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Lennart Meri

“The Sons of Torum” (“Toorumi pojad”) (1989) is a good starting point for talking about the life and work of the Estonian filmmaker Lennart Meri. It’s my favorite of his movies, maybe because I think it's the one that most succeeds in presenting a world, both in the vividness of its living expression and in the pain of its disappearance. While all of Meri’s documentaries share the same interest in the lost or disappearing worlds of the Finno-Ugric peoples, there are often scenes that give off a kind of staged quality, as if we’re looking at a living museum rather than at life itself. His two early films, “The Waterfowl People” (“Veelinnurahvas”) (1970) and “The Winds of the Milky Way” (“Linnutee tuuled”) (1977) gorgeously bring together lush photography with the narration of Meri’s poetic texts. But I often get the impression that the people we see actually function as stand-ins for the people of the past, as symbols of a triumphant dream of a shared Finno-Ugric cultural heritage that goes back and back and back. It’s all very moving and evocative, but it also has the slightly cloying hint of an ideological agenda.

In contrast, “The Sons of Torum” is more anthropological in its approach. It presents scenes in the life of the Khanty people (sometimes called the “Ostyaks” in older literature), a Finno-Ugric people who, according to the narrator, number 20,000 in 1989. This small population is spread across the central part of the West Siberian Plain, ranging across a piece of land the size of all of Western Europe. (The narrator provides an evocative comparison to help us wrap our heads around the sparseness of this land : it would be as if the entire country of Belgium had only 300 inhabitants.) Interviewed in the 2011 documentary on Lennart Meri’s life and work, “Dances for the Milky Way” (“Tantsud Linnuteele”), the Estonian documentary filmmaker and ethnologist Liivo Niglas says the film has “extremely valuable anthropological footage”, not only because it contains some images which will never be seen again, but because it manages to deliver the actual emotion of what it’s filming, the 5-day wake that a Khanty community offers to a dead bear. The relationship that Meri and his crew had with this community must have been very special, and it wasn’t created overnight. According to “Dances for the Milky Way”, the crew came on 3 separate occasions during the 1980s, the first time simply getting to know people, and then actually filming the bear wake twice, first in 1985 and then again in 1988. In other words, it took years to gain the trust of this Khanty community.

But it was well worth it. The director of photography, Ago Ruus, explains that this trust gave the camera crew unprecedented access to what was happening in the community. They were allowed to go anywhere they wanted. Ruus clarifies a scene whose deeper meaning wouldn’t be clear to viewers without his explanation: At one point, we see a shaman holding a bucket in his hand. Apparently, he’s asking the god Torum if these strangers should be allowed to attend the wake. If Torum says no, water will spill out of the bucket. But the edges of the bucket stay dry, and permission is granted.

The film is an hour long, but at one point Meri had hoped to assemble his copious footage into a 6-hour cut. He resigned himself to never being able to actually produce the longer version, perhaps only half-jokingly saying that Torum had not granted him permission to do so. Or maybe he wasn’t joking at all : one of the most inspiring aspects of the writing Meri provides for the narration – in “The Sons of Torum” and in his other films as well – is that he never seems to present the view of an outsider who would speak condescendingly about the cultural practices of his subjects. He never reduces them to mere “beliefs”. For instance, when the narrator explains that the bear is placed to rest in a small house with an opening in the roof, he calls the roof the “eye” of the house, and explains that the god Torum can observe the inside of the house through the eye. Never does the narrator tell us, with condescension or distance, that “the Khanty people believe that the opening in the roof blah blah blah…” He simply states the facts of their living world.

So what actually happens in this film ?

First of all, a bear has been killed. I should mention that the circumstances of the bear’s death aren’t exactly clear to me. We’re told that the man who shoots the bear is called Vasyl, and this man will play an important role in the wake. Had he intended to shoot the bear in advance? And had the community been prepared to receive a bear that day? Or was it a chance event? Did Vasyl simply come across a bear and decide that it would make a good envoy to send to Torum?

(There might even be the suggestion that the shooting is an accident. I don’t quite understand the narrator’s comment towards the end of the film: “Though meeting the bullet was an accident, the whole tribe is tied to it”.)

