“Forward! Back! Foward! Forward! Back! Maintain your line! The sword is an extention of your arm! You must learn to keep your distance!” These were the words of Endel Nelis, the fencing instructor in the film, “The Fencer”. Produced by the Finnish production company, Making Movies Oy (Ltd), producers, Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho, co-producers, Ivo Felt and Jorg Bundschuh, and director Klaus Haro bring the story of Estonian fencing instructor, Endel Nelis, to life in this heart-warming story of hope and overcoming adversity in a world where there was no light at the end of the tunnel. This is the Finnish submission for 2016’s Oscar category, Best Foreign Film. According to Haro, there are over 80 submissions for this category, and he feels grateful for the chance to present this film while hoping for the best come Oscar time. Considering that the film took 39 days to shoot while learning to communicate with a foreign cast and crew, and indoctrinating the lead actor including the children in the sport of fencing, this was truly quite a cinematic gem that deserves many accolades.
Beautifully written by Anna Heinamaa and supported by a soulful musical score by Gert Wilden, Jr, “The Fencer” is a story set in the early 1950’s in Haapsalu, Estonia when the Soviet Union had reoccupied the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) in 1944 after the Baltic Offensive drove out the Nazis who had occupational control for the previous three years. The Soviets annexed all three states up until 1991 when the Baltic States won their independence. However, the story doesn’t dwell heavily on the politics that surrounded the climate of the era; instead, it focused on Endel (portrayed by Mart Avandi) and the students at the Haapsalu Secondary School, No. 2. The story opens with Endel arriving from Leningrad to start a new life at the little town of Haapsalu, Estonia as the new head of athletics at the school’s Sport’s Club. When presenting his creditials to the Principal (Hendrik Toompere), the stern headmaster notices fencing as one of his skills. No sooner than having met the man, the Principal quickly dismisses Endel’s real passion setting the tone of their relationship for the rest of the film. Also, the meeting spells out a whif of foreshadowing as the Principal asks Endel why he had left Leningrad for such a quiet little town. This plot point is the mystery that keeps the audience wondering about Endel’s past as he tries to make the best of an apparent dire situation. It’s obvious Endel is miserable and doesn’t want to stay at the school or in the town. To add salt to the wound, the Principal shows very little regard or respect for Endel especially when he tries to take the children out on a skiing trip. On the day of the trip, Endel discovers that all the skiing equipment had been taken. When he reports the incident to the Principal, he brushes the matter away citing that all sports equipment is shared with the local Soviet military aviation base. Of coarse, this further chips away at Endel’s pride and soul. Only when he takes out his fencing foil after closing the club one evening and everyone has left, do you see the fire, the focus, and passion of a fencer yearning for the next match as he practices a fencing drill. Coincidently, his exercise is quietly interrupted by a curious, little girl, Marta (Liisa Koppel) who inquires on his current excursion. Being one of many young students who attends his sports club, Marta and Endel quickly develop a bond that warms the fencer’s heart and inspires him to start a fencing club. Despite the Principal’s objections and efforts to close down the fencing club, the children’s families give Endel the much needed support to continue and train his students in the one activity that seem to give them hope and purpose. From that point on, the story unfolds as Endel trains his students while learning patience for himself and developing strong bonds with many of his proteges particularily Jaan (Joonas Koff), a young boy whom Endel mentors as the crippling realities of the Soviet occupation begin to surface in the story and reminds Endel of his own mysterious predicament that brought him to Haapsalu in the first place. In the midst of the sports drama into which the story develops, a sweet love story emerges too between our protagonist and one of the school’s teachers, Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp). She is the character that represents the town’s pale realism and only warm ray of sunlight. Weathered by foreign occupation and despair, she sees in Endel a new ray of hope as he tries to bring the sport of fencing into the town. Her character soothes Endel’s cynicism and paranoia offering him a chance at a potentially normal life. Normal as much as one can hope until the Principal’s investigation into Endel’s past start to find its way to the school and peaks at the apex of an all-Soviet fencing tournament held at his home town in Leningrad. Unlike the usual sports dramas where the focus of the climax is the big game, the focus here is instead of Endel’s internal conflict between facing his past, risking arrest by the Secret Police, and his devotion to his students with whom he had trained to compete in their first fencing tournament where they may have a real chance at winning. The decision is a difficult one for Endel to make because it could mean the difference between life and death. The story, though loosely based on the real life of Endel Nelis, is really a human story about a small community who had lost much hope in the wake of the Soviet occupation and how the introduction of fencing helped restore that hope especially to the lives of the school children who grew and healed from the experience.
The production is stellar in that the director, cast and crew was able to believably create this small little world where very little is afforded to this insulated community, and the very real threat of the Secret Police watching at all times is felt among the town residents; albeit, the dark images of men in black trenchcoats and unmarked cars are not seen that very often. However, when they do appear, a sudden knot in the stomach is felt for the victims whom they visit in the dead of night. The dreary, cold town populated by folks who have kept to themselves, take the audience down empty roads, by bleak marshes, and deafening, silent evening strolls. The only bright corridor interestingly is the sports club itself with shining lamenated gym floors and large windows allowing the sunlight to shine through illuminating the entire gymnasium. Add the energy and tenacity of the young actors who make up the fencing school, the audience’s mood in turn is lifted feeding off the training drills and some of the comical gestures displayed by the younger cast members. Much praise should be given to director, Klaus Haro, for keeping a very tight, concise story from veering off to a completely different direction given the story’s themes. He understood the core of the story and stuck to it focusing on Endel and the fencing school. Using subtle filmmaking techniques, he was able to pull the emotional breadth of the story and present it dramatically in true cinematic form offering complexity and depth. Finally, the music by Gert Wilden Jr is enchanting. He takes the audience on an emotional journey from beginning to end. Each piece grows with the development of the story keeping the interest actively engaged.
