Cinema: Estonia’s signature melancholy
19 September 2011
Since independence, Estonian film makers appear to be incapable of producing anything other than films where melancholy plays the leading role, remarks Postimees, which argues that a certain dolefulness has become the hallmark of culture made in Estonia.
Although they show us occasional glimpses of hope, the works of our greatest film makers, Veiko Õunpuu and Sulev Keedus, fill us with sorrow. Our animation films, which are very popular around the world, are also characterised by dark themes, while the works of classic and contemporary Estonian authors leave us in despair. Everything is seen through the prism of melancholy. But is life always as gloomy as we make it out to be?
This predilection for the bleak, is not solely contemporary: look no further than the hard life endured by the peasants in the works of Tammsaare [a major Estonian author of the 20th century], the grim scenes in paintings by Kristjan Raud or the sombre music of Rudolf Tobias' oratorios. That said, no one has expressed any doubts about the quality of Estonian cultural production, but they do wonder about the melancholy that is its dominant trait. Of course, we do have humorists like Andrus Kivirähk, and we have produced some good comedies, but virtually everywhere you look you find examples of a pervasive angst that is typically Estonian. So is Estonian culture really too melancholic? And if it is, does this constitute a problem?
For historical reasons, pessimism and melancholy are almost a natural part of Estonian culture. We are resigned to the sadness and nostalgia generated by long winter nights, which last for half the year before being replaced by joyless drought ridden summers.
Overall impression is a mournful one
At the same time, the weary faces we see on the bus everyday are just waiting for someone to hold up a mirror to the mournful daily grind. But shouldn’t culture “inject” them with a little hope, and charm them with a little distraction? I am not saying that people should be restricted to a cultural diet of comic theatre, cheery street musicians and ironic graffiti that cocks a snook at society. But perhaps serious issues could be explored with a lighter tone.
It is easy to forget that the role of art is not only to show problems, but also to help people. The listening/reading/viewing public wants to identify with works of art, and as the semiologist Umberto Eco has pointed out, every author should be inspired by some notion of a “model reader” or target audience. The trouble is that in Estonia, you often find authors that do not demonstrate any understanding of readers’ expectations, to the point where a rift has opened up between artists and ordinary people – a problem that has been compounded by some artists who are disdain for a public which they believe is too ignorant to appreciate their work.
Of course, Estonian culture is sufficiently varied to offer something to everyone. But the overall impression is a mournful one, even when compared with Finnish culture which has a certain humour. If Estonia could be more like Finland, which escaped the Soviet occupation, we might have Estonian artists like Aki Kaurismäki or writer Juha Vuorinen, who manage to inject a bit more humour into their portrayal of mournful daily routines.
Certainly, there is more to life than summer nights spent drinking sangria in the courtyards of the old town or listening to music with all the windows open, but the gist of the daily news is sufficiently depressing in itself, without a permanent obsession with grim realities in the modest and nonetheless plural world of Estonian culture.