Regardless of how premeditated the shooting was, Vasyl makes it clear to the community what’s happened, firing rifle shots into the air from his dugout canoe as he paddles back to the shore. Everybody is waiting there – including the film crew. It’s a joyous scene as they receive the bear, much like the welcoming home of an old friend. Adults and children alike are joking and hopping around. They probably know that this moment represents five days of festive interruption to their usual routines and maybe feel something like the giddiness I used to feel as a kid when I could sense normal life beginning to shut down for Christmas.

And so they begin the preparations for the wake. The tradition of the bear wake goes back a very long time: the Khanty have the oldest hunting culture in Eurasia, and their semi-nomadic annual routine (winters spent in one spot, summers spent in another) is as old as anything. They have always navigated their world – the Ob and Agan rivers and their tributaries – in dugout canoes. Although the Khanty were conquered hundreds of years ago by the Muscovy, their way of life has never been subdued – or so the narrator says in an early optimistic presentation of their lives that will be tempered later in the film by the bad news of the encroaching industrial world. But for now the good news: only 1% of them live in towns, and fully two thirds of them have kept alive their mother tongue, the Khanty language.

And so the guest has arrived, and the first step is to remove his fur coat, just as you would have any guest entering your home take off his coat, his gloves, and his boots. The narrator explains that removing the fur will also free the bear’s eternal soul from its temporal body. This bear, who looks quite small in his deflated form – just an empty, unstuffed fur – is described as an envoy to the heavenly world of his father, Torum. A bear house (pupi kot) has been provided for this envoy, and it needs to be made ready. People set off to gather the necessary things : the roots of a Siberian pine, the wood of a common pine, strips of birch bark, and the fluffy tip of a young Siberian pine. This last one is Torum’s favorite tree, and the tip is fluffy because he loves to gently stroke it with his hands. This little sample of Siberian pine is brought into the bear’s house and will be his link between this world and the next. His body is set underneath it and will remain there for the length of the wake. A string is attached to the little treetop, and a bell is tied to the string. At different points during the wake, this tiny Siberian pine will be tugged by the string and the bell will chime along rhythmically with whatever’s happening.

These trees cannot be found just anywhere. The birch and the Siberian pine in particular can only be found by crossing to the opposite bank of the river. As two men descend to the water carrying their dugout canoes to begin this mission, even the act of launching the boats has a kind of ritualistic choreography.

In describing the various tools – drills, bolts, etc. – that the Khanty use for these various preparatory tasks, Meri’s text slips, for the only time in this film, into the register more familiar from “The Waterfowl People” (1970) and “The Winds of the Milky Way” (1977). We’re told that the names for these special tools are the same in modern Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, proof that these words go back at least 6,000 years.

A “song staff” is carved out. It can’t be more than half a meter long, but it will play an essential role. The staff will awaken the songs which will in turn awaken the bear, allowing it to rise and be sent off to Torum’s realm.

Meanwhile, women are dressing in special outfits for the occasion and preparing the small wood house that will receive the bear and be the center of all of the rituals for the next five days.

The bear cannot enter the house through a door, but must come in through the roof, descending through the small hole or “eye” at the top of the house which allows Torum to observe the proceedings from above. It’s worth remembering that we’re not watching the full weight of a bear get lifted onto the roof and passed down into the room below. The bear is actually only a furry husk at this point. It will be used almost like a kind of doll, and just like a doll, its eyes will be replaced by fake ones – in this case by small circles of fabric that represent stars. Vaslily lights a fire in a tiny “hearth”, a little wooden box that’s been built for the occasion. Everybody then bends down to gently kiss the bear on the forehead.

