Estonian epic Truth And Justice is Tanel Toom’s debut feature and was recently shortlisted for the International Feature Oscar. Based on a classic local novel, it’s been a smash hit at home where it was released in the spring, selling 267K tickets in a country of just 1.3M people — and topping Avatar to become Estonia’s most successful film of all time. When the shortlist came out, the surprise inclusion was snapped up by sales outfit Films Boutique. This isn’t Toom’s first brush with Oscar — his 2010 The Confession won a Student Academy Award and was later nominated as Best Live Action Short. But, he allows, the stakes are higher now.
The film is a historical drama that follows an Estonian farmer in 1870 who struggles against a rival neighbor as well as his own family and beliefs. It’s an adaptation of Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s eponymous pentalogy novel, written from 1926–1933, and which is considered one of the fundamental works of Estonian literature.
Toom tells me that there was great anticipation for the movie version, the first time the book has been transferred to cinema. “In many ways, there were more ways to fail because everyone, even people who hadn’t read the book, all Estonians had their vision of what the film should look like, who should play the characters… so there was a lot of expectation. It was a scary thing. I was completely ready to be kind of slashed and beaten, so it was a very big surprise that it went so well,” he laughs.
When he read the book, Toom “had an urge to put it on the big screen. I wanted to tell a classical story in a classical way.” But adapting it was an ornery process. “It’s not been done before because it’s very hard to adapt. It’s very episodic, and there are so many characters and subplots. There is a jumpy timeline that is not clear at some points and there are no cause and effect links in the book so I had to really create and combine these events. It was very exciting to do that work because there are some huge and main events in the film that in the book the author doesn’t give any real emphasis.”
Why take on such a challenge as a feature debut? In fact, Truth And Justice was not meant to be Toom’s first film, but then the Estonian government put out a call for development film projects to mark Estonia’s 100 years of independence. “It felt perfect for it, it would have been stupid not to try,” says Toom. Out of 160 submissions, his project was selected.
The story also felt personal for Toom. “I was affected by how contemporary the struggles were and how they resonated with my own, let’s say, pursuit for self-fulfillment, and also that suppressing one’s feelings is a very human thing to do, a very Estonian thing too do.” It’s also a universal theme, Toom agrees. The way his main character, “never ceases the non-stop drudgery to acknowledge what he has achieved and forgetting to pay attention to his loved ones. This was something I really connected to before I even started writing. He started to remind me of myself because this is how I make films. I lose myself in the work and nothing else exists, and that’s a very dangerous thing, of course.”
Although he was completely taken by surprise at being included on the Oscar shortlist, Toom has had experience with the Academy before, being nominated for Best Live Action Short in 2011 with his graduation film, The Confession, which had previously won a Student Academy Award.
It’s different this time around. “This is the serious game now, the stakes are much higher, but it was an amazing experience with the short film as well. It’s what I really love about filmmaking, you never know what will happen to the film or how it will go or what kind of life it will have, but when it does well you’re amazed, and you’re happy for your baby.”
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