Before Veiko Õunpuu set off to the Berlin Film Festival to present his latest feature film “Free Range” about young antagonist Fred, we had a chance to sit down with him for an inspiring talk.

Veiko Õunpuu. Photo by Pilleli Läets

Veiko Õunpuu. Photo by Pilleli Läets

You didn’t translate the title of your film, “Free Range” into Estonian. Does this expression refer to the couple’s relationship at the centre of the film?

It’s not an easily translated expression. “Free Range” refers both to the relationship as well as to the irony of the situation – the main characters don’t seem free at all. You may think you’re free, but you still turn out to be in a confined territory. The question of personal responsibility creates a boundary around the main character, Fred. No individual can be eternal, we are limited by time and by what we’re able to accomplish during our lifetimes. And I think you can only talk about romantic freedom by way of irony or light parody. My film begins with a childish approach. The main character believes that he can reach romantic freedom and that the status of a writer means he has greater freedoms than other people generally are afforded.

So why did the main character choose to become a forklift operator? Instead of such a black-and-white approach, he could have decided to try something in between.

You don’t free yourself from the dictates of a market economy by continuing to play the same capitalist game with the only difference being that the goods you’re selling are your books. And that goes for a lot of other middle-of-the-road options. That doesn’t satisfy Fred. He thinks that he’s leaving the system completely. Maybe being a forklift operator is a better solution for his soul, despite whether he really likes the job or not. It’s a very personal solution for me – I’ve often thought that I don’t want to make these films any more because it feels like they’re eating away at my soul. I hate being at the centre of all the pettiness, bickering, and constant judgment where everyone thinks something about your work.

Who is approving of who in this film? Is Fred approving of the world or vice versa?

Fred is trying to approve of the world. The second part of the film’s title “Ballad on Approving of the World” is actually a poem by Bertolt Brecht. This is a first-person poem about a sympathiser of the Fascist regime. The title was meant to be ironic. The all-encompassing nature of the current, global market economy makes it somewhat like the little brother of Fascism and I thought a lot about whether it would be possible to approve of it. I came to the conclusion that the economy has to remain secondary and that life manifests itself in other ways outside of socio-economic relationships. If you live a frugal life, notice the mystery in the everyday, it becomes possible to approve of life. The same goes for Fred. He takes responsibility for what he’s done and gives up his idea of romantic freedom.

In the film, the main character is accompanied by books everywhere he goes. Does the fact that he’s a writer symbolise any person in the arts or do those who practice the art of literature have a special connection to approving of the world?

The film doesn’t fetishise literature; the books express daydreaming. Fred is a dreamer who fantasises a lot and lives in his dreams instead of in the dull, mundane world. And secondly, I seriously hope that there’s a way to be in the world through extreme simplicity and a verbal detachment that gets much closer to reality than just daydreaming. I like romantic fantasising and I like the idea that it’s possible to gradually give up daydreaming. To me, those are two positive ideas in this film.

Did you write the excerpt of the book that is read out in the film and that makes Fred’s girlfriend say something like: how can you live with yourself when you have such melancholy thoughts?

Fantasies aren’t always pleasing. Fred’s are narcissistic and revolve around the problems of being a writer. His approach to being a writer means being free from the oppression of civil society and having the possibility of believing you can do anything you want. And then you create a text at the price of your own blood. That’s very romantic – and if the text is depressing, then all the more so. A writer suffers just from the mere fact that he’s constantly a captive of verbal activity. If you stop to think for too long, you’ll usually find that all of it is pointless. As a character, he realises the fruitlessness of his work even before he’s able to completely devote himself to it. And, besides, I didn’t know how to write any other text. Kaurismäki once said that the reason why the guys in “Calamari Union” say so little and are completely silent in some scenes is because he couldn’t think of anything. I wrote that text because that was what I once thought. That it’s hard to figure out how to keep on living without getting depressed when you understand the frustrating essence of existence but you still haven’t reached transcendence yet.