Now that the bear is in place and the house is properly appointed, we can meet the cast of characters who are gathered here for the next five days. There must be several dozen Khanty people. And the largely invisible film crew is here as well, somehow managing to capture all of this so unobtrusively. There are toddlers as well as elders as old as Ivan Sopotšin, the 88-year-old shaman. Many musicians are present too. There’s Grigori Pokatšev, who will bang on a hand drum in many of the songs, and Pjotr Juplandejev, who accompanies himself on an instrument called the “playing tree” as he sings, and Timofei Ketšimov who plays “the song of the little goose” on something that looks like a large harp but with only one string. Semjon Ketšimov plays some sort of bowed instrument, something like a violin, but every bow stroke is a double stop, taking in two strings at once. Sometimes the old Grigori Pokatšev is heard singing as he bangs the drum, and the narrator tells us: “The songs of this tribal elder live on only in this film and in the hearts of his people, for his spirit has passed on.”

What are these songs? Apparently many of the stories share familiar themes with the Kalevala as collected by Elias Lönnrot in the 1830s. They sing 270 songs to the bear, a total of about 40 hours of singing spanning over 40,000 verses. At no point do we see anybody reading the words from a book. We’re told: “This is a fragile treasury of the unwritten literature of legends about the great flood, about the creation of the world, and about the beginning of man’s long road of life which every morning brings a new beginning. This daily rebirth depends entirely, however, on the memory of the tribe.”

How are such feats of memory possible? How can these old men remember 40,000 verses and recite them without a text? Nearly a hundred years ago, the American classicist Milman Parry shed some light on these questions. In the 1920s and 30s he realized that the still-living tradition of epic poetry among the bards of the Balkans might provide some clues about the compositional practices of Homer’s day. He came to realize that what tradition had attributed to single composers like “Homer” was in fact the collective creation of an entire bardic enterprise compromising many, many people working across generations. Rather than being written by a single person, a vast repository of ready-made linguistic formulas could be plucked from at will: grabbed here and there according to the needs of the performance. If a singer needed a few feet of meter to finish a line of poetry, he could simply pick a formula from his large stock of them – not something of his own composition, but a fragment of verse that belonged to everyone.

I’m sure similar tricks existed as well among the Finno-Ugric cultures who created the epic poetry of the sort we find in the Kaleva. The documentary doesn’t explain the techniques of oral memory, but suggests that the “song staffs” that I mentioned earlier may play a role in the process. These intricately carved wooden rods are not just decorative, but provide detailed records of the proceedings – a bit like taking “minutes” at a meeting. For every song sung, a notch is made in the staff. For any given year, a song staff will indicate the number of songs sung, their approximate sequence, and any extraordinary events in the ceremony that deserve special mention. In fact, the narrator tells us, when the crew came to film for a second time in 1988, "we saw a song staff recording our 1985 expedition. The song staff is the hunter’s chronicle. It is one of the numerous systems to safeguard collective memory as well as a vehicle for recreating the Khantys' unwritten literature.” But it’s important to remember that, even if these staffs play an important role in the preservation of memory, they're only so big. They can only record so much information. They’re certainly not big enough for 40,000 verses of song; these verses must be memorized through an oral process that’s sure to eventually die out with the elders if it hasn’t already.

Songs are not the only part of the entertainment. There's also dancing (pupi yek), wrestling, games, and theater. The men and the boys pair up to wrestle with each other, sometimes just outside the house as the bear watches through the door, and sometimes inside, right in front of the bear. It depends on the weather of the particular day. This wrestling is playful and joyful, like a dance; wrestlers and spectators alike laugh and laugh. At other times, little skits play out the old stories. Actors enter the house dressed in extravagant costumes, many of which are explicitly sexual. One absurd stock character comes on “stage” with an enormous wooden phallus, bumbling around the room and tripping over things to the great delight of the children. Often the stock characters are birds. One character, a crane, complains to the audience that the bear has plundered its nest: a scandal! The guest of honor has been insulted, perhaps even falsely accused.

Later, Vasyl, the man who actually shot the bear, plays the role of a hunter holding a large bow and arrow. His mission is to shoot the mythic 6-legged elk twice in its legs, thereby making it into a 4-legged animal. Watching this section, I wondered if the 6-legged elk was representative of a kind of mythic time before the age that we now live in. The official reason for needing to knock off two legs from the elk is to make it slower and easier for the hunters to catch. But maybe the transition from the transcendent animal to the mundane one represents a falling from a previous state akin to the Eden story.

