Marta Pulk was born in 1988 in the midst of the Estonian Singing Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union. After graduating from high school, she had no idea what to do with her life. As she had to make a choice, she decided to study History. This particular choice turned out not to be for her, and she therefore quit University only to return to her hometown, where she worked in the maternity ward, assisting midwives at childbirth. Her twenty-four-hour shifts were filled with human emotion, hardships, overwhelming joy and a wide variety of people and colorful characters… Around that time, the thought that there were countless stories around her started forming in her mind, prompting her to think about film. As she was studying editing, she found herself constantly giving everything she had to stories that were not hers, so she became a director, earning her MA in Filmmaking from the Baltic Film and Media School.
Marta Pulk’s films feature a strong visual signature and a relentless interest towards the human spirit, often spotlighting a strong societal theme. Her short films have toured the film festival circuit and screened at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, Zagrebdox, Doc Buenos Aires, Bogoshorts, Queens World Film Festival among numerous festivals and competed for the Silver Eye Award. In 2018, she shot her film “Vida Alegre” in the Peruvian Amazon under the mentorship of Werner Herzog.
Her first feature documentary, “A Year Full of Drama,” tells the story of twenty-one-year old Alissija who hails from the periphery of Estonian society and a Russian-speaking family and knows nothing about performing arts. She’s about to immerse herself in and document a world she knows nothing about after a job ad is posted to find someone who has never been to the theater before. The task is to watch and review every single theater production of 2018. As her world starts to transform, she has to face traumas of the past to redefine herself and a future worth surviving for. Putting Alissija through 224 shows in 365 days, “A Year Full of Drama” serves as a true coming-of-age story, testing the human limit of consuming culture and asking whether art has the power to change a life.
How did A Year Full of Drama come about?
Marta Pulk: A Year Full of Drama was the brain child of Kinoteater, a theater company who wanted to construct an experiment: to take someone who had never been to the theater before and, over the course of one year, make them watch every theater production that comes out in one small country. To document the experiment, they came to me with the proposition. I decided to take it on and that developed into a feature film that turned out to be about much more than theater. I’m not much into statistics, but I liked the human aspect of whether and how art impacts Alissija. And being the charismatic, open and sincere character that she is, Alissija brought such a personal story and willingness to share it, I felt I was terribly lucky to have met her and had the privilege of sharing her journey while revisiting my own questions of independence, love, art and our place in the world.
The physical and spiritual transformation that Alissija goes through thanks to culture and theater is amazing. It has awakened her and is especially summed up in her thoughts: “They say that people don’t have to agree with art. Sometimes it’s meant to provoke. Not just give hope that everything will be OK, but to irritate, so that people would climb out of their own mess.” Do you think this is what has happened to her? That she has interpreted her issues and found a way out thanks to theater and the exposure to culture in general?
M.P.: I believe one of the most important aspects of art is the ability to provoke thought. To direct our brain to a different path, maybe one we’ve never considered before. A lot of it is up to the viewer: What are they looking for? What are they perceptible to? Are we looking at the world just trying to reinforce the beliefs we already have or do we feel either safe, free or hysterical enough to allow new thoughts and approaches into our mind? I think Alissija has a searching spirit and for someone like that, everything works as a thinking tool, be it art or a random interaction with a stranger. The framework of the experiment just created a highly concentrated period, filled with new experiences, thoughts and intensity that allowed for a burst. In introspection and in relating to the world in different ways.
But the issue of the impact of art can also be controversial, especially with Decadentism that advocated that art had no impact, Oscar Wilde was strongly associated with the phrase “art for art’s sake,” though it doesn’t actually appear in his writing. It stems from his role in the Aesthetics Movement, in which he advocated that art needed no justification or purpose. As he notoriously claimed in the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is quite useless.” Wilde believed that art need not express anything but itself. He put the value on artistry above anything else and regarded life as a kind of art form, to be lived beautifully. He would agree with his own Lord Henry Wotton that “art has no influence on action.” Flaubert went on and said: “You don’t make art out of good intentions.” Was this other side of the coin ever considered in the project? And what is your opinion on the matter?
M.P.: The question of art for art’s sake is omnipresent for me. I think it’s a necessary concept because only through terms when we are not aiming for result, do we create space for making mistakes and failing. And only in a mind space that allows failure, that doesn’t measure purpose or justification can we be free of fear. And only when you are free, can you truly experiment, wonder and let your mind create something that has inner freedom. Regarding this project, though, I personally am not in a stage of my life where I’d be interested in making art about art. So, taking on a film that was originally about theater, was an inner conflict. I was not interested in creating a film that spoke of theater to those who love theater. I saw an opportunity in Alissija and her lack of experience in the field, for the film to speak to and about people in whose lives art may not have a presence. To me, the essence of the film is inner freedom, the search for it through your own process of individuation and the role that new ideas from third parties, including art, can have in it.
You also tackle the role of the critic and objectivity in the film. When asked whether she would consider becoming a theater critic, Alissija says that she is not a critic because she writes about herself through theater and not the other way around. It’s her own experiences and not what it is objectively, but what she felt when she was watching the plays. Can you comment on that? What is the role of the critic, in your opinion?
