From the Worldfilm retrospective March 24, 2011

This year, our retrospective is about Estonian filmmaker Mark Soosaar

One can easily say that Mark Soosaar is the most well known figure of anthropology filmmaking in Estonia, and the Festival of Visual Anthropology in Pärnu, western Estonia, since 1987, which Mark Soosaar founded together with Lennart Meri, has been shaping a whole generation of documentary filmmakers here. Worldfilm also feels strongly connected to him: Tartu festival organisers have learned much by participating in Pärnu festival, and on the other hand, Mark Soosaar has been a perennial visitor in Tartu.

According to Liivo Niglas, the retrospective aimed to point out Mark Soosaar's role as an anthropologist, although his films show a strong eye for artistry. This comes through especially in the methods used by Soosaar, which are deeply anthropological, being a beautiful example of participant observation. The films show his intimate and sincere relationship to the subjects of the film, which comes from the fact that the filmmaker has himself lived on Kihnu island, known the people who he films and shared their lives.

He has walked barefoot in the forest with Indians, almost stepping on a poisonous snake. Together with Eva Toulouze, he has visited the Khanti people in Siberia nine times over a period of five years, which gives The Father, Son and the Holy Torum its depth and its range. This is how Soosaar reminds us: anthropology is about how the world is observed and researched, not about which subject is chosen for the research.

The retrospective showed us several documentaries by Mark Soosaar, starting with a block of his Kihnu films, A woman of Kihnu and Kristjan from Kihnu. Both of these films are from a national romantic point of view, but still without too much pathos showing the everyday life of the people on that small island. Little Kristjan sings and talks about how he would like to become a great farmer in Kihnu one day, and although the film follows his life only for quite a short period of time, it manages to capture a great deal of the boy's feelings and ambitions. „If I'll die in sea waves, it'll be Heaven's will“, Kristjan sings in a Kihnu folk song, and he is ready to give his life for his homeland too, if need be. Another aspect about Kihnu films is the traditional seal hunting, which is no longer continued, and which Soosaar regards in an interesting way. To his view, it is quite probable that the seal hunting and seal eating are related to the fact that many disabled people were born in Kihnu, because of the pollution in the Baltic sea. Now that this tradition has ended, or almost, the people are also healthier. This is his criticism of that tradition. The first film block thus shows the importance of Kihnu island in the becoming of Mark Soosaar as a filmmaker dealing with questions of social and cultural anthropology.

The next film in the row is „Grandma of Boats“, which makes a nice bridge to the following film „Father, Son and Holy Torum“. Grandma of Boats puts side by side three nations, Estonians, American Indians and Khants, by telling a story about making boats of one tree trunk, and also about beliefs, travels of the soul, and the river. A boat or a canoe is indeed something that can be used to travel to beyond. The film has mainly two levels, one, that follows the ritual canoe making, but on the other hand, it brings out one of the important issues for Soosaar – all of these nations have been suffering under foreign rulers, and that becomes another connecting link in the film. The problem of repressions and identity comes through in many of Soosaar's films, and is probably originating from his early work with Kihnu people. The film is presenting three stories, switching between them: a personal and warm story of an Indian boatmaker meeting his wife during making one of these vehicles to the eternity; a purely business-purpose boatmaking in Estonia, which shows sharply how we have lost our connection to the nature; and a Siberian story of a shaman Osho making a boat and explaining the rites related to it. Osho is also the bridge that takes us to the following film. By the example of the shaman's family, the „Father, Son and Holy Torum“ deals with the Khanti society, their social decline, spiritual deterioration, as well as their beliefs and closeness to the nature and animist world, which has been preserved nonetheless. The film is full of rituals. About the bear, being in the center of the Khant world, who's head is the earthly embodiment of the Holy Torum. First glass of vodka is always given to the bear's head, and the head is also used (by lifting it up) to communicate to the lost son. The film is very critical towards the Russian rulers, showing for example how the oil factory buys up land from the indigenous people, giving (or rather, offering to give) money which they don't have any use for, and in return, polluting the forest so that one of Osho's reindeer dies. As Soosaar explained after the film, the concept of land or forest belonging to a person who can then sell it to another, is absolutely incomprehensible. How could nature be cut into pieces? The tragic point of this film lays in the fact that Osho's foster son is one of the central figures of this movement, making profit and gaining power by lying to his people, including his parents (and the fake photos of him together with George Bush that he sends back home, are the most innocent of his lies). As the counterpart, the film has many artistic frames, from the nature as well as indoors, and one of the most touching views is perhaps the moment of the sick Osho who is ready to die, but whom Torum doesn't want to take yet. He lays on the floor in his bed, waiting, the door is open, and in from it comes bright morning light. The bright tone that remains is that Khant beliefs still stay with them, although their society is threatened. As Eva points it out in the discussion round, it is probably because the Khant society is a society of secrets. Things that are important are not said out loud, and that is what protects them.

The last film of the retrospective, Home for Butterflies, is a nice change after such serious films. It is a bright and very personal film about Mark Soosaar's three-year-old grand-daughter, although the filmmaker appears on the screen himself, too. The film shows moments of their everyday life, which, as we hear later, is not so every day after all, as the grand-daughter lives in Paris. But the story begins with Soosaar talking on the phone with a woman. These calls with a mysterious stranger continue throughout the whole film, representing warmly their relationship. A subsequent scene shows the little girl talking about, well, love of course, what else, but when her Grandpa asks where is her prince, she answers that she doesn't have one. But the Grandpa believes that there is a prince, somewhere, for everyone.

The child dances and dances in front of the TV and imitates what she sees and hears there, as the TV is playing the cartoon “Snow White” over and over again. “Home for Butterflies” is a very artistic film, put together from frames like poetry lines – we see the early morning mist, and the apples under the apple tree. And of course, lots of butterflies, gathered on a window. It is a documentary-love story, as well as a romantic idyll of a little girl thinking about her prince. So the film ends with her words: I miss my prince.

Madli Kütt, festival blog keeper

Joanna Ellmann, student of Estonian literature

Eva Toulouze and Mark Soosaar on the retrospective, waiting for the questions from the audience