FNE at Baltic Event 2014: Estonians Discover Film Treasure in Russia

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TALLINN: A diplomatic breakthrough trip by a delegation from the Estonian Film Institute has turned up what may be the first fiction film shot in Estonia, a 1913 comedy titled Borrowed Wife, at the Gosfilmofond archives in Russia.

Anu Krabo, the head of the Film Heritage Department of the Estonian Film Institute told FNE that while viewing the film in Russia, “We recognized two of the four actors in the film” as well as Tallinn landmarks. The film, based on a Scandinavian comedy about a young man who needs to find someone to pose as his wife, was shot in Tallinn with Estonian actors but most likely commissioned by a Latvian cinema owner and paid for with Latvian funds, a common practice at the time. The film has no titles and it’s not known who the director was or even if there was a director.

“We were arranging the first official visit to Gosfilm [in 22 years] and they happened to mention they might have a small surprise,” Edith Sepp, Head of the Estonian Film Institute, told FNE. The oldest known non-documentary Estonian film had been a 1914 political satire, Bear Hunt in Parnu County.

“It was to our surprise that Gosfilm told us they had found a film from 2013,” Krabo said. The film had languished in the Gosfilmofond archives in a canister with a Russian title with a reference to Riga.

The original film was most likely lost or destroyed, with the 35mm black and white copy probably produced in the 1960’s. The Estonian film archives want to buy a copy of the film. “We will digitalize it and put in online so everyone can see it,” Krabo said, but prior to that, she said, “There has to be a gala screening. People are waiting eagerly to see it.” Local historians are also in a race to find other materials and references to the film.

The visit to Gosfilmofond is likely to yield other benefits. Sepp said the first step in building an ongoing cooperation with Gosfilmofond is to sign a memorandum of understanding. “There is a lot of material in Gosfilm, but the rights belong to Studio Tallinnfilm, which now belongs to the Estonian Film Institute.” When the film was shot, Estonia was still a part of Czarist Russia, but its production dates is beyond the copyright limits and it qualifies as an orphan film under the EU directive. The Institute is also putting in place an agreement with Gosfilm to send researchers to look at the archives.

“Our focus for the past 20 years was to keep our film industry alive. Now we can look back at the history,” Sepp said. “We have to know our heritage.”