Estonian film history started in 1912 and is tightly connected with the name of Johannes Pääsuke, who produced the first Estonian feature film Bear Hunt in Pärnumaa (1914). After that, diverse companies operated, consisting of one or several people whose production depended on personal capital and was thus not very consistent - after all, film-making has always been a costly undertaking.
The emergence of a cinema network and the arrival of projectors at schools in the 1920s caused educational and cultural circles to demand domestic film production, as opposed to the widespread German cultural-instructive documentaries, depicting work processes, life in a certain area or interesting sights.
Cameramen Konstantin märska in the Estonian Culture Film lab, 1936
Thus, in 1931 the foundation Eesti Kultuurfilm (Estonian Culture Film) was established within the Ministry of Culture. Its 75th anniversary offers an opportunity to remember the history of professional popular-scientific documentaries (German Kulturfilm) in Estonia. During the first years of Estonian Culture Film, the emphasis was on the distribution of films and not so much on producing them - there was no proper technical basis for the latter. The clause in the foundation's constitution that cinema owners had the obligation to show the productions of Culture Film was not exactly popular with the owners. They argued that the state was interfering in business. A deeper cause for resistance lay, in fact, elsewhere: foreign newsreels were available very cheaply. And although cinemas in 1933 showed the Culture Film newsreel about the military parade on the 15th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, it could still be said that the foundation survived due to the enthusiasm of its cameramen.
ECF group on location with their new sound bus, 1938
In 1936 Culture Film was reorganised and transferred to the propaganda department, under the administrative authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In the same year it was decided to establish a film archive. Thanks to the responsibility of the state archive for preserving films, the production of Culture Film between 1936 and 1940 has mainly survived. Another essential fact was establishing a proper film lab and training specialists in Germany. Sound equipment and a bus were purchased from Germany as well, which made it possible to record sound on the spot - this laying the foundation for the professional Estonian film industry. It should be mentioned here that the 1930s sound equipment is still in working order today and has been preserved in the Estonian Film Archives. The sound bus was not as lucky, although it acquired a kind of immortality nevertheless. It was used in the shooting of Andrei Tarkovski's Stalker (1979) and was blown up in front of the camera, to the great delight of the spectators.
Shot from the film Fishermen
The surviving productions of Estonian Culture Film, which have been partly preserved on DVDs, largely relied on the concept of German culture films - the topics of films included locations (Tallinn Before and Now, Pictures of Saku, Summer Resorts Beckon, Views of Beautiful Viljandimaa, etc), and activities (From Bloom to Beehive, Paper, Oil-shale and Shale Oil Production, Juices as Refreshing Drinks, etc), where a process of how a product was made was shown from start to finish. Events were recorded both in newsreels and separate films. The latter presented song festivals, President Konstantin Päts's trips around the country, and the activities of the Defence League.
Participant in the 5th estonian motorbike rally, 1937
The aim of Estonian Culture Film was to record Estonian life in its diverse manifestations, and despite the propagandist touch, this was on the whole a success - although the productions of Estonian Culture Film make up only 6 per cent of the whole material in the Estonian Film Archives, they are the most frequently used collection.
Ivi Tomingas graduated from the University of Tartu with a degree in History in 1982, and since 1985 has worked in the Estonian Film Archives, starting from 2001 as Director