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Mark Soosaar: The Follower of Robert Flaherty

By Tatiana Elmanovich

A black and white photo of Mark Soosaar facing a camera at the ocean.

When I read Nicholas Webster 's article "How Robert Flaherty Changed My Life" (International Documentary Winter/Spring 1988), I vividly remembered the Soviet Cinema of the 60's; the joyful discovery of the western film world, it's great films and geniuses. This period came after the long Stalinist period which removed the Soviets from its contact with the rest of the world. Now a selected circle of filmmakers, students, and members of the Union of Soviet Filmmakers were allowed to watch western films. Filmmakers, especially students, chose their film mentors. These filmmakers protested against Stalinist film stereotypes, trying to break through the state bureaucracy, power and influence that ruled all cinema life of this vast country.

Godard, Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Buñuel and Bergman became the idols of Soviet filmmakers, sweet, officially forbidden idols. But one filmmaker chose for himself another mentor. This filmmaker was Mark Soosaar. He chose Robert Flaherty.

Through Flaherty's pioneer documentary films of the 20's and 30's, Mark Soosaar discovered the power of authentic film- image and, most importantly, how to create this image.

Soosaar began his film studies in the mid 60's at The Institute of Cinema (VGIK). In his class was the famous Soviet camerawoman Margar­ ita Pelihhina. (Pelihhina shot Zastava Iljitsa, directed by Marlen Khutsiev. This film, which contained documentary film-clips of the young poets Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, Ahmadu­ lina performing on stage at the Polytechnical Institute, created a great furor and scandal).

I remember how Soosaar ap­peared in Estonia after finishing his cinema studies in Moscow in the Six­ties and my memory has only one picture: Mark Soosaar prowling around our tiny Estonian film world with metal film boxes under his arms. We all knew that in those boxes were Robert Flaherty's films Man of Aran and Nanook of the North. It was too much for Soosaar to keep his discovery to himself. He took every opportunity to show Man of Aran and Nanook to his colleagues, many of whom were tired, disillusioned people who smiled half-sadly, half­ disdainfully, some even in a hostile or threatening way. But Soosaar didn't see that because he was full of enthusiasm and confidence.

Soosaar had learned in Moscow how to shoot feature films. However, back in Estonia he chose the road of the documentarian, and he has remained faithful to this choice all the way through his creative development.

Soosaar became the conscious auteur, only making films based on his own ideas. He finds his own hero­ subject, and shoots the film without assistance. He never uses outside interviewers. If needed, he will deliberately create a situation to allow his subjects to reveal their inner life, or to further develop his ideas of the film.

Consequently his films often resembled feature and even experimental films. At the same time he never loses the authentic reportage experience that he gained as a student in radio, television and film at VGIK. He studied all the possibilities of doing interviews in the atmosphere of the Sixties. The Sixties in the Soviet Union was a period when artists, including poets, attempted to restore the true meaning of language, and to authentically express their true feelings. Furthermore, Robert Flaherty's experience in making "scenario" documentaries taught him how to lift simple reporting to the level of art. Soosaar S early work for Estonian Television seems, at first glance, thematically eclectic. But soon it becomes clear that the varying themes he dealt with in his films about Estonian fishermen, farmers, singers, and artists, revolve consistently around the idea of the circle of life, and death. He also explores connections between man and nature under threat in such films as The Woman of Kihnu Island (1973) (Kihnu naine) and The Seals (1974) (Vaarioa Sojavagi). In the mid­ seventies, Soosaar became interested in another important theme : man and creativity. For Soosaar the independent mind and creativity are the true measure of human values.

His best film on this theme tells the story of the great Estonian artist, Eduard Wiiralt, who lived and died in Paris far away from his homeland. This two hour documentary, Earthly Desires (Maised Ihad 1976-1978) is not only an emotional travel-report, but is at the same time, a meditative essay about the life of artists. Although, Soosaar was able to go abroad to make the film, he wasn't allowed to take a camera crew. He traveled alone with his camera through the countries where Eduard Wiiralt had lived and worked, trying to trace the soul of his hero through the environ­ment that inspired him to paint.

Earthly Desires aroused great discussion in Estonia. Opponents said that Soosaar portrayed the artist 's life "in the wrong way," claiming he didn't have the right to distort the "true image" of the artist with his own subjective attitude. By the late seventies, this conflict became a battle between old-line artists who had worked in Stalin's time using party­ line methods and the newer generation who sought freedom of expression and creativity. Soosaar repre­ sented this new generation. He won this battle-if not in the eyes of the authorities then in the eyes of public opinion. For him this was the most important thing. Earthly Desires changed and lifted Estonian documentary from a propagandistic tool into a cultural phenomena.

