What began as a short film about Estonian folk costumes is capturing the thread of a much bigger picture.
Keepers of the Loom, made by Beach filmmaker Tom Mae and his sister Reet, is a documentary film about the Estonian women of the Baltic diaspora who retained their culture through traditional folk arts.
“It started with this very Toronto-focused story, and it’s becoming bigger than we imagined,” says Reet, speaking in her brother’s film studio on Kingston Road.
Due this fall, the feature-length documentary is based on interviews with people who fled Estonia in 1944, when their country was occupied by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany before the Soviets re-took it and the two other Baltic states in 1944.
It all started with a short video of an exhibit of folk clothing and textiles held in 2008 at the Toronto Estonian House.
Reet said they especially wanted to hear from Estonian women, whose stories often go untold.
“As we were going, it became really clear we also had to tell the history at the same time,” she said. “Why do you have tens of thousands of people fleeing at the same time, in one month? You have to know the context.”
Using film techniques learned from other projects, Tom said Keepers of the Loom will make that history alive to younger viewers with animations, motion-control shots of artifacts, enhanced archival photos as well as by reenacting personal stories.
“Part of what makes it real for people is that the history is told by people who lived it,” said Reet.
One woman in the film tells why she fled Estonia with nothing but a summer dress and a pair of sandals. She was 20, recently married, and had cycled ahead to a boat where she expected her family to join her with their luggage the next day.
But they never made it – the Soviets arrived overnight.
Tom and Reet’s own parents made it to Sweden, and then to Canada after the Swedish government gave in to Soviet demands to return refugees who had been forcibly conscripted.
Other Baltic refugees died when their boats sank or were mistaken for navy ships and bombed.
“Some people went down to the bottom of the ocean, some people survived and ended up in safety,” said Tom. “It was totally as fate would have it.”
Despite a brutal occupation that ended when Estonia regained independence in 1991, Estonians at home and abroad held on to their language and culture.
In July, Reet will visit Estonia for the massive song festival, Laulupidu. Held every five years, it features a single choir of some 35,000 people, all in traditional dress.
Such gatherings have a special resonance this year, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea under Vladimir Putin.
“For people who still remember the 1940 elections, it is so bloody parallel to what is happening in Crimea,” said Reet. “It’s like history is repeating itself.”
Keepers of the Loom still needs months of work to finish. Corporate sponsors are coming on board, and the Estonian community and Mae Productions have each donated $25,000 and $30,000 so far to make it happen.
But even with many volunteers, a feature documentary is costly to produce. Tom and Reet recently launched a trailer for the film and a crowd-funding site.
“We don’t want to stop interviewing once we get this film finished,” Reet added. If they get enough funding, they will expand the project to a second film to include stories from the two other Baltic countries, Latvia and Lithuania, while those stories are still in living memory.
“We are finding remarkable people,” she said.