Baltic Filmmakers Bolster Ties, Set to Make Splash in Cannes

For three small nations tucked away in a far corner of Northeastern Europe, wedged between the sprawling tundra of Scandinavia to the north and the lumbering bear of Russia in the east, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have long realized their strength in numbers: In 1989, amid mass protests calling for independence from the Soviet Union, half a million people joined hands in a human chain stretching from Tallinn to Vilnius. Less than two years later, the three independent Baltic states were born.

While Baltic filmmakers might not have quite the same robust presence in Cannes this year, joint efforts by Latvia’s National Film Center, the Estonian Film Institute, and the Lithuanian Film Institute are a sign that the three countries are committed to bolstering their ties as they work to collectively strengthen their growing industries.

“In a lesser form, the cooperation between the Baltic film industries has always been there,” says Estonian Film Institute CEO Edith Sepp. Four years ago, however, the heads of the three Baltic film centers signed the first cooperation agreement between the countries to better coordinate their joint activities at industry events, leading to a slew of initiatives aimed at bringing Baltic filmmakers into the limelight.

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With the support of the three film centers, six leading Baltic producers will take center stage in Cannes this year as part of the Producers Network, where they’ll shine a spotlight on the work they’re doing in the region. A host of Baltic talents will also be on display during Cannes Market events showcasing upcoming projects being prepped for the global market.

As the Baltics’ leading festival and industry confab, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival and its industry platform, [email protected] & Baltic Event, is the lynchpin of filmmaking in the region, offering not only a showcase for the Baltic film industries, but a gathering place for industry professionals from around the world.

This year, both events will have a presence on the Croisette for the first time, as Tallinn Black Nights Goes to Cannes will present five feature films to assembled industry professionals during the Cannes Film Market’s annual pix-in-post showcase, while the [email protected] & Baltic Event Co-Production Market joins the Cannes Marché’s Co-Production Day with seven promising projects from across Europe.

The Goes to Cannes selection includes Dorothée Van den Berghe’s “Round Trip,” a funny, feelgood Belgian film about a truck driver who reluctantly takes a migrant stowaway onboard; Viktor Lakisov’s “Pinocchio and the Water of Life,” a family-friendly animated feature from Estonia, the U.S. and Russia about the adventures of the famous puppet boy; and Tinatin Kajrishvili’s “Citizen Saint,” a Georgia-France-Bulgaria co-production about small-town miners who discover that a saint crucified centuries ago has come back to life and lives among them.

It’s a selection, says Tallinn Black Nights director Tiina Lokk, that aims “to show the diversity of the festival, and to attract film professionals to take part and not think that [email protected] & Baltic Event only deals with Baltic projects.”

The Co-Production Day showcase, meanwhile, “is more dedicated to regional projects, but also worldwide partners who might work with our local filmmakers,” says Lokk. Among the highlights is writer-director Marko Raat’s “8 Views of Lake Biwa,” an avant-garde drama blending Japanese and Estonian art traditions across eight intertwined love stories; writer-director Dāvis Sīmanis’ “Maira’s Silence,” a historical drama about a Latvian silent cinema and theater star set around the time of the Second World War; and “Aliya,” an Israeli-Russian co-production from writer-director Dekel Berenson, about a young Ukrainian woman training to become an instructor in the Israeli army.

“The selection reflects that the Baltic film industry in all of the three countries is in good shape and, perhaps most importantly, that there is a new generation of talented young filmmakers coming up,” says Lokk.

Promoting that talent is central to the activities being planned in Cannes, says Sepp. Among her goals at the helm of the Estonian Film Institute is “to make Estonian films, talented filmmakers and new exciting projects more noticeable at the international markets.”

This year, that includes a milestone with the selection of “Compartment No. 6” (pictured) for the main competition in Cannes. A minority Estonian co-production from Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, the film was written by young Estonian scriptwriters Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman. “This is a small but considerable achievement for us,” says Sepp.

It highlights what the EFI topper describes as a “small but very diverse film industry,” which has boosted its output in recent years while developing a loyal audience back home: last year, Estonian films boasted a 27% market share at the local box office. The country is also attracting more foreign shoots with the help of a cash rebate of up to 30%, one of the factors that helped it lure Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “Tenet” to Tallinn.

Despite a shutdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic last spring, Lithuania enjoyed the most successful year for the local film industry since the introduction of a 30% tax credit in 2014, with producers reaping a record-breaking €11.3 million ($13.5 million) for production from the incentive scheme in 2020, while local spend from international productions reached nearly €27 million ($32.1 million), also a record. In total, 58 new domestic and foreign productions and co-productions received funding, nearly double the amount from 2019.

Latvia’s film industry, meanwhile, has been thriving, with the two most recent pre-pandemic years breaking records in terms of both production volume and audience numbers. Filming continued apace in 2020 despite the pandemic, with the National Film Center noting that more than 50 feature films are set to premiere in the second half of 2021 and 2022. A cash rebate of up to 50% has only sweetened the pot for foreign producers.

“One of our most important initiatives was the attraction of additional funding, and the creation of a special film program dedicated to the centenary of Latvia,” says film center director Dita Rietuma. Along with additional efforts to market local cinema, such initiatives “allowed us to increase production capacity, attract additional audiences and capture approximately 20% of market share in the cinemas for Latvian films in the last three years.”

Such encouraging signs have allowed the three industries to focus on the future. One initiative currently on the table is the creation of a Baltic Film and TV Fund to support the production and distribution of films and series produced between the three countries. “Like Eurimages, the new fund should become the ‘last institution’ in the project’s regional financing plan,” says Sepp. “But additionally, the fund would support the distribution of our films in the region, in Europe and beyond.”

No less important is confronting more existential threats to not only the industry, but the planet. Estonian filmmakers have been focused on reducing their climate footprint in pursuit of a greener industry, through initiatives that range from the development of a high-tech virtual production hub that could reduce the industry’s reliance on location-based shooting to the establishment of a park in Tallinn, where each new tree planted will be dedicated to people who have made their mark on the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

“These pandemic times have really changed everything, also changing our paradigms,” says Lokk. “We hope that we can help this post-pandemic world recover, helping people to return to normal, but at the same time, asking what does a ‘normal world’ mean? It’s becoming more important than ever to think about what it means to be an ecologically minded industry, film festival and large-scale cultural event.”

“Last year was very different for all of us, and as a result, the industry is changing,” adds Sepp. “How it changes and where we are heading, I am not sure we can really pin it down. Having said that, as a small nation, we need to be flexible.”

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