M.P.: I think the role of a critic is twofold. One is to analyze, to understand the field, the process and the position of the author and through the combination of these to create context. But the other one is the same as that of the creator – to bare and sacrifice a piece of yourself to the altar. Allow the reader to be close to you, to your personal reactions and emotions because these are the only ones you can truthfully reflect. And then, take the time and distance to find the balance between the two. As filmmakers, we do the same. I speak my own stories, my own emotional turmoil through Alissija. In this film, I am as bare as she is. And yet, I take a step back in order to translate the story in dramaturgy for the viewer, to pace the emotion and temper the viewing process. I try to share myself, but not project my story on my character; I work to keep her truth. In Estonian, I always say: “No matter what you’re creating, to bring stories from beyond this world, we have to give a piece of ourselves.” And that’s exactly what I’d expect from a critic, aside from knowing film language: be personal, but know when you’re doing so.
In the case of Alissila, theater has helped her find herself, reconsider her life and her choices, become better friends with herself, with the part of herself that she has tried to ignore, conceding though that theater is not just an escape from real life, that this is not the point. Would you agree that this experience was a prolongation of her coming-of-age?
M.P.: I’d actually put it the other way around. I think it was an enormous acceleration that both forced and allowed her to speed – on steroids – through a process that otherwise would have taken years. Coming-of-age is not about when we start to make a living for ourselves; it’s the process of becoming oneself and maturing. It’s everlasting. Sometimes, we don’t move much for years and, sometimes, we have bursts of development. So, this crash course in life that set her up against so much over the course of a year, I think, served as a very intense maturing experience, hopefully not traumatizing, though.
We are all rooting for her to end up in theater, to choose theater. At least, I did. In that sense, this is a happy end and a feel-good sort of film with a strong message. Would you agree with that? Is Alissiya still in theater? Has she actually started her studies?
M.P.: She is finishing her first year of theater school now and seems to have found a place for herself, where she can create and discover. The ending of the film is happy to me, because it symbolizes a newfound liberty, that just happened to be theater in this case. The practical side of it has no importance to me. I found it important that she made her own choices, without any influence by me or the theater company. Because if the starting question was, “how does the experiment affect her?” you can only evaluate that once the infrastructure of the experiment is taken away. How she acts when she has all of her freedom back, she has no obligation to anyone. I’m happy that she made that move and I hope she blossoms, but I make a point not to comment too much about it. She’s free to quit at any point and go work as a tour guide or a sales person, just as we are in our career choices.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does this inform your filmmaking?
M.P.: I am most definitely a feminist because I believe in the equality of sexes. I find the representation of different genders, age groups, races and viewpoints in film extraordinarily important. I don’t think of filmmaking in a political sense per se. I think an artist must be free to make any choice they want. But it’s so important not be blind of your own privilege and think that since you feel represented, everybody else does. I’ve seen that a lot, people identifying their own experience of the world with objective reality. I myself have struggled a lot with the traditional gender roles and how we sometimes recreate those narratives by instinct. But we all win when the faces of stories and characters are as varied as possible and everyone has a chance to tell their story, their reality. This is our opportunity to see each other, to relate and to empower.
What subjects interest you and that you would like to tackle in your work? What would you like audiences to come away with after watching your films?
M.P.: I’ve found myself growing further apart from topics that interested me in the past, like justice and how we operate together as a society, as a family, etc. As a filmmaker, I move in this world thinking of what matters to me, as I am the only one I feel I can represent. And, recently, I’m more and more drawn to the magic of life, of the metaphysical, of what else is there that we may be unable to grasp. Hope and freedom are two important concepts to me. I never plan on it, but I find myself looking for them both inside and outside of film.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
M.P.: I’ve loved Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Lucrecia Martel’s work. As my favorite, though, I’d cite Beau Travail by Claire Denis.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry these past two and a half years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in Estonia?
M.P.: Estonia is a wonderful place for a female filmmaker. Many of the directors, decision-makers, producers, etc. are women. Sometimes, it even leans in our favor percentagewise. So, I feel very lucky to work in an industry where female filmmakers can blossom. I think it has a connection to the fact that we don’t have big studios and art is mostly funded by the State, so there’s no big money that only certain people have access to that would allow for one group to monopolize the power. Of course, on the level of society, we’ve had to fight the same battles of prejudice, gender roles and representation, and feminism is still a word that scares many, but the film industry is one of the most progressive ones, for sure.
What are your next projects?
M.P.: I am currently working on a documentary called Tell Me, that started in the days of isolation across the world. Along with twenty-three filmmakers from fifteen countries who first met at a Werner Herzog masterclass in the Peruvian Amazon, we gathered anonymous voicemails from isolation from across the world – from Estonia to China, Italy to Brazil, UK to the US, Kosovo to Argentina, etc. – and we are creating a poetic portrait of humanity in isolation. The anonymous voicemails allow us into people’s homes, their most heartfelt moments of solitude, of fear, of being crammed together with their loved ones or completely alone for months. We’re bringing these stories together in a feature-length poetic documentary. It serves as a time capsule of this extraordinary moment of maybe the biggest shared human experience of our time, being alone together all over the globe.
Photo credit: Sigrid Kuusk.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: