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Tartu Part Three: Winter Saga


Vintersaga (2023) dir. Carl Olsson (Elektriteater, Tartu; 4th February 2024)


A nordic documentary about the deep winter of Sweden told in 24 vignettes through fixed camera shots. Each vignette holds a landscape and its people in carefully staged set-ups where real life nevertheless unfolds. In later moments, the subjects stare down the lens. In one startling moment, the film leaps out of itself and shows itself playing on a screen to an audience. The winter is present at the start and present at the end, but there are hints of its evolution and decay. The prow of an icebreaker easily brushing aside the ice it was designed to break. Winter is failing. Melancholy persists. But there is life.

But that is Sweden

This is Estonia.

24 vignettes, fixed camera; one hundred words each.


Vignette 1: Back to the Baltic

Flying in, the view is crystal clear as the northern edge of mainland Europe peels up to the cold northeast. Denmark rises and falls, Poland stretches out, before Lithuania and Latvia take over and the sea becomes fully Baltic. There is snow to be seen, the white smears growing wider as we gently angle ever northward. But something odd catches our notice. The sea abruptly changes colour. From deep aquamarine to a burnished sky blue as it washes in to one of the many bays of northern Estonia. And then we realise: that is ice. A vast shelf of ice.


Vignette 2: Supilinn in the Snow

Settled, let’s reunite with our favourite district; Supilinn, or Soup Town, the former slum where all the streets are named for vegetables. We can fix our camera down anywhere but let’s place it here, on Marja (berry street), and choose this yellow house to look at. All the houses here are their own marvels; broad and elegant but not pompous, each with their cheery and pleasing paintjobs. This yolk yellow pops so brightly against the white of the snow, and the vast blue of the winter sky makes it all seem almost unreal. Tere, Tartu; it’s good to be back. 


Vignette 3: #Tartu2024

It has to hit us sooner or later: the year is 2024 and Tartu is now Capital of Culture. The giant hashtag in the town square proclaimed, very loudly, that this thing was going to happen, and look at us now. Neon signs burn at halfmast on every streetlight. Billboards declare what everyone already knows while signage by the university speaks of a giddy multitude of arty commissions. Even in this litter-free idyll, I spy a fragment or two of confetti from last week’s opening ceremony. There’s no denying it. This is the year, and we have to be ready.   


Vignette 4: Through Dendropark to the River

We are reunited with a dear poet friend who suggests a walk to meet the river. Set the camera at the far end of Dendropark and watch us crunch our way across the vast field of virgin snow. There will be skiiers in the background, gliding around in thrilling silence. We reach the treeline in the foreground and weave through the silver birches, finally reaching the riverside path. There she is; Emajogi, the mother river, her edges a blush of thick ice. She admonishes us for being out so long in such cold, and points us back to the city.


Vignette 5: Therapeutic Kiik

…whereupon we find the kiik. Like disobedient children, we take to it. A huge construction meant for six, these mammoth swings are found in every town and village in Estonia, and riding them is a rite of passage. It takes a while for us to get it moving, but soon enough we are slicing happily through the icy air. There is nothing left to do but talk, and as so often happens in such artificial circumstances, the talk deepens towards the profound. Our minds and bodies are thoroughly therapised, and that night my dreams will have a strange kinetic energy. 


Vignette 6: Kärde Peace House

Now we are members of a happy little expedition heading northwards towards the Endla bog. But first, the camera finds us here; an old hut on the edge of a manor park. A thatched roof made of reeds, and a single table in the centre of the square room. It was here, so told, that Aleksei Mihailovits of Russia met with Bengt Horn of Sweden to sign the Peace Treaty of 1661. Among today’s warm company, it is hard to imagine such tensions. But 363 years later there are still wars on our doorsteps, and peace is a flimsy concept.  


Vignette 7: Return to Endla Raba

Onwards to the bog. Last summer this place was alive with acidic colours, croaking frogs, and hungry mosquitos. Today, it is winter’s hard silence that greets us. Put the camera in the watchtower to see our journey; we clomp along the walkway across the wasteland of white, like a videogame landscape before the design has rendered in. We chat about folklore, tattoos, and Soviet-era drainage systems. There is forestry too, so we breathe the tree air and listen to the droplets of melting snow falling from branches. As we leave, horses gather to greet us, amused by our bobble hats.


