The story surrounding the on-off, will-they/won't they be closing Laagna Road and, according to recent reports, a whole slew of other trademark routes in and around central Tallinn has itself become almost worthy of a movie, particularly one dealing in espionage or counter espionage. There are at least two possible ways of discerning who is in the right and who is in the wrong here, writes ERR News' managing editor, Andrew Whyte.
Just as, to paraphrase a character in one of Christopher Nolan's movies, in midsummer in these high latitudes, it's difficult to know when yesterday ended and tomorrow morning begins, apportioning responsibility in the Laagna Road saga is equally impossible, so we'll try by hedging with two different narratives.
Nolan the tumid migrant?
The first version of events has Nolan as the bloated, presumptuous outsider, swooping down on an unsuspecting, quiet northern burgh and expecting everyone to disrupt their summer routine for no obvious reward simply because, well, Hollywood. This isn't something you could do in Helsinki, say, but then again, we're just an eastern European, borderline democratic, marginal land, so people can put up with the inconvenience.
Ostensibly I expect the idea was to get somewhere cheap for filming, but which would have a ready supply of western-looking people prepared to file in as extras and spend the whole day being bossed around by a film crew, again without tangible gain other than something slightly interesting to tell people about in pubs. But the public school-boy descending from the heavens in his private jet versus the impoverished, sullen band of eastern Baltic denizens and their even odder expat groupies is an obvious contrast. It's not as easy to be an expat celebrity in Estonia as it was a few years ago, after all.
Galling times require a gallant protector, and Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart has stepped up commendably to the defence of the little man and woman. We have, I think, a black belt in tae kwon do, and a worthy stunt specialist for the movie itself. Cheap eastern European location? Think again Mr Nolan, you will have to do battle with hordes of bureaucrats before this deal is done.
Tallinn, of all places, as the setting for a spy story is almost a Kantian thing-in-itself. There would have been legions involved in this seemingly dashing and evocative craft during Estonia's first period of independence – Arthur Ransome anyone? During the Soviet time everything had to march to the beat of Moscow's drum but Tallinn's location meant it was always the porous back door to or from the west, depending on which way you were coming. Some of these stories – I believe Imre Sooääar had to go to Finland once hiding in a ferry toilet cubicle – merit a movie themselves. Even today, of course, Tallinn has shown its cloak-and-dagger side, with the recent money laundering allegations surrounding Danske and Swedbank.
Now, it's a long time since I would have read any Le Carré , but I used to devour spy stories in my teens and twenties, both the pinnacle of the genre – especially Graham Greene – as well as the popular and populist end of the spectrum (Desmond Bagley, Freddy Forsythe – oh to have someone like that today) and, of course, Ian Fleming (whose Bond is not the piss-take of the movies). As I remember one message came across loud and clear across the gamut, which I've already noted in fact – espionage, far from being glamorous, is grubby, repugnant, frightening, sometimes cruel and violent. So that they're filming part of the movie in Lasnamäe maybe does seem appropriate after all.
On the other hand, do we really want that as the Estonian entry into the top world film locations? New Zealand got a huge tourist boon and boom of the back of the Lord of the Rings movies, but, principally, people came to the South Island of New Zealand because, well, it's the South Island of New Zealand. The Franz Josef glacier has, I would aver and having traversed both – one of them with a guided tour – a bit more of a pull than the Lasnamäe channel. So are people really going to flock to Tallinn just because a bit of a Christopher Nolan movie that wasn't as good as the last one was filmed there? Maybe we could do better than that, and have both a more edifying topic, and put a more purely Estonian, less Soviet signature setting on the map, to attract punters?
Doubtless, the temptation is there to see the unfolding filming saga as a clash between the monied of the Hollywood movie juggernaut and their public schoolboy (in the British sense) man in Tallinn, against the plain folk who've had to contend with centuries of oppression and exploitation from outsiders and can take it in their stride, particularly when they have a champion. But is it really that, or is it more a case of the real world, with its commercial truths and cosmopolitan free market ethos giving a slap in the face to the complacent, corrupt Tallinn city mandarins and the parochial and small-minded national government? A bit of both, really.
Pompous local eminences and sophisticated envoys?
Nearly 26 years have passed since there wasn't a Centre Party-dominated government in Tallinn. The city government still suffers from corruption at times, surely; unreconstructed communists, the descendants of the very subject matter of espionage stories, and the bad guys at least in the mass-market end of that category. Isn't it time for the rigid, inflexible and stupid cabal that has presided over what could potentially be a world class city to be revealed for what it is, and isn't a Hollywood movie the best way to do that. Look what it, or at least the film industry, did for South Africa, with "Cry Freedom".
Admittedly, Kõlvart is a product of his background as we all are, but that does not make any machinations towards self-aggrandizement on his part any more excusable. The whole sorry tale so far seems to have been a retrograde step back to the bureaucracy and stupidity that many people have worked very hard to get away from, since Estonia became independent in 1991. Warner Bros. are going to stump up millions for the filming of Tenet in Tallinn – where's that money all going to go? In fact, filming has already gone ahead, I'm told; part of Liivalaia close to the post office was shut down coming into the weekend, so what they've announced, and what has actually happened so far, do not tally.
Looking at Christopher Nolan, it's tempting to see a slick, cultured metropolitan man who would metaphorically tower over the local mayor just as much as Ronald Reagan did over Kõlvart's namesake, Gorbachev, in the eighties. Just as those visits helped to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union, while it may be wishful thinking, perhaps the visit of Nolan, John David Washington and, as if that's not enough, Michael Caine – if he appears in the scenes shot here – will facilitate a much-needed sea change in our own micro-Soviet Union in Tallinn.
Obviously, Nolan and Warner Bros. would be the "goody" of the piece, in this version of events, and would help to bring some, I assume, much-needed tourist revenue in the after shocks of filming here, as well as whatever money gets spent by hungry and thirsty film people who need somewhere to stay. At least the money would be clean money, boy do we need to stress that in the aftermath of the Danske and Swedbank money laundering suspicions.
Needless to say, we need to ditch Kõlvart if portrayed as the defender of the common man and woman in Tallinn, against the corrupting influence of the exploitative outsider. It does not tell the whole story. There is another way of looking at the impasse (except it's not really that either – the movie will go ahead). Far from being smart, Kõlvart and his minions are acting incredibly stupidly in trying to obstruct one of the best things to happen to Tallinn in a long time, and losing Nolan's custom – which they won't do of course – would be a tremendous own goal.
Editor: Dario Cavegn