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On the Water (Vee Peal)

Estonians hungry for cinema fill up the nation's largest theatre in order to savour the local produce: a vanilla comedy - from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


This feelgood and nostalgic little comedy takes place in the early 1980s, when Estonia was still an integral part of the USSR. Andres (Rasmus Ermel) is about to start his puberty. He lives in a tiny rural village, in a country that offers limited opportunity to its citizens. The adults around him are hardly role models: his best friend is an ex-convict called Valter who boasts having “idiot papers” (a disability permit, which exempts him from various duties and responsibilities), plus he lives with his oppressive and constantly bickering grandparents. His mother escaped to Sweden years earlier, and the only tangible memory of her is a cover of Abba’s SOS in Estonian (a forbidden item in a country under strict censorship).

Andres’s biggest venting outlet is fishing, particularly ice fishing in the vast frozen Lake Tamula. This is where he engages with his “idiot” friend Valter. He does not want Valter to go back to an institution, despite considering the outside world just as insane as a madhouse. He has a juvenile crush. But there isn’t a lot more going on. The rest of this story is a lot like fishing: placid and eventful

Instead, most of the narrative revolves around conventional comedy devices. There are quite a few slapstick elements: cat fight between two feuding neighbours, a wife hitting her husband with her purse, grandpa’s shoe flying off as he angrily flails his legs about. The jokes are exactly what you would expect from a coming-of-age comedy: children peek from the top of a tree as ladies get changed, adults warn Andres that “touching himself” will lead to horrible diseases and possibly death, and a neighbour hangs her oversized knickers for everyone to see.

This is a movie nostalgic of the past, with impoverished houses of the yore, old-fashioned clothes and classic tunes. On the other hand, this is not a movie nostalgic of the USSR. Russian isn’t spoken by the locals, and the Cyrillic alphabet is only to be seen on the Militia (Soviet police) car. Brezhnev’s death in 1982 is very briefly shown on television, but that’s about it. This is not a political film.

With a budget of €750,000 (a very large sum for an Estonian production) and a local top-drawer cast, On the Water is set to become a crowd-pleaser for the small Baltic nation. People defied the Covid-19 anxieties to attend the premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in very large numbers. A glimmer of a hope in the darkness of the pandemic.

On the Water has just premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, as it’s part of the event’s Main Competition. It is based on Olavi Ruitlane’s book of the same name

By Peeter Simm - 23-11-2020

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