Alternating with these little plays are various games and dances. Afterwards, an absurdly erotic act called “The Guest of the Blindman” has the children exploding with laughter again. It’s clear that this tiny house is not the venue for dreary religious services: it’s a comic theater. But at times, watching the children and adults alike giddily laughing at the ribald humor and silly costumes, it’s easy to forget that this is ultimately not intended for a human audience. This is a performance for a bear – a performance for the son of the god Torum! The distinguished guest must never grow bored; the humans are his “entertainers” both in the sense of “hosts” and in the sense of “performers”. He must not go hungry either: pouches made of birch bark are loaded with food for him to eat and laid out before him.

The obvious enjoyment of the children gathered in the house also made me reflect on the importance of children for the transmission of culture. Everywhere around the world, people have festive traditions that aren’t just important, but fun. These often involve stepping into a view of the world that more closely matches the way a child sees it: more magical and less bound by mundane rules. I don’t mean to say for a second that the adult shamans officiating the ceremonies of the bear’s wake don’t take seriously what they’re doing. In fact, I think their conviction in the utmost importance of these rituals is what’s kept them alive for thousands of years. But I also think that the adult mind is skilled at somehow believing two contradictory things at once: the ascension of the bear spirit to the heaven world of Torum is a literal reality and the ascension of the bear spirit to the heaven world of Totum is a collective imagining. It’s real, and it isn’t, at the same time. Though I wouldn’t know how to prove it, somehow I intuit that this is the case with people across all cultures, and not just the recent symptom of a mechanized, rational worldview crushing an older way of seeing things. I think the adult mind has always seen it both ways; I think adults everywhere have always lived in magical and mundane worlds simultaneously.

But at least for a few years, children live only in the magical world. This is why their presence in the ceremonies is so essential. I almost can’t imagine these ceremonies taking place – or at least not meaningfully – without their presence. They’re witnesses to the literal truth of the bear’s ascension to the heaven world of Torum, and without them there to see it, the ascension actually can’t happen. Critically, they’re also the guarantors of the continuation of these rituals. Because they saw them at a time in life when they were fully real, they understand the necessity of transmitting their reality to the next cohort of children in a generation’s time.

One of the disappointments for me of a film called “The Shaman”, a Meri documentary shot in the summer of 1977 among the Nganasan people of the Taymyr Peninsula in the northernmost corner of Eurasia, is that a similar ritual doesn’t seem to delight and engage the kids at all to the same degree. They look bored, as if they’re thinking: “How much longer are these adults going to keep at this?” This is never the case in “The Sons of Turom”.

Another Meri film, “The Sounds of Kaleva” (1985) contains a long and gorgeous musical scene that starts a bit unexpectedly 15 minutes from the end. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performs “Curse Upon Iron”, a piece by the composer Veljo Tormis. The music is gorgeous and beautifully performed, and the choreography of the costumed dancing is fascinating to watch. It’s very obvious, though, that this is a highly staged production, put on by actors. And the performance doesn’t pretend to be something else. Much like Tony Gatlif’s 1993 documentary “Latcho Drom”, which shows performances of gypsy music in a dozen countries from India to Spain, this sequence of “The Sounds of Kaleva” doesn’t have a pretense of authenticity. Instead, it’s a kind of elevated dream of a performance – a composite picture of what a sublimely impossible performance might look like. The approach of “The Sons of Turom”, on the other hand, is more strictly documentarian and anthropological. And I think it works to great effect.

About thirty minutes into the hour-long documentary, “The Sons of Turom” begins a dark passage that lasts about 10 minutes. This is when we finally get a glimpse of the encroaching industrial world. I think Meri is wise to wait until the 30-minute point to share all this ugliness. He’s made us understand the beauty of this Khanty community at its fullest artistic and cultural expression, and so we feel more keenly the tragedy of what’s being lost. Only once in the first thirty minutes is the outside world hinted at: we learn about a house built in the forest of the summer encampment which sits on large stilts, a traditional architectural design of the Khantys. In the old days they never needed to have locks for these houses. But the narrator tells us that the situation has changed.

