Estonian writer-director and producer Anu Aun graduated with a BA in TV Directing and completed postgraduate studies in Film Directing at the Baltic Film and Media School. In 2005, she was one of the founders of the production company Luxfilm. Anu Aun has produced and directed several short films and documentaries and worked as a script editor for several short films. She also produced Maiju Ingman’s feature “Whatever, Aleksander!” in 2007. Anu Aun’s short film “Shift” has been selected at more than seventy international film festivals including Clermont-Ferrand, Tampere, Grimstad, Montreal, Shanghai, Uppsala and Rome and won seventeen prizes from all over the world. The Estonian Filmmaker’s Union gave this film the XIII Estonian Film Days Annual Film Award while the Estonian National Culture Foundation awarded “Shift” as The Best Debut of the Cultural Year. The script for her first feature film, “The Polar Boy,” was was developed at the Torino Film Lab and within the framework of the Nipkow Program. “The Polar Boy” premiered in the Official Competition at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival and screened soon after at the Cairo International Film Festival and Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
Tara Karajica caught up with Anu Aun at this year’s Black Nights Film Festival where her second feature, “Eia’s Christmas at Phantom Owl Farm,” screened in the “Estonian Film” section.
How did Eia’s Christmas at Phantom Owl Farm come about?
Anu Aun: There was a competition organized here for the “Estonia 100” anniversary and at that time, I didn’t have any new ideas for a film, but I had planned for quite a while to write a children’s book – a Christmas story. And then, since I thought I would probably want to make it into a film someday anyway, I thought: “Why not start the other way around?” In Estonia, there is no feature film made especially for Christmas and for families or children, so there was a gap that needed to be filled.
It’s a very touching and educational film for young children, especially through the story of the forest that should be saved as well as the shots of all the animals, in the sense that it teaches children to take care of nature and to love animals. Can you talk about that?
A.A.: The subject of the forest is something that is very current right now in Estonia because the lumber business has been a big part of the Estonian industry for a long time, but they have recently changed the laws so that you can cut the forest down before it’s really ripe. Some scientists say that they have cut down seven years more than it should be allowed, so it’s a big problem here right now. I hope that by talking about it in the film, people will start thinking about it more – especially the new generation. When they grow up, they will maybe look at it differently and be able to do something about it.
The little girl is at the center of the story and she carries the film, but she is also the kind of person who will grow up to be a very strong woman who takes action. Was it a conscious choice?
A.A.: Yes, it was a conscious choice. Eia’s character is based on my own daughter. When I started writing this story, my daughter was eight years old and as the story developed, Eia’s character grew a little older. I think she has lots of characteristic features that my daughter has like for instance sticking up for something that she believes in. That is something I try to teach her because I think I was the same kind of girl when I was young. I wanted to show through her character that you can’t change anything in this world unless you yourself start making small changes that you are able to make. And you should believe in the power of these small changes because if everybody makes a small change, it becomes a really big change.
How was the casting process? How did you find Eia?
A.A.: It was a very long process. We had about three thousand children from all over Estonia who applied to be in the main roles, both for Eia’s character and the boy’s, Aits, as well as the other smaller parts that children have. We had three rounds. First of all, we just tried to see how open they are in front of the camera when they talk about themselves. In the second round, we spent a whole day with fifty children one day and fifty another day. We played two different scenes and I directed them and saw how they reacted to my comments. Then, for the last twelve children, we made a summer camp for three days in Southern Estonia to see how they feel when they are away from home; how they get along with each other and not just the acting part because it was very important. We had very difficult shootings, long days, and a lot of it outside in the forest with snow, so we needed to know they wouldn’t be complaining, whining and crying to go home. They had to be really strong children who would be not just good actors.
How important are children films in Estonia? Will you make only children films from now on, or do you plan to move on to something else?
A.A.: I actually started with a short film that was a drama for grown-ups. It did really well, so I thought that drama for grown-ups is my thing, but now that I’ve made my first feature that is a coming of age story about youngsters graduating from high school, I feel differently. It is not just for youngsters, but also for grown-ups. Even though the main characters are children, Eia’s Christmas at Phantom Owl Farm is a film for the entire family. I always try to put something in there that is for all age groups. That’s why I can’t say it’s a children’s film. I think it’s very important when parents go to the cinema to see films with their children that they don’t get bored and that they also get something out of it. I think that, in the future, I will continue the same way. I would love to do more children’s films, more films for children and with children. But not only for them.
One of the things your film touches upon is the family of today, which lacks the interaction between parents and children because of the parents’ work, other interests or the way life is right now. Can you talk about that and the fact that Eia finds it hard to relate to her mother even if she wants to be with her but she is absent, and so she cannot really look up to her?
A.A.: I think that when I created the mother’s character, I based it a lot on myself because I want to be with my children, but the reality is that work takes up a lot of my time. I do it with great passion and I am often away. I can’t be with my children as much as I would want to and I sometimes also feel this disconnection – you want to be the best mother on Earth, but you feel like you can’t do everything because it’s really, really difficult. You have to provide for your family and you have to do your job the best you can and also be there for the children and there are only 24h in a day! I understand the mother character very well and I think that when I was a child, I imagined to become a different kind of mother than the one I have actually become, because the reality kicks in at some point.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past year. What is your take on the situation? How is it, according to you, in Estonia?
A.A.: In Estonia, I would say we have a really good situation. There are lots of women in film – directors, screenwriters, a lot of producers… So, I would say the voices of women are really out there in Estonia. But what makes it difficult, I think, is exactly this: how to divide yourself between your family and your work? Because, somehow, it still feels more natural for, say, men to go and have a film shooting for two months and the mother is the one who takes care of the children. But if you leave your children for two months as a mother, then maybe it’s not society that makes you feel like you are a bad mother, but you yourself feel that – but that’s the only way you can do this job. So these times when you are shooting, or when the film comes out, are very, very intensive work-wise. I think the only way you can be a woman and make films is when you have a really good support system in your family. If it weren’t for the father of my children, my parents and his parents who are constantly there while I am away on shoots or at festivals, I couldn’t do this job. I really don’t know how these women who are single mothers and who don’t have their children’s grandparents helping them do it! I think that’s a bigger problem, actually.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
A.A.: Sofia Coppola, for sure. I think Virgin Suicides was the first film that I really loved, but I also love everything else that has come from her after that.
What are your next projects?
A.A.: Right now, I am making a full-length documentary, Walker on Water, about Estonia’s most beloved and internationally best-known contemporary poetess, Kristiina Ehin. I still have a couple of days to shoot and then I will be editing. I think it will be released next Autumn.
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Black Nights Film Festival.