Ilmar Raag: I have great hopes for Tallinn Film Wonderland

Ilmar Raag.
Ilmar Raag. Source: Ken Mürk / ERR

I am placing great hopes on the studios of the Tallinn Film Wonderland as they will make it theoretically possible to use the same tools the world's best directors have at their disposal also in Estonia. From here on out, the fantasy of Estonian filmmakers will only be stuck behind money, Ilmar Raag writes.

There has been more talk of the Tallinn Film Wonderland development lately. What should an Estonian film director think of the project? The short answer can be summed up using the word "ambition." While new studios will not automatically make Estonian movies better, they give our filmmakers tools with which to think bigger.

Estonian cinema has gone through an amazing metamorphosis in the last 20 years. I'm sure older readers remember a time when Estonian cinema was considered very slow and complicated. If it was not someone dragging a dead dog across sand dunes, there was a man with a wrinkled face sitting in a dusky room with a low ceiling staring out the window for what felt like an eternity, while rain drops pattered on the pane.

The situation is quite different today. On the one hand, movie theater statistics tells us that Estonian movies get the same number of viewers than Hollywood titles. On the other, we have new filmmakers whose style draws heavily from Western cinema. Such pictures are often quite diverse, and we need more than a single hand's fingers to count Estonian movies that have been seen by over 100,000 moviegoers. There's "Tõde ja Õigus," "Klassikokkutulek," Eia jõulud Tondikakul," "Seltsimees Laps" etc.

And yet, there is a wall keeping us from taking the next step, and the reason is not just money. It has more to do with the general atmosphere and authors' (un)willingness to think bigger.

Foreign production companies importing global standards

Estonian cinema saw one of its greatest laments in 1998 when it seemed there would not be a single Estonian movie made the next year.

A producer said at the time that Estonia would need a minimum of three movies annually if it wanted to have people who know the trade. "In truth," the producer added, "Estonia would need at least six films every year." We all smirked arrogantly as it just seemed impossible. By today, it has become reality and we can take a fresh look at the idea.

These claims were based on the realization that the quality of Estonian movies does not depend on directors alone but rather all industry professions involved in making a film. This in turn depends on Estonia's level of integration in global filmmaking.

For example, when making preparations for "Erik Kivisüda," I realized that if I hadn't had people with experience of building fantasy worlds abroad, I would have struggled to achieve my vision. In the end, I visited four countries to make the movie and got good ideas from every one.

It reminded me of how major Hollywood productions were shot in Ireland, Prague and then Budapest, instead of London or Paris in the 1990s. A little later came the realization that these countries had world-class professionals, which kicked off one of the golden ages of national cinema in Ireland. Western film crews visit Estonia every year and leave behind, in addition to money, their know-how. We can feel it. Estonian film companies are world-class. But...

The technical aspect of making movies is always changing. Studio pictures are coming up elsewhere in the world. This largely owes to the development of VFX, which pretty much lets one's fantasy run wild. Let us consider the fact that "Harry Potter" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies were mostly shot in studios.

Estonia's participation in this revolution has been modest to say the least as we simply did not have the conditions. Similarly, foreign movies did not come to Estonia if their projects required modern infrastructure. Estonia was, for the world's film industry, a beautiful place with beautiful people, while the technical side of things was our weakness. This also meant that certain types of know-how did not reach Estonia.

The limits of a director's fantasy

The reader might now ask how does catering to foreign film concern pictures we want to produce in Estonia.

The answer lies in our cast of mind. The number one limitation for Estonian filmmakers is the ingrained warning: "Don't think big! We don't have the money for it or the technical capacity!" It is never said out loud while every film student knows that coming up with a brilliant script for a science fiction or fantasy movie is a fast track to being ridiculed.

I'm forced to once more give the example of "Erik Kivisüda" where we were reminded at every step of the way how the project was exceptional and grand studio decorations very much the exception.

But what was exceptional about it? That we had ideas realizing which required studio premises? Hardly a stellar argument. I am placing great hopes on the Film Wonderlands' studios so I would not have to hear such argumentation again. Theoretically, we can use all the same tools the world's best directors have at their disposal. Much like Estonian writers can say that modern Estonia literature has been written on the same kinds of computers used by Novel Prize winners. From here on out, the only limit to the fantasy of Estonian filmmakers is... money.

Because the Film Campus will be constructed in a public-private partnership, there will be a minor conflict of interest where you need maximal financial efficiency to cover investments, while mostly publicly funded Estonians films will be looking for access to the premises at favorable conditions.

There are existing state aid legal provisions that make it possible for public and private funds to come together for such projects in the first place. This means that the law obligates allowing Estonian filmmakers some access, while there will likely be disagreements. But even so, if only two or three Estonian movies will be able to shoot their scenes at the new studios every year, it will still constitute a giant leap for Estonian film.

Artist's rendition of the Tallinn Film Wonderland campus. Source: Novarc


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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