Vignette 8: The Artist’s Bench

We reunite with the sound poet, whose father was a famous surrealist, and we are taken to the graveyard where the latter is buried. There, the poet has commissioned a memorial bench quite unlike any other. A metal horn skewers a boulder, jutting out above the artist’s scrawling signature, the rest of the bench jammed in the side and covered in a layer of fresh snow. There is no melancholy here, only admiration. On the way out, the sound poet points at an obelisk. A memorial to those lost in terrorist attacks, raised by a country that has experienced none.


Vignette 9: Impressions, David, or Life?

Find us approaching the foot of Tooma Hill and listen hard to the sound poet’s question. It is this: “David. What is more important: impressions, or life?” We are startled, a tad confused, and we feel this is some deep philosophy that has a clear and obvious answer. Stalling, we ask for further explanation as we wrestle with whatever thoughts we have of impressionism and/or metaphysics. He clarifies: shall we go up and over the hill (impressions, experiences, icy paths of danger), or around (safer, gritted paths, more boring)? We laugh and opt for the hill. Gladly, we all survive.


Vignette 10: Vara Küps

Warmth now in the Elektriteater cinema. The place is full, not a seat to be had. It becomes clear that there is fury locked in the chests of these Estonians, who are normally so calm and reserved. The documentary is Vertical Money and it covers the hot debate that currently grips the nation: forestry. The slick industry heads are circumventing laws, both manmade and natural, to maximise the profits of felled wood. There are hypnotic drone shots of stacked logs, of trunks blitzed to woodchip, of lifeless forests with no ecological variety. Capital swallowing nature. What is to be done?


Vignette 11: Vintersaga

Stick with this shot as we’ll soon return for Vintersaga. We are lured into the construction of this unusual documentary, and the shocks of a scene of real sex, a scene of real drug taking, and a pair of brothers having a real argument. But we are held steady by cinematographic beauty. A pair of female bikers who talk about the infinity of space: one stares straight down the lens, while the other lies on her bike watching the night sky, beneath the sodium glow of a streetlight, on the edge of a Swedish town, in the depths of winter. 


Vignette 12: Terror on the Ski Slopes of Tähtvere

We were fools to mention the skiing because we activated the giddiness of one delightful new friend who was keen to hit the slopes. Let’s be clear: we have never skied before. And it is nighttime, dark, and there is no-one around with splints to set broken bones. So set the camera at the base of this slope and wait for an hour or so while we shuffle around and get our balance. Then watch as our new friend entices us down the hill in a rush of screams and curses. We survive intact, and vow to never ski again. 


Vignette 13: The Folklorists 

The sound poet has arranged for us to meet with the folklorists, somewhere in the depths of the hallowed halls of the folklore archive. Settle here in the woman’s office as she talks gently and with deep affection about saintly interventions and animal transformations in Setomaa villages. Her companion is a kindly wizard who wears a necklace with bells that alert malevolent faeries of his presence. He talks of bleeding trees, fungi networks, sacred groves, and bears taken as lovers. Our story vessel is overflowing by the time we leave, and yet we also feel we barely scratched the surface.


Vignette 14: Johannes Gutenberg is a Good Boy

Cut to the next scene and you’ll find us sitting outside a bookshop reading ‘Forestonia’ by Valdur Mikita, a brief philosophical reflection on Estonians as ‘forest people’. But it is hard to concentrate when there is a cat on the opposite seat. Dwell here until our blue-haired friend arrives because there’s a twist in the tale (or tail). The cat is a local celebrity. He lives at Typa, the printing press, and his name is Johannes Gutenberg. In the cafe next door, the staff wear t-shirts of a cartoon Johannes. He has antlers and sits against a universe of stars.


Vignette 15: The Sauna Will See You Now

There’s this floating sauna moored within the blushing ice at the edge of Emajogi, so we rent it for the evening. Watch as two English writers and an Icelandic poet sheepishly brave the lukewarm sauna in swimwear then dip toes in the river to cool off. Keep watching for the arrival of the Estonians who strip nude, pump the heat to its maximum, and swim, full-bodied, in the water. Soon enough, we realise the futility and restriction of swimwear and we get naked too. We pour beer onto the hissing stones and sing chants of thanks for the intense warmth.  


Vignette 16: The Gas Factory

We return to the disused chimney that rises not far from the centre of Tartu, the one with the graffitied sun that calls for an adoption of solar energy. Last time, not much more than a year ago, there had been an old factory here, squat and ugly with smashed windows and crumbling walls. We’d sat on barrels and mused about possible inhabitants; vagrants, or a decrepit KGB agent unaware of the fall of the Iron Curtain. All that is gone. Now it is mounds of rubble and twisted pipes, and there are dogprints in the snow promising escape routes.  