However, his victory was not officially accepted. Mark Soosaar was prevented from making films.

At the time, Soviet policy precluded entering documentaries in international film festivals. Deprived of the opportunity to gain awards and public recognition, Soosaar received no international support. (Today, with glasnost, Soviet documentaries are participating in international film festivals.)

During this period, artistic stagnation reached its apogee. Andrei Tarkovski, Andron Konchalovskiy,Otar Iosseliani left the Soviet Union to seek work abroad. Vasily Shukshin and Dinara Assanova died prematurely. Kira Muratova, Elem Klimov and Aleksandr Askoldov were silent. Aleksandr Sokurov 's name was held in obscurity. And Mark Soosaar moved into the countryside to raise sheep.

Farmer's work did not satisfy Soosaar. He used his own money to make The Last Peace (Viimne rahu....a.), in which sheep are the last living creatures left in the world, after a global catastrophe. Mark Soosaar presented The Last Peace at a gala festival screening to the Estonian Peace Committee. This was in many ways a courageous act because Soosaar organized the screening himself, a seemingly impossible act. In the Soviet Union there exists only state cinema and film production. Mark Soosaar challenged this system. The screening so disarmed the authorities that he was given the chance to make a feature film.

In 1980, Soosaar made his debut as a director of the feature The Christmas in Vigala (Joulud Vagalas, 1980 ), about the tragedy of the 1905 Estonian peasants revolt. The Christmas in Vigala took a new approach to the revolution. For years, the revolu­ tionary theme had been sacred and strongly fixed in the minds of the government bureaucracy. The government authorities never forgave Soosaar for not conforming to the official line. Soosaar thereupon returned to making documentaries.

The World of Mr. Vene is one of his most tender and extraordinary black and white films about an old single pensioner who argues with the great Einstein about his Theory of Relativity. The World of Mr. Vene is a fight for the rights of every person to his own unique opinion. This film was Soosaar 's answer to the bureaucratic authorities who vilified his feature film The Christmas in Vigala.

From Mr. Vene onwards, the non­ conformist individual becomes the hero of Soosaar later films. We see a gallery of such individuals in The Men of Kihnu, (1986), which has won numerous international awards in­ cluding the Silver Dove at Leipzig.

In 1987, after the hopes of glas­nost and perestroika reached Estonia, Mark Soosaar was selected as the new president of the Estonian Filmmakers Union. During this time, he created the International Film Festival of Visual Anthropology in Parnu (Estonia), and participated in many international film festivals.

Despite the demands on his time and energy, Soosaar surprised Estonian society last year with his new film Miss Saaremaa (1988) about a woman who was elected in her youth, in 1925, as the most beautiful woman of her native island.

This film like so many of Soosaar S films is a metaphor. Stand­ing for the state of Estonia. In 1940, Miss Saaremaa had witnessed soldiers killing peasants on an Estonian Island and was sent without explanation to Siberia. She had the good luck to eventually return to Estonia. How­ ever, as soon as she felt that times were dangerous, she left her home again. In the film she says, "I prefer­ red to voluntarily choose the place where I live." She chose the Crimea, the beautiful peninsula on the warm coast of the Black Sea, where she worked for many years as a cook in the Yalta palace. During the famous Yalta conference in 1945, she cooked for Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill.

Today she lives on her tiny farm where she raises pigs. One is named Nikita, another Lonja (a nickname for Leonid). She is old but full of energy. Her talk sparkles with humor. Soosaar created an image of this woman in such a way that we feel she is a symbol of Estonia, and the everlasting vitality of its people.

Miss Saaremaa represents Soosaar as a mature artist, with his splendid insight into the Estonian national character. Fifteen years ago he changed the Estonian documentary from a propaganda tool into a cultural phenomena. Now he is trying to break through another barrier, the barrier of national exclusiveness. He wants to push Estonian documentary beyond its national borders into a world cinema phenomena. I don't know which task is more difficult, the first or the second one, but there is hope that he will succeed now as he suc­ceeded in the past.

Tajana Elmanovich is currently finishing a book on Estonian film. Mark Soosaar recently showed Men of Kihnu at the Anthropos film festival.