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Elusive Landscapes (Neidsaare hoo peal)

An abstract documentary from Estonia which will test viewers' patience but which offers rewarding moments if one is willing to let go - live from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.


This abstract documentary from Estonian filmmaker Sulev Keedus follows a group of local Western Estonian villagers, farmers, and populace of rural life as they go through the tasks of their daily lives and labour. A sense of weight has settled on their facial features, deposited by the relentless toll of nature, labour and harsh living conditions. A beekeeper laments the disappearance of bees and wasps, a consequence of the gradual poisoning of the beehives, which slowly become hollow and empty. A woman has started to farm sheep, as a rebellious way to disobey her daughter, who is keen for her mother to move out and retire in Finland with her. But the old woman refuses, she would rather starve to death than abandon her house. When farmers come to take her sheep, she exclaims: “My children! My children are leaving me, all at once. My daughter will do the same, take me away from here.” The ending credits reveal that the woman eventually moved in with her daughter in Finland, only to immediately start a hunger strike. After three weeks of striking, she finally escaped back to her home in Estonia. These are only two of the story-lines which populate this strange and impressionistic new documentary.

Elusive Landscapes is a film which precisely seems to be eluding the words that would describe it. One could say it is the faithful observation of mechanical tasks being completed. Or it is an attempt to communicate the tempo of specific kinds of lifestyles while rejecting obvious forms of narrative development. As is often the case with documentary filmmaking, observing requires a certain amount of patience, but above all, it requires a specific outlook, or curiosity, which tries to unpack the beauty that teems within the dry, colourless and austere surface of the everyday. It is a very challenging task, indeed, to make the uneventful appear eventful and, comparably to the slow cinema movement, films like these wish to give viewers the chance to immerse themselves in a different temporal landscape. For the spectator willing to make this effort, while it may take some time, a few sequences of watching will prove that the eye and the brain finally adapt to this new abstract rhythm.

There is very little dialogue, and one wishes that more interviews may have been conducted. However, this may have defeated the ascetic principles of the filmmakers, who, at all times, remain sternly silent, embracing the abstract and the observational as opposed to a style of narrative-led interviews. Indeed, they are entirely devoted to rendering visible the characters’ naturally austere habitat of permanence and routine, rather than the interior of their subjectivities.

I could discern two moments where all clocks seemed to stop. First, the shooting of a cow in a scene where feeding becomes killing, where a shot appears like a dagger in the back of a friend, by a warm, feeding hand, which unsuspected, turns by dispatching the messenger of death in front of the rest of the horde, observing carefully. The cowman carries a gun, feeds the cows while scouting for a target, suddenly, makes a rapid selection, uses the rifle before killing off the cow completely by cutting its throat multiple times. This event is shocking for city-dwellers used to ignore the processes of killing which sustain animal farming, however, for the cowman, the act is lived through without much conscious thought, like an automatism, and, soon after completing the deed, he ties the lingering cadaver up, gets rid of the cow’s viscera and proceeds to skin it.

The second moment in which time seems to be stopping is a scene which depicts a few workers at a church looking in awe at the magnitude of the sacred. When the church’s cross is taken down for replacement or renovation, the priest sanctifies it. For a brief instant, the workers pause to take snapshots of themselves pausing with the cross: “You don’t get to be photographed near a cross everyday!”, one of them says. The sacred seems to return to daily life, but then again, for the priest, this constitutes nothing but yet another mechanical act.

To conclude, the landscape which pervades this documentary is elusive because it never stays firm, it shifts and moves in often unpredictable ways, it evades the grasp of its people, like sand in tightly-clutched hands. It is elusive like the silver one of the women is looking for, supposedly buried in the ground, which she is aware will take years to find and dig through. The landscape is elusive like a film depicting a constellation of people who hold on to an image of the past, an inability to move beyond this landscape which binds them together, by virtue of its very elusiveness.

Elusive Landscapes just had its premiere at the Talinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Liván García-Duquesne - 16-11-2022

Livan Garcia-Duquesne is a UK-based French-Spanish filmmaker and writer. He holds an MPhil in Film & Screen Studies from the University of Cambridge and his academic work has been centred around t...

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