And what exactly is that frustrating essence of existence then?

It is the fact that life in all its forms can never offer us complete and utter satisfaction. The Buddhists use the word dukkha for this, meaning suffering, dissatisfatcion, inconstancy. Plus, it’s pretty clear that the state of the world is only getting worse. Capital has one hundred percent of human activity in its grip. Almost all facets of life and human relationships are commercial. We have freedom of choice, but it is increasingly confined to commerce – the only choices you have, even in your free time, are commercial. In order to function socially you have to be continuously employed and the outcome of your constant, panicked activity is that you’re able to provide shelter and food for yourself and perhaps ensure your survival. You run as fast as you can to stand still. Our perverse situation is undoubtedly extremely difficult for everyone, but artists like Fred find it next to impossible to bear. The contemporary spirit isn’t conducive to different outlooks on life. It seems to me that there have been more subtle times in the past – times when having a heightened sensitivity at least gave you a say in things. But maybe I’m wrong – there have also always been poets who died of hunger.

There are a lot of shots in “Free Range” where some “random”, out of focus, everyday object sticks out. Are these formal objects supposed to seem arbitrary in order to make the film more lifelike?

Yes! Everything in the frame is placed that way so that the film would be as lifelike as possible, while also feeling somewhat random. But at the same time, the composition isn’t random or impulsive. If you try to talk about life with very artificially constructed images, I feel like life runs away from you. The sensibility of the film is supposed to be universal. It’s not my own, personal sensibility; it should speak to different people. And I’m sure there are a lot of people who are fed up with how schematic films are in general nowadays.

But the unnaturally scarce dialogue seems to reinforce the fact that you’re not seeing a randomly arranged reality, but a film.

I don’t like using commonplace vernacular in films. You can’t make a good film based on a groping text. And I’m not looking for that kind of naturalism. I even tried to use vernacular but I understood that something was wrong right away. You have to have some sort of boundaries or make choices. You can’t just take everything that exists and stuff it into a film. There’s too much noise in vernacular dialogue.

What’s the inspiration for the music in the film?

A lot of the music in the film is 70’s hippie rock. I like the films from the 70’s produced by the independent American studio BBS, like “Five Easy Pieces”, “Easy Rider”, and “King of Marvin Gardens”. They only made about a dozen films, but when I saw them on Finnish television as a teenager, the sense of freedom that they evoked left a very deep impression on me. The films are very banal. They mostly talk about slightly proletarian, simple people, using straightforward means and few tricks. These films felt authentic and that’s what I wanted to cultivate. I wanted to evoke a similar universe. The music should also express the main character’s search for freedom.

Why did you decide to use 16mm film? 16mm is usually used for documentaries, TV series and student films.

I liked the 16mm image this time. It’s kind of a lo-fi look. I guess everything is made digitally these days. I don’t really understand that kind of stuff. I have yet to see a digital image that I find esthetically satisfying. A digital image is too dense for me; there are too many pixels in it. Reality looks too real. I have a Neo-Platonist approach to art. The world that exists is a copy of something transcendent. Art should deal with something that the world is a copy of, not copy the world. Creativity affords you an important opportunity to understand that your creation is not a piece of the world. The work always has it’s own agenda and that’s much more interesting to me than the mundane, everyday world.

And what might that agenda be?

I don’t want to give it a name. It hints at something secret. If you designate a name for it, then it moves into the conceptual universe and becomes just a name. Let’s leave it unnamed. Some people recognise it, and I’m happy with making films meant just for those people in a way. And if they don’t see it, then let them go in peace. I don’t have any need to speak to everyone.

How do you gather ideas for your films?

Mostly I get the impulse for a film from a question that’s relevant to me at the time. I start to work at it; I read, think, look at the world and find the road to subsequent conclusions in it. This process continues until the final cut of the film is locked down. I often end up with a completely opposite conviction than when I started and then I’m stuck since the film should preserve its central idea in its original form. When I finish a film, I’ve usually finished working through the idea that I used for the film also. Then I can put that idea aside for myself.

