The Fencer is a beautifully-produced film that is likely to please audiences with its central story. It works as what might be called a ‘national popular’ film which tells a story that resonates with local audiences who want to identify with the film’s heroes and with the overall message which supports an idea of national identity.
Such films are perhaps most noticeable when they come from small countries with limited resources for film production. In this context a local story stands out and can even out-perform Hollywood films because of its local cultural importance.
Finland and Estonia
This film is essentially a Finnish creation – a Finnish writer, Anna Heinämaa, and director Klaus Härö, with a mixed crew of Finns, Estonians and Germans. The story itself and the actors are Estonian – the lead actor Märt Avandi is a well-known local actor, singer and television host.
The film was ironically the Finnish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards and competed with the Estonian film 1944, which told another, related ‘national story’. Why are these film cultures so closely linked?
Finnish and Estonian are the two main languages in the Uralic language group, distantly related to Hungarian but not to any major Indo-European languages. The two countries are separated by the Gulf of Finland and the Russian territory of the Karelian isthmus – ceded by Finland after the 1939-40 ‘Winter War’. Finns and Estonians are united by their historical battles with Russia as well as their shared language culture.
Estonia and Russia
Estonia has a history of occupation from the 17th century onwards, first under the Swedish and then the Russian Empire. The country became independent after the First World War and a War of Independence in 1920 but was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and then by the Germans in 1941. The Red Army returned in 1944 and Estonia was again declared a Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Independence finally came in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During the Second World War some Estonians were forced to fight for the Red Army and some for the Wehrmacht – some fought on both sides at different times. Other Estonians fought with the Finnish Army against the USSR in the Winter War and the Continuation War (1941-44). These various conflicts are not well known in the West but they feature in Russian, Finnish and Estonian films.
When the Soviet Union re-occupied Estonia, Russians were encouraged to move to Estonia and at the same time Estonians were being deported (or themselves fled) or sent to Russian labour camps. This is the background to The Fencer. The number of ‘ethnic Estonians’ in the early 1950s actually living in Estonia was only around 1 million compared to the Russian population of over 100 million and the nearly 200 million in the whole Soviet Empire. Most of The Fencer takes place in the last year of Stalin’s control over the Soviet Union. He died in March 1953. The Fencer is based on a true story which has been fictionalised.
The Fencer tells of people’s universal need to hold onto their freedom and the right of a small country to defend itself against a superior opponent. Due to the events in Ukraine, I feel our film is astonishingly current. Shivers went down my spine when the second Crimean War began on the same day as our filming. (Kai Nordberg, Producer of The Fencer)
The genre basis of the story is familiar as a sports drama in which a former star athlete will find and train a small local team who will go to a national final and fight against the odds. This is then combined with the nationalist story.
The film looks very good in a CinemaScope ratio as photographed by Tuomo Hutri and I was impressed by the lead performance.