This brief foreboding is very fully fleshed out in a long passage where Spiridon Tõltšin, a Khanty man who tells us he’s 44, but who looks far older, describes the tragedy of his people. The English translation of this passage, which is spoken in Russian, deserves to be transcribed in its entirety:

“I was born 44 years ago here in our summer encampment. The name of the place is Wat Jawon On, the Narrow River Estuary. Fish and animals have become scarce. The Vatugan River is covered with a layer of oil as thick as your finger. The corpses of pike drift downstream. The fish are permeated with oil and are inedible. Birds can’t take to the air from the river and die in the oil. We all suffer from liver disease because of the oil. On hunting trips we melt snow for drinking water. In the spring, the snow is thickly covered with a layer of soot. In the past, I fished here in my boat. Now there is a settlement of roughnecks on our riverbank. [...] The forest is felled with machines but the logs remain there. Everything burnt, only charcoal is left of the forest. The timber collective razed the forest, destroying the home of the animals. To hunt we have to wander far, taking our families with us. In the past there were always fish in the Holy Lake. The lake has been turned topsy-turvy and the fish are gone. They dredge the sand out and pump it to the opposite bank. 6 tons of fish used to be the norm, now 700 pounds is a good catch. Fish die when water from the Agan is pumped to the oil derricks. In the forested tundra, the lakes are pumped dry around the derricks. Fish can be found only in far-away lakes. They are so far away, you can’t fish there alone. We don’t know what to do, the Russians have taken away all of our land. Everything one leaves at the storehouse on stilts is stolen. You have to haul all your possessions around with you. A road was built alongside the Agan that the oilmen drive on. They fire shotguns at our reindeer. We watch carefully to keep fires from breaking out in the forest, it isn’t right for even the axe to wound the earth. Earth for us is like human skin which may not be wounded, skinned or turned upside-down. When the Russians came to skin the earth, Khantys began to die. In the past we lived till 70, nowadays we die at 14, 20, or 30 of liver failure. Now the Khantys have begun to commit suicide. In the past this was unknown to us. At school, children aren’t taught how to work, but to steal. This was previously unknown to us. We don’t know if our sons will ever become hunters and fishers. I considered living in the tundra, but oil rigs have sprung up there too. We don’t know how to keep on living.”

During this long monologue, Meri alternates between shots of Spiridon Tõltšin himself and images that symbolize the destruction he describes. We see the ugly Soviet infrastructure and the damage done to the forests and the rivers. At one point an image of a poster of communist propaganda – a cartoonish drawing of a handsome, rugged worker, smiling above a hammer and sickle and a cheerful slogan in Russian about solidarity – is absurdly juxtaposed with Tõltšin’s tales of horror. The end of the monologue is cut off by the creepy, alien sight and sound of the oil rig machinery chugging away.

Now we understand why the houses can’t be left unlocked like in the old days. The world of the Khantys has entered into contact with the brutality of the modern industrial world. I’m not even sure it matters so much that the society encroaching upon them happens to be a communist one. I suspect they regard them as the same “Muscovy” people that have been bothering them for the better part of a millennium. A capitalist society would presumably achieve identical destruction, but in the name of different values. As the cheerful poster of Soviet propaganda suggests, the destruction of the Khanty people is couched in utilitarian notions of working together for the common good. (A capitalist society would maybe couch the same impulse in terms of some slightly different prerogative : promoting a spirit of free enterprise and competition, or whatever silly thing.) Either way, the Khanty people are a thorn in the side of progress, an obstacle to the work at hand. Even a society that bills itself as “democratic” can’t put up for long with a mere 20,000 people presuming to live and call the shots in a space the size of Western Europe. Ridiculous! In democracy, “one person, one vote” is a holy slogan, and the handful of locals in a place as sparsely populated as this – a place with such abundant resources – can’t really be expected to have very much say in the whole of that place’s destiny! Besides – says the logic of the bulldozer – these people aren’t making any use of the land. It’s time for it to be improved.

