Documentary as a vocation - Interview with Mark Soosaar

By Saša Markuš

Mark Soosaar is an Estonian documentary film director, producer, professor and founder of International Documentary and Anthropology Film Festival in Pärnu that this year celebrated its XIX edition. In more than thirty years of film-making, Soosaar has made over fifty movies, focusing on Estonian issues, such as the disaster of the ‘Estonia’ ferry (in September 1994) and its survivors or the life of the last Estonian Ambassador to Washington before the II World War. Soosaar shows special interest in the folklore and ethnology of his country, but he also made films about some primitive tribes in Siberia, Amazonia, and the USA. His movie Father, Son and Holly Thorum (PRIX NANOOK of the Bilan Ethnographique in Paris,1997 and Golden Gate Award of San Francisco Film Festival, 1998) turned international attention to the survival problems of Khanty ethnos in Siberia, presenting a conflict between the son who wants to persuade his father (and the entire Khanty village) to sell their land to a Russian oil company and leave their land.

What is the position of a documentary in the context of contemporary Estonian and world cinematography?

Documentaries have lost their position due to a very strong pressure from Hollywood’s commercial production and because of the media which have taken the position of the real provider of information about today's society. There seems to be no urge to convey an authentic message in a codified way - using an artistic system of signs, symbols and images.

Father, Son and Holly Thorum was shot in Siberia; it is about the gradual disappearance of the Khanty ethnos. Did you think of a possible solution to this problem while making the movie? Is there a solution?

There is a solution: the Russian oil company and the Russian state must understand that an indigenous culture is more valuable then billions of barrels of oil. This is what my film attempts to explain.

How does it feel to be in contact with an isolated culture such is Khanty?

Fantastic, it felt like I was in the seventh sphere where Father Thorum resides...

You have been shooting a lot in your own country, Estonia. Do you see
yourself, partly, as a chronicler of your country?

Yes, when I'm watching the films I made a few decades ago. I'm not thinking about that when I’m working on a new project.

Where do you get ideas for documentaries?

Who knows? When I see a conflict, a real-life drama, or I meet someone whose destiny somehow gets to me…
What I like most while making a documentary is an opportunity to remodel, to restructure the reality into the poetry of film art.

What is the experience of the International Documentary and Anthropology
Film Festival in Pärnu that you founded?

My experience with the festival is that we can't change the world as fast as we would like to. It takes time and a lot of patience to influence, to suggest, to explain how to make better films which best reflect human values.

You have been teaching film-making in countries so different as the United States and Mongolia. Can you compare these experiences?

It is easy to teach people who want to learn. However, it is impossible to teach people who are already very wise but don't even know the basic principles of their profession. One can find both types of students in every country.

What can you tell us about your next projects?

I keep those a secret until the very last minute.


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