As for the cast, each brought their A-game to the floor. Mart Avandi, playing the titular character, brings a very somber, unimposing quality to the role yet one can feel the weight of the burden that his eyes suggest with every turn and look he makes. The audience can feel the depth of his burden from the start of the film and prompts one to give the poor guy a strong hug of reassurance that better times are indeed ahead. Well known in his native Estonia, Mart is an accomplished actor, singer, and television host–a true household name. More fascinating is the fact that his best work is in comedy, yet he displayed such serious, dramatic presence emitting melancoly, bitterness and a touch of rebellious bravata all in one role. Ursula Ratasepp, who played the love interest (Kadri), was able to set a subtle, quite pace along side Mart. She was able to bring out Mart’s character out of his shell supporting his endeavors and offering a comforting refuge when the walls were closing in on him. The chemistry between them is good. It took a bit to warm up to Ursula’s Kadri mainly because the story centered on the fencing school rather than on the underlying romance, but when she was on screen, she did allow the audience to take a breath from the drama between the Principal and Endel, the fencing instruction, and Endel’s internal struggles. By the end of the film, Ursula’s Kadri turned out to be the film’s constant and welcome contributor to the overarching story. Hendrik Toompere’s Principal is simply a guilty pleasure. The primary antagonist in the plot always runs chills to one’s spine whenever he is in the scene. Every question he asks makes the audience wonder how much does he really know or what is he trying to find out. One cannot trust his motivations, Only, the audience knows that he is relentless in his efforts to uncover the truth behind Endel Nelis. As for Liisa Koppel, her portrayal of Marta is delightfully endearing. With only a couple film credits to her name, she already is showing much promise in her early career. She steals every scene, and her chemistry with Mart is the perfect balance between wide-eyed optimism and spunk. There is no question that this girl will hit it big very soon. Among others in the supporting cast, Joonas Koff (Jaan) and Lembit Ulfsak (Jaan’s grandfather) deserve much credit as well. Their subplot anchors the film in the setting’s historical background and the purpose of having the fencing school. A deep resonance behind their story follows alongside the main plot of the film. Not only does Endel grow strongly attached to this family, but they also mirror his own conflict reminding him how very real the Soviet threat is in this town. Lembit brings a seasoned presence adding to the story linking the plot threads nicely while generously allowing his younger breathren to engage his character effortlessly. Joonas also shows much promise as an actor displaying the right amount of angst and youthful enthusiasm while expressing deep emotional scope as his character develops throughout the arc of his story.
With no affiliation to any American film distribution company, Making Movies Oy (Ltd.) has been screening “The Fencer” at a couple film festivals all over the world including Finland, Estonia, Belgium, and Japan. Future screenings are scheduled to hit Poland, Egypt, Italy and France in the near future. In fact, it won the Bernard Wicki Award at this year’s Munich International Film Festival. Now, it’s in the current running for the Oscars. An American screening was held at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, CA this week to showcase the film to an American audience. Both the film’s producers and director were present to introduce the film and greet the audience before and after its presentation. A short Q &A session was also offered after the film; so that, the audience can ask the director questions on the making of the film and his insights on the story itself. With now five feature films under his belt, Director Karl Haro, explains to the audience the wonderful experience he had filming “The Fencer”. Interestingly, he indicated that he was relunctant to take on the project at first when a short description of the story was presented to him by his producers, but when he began reading the script by Anna Heinamaa, he was instantly fascinated by the story of the fencing instructor trying to teach the sport to a group of kids in the Stalin-era town in Estonia. He praised Anna’s script for the success of the film citing the genius of the story, and how this was her first screenplay she had ever written despite the fact she is an accomplished Finnish novelist. Considering that Anna took up fencing at the age of 40 and continues to practice into her 50s, this was more of a personal story about a sport she felt passionate about, which took her to Estonia where the sport of fencing is extremely popular and home to numerous gold medalist fencers. It was there where she was introduced to the story of Endel Nelis by his children who recanted the humble beginnings of the school. Haro then goes on discussing some of the scenes in the film and offering his persepctive on film making and how much of a difference subtle gestures can add to the dramatic effect of a particular scene. Moreover, one story specifically he had shared highlighted the significance of some of the main themes in the film itself with which the cast and crew identified. It was during a shoot in 2014 when Haro noticed the crew attentively glued to their cell phones delaying the filming of a very poignant scene. When asked what was happening, they informed Haro that they were reading the news of the Russians entering the Ukraine. That finally hit home for all involved in the project because it took them back in time and reminded them how very real these themes were for folks in the region. They won their independence in 1991, and now in 2014 another foreign incursion had taken place. For Haro, the themes in the movie is very significant for the people in Estonia because previous generations lived it.
The movie overall is a story of hope during a very difficult period in history where one’s individuality and quality of life were under a microscope constantly. Fear of standing out kept everyone at a distance for purposes of survival. It eventually drained the life out of a small town until the arrival of a fencing instructor who decided to do something different sparked an interest in a new generation which trickled down to the rest of the town breathing in it new life and hope. From there, emerged several schools of fencing and a new identity which has endured to the present time. The irony was that the protagonist was running away from his past, yet his past caught up with him and forced him to confront it. As a result, a new love emerged in the community, fencing.