ”Top 10 Estonian Films” or ”Best Historical Films from Estonia” listing, as most of these are fictional, some are comedies and most are targeted towards Estonian audiences who are already familiar with the cultural contexts. However, these are films that might give you a sort of ”inside view” to Estonia that you might not find elsewhere. Since the focus here is on getting introduced to Estonian history & culture, I have decided to list the movies in a sort of ”chronological” order, although there might be some exceptions to this rule. In any case, here’s what I’ve been watching in the past 5 months that I’ve been studying here in Tartu:

MALEV / ”Men at Arms”

isablog_180215_antti_1_malev_1 isablog_180215_antti_1_malev_2_lembitu

Published: 2005. Language: Estonian. Subtitles: Estonian, English, Russian. [791E MAL]

This ”pythonesque” comedy about Estonian prehistory (or Livonian history) holds a special place to me, as it is one of the films that launched the comedic duo Ott Sepp and Märt Avandi to (at least some sort of) Estonian stardom. When I was first coming to Estonia, I happened to see a popular song of their’s ”Kui halb on olla eestlane?” / ”How bad it is to be an Estonian?” on YouTube. After asking from a few friends, I found out that it was from their comedy series ”Tujurikkuja” (freely translated as ”Killjoy”), a show that, for me, established a visual representation on Finnish–Estonian relations. Tujurikkuja 2008–2010 DVD-box is actually also available in the Tartu City Library, but unfortunately it doesn’t have English subtitles, so I have excluded it from this list.

On this particular humoristic mindset the movie builds up a new & enhanced narrative around Lembitu, the most famous Estonian elder & war chief, and the battle of St. Matthew’s day in 1217. One of the oldest historical references on the Estonian people, the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, written by a Latvian priest, tells of Lembitu gathering an army of 6000 men-at-arms to fight back the German Crusaders fighting under the banner of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. Woefully Lembitu fell and the Estonians lost, and the Livonian Brothers forced them to convert and pledge allegiance to them.

What the movie tells us is that actually all the Estonian elders (Lembitu included) of different counties were actually quite too busy enjoying their pagan, pre-Christian way of carefree, unpromiscuous life, so much so that they didn’t really care about any invaders, and it actually fell as the responsibility of an orphan boy named Uru (played by Ott Sepp), kidnapped as a child and raised by a scheming French monk-in-disguise, to unite the Estonian people under one chief. Unfortunately Hippolyt, bailiff of Jūrmala (played by Märt Avandi) still kills Lembitu and the misguided Estonians decide to punish the German traitors by taking them as prisoners for whom they will build great manors and provide endless food…

This movie is the funniest presentation you can get of Medieval Estonia, but I wouldn’t base my history essay on it. It is also a good example of Estonian/Finnic humor: I can’t think of a Finnish movie that would be quite like this, but this is totally something that the Finns could write about Kalevala (actually, Lembitu, played by Ain Mäeots, looks a lot like Väinämöinen to me).

Eesti etnograafiline film 1. Kaks filmi Eesti etnograafiast. Aleksei Peterson 80

/ Estonian Ethnographical film #1. Two films of Estonian Ethnography.


Published: 2011. Language: Estonian. Subtitles: English, Russian. [39 EES]

While the first one was just plain simple fun and fiction, this one on the other hand is hard (well, as hard as humanities ever get) science on history & culture. If you’re not a documentary/ethnology nerd you might want to skip this, but if you’re really interested in the Estonian way of life and historical culture, you should check it out.

This is a collection of two ethnographical short movies, the first one (15min) shot in 1964 about the vernacular style of net fishing under ice in Audru, southern Estonia, and the other one (38min) shot in 1978 about an Estonian village at the turn of the 20th century. Both films depict folk ways of agrarian life that by the time of their shooting were not anymore widely used, but still remembered by the older folk. The director Aleksei Peterson, also the director of Estonian National Museum from 1958 to 1992, made an effort to to make the films look like authentic folk culture, even though at the time no-one had any experience of making ethnographical films.

As interesting as the short films themselves is the interview (24min), shot in 2009, where Peterson is reminiscing how in a time when you needed a permission for pretty much anything in the Soviet Union, they didn’t have any permissions or film equipment, but through motivation, innovation and a couple of lucky breaks they were able to produce ethnographic films that to this day stand as exemplary of European Visual Ethnography.

Nimed Marmortahvlil / Names in Marble


Published: 2002. Language: Estonian. Subtitles: Estonian, Finnish, English, Swedish, Russian. [791E NIM]

N.B.! This is one of the most commercially successful Estonian films, so there are several copies of the movie in the library. Not all of them have English subtitles, so check that out first.