Vignette 17: Siili Street Hedgehog

The camera catches our smile as we reach the destination of this mini pilgrimage. We’re on the outskirts, an uncanny street called Siili, where the houses are blocky and modernist, where there are no people, where gardens are landscaped to oblivion, and cars are electric. Here, at the end, is the iron hedgehog that gives the street its name. He’s a rusted steampunk dude with nails as spikes, a coil jaw, and a piston for a snout. He clutches a lantern in one hand to fulfil his role as a guiding spirit. We take a cheery selfie, as you do.


Vignette 18: Underpass

We stop, like a camera halted midway through a tracking shot. There is a figure standing in this underpass staring at the infinite distance. The structure rushes off above our heads to a profound vanishing point and we hope, perhaps naively, that this is some form of edgeland meditation; a way of finding utter stillness amongst the rush of perpetual petrol-headed motion. At their feet a sign warns of danger ahead, and the river lies beyond it, shucking hunks of ice from west to east. The figure refuses to move. We silently wish them well, and leave them to it.


Vignette 19: KGB Cells

We’ve invoked the KGB so away they take us, but only for an hour or so, and they’re fine with cameras these days. So find us wandering in the museum where they’ve preserved their interrogation rooms and the cells they used for political prisoners. The slick signage and interactive displays rather take the edge off the horrors, as is so often the case. But we learn about the guerrilla rebels, the Forest Brothers, and the heroic students who blew up a statue and created the blue-black-white of the present day flag. Our touristic duties performed, we're granted permission to leave. 


Vignette 20: Barlova, Karlova

We would like to stress that it’s not all lonesome wandering; there have been plenty of gatherings with friends old and new to chat art, life, and the foibles of the UK over a pint or two of Alexander le Coq. Like here; Barlova in Karlova, a haunt for poets and artists, where the regulars will always meet each other, where waifs and strays from other realms will find a warm and cosy welcome. We sink into a tatty sofa, summarise recent adventures, and look outward and forward to the parties promised in the spring and summer. Winter is fading. 



Vignette 21: Tallinn Old Town

Only melancholy follows us when we leave beloved Tartu, so keep that in mind when you next find us on the viewing platform above the old town of Tallinn. We’ll take time to snap a few obligatory pics of the pretty towers and the spires and the snow-dusted rooftops, and they’ll be held there snug in the phone’s memory, given barely a second glance. It is hard to be a good little tourist once you’ve stepped sideways into folklore and edgelands. ‘What is more important, David; impressions, or life?’ The question takes on a new aspect in a different context.


Vignette 22: Freedom Square

Only the dancer can save us now. He says to meet him at Freedom Square in the doorway of the only church. Pop your camera here and watch us waiting; watch us watching the snow fall through the pastel glows from the public art that adorns the square; lights in the shape of fir trees gathered at the foot of the cross that marks Estonian independence. Watch us as we watch for the dancer, watch our face light up as we see him; a hooded figure striding across the square with one last winter adventure unspooling in his magical mind.  


Vignette 23: Hell Hunt / Gentle Wolf

Before that, a pause for drinks in Tallinn’s oldest pubs. We are amused by the translation: Hell Hunt in Estonian, Gentle Wolf in English, and we ponder if that marks any difference between the two of us. We have a collaboration to complete, our deadline now only months away. 'The Forest of Ink and Skin' is our title, our concept is ambitious and otherworldly. The dancer has a new addition to run by us and, dear reader, it is as ridiculous as it is brilliant. There is much work to be done (we need volunteers), but the prospects are bright.


Vignette 24: Kultuur

The dancer has tickets to a show. A woman pushes a cart through the old town, jeered at by young men she found outside a takeaway. She leads the rest of us inside, puts on a crown of petals, writhes around, then climbs into a rotating plant-pot where she recites a poem about the miseries of potted flowers. She then has a three course meal with four audience members while slowly dragging a giant seagull by its neck to the table. Eventually, she skewers the gull with a parasol and stalks from the room. We don’t get chance to clap.



Notes:

  • Vara Küps (Vertical Money) (2023) was directed by Martti Helde.

  • The sound poet's father was Ilmar Malin

  • Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (2023) directed by Anna Hints is an excellent look at the culture of saunas in southern Estonia.

  • I was being snarky for effect. The KBC Cells Museum is well worth a visit.

  • The performance in Tallinn was called Kultuur (Culture) and it was devised and performed by Maria Metsalu. I made it sound weird, which it was, but it was also very enjoyable.

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