Moral Lessons and Critical Thoughts Wrapped up in Animated Paintings

Rein Ramaat was educated as a painter, but is nowadays considered the “father of Estonian Animation”. Rein Ramaat didn’t give up his dream of being a filmmaker after his application for the film academy was refused and succeeded in following his own artistic path to a large extent, despite making his animation films under the occupation of the USSR. But did he really enjoy true artistic freedom, or was he secretly longing to be as free as one of the birds that we see so frequently in his work?

Rein Raamat was born into an artistic family. Not surprisingly, he wanted to become an artist as well. He applied for the film academy in Moscow, but his application was refused because he didn’t speak Russian. Raamat ended up studying art history at the Tallinn Art Institute, but started working in the film industry right after his graduation. Tallinnfilm Studio offered Ramaat a job as a background and set artist.

Elbert Tuganov, another major influential figure of Estonian Animation, was impressed by Raamat’s work and invited him to work at the puppet film studio Nukufilm, which was the animation division of Tallinnfilm Studio. However, it took some time before Raamat started making his own films. He came across Herbert Rappaport, a Sovjet director and screenwriter, who taught him all the aspects of filmmaking and continued working on feature films of others in the 1960s, in order to gain more knowledge and experience.

In 1971, Raamat founded Joonisfilm, a second animation film studio under the wings of Tallinnfilm. Unlike Nukufilm, Joonisfilm focused on the production of artistic animation productions for adults. Back then, 70% of the animation films produced in Estonia had to be targeted towards children. However, Nukufilm was already fulfilling this quota and so, Ramaat was both able to produce animation films for grown-ups and express his knowledge in the arts.

This wasn’t easy though. The employees of Joonisfilm had no experience with cell animation and Ramaat had to ask Russian animators for some help and advice. This is one of the reasons why Ramaat is accused of making USSR-propaganda films, though the animator himself denies this.


Firebird (1974)

Ramaat made fourteen short animation films in total and was an artist par excellence who was eager to experiment. Each of his films has a different style and his background in painting and drawing is clearly traceable. Firebird (1974) consists of many colourful geometrical forms, while the drawings in both Aerials in Ice (1977) and The Hunter (1976) are rather sober and much more detailed and realistic. The transitions between the drawings are quite unique: they don’t flow, but each drawing stops for a moment before the next appears, which creates a staccato rhythm. In The Beggar (1985), sepia colours dominate and drawn animation is combined with live-action images.

Not all his films were coloured. The images of Palme d’Or nominee The Field (1983), for example, were drawn with charcoal while Hell (1983), the film that won both a FIPRESCI Prize and a Special Jury Award at the International Animated Film Festival of Annecy in 1985, was based on the engravings of the Estonian artist Eduard Viiralt (1989-1954): ‘The Preacher’, ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Hell’. The style of this film can be described as a moving engraving. Ramaat ended his career as animator with a cartoonish black-and-white film: The City (1988).

Only some of Ramaat’s short films contain a clear narrative. A Romper (1975) tells the story of a little schoolboy who refuses to follow the signs painted on the streets. He walks across the lane, even when a large fence discourages him from doing that. One day, the boy ignores a warning that says the ones who don’t walk on the pavement will turn into a pig. The boy laughs, passes the sign and runs to the other side of the lane. The sign wasn’t lying. The naughty boy does turn into a pig. The moral lesson in A Romper is clear: you’ll regret it if you don’t follow the right path, the one that is assigned for you.

Ramaat is known for putting moral lessons in his films, even in his silent and more ambiguous productions. In The Hunter, a man is sailing on a rough sea, trying to catch a whale. However, the man fails and falls into the freezing cold sea. When he starts drowning, the whale catches him and brings him up to the surface. The whale saved the man, the one who wanted to kill him. Your worst enemy can suddenly turn into your hero, might be the lesson Ramaat wants to teach us with this film.

In The Field, a hard working horse dreams of being a beautiful animal able to be wild and free. The horse starts refusing to obey the farmer’s orders and runs away. After a storm, the horse finally sees the paradise he had dreamed of. He gallops towards the light and ends up right where he came from: the land of his owner. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Not all of Ramaat’s films have an educational tone. The director questions the relation between nature and technology several times as well. In Flight (1973), winner of the Special Jury Award at Animafest Zagreb 1974, a dark orange character sees a flower flying around. After he succeeds in catching the flower, he flies up to the sky and passes many clouds and several birds. Then, the flower reaches the end of the sky and can’t cross the boundary between sky and universe. The orange character falls, the flower flies on. A kind of intermezzo starts, which presents several kinds of funny flying machines, reminiscent of air-balloons and aeroplanes The orange character comes out of this intermezzo with a white airplane and start a battle with the birds. The airplane is better than the birds; the character is able to fly faster and higher. Finally, the airplane turns into a rocket, which enables the character to fly into the universe… where he comes across the flower. So, are technical devices created by men really better than the flora and fauna that mother earth creates? Does humankind have the right to enter universe anyway?