As the bulldozer culture tends to its inevitable business under the banner of democracy or the free market or eminent domain or what have you, the dominant society isn’t likely to notice or understand the contributions of people like the Khantys. Regardless, the fact is that they have been the stewards of an enormous chunk of the world for generations, and have accumulated the practical knowledge and wisdom necessary for that stewardship. Their culture, over many generations, has itself become an expression of a place-appropriate way to interact with their particular ecosystem and bioregion. As the narrator says: “The Khantys’ relationship with the forest is more intensive than the farmer’s relationship with his field.” Generally speaking, forest-dwelling cultures are misunderstood. Only recently, for example, has the extent of ancient human involvement in the Amazon Rainforest been grasped. Rather than a vast expanse of jungle “left to its own devices” for thousands of years, the Amazon was a tapestry of interwoven ecosystems that were intimately connected with humans. And in many cases these ecosystems were highly managed, and therefore very much bear the imprint of many human fingers. Far from just letting nature “take its course”, humans played a critical role in the planting and management of different forest ecosystems like the Amazon.

It takes many generations for a culture to come into a natural balance with the ecosystems it lives in, and the knowledge of how to do this well is transmitted in a way that’s as fragile as the oral transmission of epic poems. It can all be lost in a single generation of disruption.

After this long passage spent learning about the destruction of everything we’ve just witnessed in the first thirty minutes of the movie, Meri returns us to the wake for another fifteen minutes or so. Once again, we become entranced, until suddenly [54:35] the creepy sound of the oil rigs come in, juxtaposed with a still image of a bear skull.

Watching “The Sons of Turon”, it’s not hard to understand why Meri repeatedly met with disapproval from the Soviet authorities who had the power to approve (or not) his films and to grant (or not) permission for him and his crew to travel to various parts of the Soviet Union to shoot their projects. Even before “The Winds of the Milky Way” (1977) was banned by the authorities, Meri and his family had long been viewed as troublemakers. In 1941, at the age of 12 years old, Meri was forced into exile with his family. Often, in biographical information given about Lennart Meri, it’s said that they were forced into exile in Siberia. It’s not clear to me if this is in fact the case, or if “Siberia” is used as a kind of umbrella term which more broadly refers to the idea of “waaaay, way out there”, “far, far away”. According to the 2011 documentary “Dances for the Milky Way”, the exile was spent in a part of the Soviet Union well to the west of Siberia. In fact, the 1960s scouting expeditions for the filming of “The Waterfowl People” (1970) brought Meri through areas he had known in his youth during his family’s deportation and exile.

[I’m in contact with Eva Toulouze, the INALCO professor who translated and narrated the French versions of Meri’s original Estonian texts for many of the films. She has wondered the same thing about this “Siberian exile”, and will be asking around in Estonia to hopefully sort out the confusion.]

What we do know for sure, though, is that from an early age Lennart Meri was sensitized to the richness and beauty of different languages and cultures. As an adult, he spoke at least five languages, and he used his excellent communication skills not only in his later political career, but in coordinating all of the international production and travel logistics of getting his movies made. Perhaps it helped that his father was the foremost translator of Shakespeare into the Estonian language.

In a radio interview from 1969, a year before the film would be shown to an audience for the first time, Meri spoke about his feeling that film can be a very clumsy medium. Much clumsier, he says, than the medium of writing. A filmmaker has much less say over what the camera shows than a writer has over what he writes. Sure, you can take out certain things in the editing room, but there’s really only so much you can get rid of. You can’t eliminate things from your frame; the camera simply captures what it does. Meanwhile, a writer removes anything he wants by simply choosing not to mention it.

Meri was a writer before he was a filmmaker. During the 1950s, he worked as a dramatist and producer of radio plays in the Estonian broadcasting industry. He’d already written several scripts about the Finno-Ugric people by the time he had any involvement in the mid-60s film project project that would become “The Waterfowl People”. In fact, much of the narration heard in the film dates back to unproduced scripts written by Meri for radio in the 50s.

