Interview with Edina Csüllög. Part 1

11246691_894605047244207_6697010654180038736_nIn January the call for the 2016 Finno-Ugric Film Festival was announced, a festival that takes place in Estonia, in a small village called Tsiistre. This year it will be the third time. The founder of the festival is Edina Csüllög, film director and producer, and also a Finno-Ugric activist. We decided to meet with her and talk about the ‘Finno-Ugric way’ of filmmaking, about the results of previous festivals and aims and plans for the future. Edina is from Hungary, but quite long time ago she moved from Budapešt to Estonia, so our meeting was in Setomaa (in the region on the border of Estonia and Russia). 

Edina, can you tell us about your interest in the Finno-Ugric world? How did it happen that a girl from the centre of Europe, from Budapest, found herself here in the Estonian countryside, the land of the Seto people? 

I have been interested in Finno-Ugric peoples since I was 12 years old. That’s why after high school I went to study Finno-Ugric linguistics, and Estonian and Hungarian philology. It seemed to me that academic life is not my call. I finished my Master’s degrees and after that I still felt that I had to do something else. With my character is not possible to sit in the library the whole day. I was looking deeply for who am. I was already 27 years old when I found filmmaking. Firstly, I went to film school in Hungary, in Budapest, where I lived at that time. After graduation I worked in different television channels. The TV industry is really harsh and not so artistic. I felt that I needed to learn more about real filmmaking, fictional filmmaking.

I learned that there is a new school in Tallinn, called Baltic Film and Media, so I got involved. I was accepted and I did a Master’s in film directing. Since then I have made a few films as a director, and I have now started making films as a producer. I had difficulty finishing film school, and again I found myself in a situation in which I had to choose where and how I live. My partner wanted to live in the countryside and so I went with him.

Was it easy to come to this decision? The world of Cinema usually develops in urban spaces.

Firstly, it seemed a strange idea, because, as you said, filmmaking is usually done in the big cities – all the equipment, all the technical stuff you need is there. But somehow I have always liked challenges so I said why not, let’s go to the countryside! So we moved to Setomaa, actually this place is called Tabina, which is near the Võrumaa–Setomaa border. In Setomaa the Finno-Ugric movement is very strong, it is very important here that we are Finno-Ugric people.

And this place became the platform for screening Finno-Ugric films. How did you get this idea?

I started to think, how I could combine my interest in Finno-Ugric peoples and film. I looked up if there was any kind of Finno-Ugric film festival, specialising in Finno-Ugric people. I remembered I had talked with Kadi Raudalainen [director of the Fenno-Ugria organisation – A.I.] and she said there was no such thing. There were some television film festivals and documentary film festivals. But my idea was to make a film festival which focuses on fiction filmmaking. I kind of knew that there were no Khanty fiction filmmakers let’s say, but I was thinking if we do not start and encourage people this kind of film will never be made by Finno-Ugric filmmakers in Finno-Ugric languages. So, basically, after a year in Tabina, thinking what to do with my life, how to move on, I met a very important person, Kristina Remmel (owner of the Flax Museum in Tsiistre). I saw Kristina and I saw her place and fell in love with the atmosphere and I understood that we can be really good friends and make good things together. It seemed to me that this place is the best place to make such a festival. Kristina is very down-to-earth person and she is willing to work a lot, she is very punctual and a very good working partner, somehow she balances me in many different ways. I can fully trust her, and that’s why I think this was a good combination to start a festival.

So the project of Finno-Ugric festivals had it’s start. How was the first experience?

The first festival was three years ago in 2014. We dreamed to build up a kind of network of Finno-Ugric filmmakers with a place where people could come together. They don’t necessarily have to be filmmakers, but should support or share the idea we have. I also wanted to combine Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian people working together on this festival, because these are the countries that have, basically, money to support such a thing.

Were your expectations justified? 

I thought it was a great success. There were many really great people, and the atmosphere was very good. Unfortunately, we did not get so many fiction films. So we decided that we would show everything that we had. We didn’t choose, there were no limits.

There were experimental films from Udmurtia and a fiction film made by Peter Palgan [the producer of two Udmurtian feature films – A.I.] and Udmurtian young people [a feature-length film called Puzkar (The nest) – A.I.], which had its premier at our festival. So I met Peter Palgan and some filmmakers from Udmurtia. And I learned that, the situation is OK in Udmurtia right now, or as far as I understand it, because they make films, or at least they try to.

