Estonia Centuries Ago

As I sat watching MYSTERION, Pirjo Honkasalo’s documentary about a convent in northern Estonia, the flicker of actual film stock as well as the timeless faces and garb of the nuns convinced me that it must have been shot in the 1970s. (1991, actually). Although sometimes I would get sidetracked and have the absurd fleeting thought, “no, 14th century.” Rather like Frederick Wiseman, Pirjo Honkasalo, a female Finnish documentary filmmaker honored at this year’s IDFA festival, lets events unfold before her camera. And it’s enchanting.

Many scenes at the convent let daily life happen without commentary or exposition: planting peas in the summer, shearing sheep in the summer, sawing through and loading up 2 foot slabs of ice in the howling, bitter Estonian winter. The women are all cloaked in the black habits and headgear, (more abayas than wimples)swaddled so tightly about their faces that only hairline to cheekbones to chin are visible. The soundtrack, the women singing hymns in church, knits the scenes together with an otherworldly quality. The film is complex as well as beautiful – there’s a mine nearby pumping pollution and sludge into the river near the farm where the convent grows and raises food for its existence. The Russian Orthodox priests come in, decked in gold-embroidered finery and insane pumpkin-shaped hats. It is a quiet, slow and magical piece of filmmaking.

But it is the women themselves who are the focus. Mother Georgia, the Hegumenia of the order, escaped the Siege of Leningrad at the age of 9, although she lost her parents and her 2 sisters along the way. Sister Naellia, a seamstress from the Ukraine, gives up her free will to God and becomes Mother Victoria. But it left me wondering about that sacrifice. The alternative to the life she chose appears to be that of her sister, who married a drunk who beats her. At least Naellia chose how and where to relinquish her will.

The film ends with an ocean of small bobbing lanterns floating outside the church in the waning light. One of the nuns says that “the death of a nun is a joyous thing.” Surrounded by people who care for you and help you on your way, I’m sure it must be.

About rivetingpictures

I am a documentary filmmaker living in Chicago. I was the series producer of Y’ALL VERSUS US: HEAD 2 HEAD, an episodic documentary series shot over four months in rural Mississippi. A co-production between Young & Rubicam and Moxie Pictures, it aired nationwide on Fox Sports in 2010. I produced and directed TOWN AND COUNTRY (Milwaukee International Film Festival premiere 2009), co-producer and co-director of ALMOST HOME, which was part of the 2006 ITVS Independent Lens series; producer, director and editor of the documentary ORACLE OF OMAHA and producer/director of a series of web shorts entitled KILL IT AND COOK IT WITH LARRY. I serve on the Board of Directors for IFP Chicago and as committee chair for the IFP Producers Series, dedicated to enriching the professional experiences of Midwestern filmmakers. I have produced and filmed in Tanzania, Haiti, Australia, New Zealand, the former Yugoslavia and throughout America and Western Europe. I was one of 12 international filmmakers accepted in the HotDocs Film Festival’s DocLab in 2009 and is currently in Italy shooting a series of three documentary shorts exploring the artistry and craftsmanship of Venice’s chefs, painters and gondoliers.
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