Documentary Adventures is a series of articles about the adventures and stories our students experience on their documentary filmmaking journeys.
A crew of 3rd students decided to explore a small island in Estonia with population of less than 60. It is remarkable to see what living conditions the locals face on a daily basis in 21st century. Our 3rd Year students decided to step out from their comfort zone and find out what is it like to live in Ruhnu Island. Here’s their story written in their own words:
Ruhnu – an Estonian island just under 12 square kilometres consisting of a school, two shops, a post office, a tiny museum, an old light house and farms. These and the tiny building and field that comprise the airport are practically the only proof of civilisation on the island that not even 60 people call home year-round.
When our native Estonian producer, Laura, who grew up just outside the biggest city in Estonia came up the idea for the documentary, its original focus was Ruhnu’s tiny school that has a mere 9 pupils. But later Laura realised that that small school isn’t the only thing that’s completely different to what we are all used to, and insisted that the human stories on Ruhnu were worth our attention. After gathering a team of 5 we set off to visit this isolated island in eastern Europe.
The biggest challenge we faced whilst planning our trek was the news that the tide in the Gulf of Riga (where the island is situated) was very low – too low. By chance, we learned that the ferry we booked to travel to Ruhnu was cancelled, and the only way to get to to the island was by a tiny plane. The plane fit only 9 people, which limited our baggage allowance significantly. And as you can imagine, flying with two cameras, lights, a monopod and sound equipment left very little space for our personal belongings. However, we were going there to shoot a documentary, and not to walk a runway. What resulted was a hellish day of playing suitcase Tetris and arguing over how many outfits a person REALLY needs for 11 days before he or she begins to stink.
Bags packed and running on little sleep, we finally set off. A joinery to Heathrow in the wee hours of the morning, followed by a flight to Tallinn with a layover in Frankfurt, then a 5 hour bus ride that included a drive-on ferry ride, 4 of the 5 of us arrived in Kuressaare where we would stay for one night before concluding our journey to Ruhnu (don’t worry, we didn’t lose anyone on the way: our 5th crew member is the resident Estonian, Laura, who spent this night at home with her family). Laura met the rest of us the next day in Kuressaare, where we caught a tiny bus (or what some might consider a very large van) the airport. We arrived very early knowing that if we missed this plane, we’d have to wait days for the next one. Luckily for us, there was only one more passenger on the plane besides our crew, which meant it was ok that our equipment and personal belongings exceeded the collective 75kg we were allowed. Crisis averted.
After terrifying 25 minutes during which at least 2 crew members were convinced none of us would survive, our tiny plane tumbled its way through the wind and somehow landed in one piece on Ruhnu. We were quickly greeted by our host – in Estonian, of course – who took us to our accommodation. The one room, 2 ladder accessible loft, hand built, forest cabin that we were about to call home for over a week was sweet, cosy, and could have come straight out of a fairy tale.
Shortly after settling down the mayor visited us and invited us – mostly in Estonian, of course – to come to a reading night later on to have some tea and learn about some of the locals’ favourite literature.
That very evening, despite 4 of us being unable to understand much of what was being said at the time, we felt sense of a community. Despite the fact that the locals explained the difficulty in integrating and being accepted into this community, we felt welcomed.
Although frigid, at times painfully so, the beautiful forest, fields and beaches helped us to slow down and appreciate the surroundings. It became our new norm to go to sleep with a dark and twinkly night sky visible outside the window, untainted by light pollution and silent beyond recognition of a Londoner. It was nice to be so close to the nature, albeit at times a bit too close: one evening we were advised not to leave our forest cabin because 120 horned Scottish cows managed to escape their large fenced enclosure. On a day out filming in the mayor’s truck, we bumped into a group of them, however the we kept our distance and, after staring at us curiously for some time, they decided we weren’t worth their attention.
Even experiences like the grocery shopping weren’t without their surprises for us city folk. There were only two shops on Ruhnu, only open 4 hours a day, and entirely closed on Sundays. A lack of milk for several days, little choice in anything else, a couple funny language confusions taught us that our trip required us to be creative not only in our production, but also in the kitchen.
As the days went by at a newly comfortable slow pace, we met more and more people. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entire population, save a few residents who don’t leave home or keep much contact with others, knew about us. We were invited for dinner, shown how to make jam from the fruit of the plentiful apple trees, and taken around the island by the mayor himself. It was a most unique experience to see the life of different Ruhnu people. Some of them grew up on the island, some of them decided to leave everything behind and move to this tiny piece of land surrounded by the cold Baltic sea, and some who had left years ago, decided they could no longer stay away from the place that feels most like home. It was interesting to see the different perspectives of life from the young and the old, the quiet and outgoing.
An unexpected facet in our production experience, was perhaps the extent to which we as a group of five learned about each other as people and very different members of one team. In some ways, our time together in the tiny log cabin was not unlike some sort of summer camp with one big task that just so happened to be filming a documentary. Jokes were shared, arguments arose, overcrowding occurred, and differences of personality and opinion were evident. We talk now about how fascinating it would have been to turn the cameras on ourselves and create an altogether separate documentary of our own journey. (We weren’t prepared to take on this workload, and alas, our experiences will remain documented only in this blog, our module log, and our own recollections.)
Our strength as a team, however, remains in our commitment to wanting the very best for our production. And the key takeaway from our experience thus far? The importance of communication.
As we now head into post-production, we recognize how fortunate we are to not only have filmed, but witnessed firsthand and participated in a version of life outside our own comfort zones 1600km away from home. We learned a great deal (especially about ourselves), were the benefactors of freely given kindness and hospitality, experienced sometimes frightful adventure, and we came back (in one collective piece) with hours of footage for the upcoming documentary. Now, on to post!
– Laura P., Ross, Laura C., Kate, Greta
In next post we will catch up with our next group of students who are currently enjoying sun and hot temperatures in beautiful desserts of Jordan.