And that year there was one fiction film in the Seto language. It was an amateur film in the sense that the people who made it, they were not filmmakers, but they just wanted to do it with a small camera. And it was really nice… but, as I had live in Setomaa already for some time, I basically understood that this was also the first Seto language short film I had seen in my life. Which means it is strange, because Estonia gives money for filmmaking and it is not the problem of money. I think it is just that we are not used to make fiction films.

You can imagine what kind of shock it was for me to realise that there are not enough fiction films. To face the cold reality. I wanted to create a festival for Finno-Ugric fiction films. All this was kind of absurd already.

Yes, it is an unfortunate – to organise a fiction film festival and discover their absence. It is no longer a fiction film festival, or, let’s say, so far. So, you changed the format of the event?

Yes, we realised that we are not only a film festival, but we have to help people to learn filmmaking, firstly in a basic way. Our festival tries to focus on fiction filmmaking. We have Finish, Hungarian, Estonian, and Sámi short films. And we support filmmakers from other Finno-Ugric languages. We don’t do, of course, a film school here, in the sense that film school people study for 5 years to know how to make films, and that can be probably in Moscow and or in St. Petersburg… but we try to make two-week intense courses, hands-on training.

Is it really possible to get it in two weeks, especially, when we are talking about fiction films: we need a script, good actors and so on… and money after all.

I think nowadays young people have access to cameras, they can actually make films very easily. Our idea is to foster, to help, to encourage interest in people who want to make fiction films. And it is not impossible, I mean it can come true, because everybody watches films. You just have to learn how to do it. And I think then all these people who want to make fiction films, they can start to do it.

The sad truth is that if there are no films, no fiction films (I’m not talking about the couple of Udmurt examples, I mean the situation generally), our Festival is the start – so to say the kickstarter. We have a script-writing workshop. This is the place where a person who has an idea can come to us and start to develop it into a film. I think it is very necessary, if you have never made films before and you don’t go to film school because it is very far away. I think this is the first place where you can learn how to develop a script, how to describe and put your ideas on paper. Our participants can meet other people who will give feedback. You don’t have to be a filmmaker, but you have to have a strong interest in filmmaking and in story telling in your own languages.

That sounds great. So everybody has a chance to participate in the festival, even if they don’t have a film, but just the idea for one. And they can participate in the seminar…

Exactly, there is the scriptwriting workshop you can apply for… You have to write a half-page synopsis of what your idea is for your film, and a motivation letter – why you want to be a part of our workshop. It is good for the tutors, because finally the tutors will decide who can come. We have only 12 places: 8 places for Finno-Ugric small nations and 4 for non-Finno-Ugrians. So, last year we had a girl from Croatia, a girl from Chile…

It’s interesting! But what can people from Chile get from the festival?

I think, if I invite people from Argentina or from Vietnam, or from Canada, they also learn something, that there are these small nations who have their own languages and are struggling to keep their cultures. They visit our festival, go home and talk to their friends about this wonderful place and meetings with these special people, with Finno-Ugric culture. Our languages and cultures are special and these people who can experience it a little, then they go home happy. And also later on, maybe, they can create some co-productions with us… It is very important in the film world that you have connections and that you don’t just do things alone. It is a collaborative art.

So, the film festival is also a kind of a platform for spreading Finno-Ugric culture to the world?

The idea is to open up the world for us, for the Finno-Ugric people. Because I also realise that this circle, where we live, the Finno-Ugric circle, is very small. We are around 34 million people, and everybody who is active knows each other, but I don’t see the films or ideas of Finno-Ugric people out in the world. Usually if I go to some film festival, I travel to different places, and I am saying, “Oh, I deal with this Finno-Ugric film festival”, the first question is, “What is it? What does Finno-Ugric mean.” And then I say, “you know, Estonian, Hungarian, Finish”, but when I talk about the Udmurts or Komis or Maris or Khantys, whatever, nobody knows anything.

What was the most difficult aspect of the first two festivals? All international Finno-Ugric events usually meet with the problem of finding a common language – what are the problems relating to English and Russian.

