Estonian filmmaker/producer duo Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma are going back in time to the eve of the First World War for their next feature film project The Hoppers (Hüppajad) which won the Screen International Best Pitch Award at Tallinn’s Baltic Event in December.

The Hoppers is a historical drama based on a true story,” Kilmi explains. “In 1913, Swedish missionaries land on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa and lay the groundwork for an awakening movement. The members are called Hoppers because of their strange, ecstatic rituals, and the Hoppers start living by their own laws – ‘freely’, as they claim, creating a rift in the island community.”

“The very same year, 1913, a great war is already in motion and a Russian platoon lands on the island. Their mission is to build fortifications and cannon batteries. The otherwise sparsely populated and windy island has suddenly become both a gateway to heaven as well as the frontline of the empire – and conflict becomes inevitable.”

“The island becomes the crossroads of different worlds; the grounds of both earthly as well as heavenly battles,” Kilmi says.

Producer Aarma believes that the island of Hiiumaa is “an excellent ‘stage’ to play out global events; a major story taking place in a limited insular space. At the same time, huge events happen to the characters of our film in a completely unlimited space - in their heads.”

Location important

“The location is important: Estonia is already one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe,” he continues. “However, Hiiumaa is sparsely populated, even on an Estonian scale. The island, three times the size of Malta, has approximately 9,000 souls residing there. Here you will find vast amounts of open space and emptiness, sea and skies, all of which are integral in our film.”

Looking back at his previous work, Kilmi suggests that his 2004 film The Revolution Of Pigs is the closest thematically to The Hoppers with the meeting of rebellion and love, although the style of the new project is “definitely more mature.”

Fact & fiction

Meanwhile, Aarma points out that, during the last four of years of working together on three films, they have “consistently moved” towards a documentary-style feature film.

“Where our first common project Disco and Atomic War (2009) was a documentary with feature film elements, The Hoppers will be a feature film with a grounding in documentary,” he observes. “They all have had a common feature or focus: we have tried to show how ordinary people experience history, the era they live in, with all its strange and funny phenomena. In addition to drama, history is also full of humour…”

While it was the third time that Kilmi had presented one of his film projects at the Baltic Event’s Co-Production Market, the 2012 edition was the first forum to have seen The Hoppers being pitched to potential partners.

Kilmi and Aaarma explain that they are looking for partners in Finland and Sweden to come onboard the project with a tentative budget of €1.28m ($1.75m). It has already received development support from the Estonian Film Foundation and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.

Searching for a Russian partner

Russia as partner would also make sense since the story demands a large number of Russian actors to play the army platoon landing on the island.

“Estonia and Russia have quite a long, common theatre and film tradition,” Aarma says. “So, as a film-maker, it would be extremely exciting to work with Russian actors.”

And Kilmi points out that a Russian production partner could provide the war film knowhow, locations and effects. “Russian studios have this experience, so why not use it?,” he suggests, although he suggests that “the new cultural policy [in the Russian Federation] makes it more difficult for Russian studios to participate in international co-production projects.”

Traumfabrik [German for dream factory] would be ready to start shooting at the end of 2013, but “it will all depend on the partners,” Kilmi and Aarma declare.

“However, 2014 seems more realistic – the storyline is from summer to summer (1912-13) – and we have to shoot during all four seasons in Hiiumaa.”