Originally, Meri intended “The Waterfowl People” to be an 80-minute film, a length which of course would never be approved by a studio that wanted a 50-minute film. On top of that, the script he prepared for the project seemed to require at least two full length films. But when the footage was shown for the first time in 1970 at the 3rd International Congress of Finno-Ugric Studies, Hungarian and Finnish academics were in awe. This footage was particularly unique at that time because scholars had been trying to get access to these regions unsuccessfully for half a century and had never succeeded. The only footage that anyone was aware of was old black & white reels of very poor quality. Now for the first time, people were getting to see living color images of the region. But, as expected, the cinema committee was displeased with the 80-minute length of the film and decreed that it must be cut.

In particular, a scene with the Madjari peoples from Uzbekistan was left unused; Meri had suggested in his very first travel book the possibility of Finno-Ugric kinship with these people, but this was deemed too controversial to make it into the film. The committee also insisted on cutting a scene of the Nenets bleeding a reindeer because it was deemed too shocking. Finally, they wanted him to add a disclaimer that essentially assures the viewers that the ancient rituals seen in the film were staged. Why? I assume because the Soviet authorities didn't want to give the outside world the impression that these hopelessly outdated lifestyles represented the reality of how people in the Soviet Union actually lived. It was acceptable only if the audience was made to clearly understand that they weren’t watching a documentary in the traditional sense. Here we can see the beginnings of a conflict with the Soviet authorities that echoed both his early life, when he was forced into exile by the Soviets as a child, and his later life, when he would leverage his position of cultural and political power to fight for his country’s sovereignty in the face of Soviet interference.

“The Waterfowl People” begins with footage of an elderly woman, Klavdiya Plotnikova, who’s described as the only living speaker of the Kamassian (or simply “Kamas”) language. Plotnikova died about 20 years later, in 1989, and her language died with her. Her status as the last speaker of Kamassian meant that, by extension, she was also the last living speaker of its larger language family, Sayan Samoyedic, which itself is part of the South Samoyedic branch of the Finno-Ugric languages. (Today, this branch now contains only one living language, Selkup.) The narrator of the documentary makes it clear that the hope of the film is to preserve Klavdiya Plotnikova’s language for prosperity. So Meri’s very first film, which set the tone and style for the half-dozen that followed it over the next couple of decades, is an act of conservation. "The Winds of the Milky Way" ("Linnutee tuuled") (1977), sort of picks up where the previous film left off, continuing to talk about the ties of kinship among the Finno-Ugric people by examining their linguistic and cultural connections. There's a particular emphasis on exploring cultural memory. “The Shaman” ("Šaman") (1997) which was completed twenty years after it was filmed in the summer of 1977, conserves the legacy of Demnime, a Nganasan shaman from the Taymyr Peninsula in the northernmost corner of Eurasia. The 1985 film “The Sounds of Kaleva” (“Kaleva hääled”), whose third and final section with the performance of the Veljo Tormis composition I mentioned earlier, is likewise dedicated to the question of conserving cultural memory. A first section deals with the Karelian cliff drawings, and a middle section recounts the efforts of Elias Lönnrot to gather the tales that would constitute his 1835 compilation, the Kalevala. At the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, Meri worked on a project whose footage would be assembled into the film “Tales of the Livs” (1991) (also known as “Stories of the Livonians” in English; “Liivlaste lood” in Estonian). This too, is very much a project concerned with conservation: it concerned the last remaining native speakers of the Livonian language, who died out over the next decades.

This question of “conservation” came up a lot as I watched and reflected on all of Meri’s available documentaries. I found myself wondering about the connection between the idea of “conservation” and “conservatism”, the second term more often used in a social or political sense. The later career of Lennart Meri was as a politician: he served as Estonia’s foreign minister from 1990 to 1992 and then as its president from 1992 to 2001. Often when I come across biographical material that mentions his political career, his politics are described as "conservative". I don’t know enough about Estonian politics to contextualize this designation, and I’m hesitant to try. The term “conservative” is a slippery one. Like “liberal”, and like “left” and “right”, it can mean very different things in different contexts. Just as the modern Romanian understanding of “conservative” and “liberal” don’t at all match with a French understanding of the same terms, French “conservatism” is a very different animal from American “conservatism”, even if they may overlap in certain respects. It’s a curious fact that, in the American context I’m familiar with, the current conservative movement is quite hostile to the conservation movement, which has an ecological connotation and is these days associated with a left-leaning political profile. All of this stuff is pretty meaningless in the abstract and can only be understood in context.