Aerials in Ice presents a man in a snow storm. He’s working in and around a kind of space ship, however, it is quite unclear what he exactly does or what drives him. At the end of the film, the man wipes away the snow from his machine and a green landscape appears. Birds sing and the man starts to enter the green nature after pulling his warm clothes off. The birds’ singing turns into more mechanical beeps and sounds. Was it a heating machine the man was working on? Or was it something that could transport the man to a warmer place? In any case, the film seems to ask whether it’s good or bad if humankind starts to build machines that transform their natural surroundings.

Big Tyll

Big Tyll (1980)

The last animation films Ramaat made are rather critical and approached more political matters, which is surprising since Estonia was still occupied by the USSR at the time. In 1980, the animator drew Big Tyll, a film about a giant who saves his people and land (the Estonian island Saaremaa ) by eliminating the enemy. Since the film is based on an Estonian folk tale, it passed the Russian censorship, however, Big Tyll is seen as a nationalistic film. The heads and costumes of the nation’s enemy are red, which was the unintended result of a lack of proper film stock, according to Ramaat. Moreover, the eyes of the giant, his wife, and the inhabitants of the island are black, white, and blue: the national colours of Estonia. So, Big Tyll inadvertently represents a battle between Estonia and the USSR. The giant is beheaded at the end of the film, but he doesn’t really die. “If the war is here again, then come and wake me up. I will rise and help the people” is what the voice-over says after the giant turned into a stone. Hopefully, his help won’t be needed in the future.

In Hell, a cosy night in a crowded café gets out of hand. In the beginning, couples dance on live classical violin music, people drink beer at the bar or smoke a cigarette. A couple of can can dancers and a naked man with a flute wake up the visitors of the café. Everybody starts dancing wild, faces appear in one of the pillars in the café, and spit beer in the glasses and mouths of the drunks. The owner of the café, a preacher, is stunned and hits the man with the flute. It’s quiet for a moment and most of the people lay exhausted on the ground or the tables. But then, the flute player starts to play again. The pillars turn into machines with guns and start shooting. It frightens people, however, that doesn’t stop the flute player from playing. He even turns them into strange static creatures. He is the almighty dictator who treats his people like emotionless puppets. Ramaat’s film represents the hell on earth, and the reality Estonians lived in back then as well.

Big Tyll

Hell (1983)

The Beggar is about a poor man who is ignored by society. He is portrayed as a wooden piece of art that has always been standing there right next to the door. A dog tries to attract the attention of people walking by. A Photographer stops by to take some pictures of the man, a striking crowd walks along, a musician passes him several times, but no-one stops to help the man and put some money in the hand he is holding up. In the end, the man falls down. It starts snowing and the man disappears, like he has never existed. Is this the way we should treat the poor? In this sense, The Beggar not only mirrors society of the 1980s, but our contemporary civilisation as well.

The last animation film Ramaat made was The City, which criticises life in the city with all its temptations. It portrays a city full of skyscrapers and small rooms where families live in. One day, a black square pushes against the houses in order to make room for even more buildings. People’s rooms get smaller and smaller. A group of angry men transform into a giant who tries to push the houses back and bring them back to their normal sizes. However, when the black square spits a great amount of money on the ground, some men get out of the giant’s body in order to grab as many coins as they can. The square spits again and suddenly some prostitutes appear behind the windows of a building. Again, some men leave the giant’s body and climb through the window. The square knows humankind. People can’t resist the temptations of the big city and by tempting its inhabitants, the ruler can do whatever he wants.

One more detail that strikes you while watching Ramaat’s films, is that he features a bird in almost all of his films. The bird is often the side-character who is free and able to fly wherever he wants. It is also the one who sees everything and pays attention to the things human beings don’t (want to) see, such as a beggar. Did Ramaat dream of being a bird? Did he see this animal as the best you could be, since they are able to cross boundaries without being punished? The appearance of birds can’t be a coincidence, that’s for sure.

Ramaat’s films are not really character driven. Instead, they represent a moral lesson, ask ethical questions, or express a critical thought, sometimes against a Soviet background, whether that might be accidental or on purpose. We have to admit though, that his films were daring regarding the style. He took some risk by making films that differed from the popular genre of the animated puppet films, with a series of unique artistic animation films as a result. After the independence of Estonia, Ramaat unfortunately stopped making animation films. After his new studio, Studio B, went bankrupt, he started making documentaries and painting again, returning to the foundation of his filmmaking.

This Small Country Big Cinema: Estonia article was published in September 2019