Adapted from a seminal work of Estonian literature, Tanel Toom’s “Truth and Justice” is one of the year’s most ambitious directorial feats. An epic about pride and honor, it follows a farmer who struggles to make a living from the land amid harsh conditions and an ongoing feud with his neighbor. Following its selection to the shortlist for Best International Feature, I spoke with Toom to discuss the film’s timeless themes and how they resonate with modern audiences. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: “Truth and Justice” is such an important literary work in Estonia. How did you get involved with adapting it as your debut feature?
Tanel Toom: Yes, it is considered to be a major Estonian literary work and the most important novel for Estonians. It’s on all the school curricula. I actually didn’t read it when I was supposed to, in high school. And I’m very happy that I didn’t because I wouldn’t have understood it. But I always knew that one day I want to ready it because I felt bad. I eventually got the time to do it. It’s a very thick book. The Estonian version is like 550 pages and the English translation is even longer.
When I finally did read it, I was surprised because I really loved it and it talked to me. I was affected by how contemporary the struggles of the novel were. And how strongly it resonated with my own pursuit for self-fulfillment. The more I tried to understand the character the more he reminded me of my myself actually. There were so many themes I connected to. It’s so easy to lose yourself while stubbornly pursuing your dream and forgetting the things that are actually more important to you. Your loved ones.
It wasn’t meant to be my first feature. I had the idea when I read the book. But I was working on another project at the time. Then the Estonian government put out a call to develop film projects to mark Estonia’s 100 years of independence in 2018. So it felt perfect for it and it would have been stupid to not try to enter that competition. It was a really heavy competition for a small country. They received like 160 entries for projects and in the end there were about five projects and we were one of them in the last round.
I started adapting the book and at the same time I was supposed to do another film but it got postponed for financial reasons. So “Truth and Justice” became my first feature. It wasn’t my plan to do something so huge for my first feature but it just kind of happened that way.
SS: How did you approach adapting such a massive text and deciding what to focus on and what to cut for the screenplay?
TT: There have been many attempts to make it into a film before. But no one got it made. The book is very thick and has so many characters and subplots and it is very episodic. The book isn’t fully chronological and also, it takes place over 20 years. But when you make a film, you have to have “cause and effect” links and sequences. But the book isn’t like that.
The first year I was only working on structure and choosing my main events, inciting incidents, first act turning point, midpoint, second act turning point, climax and so on. Creating the three-act film film structure in order to deal with that massive material. That really helped me to control the material somehow.
Also, what made it very exciting for me as a writer to adapt it is that the author doesn’t really give accents or emphasis for main events. So I could really choose what felt logical for me. For example, the first time Andres goes to court and loses because he’s telling the truth, I understood that this was a very important in this character’s life. But in the book, it’s only a half page. So I really put an emphasis on that.
And later, when Andres beats his wife for the first time. In the book, it’s just one sentence. For me, it was a very important moment in this character’s arc. This is the moment where the monster is being born basically. But in the book, you might even miss it! So when the film came out, there were many people who said they don’t believe this happened in the book. They were really surprised that it did happen.
SS: The Estonian cut of the film is 16 minutes longer than the international version. What was the reason for this and how significant is the difference?
TT: The shorter version has been shown in Estonia as well, at festivals like Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. We felt that if it’s an unknown film from Estonia with unknown actors, the length is scary. So we just tried to make it less scary. We cut seconds from here, seconds from there. It wasn’t major things. Everything is so interwoven. It’s basically the same, there’s just not as much “air.”
SS: The film has been so successful in Estonia. What do you think has made it connect so strongly to Estonian people, considering it’s not what you’d usually consider a “blockbuster” movie?
TT: I can just speculate, but there is a very Estonian DNA in the story. The main thing is that the story has to be strong and emotional, with characters that you can connect to. But for Estonians, I think we recognize ourselves as these characters in the story. So many Estonian men recognize themselves in that we do not express our feelings, we do not talk about what’s going on inside of us. We just silently try to make things work. But sometimes by not talking and communicating, we might ruin or forget the more important things.
A couple years ago, I read a book called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” She was speaking to old people who were very close to death and asking about their regrets. And one of the main regrets was that every single male told her that they wished they had worked less. No one will ever say on their death bed that they wished they would have worked more. Then obviously there were regrets that they wish they had spent more time with loved ones and told them they loved them. These things are the most important in the end, before we go. And we know that in the year 2019, but it’s still very hard to act on those things and actually do it.
So I think many Estonians recognize themselves. It’s a very sad and emotional movie for Estonians because it’s not the nicest image. Lots of people wrote me and told me, this character is like my father or my husband or myself.
It is based on the most important novel, but that doesn’t guarantee success. It might even be the opposite. The success was a total surprise for me because I was completely ready to get beaten and kicked out of country. Everyone has a version of their own in their heads. How the story should be and how the characters should look and talk. Even the ones who never even read the book! There are many adaptations that have failed. Even now, look at what happened with “Cats.”
SS: You were previously Oscar-nominated for your short film “The Confession.” How does the awards season experience compare this time around?
TT: [Laughs]. It’s very different actually. With a short, the stakes are smaller and there’s not so much campaigning. I had won the Student Academy Award the year before, which qualified the film for the “big Oscars.” Then we got into the shortlist and then the nomination. I think a lot of Academy members already knew the film because they had seen it a year before. So we didn’t start from zero.
But this year there were 93 films and you’re really starting from zero. With our film, we didn’t have any awards from Cannes or Venice or Berlin. It’s a film that no one knows anything about! [Laughs]. So it’s a miracle that we got into the shortlist and I’m obviously very happy and honored. Especially because this year there are so many big filmmakers in the category, so it’s very tricky for smaller countries and unknown films to get noticed. So that’s a huge part of the job of campaigning. To get people to actually see your film. It’s very different and exciting.
SS: Both “The Confession” and “Truth and Justice” have underlying themes about religion. Where does that fascination come from?
TT: These are actually not the only films. I’ve done 10 short films and funnily, two of my most successful short films have religious themes. I like to treat religion or church as one of the characters in my movies. I like to question everything and ask all these big questions of “Is there a God?” The interesting thing is, Estonia is considered to be the least religious country in the world. Here it’s more about stones and trees and wind. Yes, believing in something, but we’re very close to nature. The official church is the Lutheran church, but not that many people go to church. The religion is not so institutionalized here.
I’ve always been interested in the Bible for some reason. It’s put together by 60 different authors over 200 years. It’s many thousand pages and so many contradictions. It’s a book where you can really find a justification for whatever you want, even very nasty things. It can have this darker side if you are abusing it.
And this is what really interested me with the main character Andres. Everyone knows that there are so many people who really do find comfort from the Bible and find answers and it’s a big help. But what Andres does, he’s not looking for answers. He’s looking for justification. So he’s actually really abusing the book. That’s why it doesn’t end well. It’s a very unhealthy relationship with that book. It is very fascinating that you can interpret the book how you want and justify very nasty, dark things. There are so many wars because of religion and faith.