Feb. 24 marked the centenary of the proclamation of Estonia as an independent, democratic republic. In preparation for that milestone anniversary, a special initiative, Estonia Film 100, brought an extra €9.6 million ($11.7 million) into the domestic production coffers. The Estonian Film Institute used the money to fund five feature films (“The Little Comrade,” “Take It or Leave It,” “Truth and Justice,” “The Riddle of Jaan Niemand,” “Eia’s Christmas at Phantom Owl Farm”); two documentaries (“Roots,” “The Wind Sculpted Land”); a feature-length animation (“Lotte and the Lost Dragons”); and the TV series “The Bank,” which will air this fall.
The period drama “The Little Comrade,” directed and written by documentarian-turned-feature-debutant Moonika Siimets and produced by Riina Sildos of Amrion Production, was the first of the Estonia Film 100 titles out of the gate. Released domestically on March 23, it has ranked No. 1 at the box office for four consecutive weeks. With 99,191 admissions so far, it is on course to rank No. 4 in the top domestic box office of all time.
“The Little Comrade” is based on an autobiographical novel by Estonia’s beloved writer Leelo Tungal. Starting in 1950, in the midst of the Stalinist repression, the story unfolds through the eyes of the title character. Her school-principal mother is sent to a Siberian prison camp for displaying “nationalist tendencies.” Meanwhile, her father, a physical education teacher, finds himself under pressure to deny his former athletic prowess and even to divorce his wife.
With the limited understanding of childhood, Leelo feels that it is somehow her fault that her mother has been sent away. She idolizes the “young pioneers,” the Soviet anthem-singing, slogan-shouting, red-kerchiefed older children she sees attending school.
Leelo’s outspokenness and lack of guile sometimes creates trouble for the adults who care for her, but over the course of the film, Siimets poignantly equates her coming-of-age with a loss of innocence that especially resonates.
Liina Trishkina-Vanhatalo is another female documentary maker making her feature debut within the frame of Estonia Film 100 with “Take It or Leave It.” Produced by Ivo Felt of Allfilm, it’s a contemporary drama about a construction worker who becomes a single father when his ex-girlfriend tells him that she’s going to put the infant he didn’t know she was pregnant with up for adoption.
The film is in post and Felt plans to show a cut to summer and fall film festivals in late May.
“We received the Work in Progress prize during the last Tallinn Film Festival, where the jury stated that the film is full of energy and offers a modern take on a familiar theme,” he says. “I have no doubt that ‘Take It or Leave It’ has high potential for international markets and festivals.”
Allfilm has a second Estonia Film 100 title, “Truth and Justice,” an adaptation of one of Estonia’s most famous novels, directed by Tanel Toom, an Oscar nominee for live-action short (“The Confession,” 2010).
“It is classical filmmaking in a very modern way,” Toom says. “We have been in production for more than a year and the footage looks like we have not wasted our time! My expectations are very high and oriented towards two goals: to have a domestic success and launch the film into worldwide distribution.”
Homeless Bob Prods., the outfit behind the 2017 international success “November,” has a period drama in post with Kaur Kokk’s feature debut, “The Riddle of Jaan Niemand.” Like “November,” it is shot by ace D.P. Mart Taniel. The setting is the beginning of the 18th century in Estonia, just after the Great Northern War. Recent turmoil has started to affect society, and the few people who remain start to wander, common sense starts to blur and a new religion emerges. Producer Katrin Kissa says the Estonian opening is planned for October.
Family adventure tale “Eia’s Christmas at Phantom Owl Farm,” written and directed by Anu Aun, is looking at a Christmas release. It boasts two cinematographers: Heiko Sikka shot the scenes with actors while nature specialist Ants Tammik captured the documentary sequences of forest animals and birds.
Noting the increased B.O. and audience share for Estonian films, the government has already deemed Estonia Film 100 a success and added an additional million euros to the Estonian Film Institute’s production budget for each of the next four years.
EFI director Edith Sepp says at least half of the new funding will be earmarked for minority co-productions. She notes that minority co-productions that employ Estonians in creative crew positions, or that use Estonian composers and sound studios, will receive preference.