This is a movie about the Estonian War of Independence in 1918–1920. World War I had left the Germans defeated and Russia in a state of civil war. The movie starts in November 1918 when Germany formally hands over political power to the Estonian Provisional Government and withdraws. Nevertheless the Estonian army, consisting of only one division, isn’t looking like it can withstand an attack by the Red Army, so all young men are being recruited into the army. The movie follows a student called Henn, (played by Priit Võigemast) a child of a poor family (living in Tartu), and his group of friends who struggle in the war. Old friends have to choose who and what do they fight for.

The movie is based on a novel by the same name, written by Albert Kivikas and published in 1936. I have not read the book myself, but as it usually goes, a lot of people are saying the book is better.  The breadth of the narrative and its complex themes do feel a bit rushed in the movie and I look forward to reading the book one day, but as an introduction to Estonian history I think it’s a well enough fitting movie. I am not a big fan of war films, but for those interested there is also another movie called Detsembrikuumus, about the 1924 Soviet coup d’état attempt in Tallinn, available in the library, but compared to Nimed Marmortahvlil I find it a very ”black & white”-values movie built on a sort of Hollywood action movie formula.

Nevertheless I kind of consider Nimed Marmortahvlil as an important film to Finnish audiences as well, since Finnish volunteers played an important factor in the war as well. This is represented in the movie very clearly through the Finnish character Sulo Kallio (played by Finnish actor Peter Franzén) who ends up saving the main character (and, semi-spoilers: shooting his brother). Estonian Independence war is not a popular topic in Finnish history writing, as it is connected to an era called ”Kinship Wars” where, following the Finnish Civil War, volunteer soldiers inspired by nationalistic feelings wanted to liberate and annex other Finnic peoples to be part of some sort of ”Greater Finland”.

Puhastus / Purge


Published: 2012. Language: Estonian, Finnish. Subtitles: Russian, English. [791T PUH]

Including this one on the list is a bit of cheating on my part, since Puhdistus (as it’s known in Finnish) is actually a Finnish movie.

Based on a novel (based on a theatrical play) by Sofi Oksanen, Finland’s number one ”Estonian writer” (her mother was Estonian and she is recognized for her various dramatic, journalistic and academic texts on the relations of Finland, Estonia & the Soviet Union), the movie tells the story of two women, old Aliide and young Zara, who meet when Aliide finds Zara unconscious on her yard in the countryside of Western Estonia in the year 1992. Zara, a beaten and fearful girl on the run from her ”husband”, reminds Aliide of her own past in the Estonian SSR, and the story unfolds in several flashbacks from the 1930s to 1990s.

As with Nimed Marmortahvlil, I have to say that the book was better. While Antti Jokinen’s movie is not bad, having read the book I feel it couldn’t quite capture the immense tension in the book. Nothing essential in sense of filming is missing from the movie and it is a strong, shocking narrative in it’s own right, but given the opportunity I would recommend the book over the movie any day.

An interesting fact: when I saw the movie (on DVD) in Finland it had only a Finnish audio track. In Estonia, however, it has Finnish and Estonian audio. The film is originally shot in Finnish (with Finnish actors) and the Estonian version has been dubbed after filming, but I cannot find any information on the dubbing process and if the original actors actually gave the Estonian performances. If so, the dub must sound horribly accented to Estonian ears. Watching the movie in Finnish there were a few confusing moments when some things were said in Estonian, although there is not any kind of actual situation in the story when anyone would be speaking ”Estonian instead of their native language”, so to say. It would make more sense that some dialogue would be in Russian, but having totally Estonian characters in a totally Estonian environment mixing Finnish and Estonian is just… confusing. If I would watch the movie again, I would like to try the Estonian dubbed version.



Published: 1998. Language: Estonian. Subtitles: Estonian, Russian, English, Dutch, Finnish. [791E GEO]

I first heard this movie mentioned on a lecture when professor Peeter Torop was discussing Yuri Lotman’s idea of Culture and Explosion. Every now and then a particular event or an object appears in culture that is so innovative and/or revolutionary that it puts in motion an explosive process, and the object can only satisfactorily be analyzed & explained later, when specific metalanguages and integrative processes have emerged in the culture where the explosion happened. I am not sure if professor Torop intended that Georgica might be one such cultural explosion, but after watching the movie I certainly feel it would require its own metalanguage to be well explained.

The movie is set in an unspecified time in Soviet Estonia, when a young boy who has become mute is sent to live with an old man on a remote island that the air force uses nightly as a bomb raid practice target. The old man Jakub’s job is to report on the success of the bomb raids. In his free time he tends to his bees and translates Virgil’s poem, Georgica, to swahili from latin, in hopes that one day it will bring peace to the people with whom he once worked as a missionary. For now he and the boy are trapped in their memories.

