AAutumn Ball (Sugisball) is the sort of risky story of which distributors are normally wary, but which independent film-makers - and the Venice Horizons jury which awarded it the top prize this year - love.
Adapted from the book by Mati Unt, Veiko Ounpuu's film is set on a bleak Estonian housing estate and follows four dislikeable characters as their lives disintegrate.
Although many of the characters came directly from the book, much of the storyline was added during the writing of the script and even changed during filming.
That was in part thanks to Ounpuu's collaborative relationship with his actors, many of whom are his friends. "I chose every actor very carefully so they would care about their character very deeply," he explains. "I gave them the liberty to develop the character themselves. In some scenes where I wanted to create a more 'organic' impression, I allowed improvisation while ensuring the plot remained coherent."
The film was made for $520,000, "which is unusually low even compared to Estonian films' already typically low budgets," says producer Katrin Kissa. Public funding came from the Estonian Film Foundation and the Cultural Endowment, and 20% was self-financed.
According to Ounpuu, the film has done "relatively well" at the box office, "considering the depressing aspect of the film. And the Estonian critics have responded extremely well to the success in Venice." The film is the sixth highest-earner at the Estonian box office this year, and one of the 10 most successful Estonian-made films of all time.
Now, Ounpuu and Kissa are developing an Estonian-Swedish co-production titled The Temptation Of St Tony. "It's a simple story of a man with an eternal dilemma - how to choose between a career and a soul," Ounpuu says. In some ways the new film reflects the challenges facing many independent film-makers today, which Ounpuu describes as "how not to sell out to the so-called 'expectations of the audiences', the ugly, money-driven Moloch of consumerism".
As they did on Autumn Ball, Ounpuu and Kissa will choose foreign partners carefully.
"To me, Hollywood is like a sequined neon shirt or cotton candy," Kissa says. "Estonians are calm by nature and prefer to work with people closer and more similar to their demeanour - the Finns, Swedes, Germans."
At the same time, Kissa says it is important that Estonian films "stop being thought of only in the Estonian context. To gain admission into a larger context and be considered as a film, not as a film from some weird, small country."
[s19] See Baltic Film Hub, p31.