12645253_1002358236468887_1624714267852596929_nYes, this is the most difficult thing because somehow we managed to get some money, so we could accommodate people, give them food. So, this was not a problem. And we finally got the films as well… I think that the biggest problem that we had there was again this language questions. In the workshop, because some people speak only English and some people speak only Russian, it’s a language bubble. We had the suggestion that maybe we should work in two groups: the group of English speakers and the group of those who speak only Russian. But I think this is not the idea. I understand that it would be easier to work in two groups, as communication through translators makes the working process much longer. But in two groups it would vanish because again, there would be small nation people and people from Europe. But I do not think we would work in two groups. And that’s why our tutors – Daniel Erdélyi and Mart Kivastik – always work together; Mart can use both English and Russian, while Daniel mostly works through English.

And we have these nice people who help us as volunteers each year. Probably this year we’ll have another very good woman, Elene, to help us with translation. So, we are already thinking about this language problem because it’s very important to think ahead. I think we need at least two volunteers who can translate because it’s very tiring to translate for a whole day.

It seems that you solved the problem of language.

Yes, we are much better now. And also sometimes we have problems with the quality of the small nation films, because even though I write on the homepage telling them in what format we would like to have the films, not too many people pay attention to this technical information.

So, it leads to more difficulties…

Yes, it is additional work for us… So, it is important to follow the descriptions. And if you have a problem sending your film because you don’t know which format is good, ask Paul Nurme, who is in charge of the technical issues. You can write him and ask, he speaks very good Russian, English, Estonian, Spanish… Because the idea is that if you send a small film, I can see it on the computer, I can say “Oh! Great film!”, but I cannot show it on the big screen. We have a big screen and it will look bad, and that’s why it’s important to have the right format.

How are you going to build the network? Do you follow the results of the work made during the festival?

Yes, there are people who participated in both Festivals, both times with films. We are very satisfied with the results of the script-writing workshop. In 2014 there were, I think, 8 participants from all over the Finno-Ugric world. I learned that 4 films were made, after this workshop, which is very good. In one year – it’s a very short time, in a filmmaker’s life one year is very short time. Usually films are made in 2-3 years. We are very happy that we got this kind of result.

What was the difference between your first expectations and the plans you have now? What changes followed the Festival after you made the FUFF foundation?

The project is improving. We made a Finno-Ugric Film Fund in November of the same year, after the First festival. The Fund’s idea is to support the filmmaking of small nations. Because in 2014 among other participators of festival we met with Peter Palgan and filmmakers from Udmurtia, who said that they would like to have a separate workshop. So we made a workshop for Udmurts last year, in 2015.

Who supports you in this project. Do you have any sponsors, or how does the system of financing work?

For the financing of the Udmurt language workshop we applied to the Kindred People’s program, which supports the same ideas, maybe in a more general way, not only focusing in filmmaking, but on every level of culture. And fortunately, we had the Finnish Ekla Foundation (Foundation Ekla Hallitus), who sponsored the camp. So we could again do it on a low budget. Basically, we tried to focus on finding good equipment, and finally we made two films. One is still in post-production, as the sound was ready at the time, and the second one is an experimental film by Kseniia Voronchikhina, which I just learned won first prize at the Izhevsk film festival, which I think is a very good sign, it’s very promising that we can find talent. Kseniia is a ceramic artist, so it means that actually everybody who is interested in just experimenting while coming and learning new things can come and learn and try.

The daily program of the festival, how does it look? 

The daily program is the following. In the morning we have the workshop session until 1 or 2 p.m. We have lunch at 1 or 2 p.m. and after lunch we go to the Flax Museum. You have to know that Tsiistre is a village, but not like an Erzya or Komi village where all the houses are very close to each other on one street, but this is a village where houses are quite far way from each other. So, we have the house for the script-writing workshop, where the volunteers usually live. And from there you have to walk or take a car to the Flax Museum, which is around 600 metres away. It’s a good walk after lunch… and sitting the whole day (J – laughing). And we collaborate with the Chaj House (Tee maja), which is just across the street.

So, after that we have the film program. Which usually continues until around 10 o’clock in the evening, but before that we have dinner. The festival participants get their accommodation and food free, but other visitors, such as tourists or local people, also join the festival event; they can buy food at the local cafe and a bar, which is open on film evenings.