A highly symbolic and artsy movie, it would require quite a lot of thought to analyze. I will leave that task to film critics with more time. Even without an art critique the movie is splendid to watch: the filming is done with a Tarkovskyan touch, favoring long shots and quirky lenses to draw attention to details on the screen.

Kohtumine Tundmatuga


Published: 2005. Language: Estonian. Subtitles: English. [791E KOH]

This one requires quite a bit of familiarity with Estonian nostalgia. The story is based around a children’s puppet theater, starring Tipp & Täpp, at the end of 1960s. Unbeknownst to us there is an extraterrestrial race of aliens who look exactly like Tipp & Täpp, and they want to know what is the purpose of this mockery of their way of life. Enter our protagonist, Mati Tilba (played by Tiit Sukk) who works in the Estonian Television as a studio assistant, but can’t quite make his way to TV stardom. When Tipp (played by Peeter Oja) from outer space invades his brain, Mati finds himself taking over Estonian SSR’s most popular TV presenter Valdo Pant (played by Raivo E. Tamm), as Pant mysteriously falls into a coma.

Mostly based on actual persons, this alternative fantasy is a nice modern day farce comedy that might be a bit hard to understand for foreigners, but its narrative still flows forward very nicely, so even if some inside jokes are missed its easy to just brush off and continue with the movie’s zany attitude.

August 1991


Published: 2005. Language: Estonian. Subtitles: English. [791E AUG]

On the morning of 19th of August in 1991 the Soviet Central Television was playing only classical music. That was a bad sign, that something worrisome was going on. There was a putsch going on in Moscow. By 17:00 Gennady Yanayev announced in a press conference that Mikhail Gorbachev is ”resting” and ”needs some time to get his health back”. If this coup would be successful, it would’ve meant the end of the Singing Revolution and restoration of the ”old times”.

That is the setting for August 1991, a ”documentary drama” told from the point of view of those who worked in ETV (Estonian Television) at the time. The perestroika and the singing revolution had changed the face of every day life in Estonia, but it didn’t mean that the new hope for independence wasn’t fragile and problematic.

Quoting the movie’s fictional main character Tõnu (played by Tanel Ingi): ”Half an hour later I was on a bus to Tallinn, and asked myself, whether I was the only one insane, because everyone else sat there with dead faces while the news kept pouring in like some sort of a verdict. I realized that we all actually believed, that the Republic of Estonia had been won long ago. Our tricolor was waved already five years ago, newspapers were boasting with freedom of speech, the Estonian Congress of citizens’ descendants, and the Supreme Soviet, the descendant of the system, still held some peculiar dual-authority linked with democracy only by the fact that any trifle befits for the incomprehensible dispute. In fact, we had already forgotten that the Soviet Army still resided in Estonia.”

What the movie teaches is the huge importance that media coverage played in the Singing Revolution. The Tallinn TV Tower stands now as somewhat of a symbol of the Estonian independence, and this movie shows why: when they knew that the Soviet army was coming, people defended the TV stations with nothing but their living bodies, even though they knew that against a Soviet attack force they would have no chance but to show, to whoever who would be watching, that they were there then, that they were resisting. ”It doesn’t bear any importance, whether you pop your guns or not. Your job is to die heroically in front of the camera”, as the cameraman Aare (played by Tõnu Oja) semi-sarcastically addresses the Defence League members who have gathered to organize their defenses.

Next day, on 20th of August 1991 the Estonian Supreme Soviet and Congress of Estonia proclaimed together, on live television, the restoration of independence of Estonia. Just a few hours later Soviet troops attempted to storm the TV Tower, but failed to do so before the attempted coup was over. Would the coup of 1991 failed if there hadn’t been the type of mass communication we nowadays take as granted?

As the movie was made for television the low production values can be noticed now and then and in places the acting can be a bit hammy, but all in all I would recommend this movie for everyone, as I think that it captures the ”message” or the ”intention” of the Singing Revolution very nicely… how ever that could clearly be expressed.

In the end I want to stress again that this is not a ”best of”-list, only a list of movies I found meaningful and thought that you might find interesting also. There are several movies I’ve decided to refrain from mentioning here, mainly because I’ve limited myself to only English translated DVDs available in the Tartu City Library. For example, I would’ve very much liked to discuss a 2009 documentary called Disko ja tuumasõda (Disco and Atomic War) about the effect of Finnish television on Soviet Estonia, but that will have to wait until I figure out how to make suggestions for new acquisitions in the Library.

I would love to hear about other Estonian movies that you think are worth mentioning, please go ahead and comment below!


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s