But I think it would be interesting to explore the notion of “conservatism” in its more abstract meaning – separate from any social or political manifestation of it that’s specific to a particular time and place. This isn’t so easy; it’s hard to think about the term without, for instance, certain economic theories (free market, neoliberalism, etc.) coming to mind. But if we manage to abstract out the underlying characteristics of conservatism, independent of its particular political and economic expressions, I wonder if we can begin to think of it as more of a tendency in human thought. This tendency is an expression of an individual or societal resistance to change that risks upsetting an established way of doing things.

In traditional societies like the Khanty community we meet in “The Sons of Torum”, there's a very understandable balking at the forces of change. The specter of Soviet oppression is the obvious disrupting factor in this context. But elements of disruption don’t always come from the outside – they can come from inside the community as well. It could take the form, for instance, of rebellious teenagers who refuse to conform to the parental norms they feel are arbitrary and unjustified. Or maybe it could take the form of marginal members of the society who feel their needs aren’t adequately met by the established power structures and who try to upset those structures in an attempt to better meet their own needs. As people in the community challenge the norms, either attempts are made to accommodate these people or attempts are made to reign them in. The sorts of societies we call “traditional” have gained that designation in part because they’ve maintained particular ways of doing things – conducting ceremonies; enforcing rules; dressing, cooking, building homes – and it seems to me that they’re probably less likely to accommodate deviations from the norm. And these kinds of societies often delegate decision-making power to their older members, which probably reinforces even more the tendency for the old ways to be preserved. The sorts of rules that would feel arbitrary to members of societies geared towards innovation and progress – such as a rule dictating that an unmarried woman should wear a particular kind of dress to make her marital status clear – automatically have authority in a longstanding, traditional society. It’s as if the weight of many generations stands behind the rule that says you have to wear a particular kind of dress, saying: “This is how we’ve done it for a thousand years, and here we all are, still standing. Something must be working.”

There’s a particularly interesting section of Meri’s first documentary, “The Waterfowl People”, that explores this theme. It discusses the rules governing the hunting practices of Finno-Ugric hunters. Some conventions may date all the way back to the original Uralic strata. There are strict protocols to follow regarding the cleanliness of hunted animals, including how they have to be skinned and cleaned and in what sorts of containers their bodies can be kept. Similarly, very precise rules determine how the spinning of fabric must be done and what the various kinds of spun yarn can be used for. The precision of these rules appears to be a source of continuity and meaning for the people we see following them so precisely. The narrator tells us that “national costumes and particularly embroidery are the most lasting elements of national cultures.” Here, the word “national” is of course intended in the sense of the coherent ethnic-cultural identity of a people (as opposed to its modern European sense of a “nation” as equated with citizenship of a country). The very precise following of long-standing rules and traditions in every aspect of life is really very striking. There’s such a specificity and incontrovertibility associated with these rules; I can’t think of anything comparable in my own culture. Apart from very broad general scripts which are common to weddings, for example, the specifics of the ceremonies are quite variable. In my own culture – where innovation is often held as a virtue – departures from “old-fashioned” customs are very often seen as a good thing.

Now that I've watched all of Lennart Meri’s movies, I do see him as sympathetic to a certain kind of cultural conservatism. He’s impressed, I think, by the beauty of continuity, and this shows up in his films repeatedly. We see, for instance, his fascination with the similarity of words used for certain tools. The same words are used by groups of people living far away from each other, and they point to a common linguistic heritage reaching back thousands of years. He admires the song staffs that preserve the record of long-ago bear wakes and the rigor that goes into preserving the oral memory of the songs themselves. Even when they veer slightly into sentimentality or take a bit of an ideological bent, Meri’s films are beautiful, and they've played a role in conserving the living memory of cultures who in some cases might otherwise be lost to us. If you're new to his work, I think "The Sons of Torum" is the best place to start.