So, there is also a festival audience besides the participants.

Exactly! This is an open festival and local people come. And every night there is some kind of musical event, where you can dance or just listen to the music and relax. Actually I understood that among the local people, these music events are more important, more interesting for them, than watching the films.

The festival takes place in June, when people in the countryside are busy with work.

Yes, usually it’s June, one of the busiest times in the countryside, in the fields.

And white nights, actually…

Yes, and I remember, during the first festival we had to ask that the tractors would work in the night, after we finished the festival, because we couldn’t hear the sound of the films. So, we had to call the local farmer to ask him to stop his tractors and combines. And he did so.

So, how do the local people understand the festival? Do they understand your work and support you?

Yes, they are supportive. The local farmers say, “Yes, Edina, no problem, no problem!” And this year – I think this is a big step forward – the mayor of Misso county called me a couple of months ago and asked: “Will you have the Third film festival, because we also will put it in our calendar?” So, it’s already there. I think that this is a very important sign. We also get money from them, basically for the food – half of the money for the food comes from them, which is great.

But, why does this festival happen in the forest, let’s say, in the provinces, a village like those in Russia – for example like a Mari or Urdmurt village?

No… I don’t know. First of all, I think that the Finno-Ugric soul is in the forest, so we can’t go to the city, because this isn’t us. And I think if we are in the forest, we can really focus on the films, on the script-writing, on creating real interest in each other. If we are in the city, Oh! Let’s see this nice church, or let’s go to a party in the evening. Obviously, the idea is to have a calm and welcoming atmosphere. You don’t have to be constantly watching all the films. I mean you can just rest outside on the grass and walk, you can go to have a swim, go to the forest and pick some berries. Here everybody can be relaxed, meet each other and talk, make new plans. I think if we were in the city, it would be more hectic, more problematic to meet each other, there are so many other things going on all the time, (especially in summer). We want to get the people really together in this place. If you come to our festival, you have to be aware that this place is, basically, at the end of the world.

And also the idea of meeting people…

Exactly! It helps to meet people. This isolation: like, you live in Russia, you have  Maris, Komis, Udmurts, Hantis, Mansis and whatever, but there is a kind of isolation because of the large size of the territory. But when you come to Estonia, to a small place in the forest, this isolation disappears, so then you think “Oh, actually I live very close, I live in… Bashkirija, I am a Bashkir Mari and this person lives in… Izhevsk, oh let’s do something together.” So, I also want to inspire people to work together in this territory.

Edina, let’s imagine that someone who has made a film on the topic of Finno-Ugric peoples, or just has thoughts about trying to do so, and reads our interview. Let’s repeat the possibilities of coming to Tsiistre. What would be the instructions for people who want to join FUFF?

All the necessary information is in our FUFF 2016 call. You can come to the festival if you have a film that we accept. You can write us an email saying that you would like to come and present your film personally.

If you are not a filmmaker yet, you can participate in the script-writing workshop. If you have an idea of how to make a film, write a half-page synopsis and send it to us with a title “For the script-writing workshop”. Our e-mail address is finnougricfilmfond@gmail.com. We also have a festival website, fuff.ee. At the moment the information there is being updated, but it will be ready soon, I hope.

We are not looking for established professional filmmakers, we are looking for people who are enthusiasts, who want to learn something, who are willing to work with other people. Obviously it would also be very good if they know their own language. I mean, the idea is that the language is important, so we won’t make films in Russian (or any other majority language), we will make films in Udmurt, Mari and other languages – that’s the main idea.

We also need the help of volunteers. So, if someone wants to come to the festival as a journalist, who can speak very good Russian, and can write articles, can write short texts and posts on Facebook and is good with computers… You can apply to be a volunteer in our festival by sending a letter in which you write what you would like to do. There is different work to be done, from kitchen work to photography, translation, PR. We still need volunteers.

For all FUFF participants and volunteers from Russia we pay travel from Moscow. All participants get accommodation and food during the festival; for participants travelling from Russia, travel costs are reimbursed only from Moscow to the place of the Festival and back.

To be continued.

Interviewer – Albina Ivanova,

editing of the text – Daniel Allen

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