Estonian filmmaking has never really had a spot in the limelight among Europe’s – even Eastern Europe’s – cinematic elite. Having typically been repressed by the USSR for a great deal of the 20th century, the small Baltic Sea-bordering country has never really had the opportunity to explore its artistic side, particularly the filmic one. With a population of a little over 1.3 million people, the EU nation has taken greater strides recently to entice new and upcoming Estonian filmmakers to showcase their work, and ultimately, passions on the international stage.
Which is where Kadri Kõusaar comes in. Her directorial debut, “Magnus,” premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2007, which earned the distinction of being first Estonian film to be screened at the prestigious film festival. Her latest film, “Mother,” is set to provide the same sort of reverence and laud in its humor, darkness and its quintessential Eastern European nature, and it is set premiere on the other side of the pond at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Set in a small-town in Estonia, “Mother,” tells the story of a timid, unassuming housewife, Elsa, who becomes the full-time caretaker of her son, Lauri, after a shooting incident leaves the young man a vegetable. In a town where no one locks their doors and where everyone knows everything about each other, how could it be that such a grievous crime could go unsolved? As the townspeople murmur and gossip, Elsa must continue her facade and ensure no one discovers her painful and troublesome truth. Inspired by the Irish radio play “Coma,” Kõusaar’s film works off an original script by Leana Jalukse and Al Wallcat (as inspired by the original work by “Coma” writer Kevin McCann).
Indiewire sat down with Kõusaar before the festival to find out a little more about small town politics, Eastern European gender roles and finding the right mix of comedy and tragedy in moviemaking. (Some spoilers ahead.)
Your film reminded me a little of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly “Chronicles of a Death Foretold.” It’s a small town mystery that’s being slowly exhumed through different perspectives. What was your inspiration for the story and particularly the suburban noir like feel to the film?
This is actually the first film that I made that I was not the author of the script. And ironically the reason being that I was a fresh mother at the time — my son was only 3 months old, so I didn’t have time to write the script. The story was actually inspired by an Irish radio play, which was titled “Coma.” It’s about how a bunch of people in a village in Ireland — including a priest — visit this guy in a coma. But there wasn’t this criminal element that we have and our characters are completely different, so the screenwriters adapted this classical setting of “there’s this guy in a coma and there’s a mystery. In the Irish one, there was no mystery, just a guy in a coma and people come there to confess, with a sort of complicated family situation. They adapted it to the Estonian context.
My contribution to the script was to make it clear — or at least give a certain hint — who was behind the deed, or why Lauri was in a coma in the first place. Because their [Jalukse and Wallcat] initial version didn’t have those last two scenes that are flashbacks. I added those two to clarify that. We sort of hint that the mother is behind it, or that she’s the mastermind, but of course we couldn’t hint too much otherwise it would take away from the pleasure of finding out.
We made the script really quickly, it was a low budget film so the advantage of that was that we could write, prepare and shoot very quickly. It all happened in four months. Usually it’s years and years that you have to wait for financing and for everything to be set in place. So this was a good thing.
How did you develop the look of the film?
We discussed with the cinematographer — with whom I also collaborated with on my previous film — how to make it more interesting. Otherwise, as a filmmaker, you think, “Damn! Your sort of stuck in this one world.” In one house there are not really many visual opportunities but in a way it works in our favor because the Eastern world of our characters are trapped in this world and so are we. We used specific lenses to make it murky and darkly comic and to show that we really are in this world.
That sense of being trapped seems to come out in the character of Elsa, who wants to elope to Spain.
I think it’s interesting you brought up Garcia Marquez but actually when I was preparing the film — in trying to find the location and talking to the actress — my inspiration was the Coen brothers’ “Fargo,” because I was thinking that that was also a small town setting and amateurish small people trying to carve out a better life for themselves and perhaps not so successfully. That even it takes professional insight in order to commit a crime. In our film, they didn’t even know that there are limits to draw out cash from ATMs — you can’t just tell the person, “empty your account” [laughs]— it just hadn’t occurred to them.
They are just very simple people. She [Elsa] didn’t mean bad, but she was already so desperate and then she saw a savior in the school headmaster character, somebody who could drag her out of her dull life. But we intentionally left his character a little shady in a way that perhaps he never wanted to take her anywhere. Perhaps he was just looking for an adventure — I mean he was the new guy in the town.
When we discussed it with the actors, I personally don’t think that he really had serious intentions with that woman. So he was like a Don Juan or a playboy. And he was already feeling awkward anyway because they had already fucked up their hopes so he didn’t really want to be so involved with this woman. He tried to find distance but this woman didn’t let him.
It seems like sound plays a very important role in the movie, specifically the diegetic sounds of the scrapping of shoes on hardwood floors, the clinking of spoons in teacups, the breathing. How did you use sound to flush out the personal relationship that Elsa is having, not only with her environment, but also the people around her?
We tried to enhance with the sound — the feeling — of clinical loneliness. It is what Lauri as a comatose man has. We actually cut a lot of the crazy things we tried with the actor. Perhaps he’s alone in the room and his eyes are open.
It was jarring to see Lauri’s eyes moving and hear his breathing. It seemed like he was present and absent all at the same time.
We researched that; how those movements really happen in patients like that. For example, when he moved his hand when the girlfriend was lying next to him, that was completely unintentional. It gives the idea that, “Oh, perhaps he’s now waking up” or “Oh, perhaps he’s feeling something,” but they are purely neurological reactions. Fortunately, my mother is a neurologist so it was quite easy for me to verify what those patients are capable of and their eye movements are completely unintentional as well. That was what the doctor said was actually possible when a person is comatose.
There seems to be a constant cycle of people, particularly woman, who come in and out of the house, which highlights the isolation that Elsa is feeling at her home. How did you want to use that?
That was used to emphasize her loneliness and all those people who come and go who don’t really help with her life. Then we slowly start to unravel why she had put herself in the situation. For example, one important scene to me that people might understand after the film, is when the policeman is ringing to say something about the bullet, then we see this expression on Tlina’s face which gives us a little hint that she is scared that the police is starting to understand what’s happened or that the police is discovering new evidence all the time and she’s saying, “Oh, fuck, they’re going to find out.”
In the script, it was actually that the policeman came over but I changed it to that the policeman would call because that enabled us to show more of what the mother is feeling. When she’s with other people, she’s always behind the mask.
Could you tell me anything about your latest movie that your working on, “Nordic Instinct”?
We’re actually working on two films because we had to do “Nordic Instinct,” but then we had a problem with the financing in the last round so there are issues with the financing right now. It’s based on a book by a Scandinavian author — Swedish-Finnish author — Kjell Westö. The book is called “Lang” and it’s a love triangle between an aging TV star, a woman twenty years younger than him, and her violent, intimating ex-boyfriend who is intervening. Then we end up with a murder and the man takes the blame for the murder that the woman committed. It all happens in the dark Norwegian forest.
It sounds like there are some recurring themes that are coming out.
Yeah, it seems like it. We are also working with Aet Laigu, the same producer that produced “Mother” and “The Arbiter” on a film called “Dead Woman,” which is my original story. It’s about a female journalist who is kidnapped in Sinai, Egypt and who’s falling in love with one of her abductors so it’s like a strange love story in impossible circumstances. It looks like, at the moment, that this will happen faster than “Nordic Instinct.” So let’s see.
“Mother” premiered at the this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.