If you haven’t yet seen The Fencer and it’s possible for you to do so right now, stop reading this and check it out. We’ll wait. The film is a dramatization of the life of Endel Nelis, an Estonian Fencing coach who established a school in the Soviet 1950s that still trains fencers to this day. The film weaves autobiographical details with the facts of life for Estonia during the 50s – Stalinism, Soviet occupation, secret police and the huge number of children whose fathers had died during World War II – for a story that feels, for lack of a better way to put it, 1/3 The Karate Kid, 1/3 Dead Poets Society, and 1/3 Animal Farm. Though filtered through a touching character study of a man struggling to escape his past.
It works of course, and so it is that for the fourth time, the film’s director, Klaus Härö, has been picked to represent his native Finland as the country’s Academy Awards submission. As Oscar season ramps up, Deadline hosted a screening tonight, followed by a discussion with Härö (conducted by our own Dominic Patten) that covered everything from the historical basis for the film to the challenges (and awkward discussion of) casting kids.
Härö has worked with kids in more than one of his films, and in The Fencer 5 children in particular play a huge role in the story. Asked about the cliche that directors should never work with animals or kids, he was adamant that it’s not a problem for him. Awkwardly of course. “If you’ve been in a country where you don’t speak the language, you know how to connect to a beautiful girl,” he said before realizing the hole he was digging. “This is a really bad reference… how do I get out of this?”
Big laughs followed, and Härö elaborated that what he was looking for was a sense of the kid falling into the total immersion of playing pretend. They get into it, they “believe”, he said, as opposed to acting like, well, they’re acting. The trick for the director, so he says, is that you can’t give elaborate, psychological instructions to child actors, but instead give guidance within which they can perform. A lesson, so he said, that his initial Estonian translator hadn’t learned. “He’s studying to be a director,” Härö was told by another member of the crew. So it was that Härö had him assigned to a different task where he could observe, instead of giving the child actors too much direction.
As for the film’s historical accuracy, it draws heavily from the story of Nelis, though it makes the sad fact of Estonia’s absorption into the Soviet Union a much larger part of the story. In real life, so Härö said during the discussion, Nelis was frequently forced to deal with meddlesome authority figures, but it’s unclear if he was ever sent to a labor camp, as is the version of him portrayed in the film. The point in the depiction was to include much more of the nation’s history as part of the narrative. Härö also contrasted his upbringing in Finland, where Russia is a more abstract topic, to what he observed in Estonia, where the long history between the two nations means Estonians are very interested in what goes on in Russia. In fact, so he says, the shoot came to a temporary halt on the day the news broke of the initial incursion of Russian forces in Ukraine, as everyone on set obsessively read the news on their phones.
Other highlights of the discussion:
* About his fourth time representing his nation at the Oscars, he jokingly asked “has anybody been married four times?”, before adding that he is “humble, and humbled just being here.”
* Asked about his approach to filmmaking, he says he doesn’t rely on storyboards. But, he says, “if you ask me ‘what is a film?’, I’d say it is a story told in pictures.
* What connected him to the film wasn’t the setting or the subject, but the core of the story. “[it] was really [about] a teacher and his pupils,” something Härö says was critical in his own decision as a kid to become a filmmaker.
The Fencer stars Märt Avandi, Ursula Ratasepp, and Hendrik Toompere.