In The Crosswind

One of my favourite films at Leeds International Film Festival this year (and an audience favourite overall too) was ‘In The Crosswind’ (or ‘Risttuules’ in Estonian). The film is like an epic history painting, composed – apart from a brief opening scene – entirely of a series of tableaux vivants. Characters stand motionless whilst the camera weaves between them; their poses and expressions fleshing out the story of each scene. The film is set in 1941 when Stalin’s regime separated Baltic families, with men sent to prision and women and children to forced labour camps. A narrative voiceover reads letters written by a woman, Erna, to her husband when she and her daughter are deported from their home in Estonia to Siberia. On watching the film I presumed the letters were real, archive documents written and kept by the women as a kind of diaristic record and a gesture of communicating with her husband even though they were probably never sent. Research since has indicated that around 60% of the content came from letters written by a relative of the director. The remaining 40% of content was sourced from archives. Thus the woman Erna is based on a real woman but is also in part a composite character, combining details of several people’s stories.

The film is harrowing, its power comes from the sadness of the personal story it relates (one story representing the fate of thousands at this time). It also comes from the film’s artistic language and the interplay between the verbal voiceover and the visual scenes. The films’ posed scenes and its bleak landscape, all filmed in black and white, are beautiful. Scenes range from tableaux of small groups to those featuring hundreds of protagonists. I particularly recall an early scene at the railway station, where Estonian families are being forced onto a train, crammed in with their belongings. Numerous faces and poses fill this epic image. Later in a Siberian forest, swathed in snow, the vertical black lines of the trees and contrasting white provide a harsh but weirdly intimate location for a sad personal event. On the soundtrack, the letters are restrained and incredibly sad as Erna attempts to put a positive slant on her situation, yet the images we see tell us otherwise. Interaction between voice and image is well paced. Camera movement generally alternates with verbal voiceover, so the letters accompany still scenes and then the camera explores the scene further to reveal more details or nuances. Added to this is a subtle but evocative musical soundtrack of low drones, orchestral swoops, choral singing and character sounds such as whispers.

The film is directed by Martti Helde. I wanted to find out more about how the film was made and what he’s done before. It turns out he’s a first time director which I think is pretty amazing for a film of this ambition. I find it hard to imagine how the more complex scenes in the film were produced and I guess that this type of film may only have become possible with recent equipment and computer software. I found a ‘making of’ video which gives some details of how original footage was combined with 3d mapping and post-production digital editing.

I’ll be really interested to see what Martti Helde does next. ‘In The Crosswind’ has a very specific visual language which is appropriate to the story it tells. Helde explains that the choice to use stills came from a very specific quote he came across in one of the letters, which read: ‘I feel like time has stopped here in Siberia. That my body is in Siberia, but my soul is still in my homeland.’ For me the format works because as a viewer you identify with the main protagonist whose voice is also on the soundtrack, yet the sheer number of others in the shots conveys the mass of people who suffered the same fate and their static poses suggest the lack of agency or control they had over their own lives at this time. It evokes how the individual always lives their lives against the backdrop of a history largely outwith their control. Some of the film’s power may be that I have seen nothing quite like this before. One precedent is Chris Marker’s film La jetée (1962); another film which I love but which is not as complex or epic as this. I hope Helde will go on to push the language of film in other interesting ways in subsequent projects.

More info: The film is described in more detail by another positive reviewer, Nikola Grozdanovic, here and here by Jacqueline Valencia who interviews Helde and asks him some interesting questions about the film’s score. Martin Kudláč asks Helde about the visual language of the film and particularly the preparation process with the Director of Photography Erik Põllumaa where they looked at references from visual art including walk through sculpture gardens.