Man of Manija

Director-cinematographer Mark Soosaar during the shootings of “Wom- an of Kihnu” (1973). Photo: Vallo Kepp

Still from “Bridges of Time"

Mark Soosaar is the youngest of the Estonian “Golden Age” classics but also the only one to enroll at State University of Cinematography VGIK – All-Union State Institute of Cinematography without de- tours, right out of high school. Mark doesn’t have much good to say about his alma mater. The most important thing he brings up when talking about his Moscow years is the chance to see world classics on screen. It was in Moscow where Mark saw Robert Flaherty’s “Man of Aran” (1934), an experience that affected his career as a filmmaker from there on.

At the first chance he got, Mark started making his own “Aranian”. Fortunately, he had no trouble finding a Flahertian environment. Only 40 km from Mark’s home town of Pärnu is the tiny island of Kihnu, which has a culture so unique that it’s currently on the UNESCO World Heritage list. “Woman of Kihnu” was completed in 1974 and well received by both Soviet bureaucrats as well as world documentarians. In 1975, the film screened in Paris where the introduction was given by none other than Jean Rouch.

This began Soosaar’s lifelong love for the island of Kihnu and its people as well as his “infamous” style of using staged elements in his films.

“It’s a pseudo-problem,” Soosaar says.

“What matters is the message of the film and what the author wants to say at a certain moment in time. In a historical perspective, perhaps also whether the truth of the film reflects the emotions and atmosphere of the time.”

Soosaar did not rest on his laurels after “Woman of Kihnu”. He clearly has proven himself as the most inquisitive Estonian documentary filmmaker who isn’t afraid to be provocative if necessary to realize his ideas. His most well-known provocation is the film Lasnamäe, which was completed shortly before the beginning of Perestroika in 1985. In the film, he records a candid phone conversation with the city architect of Tallinn and reveals the two–faced nature of the regime.

He definitely was not an easy colleague to the studios where he worked (there were two studios in Soviet Estonia: Tallinnfilm and Eesti Telefilm) nor to his colleagues who couldn’t understand how someone could get permission to film in Sweden, France and Morocco at the height of the Soviet period (to make “Earthly Desires”, 1977, about Eduard Wiiralt).

Mark is calm when it come to intrigue:

“It’s important for your work or what you do with your life to change the world for the better just a little bit or to help people move towards being just a little bit less violent or having just a little bit more compassion for their fellow man.”

Soosaar has also contributed to our documentary landscape as the director of an international film festival. In 1987, he and writ- er-documentarian Lennart Meri (who later became the President of the Republic of Estonia) started the Pärnu International Documentary and Anthropology Festival, which still exists to this day. His restless soul has taken him to many places, including a seat in Parliament.

Recently Mark was happy to find material he filmed in 1965 as a school boy on Ruhnu Island (an island between Estonia and Latvia) about seal hunters, which he edited into the film “Disappeared World: Seal Hunters, Runö”.

The film clearly shows that the filmmaker Mark Soosaar existed in that Pärnu school boy long before his contact with Flaherty. Fortunately, neither Soviet bureaucrats nor a 40 year career as a filmmaker has been able to destroy that impulse in him. Mark continues to visit Kihnu Island with a camera, starting his journey from Manija Islet near Kihnu where he has lived the last 10 years.

Riho Västrik,

film scholar, producer