Moonika Siimets is an Estonian director and scriptwriter. She graduated from the Baltic Film and Media School of the Tallinn University and attended Judith Weston’s scriptwriting and directing master classes in Los Angeles. She has directed award-winning documentaries, TV series, and short films, including “Is it You?” which screened at the Stockholm International Film Festival in 2013, “The Last Romeo” (2013), and “Pink Cardigan” (2014). Her documentary credits include “Report: Green Estonia” (2007), “Another Dimension” (2012), “Trendy Dog” (2010) and “World Champion” (2009). In 2018, she was one of six women to direct a short clip for the documentary film “Roots.” Her first feature film, “The Little Comrade” premiered at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival and received the BNK Busan Bank Award (Audience Award).
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Black Nights Film Festival where her debut film “The Little Comrade” screened in the “Estonian Film” section.
How did The Little Comrade come about? Why did you choose Leelo Fungal’s novels for your first feature?
Moonika Siimets: Actually, I read the books ten years ago and I liked them a lot. I immediately started thinking about how I wanted to make a film out of it, but I was very young then and it’s such a long way to become a film director; you can’t just do it! Because it’s a historical piece, it needed extra money and I just contented myself with dreaming about it while I was doing my Master’s. Then, I saw that extra films were being financed and made because of the “Estonia 100” anniversary and I thought it would be a brilliant idea to take part in it. I did take part in it and The Little Comrade is one of the five films that were made.
And it’s now number 4 of all time at the Estonian box office! That is quite an accomplishment!
M.S.: From our independence up to now, actually, because before that, it was the Soviet Union and things were different – but, yes, of course, I’m very happy about it! I didn’t expect it!
At the center of the story is a heartache that provides the context and the key to Estonia’s troubled past, especially through the perspective of a child, in order to focus on the Soviet oppression of Estonia at the beginning of the 1950s. Can you elaborate on that? Can you compare it to your own childhood?
M.S.: When I was reading the book, what intrigued me the most as a director was the possibility to tell the story through the child’s eyes. It’s autobiographical. It really happened, and the writer tells this story from her point of view. For me, what was interesting was how to talk about this in the film language and, of course, how it connects to my own childhood. I was born in the 1980s, but I think these traumas from WWII are still here even today. In my childhood, things weren’t as tragic as in Leelo’s, but my mother’s relatives were Estonian-minded and my father’s side was more Communist. As a child, I had to understand what’s right and what’s wrong and the propaganda worked on me because when I was two years old, I wanted to become a Lenine. I really admired all this and I didn’t understand why my other grandmother wasn’t happy about it. At the same time, I remember my Estonian-minded grandmother telling me that the person who has seen the war can never be happy again and, for me, it was so sad because I really wanted to make her happy. I remember the silence that you feel in the film, this suppression – it was like this in my childhood all the time. It was this trauma that my grandparents had gone through and they didn’t have any possibility to talk about it because there were no therapists back then. So, as a child, I thought that grown-ups think that children don’t understand or feel anything, but I remember everything from my childhood. Of course, maybe I understood things differently, but I was still able to feel everything and perhaps even more than grown-ups, I think.
There is a harsh loss of innocence there as well, in a sense. Can you elaborate on that?
M.S.: Yes, when I think back at these occupation years and my own childhood, one thing what they did was that they taught people to lie. I think it’s one of the biggest things they did. And I think this is what happened with the child. At the beginning, she really believes everything, but she finally understands that everything isn’t as it’s said and seen and, in a way, she looses these “pink glasses” but, at the same time, she understands what it means to be a good person or to become or stay one’s self.
The film is also a tribute to Estonian patriotism as well. Can you talk about that?
M.S.: I wasn’t thinking about it. Of course, it’s about patriotism, but it just came from my heart; it’s just how I feel. I wasn’t thinking about whether or not it is political, but I really felt deep down inside that I wanted to tell this story. It’s a nice way to tell the story, especially to younger generations, to help them understand the burdens our parents or grandparents had. So I hope that, in a way, it makes family relationships stronger.
There is a lot of talk about women in film today. What is your point of view on the situation? How are things, according to you, here in Estonia?
M.S.: In a kind of ironic way, Estonia is a very happy place for women to make films because when we got our independence, our Cinema system which was based on the Soviet Union before totally collapsed, and both men and women have been jobless for ten years and the generation connection was cut too. We had to start our film industry from scratch and for that reason, I think, this new way of thinking came together. Of course, we lost a lot of knowledge, but the good side is, in a way, that as woman I have never felt that I’m not good enough, that I can’t make films, that I’m not taken seriously or that I don’t get money. Yes, we are a small country and the stakes are very high, but it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. We don’t have this thing about gender. We are very lucky, but I know it’s not like that everywhere, especially in these old film countries where there are big problems with this issue. But I think that if I have had any kind of feeling that I am not taken seriously enough, it’s maybe when I was at the beginning of my twenties, after film school. I have been working on television for a while and, there, at some point I understood that if I were a young man, things would be much easier for me. But the ones who had this type of attitude were actually older women who maybe didn’t take me seriously, but I never got it from the male side.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
M.S.: It’s funny, I have never thought of that! I always thought I liked films and that gender didn’t matter.
What are your next projects?
M.S.: I’m doing a documentary right now and it’s about Estonians who are going to work in Finland because there is a better life possibility there.
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Black Nights Film Festival.