Mati Unt wrote in “Empty Beach” (1972): “At our latitude, the whole summer is ephemeral – its beginning also denotes its end.” How long is the life of one film for you? Do you let it take off on its own after the premiere or do the films you’ve made years ago stay with you?

I don’t know about the life of a film in the context of society. I guess it depends on whether it captures a certain zeitgeist or not. In my case, it’s over even before the very end – I don’t want to deal with a film any more after I’ve finished editing it. I don’t even want to see it or have anything to do with it. It’s done. As a rule, I don’t watch my old films. I notice all kinds of mistakes, my own ineptness and foolishness, but there’s nothing I can do about it any more. It’s exhausting and gratuitous to tamper with something that you should’ve let go of long ago.

If you’re not ashamed of your first creations, then there hasn’t been any growth.

(Laughing) That’s a pretty adequate assessment.

What is the most important aspect of filmmaking for you?

I mostly work with the image. It’s most engaging for me and I don’t really know how to work with anything else. Lately I’ve let others have more and more of a say also. I’m not fascinated by drama; the plot ploys and storyline are secondary. I do make an effort in this respect. In my last few films, I tried to tell the story in a way that the story wouldn’t become tedious for myself. But the ideas and atmosphere in a film are more interesting to me. The film should feel alive, not be buried under dramaturgical schemes. Of course, the viewer needs for there to be some sort of story to make the film carry him forward. But the answers that the plotlines give can’t be too easy; they can’t let the viewer get too comfortable. How do you make a film that works but isn’t too predictable? – that’s what interests me the most about filmmaking right now.

How much freedom do you give the actors?

With this film, I gave them a lot of freedom because I wanted the people in the film to be real. If an actor is consciously directed and he knows his assignment one hundred percent, he becomes stiff and lifeless. You can only capture aliveness on film if the actor is constantly fresh. And you can achieve that in two ways: improvisation and manipulation. With improvisation, it often costs a lot of film and money to achieve that freshness. But manipulation is difficult, because you have to be very aware of what you’re trying to achieve and what methods will help you get there. That’s rather difficult for me because I’m not a very social person. Especially when I don’t know the actors and I’ve never worked with them before, like in “Free Range”. But I think it worked out in the end. The actors seem like people, not characters.

How often do you read reviews of your films?

I read it all. Whether I accept it or not depends on whether the critic has something smart to say or the writing is just a bunch of gibberish. If someone says something very negative, it does affect me deeply. It reminds me of a phrase from the “Dao De Jing”: “Both praise and scorn cause concern, for they bring people hope and fear.” Blame definitely also makes you angry. They’re both bad things. But if the criticism is constructive, it might help. You can’t really act on the praise, or at least you have to keep yourself in check and not get too haughty over it. Of course I like compliments and they keep me going just like anyone else, but there’s also the danger that you’ll also start to think you’re extraordinary. If you start to think like that, then you’re screwed. With this film, I’m satisfied with the way the ideas are expressed in it; and what I’m most interested in is how and what people understand of the overlying theme and how the dramaturgic structure works for them.

Do you read reviews of other films? How do you decide what to watch?

I don’t choose films based on reviews and I don’t have critics whom I follow. But I do have filmmakers whose films I always watch. Some of my favourites are well-known filmmakers, like Buñuel, Tarkovsky and Pasolini. Last year, I discovered Melville. Ozu and Bresson are great in their own right. In contemporary cinema, I like Bruno Dumont. Not to mention Jarmusch. And Kaurismäki is impressively straightforward. The Iranians Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi are very good. And the Dardenne brothers have made some good films. I usually watch all of the films made by one director and try to understand how he’s grown and how he thinks. Sometimes I choose films based on a certain genre or on the impression I got from the trailer. But I prefer older films. To be completely honest, I’m not particularly drawn to contemporary cinema. It’s hard to find the gems and I end up feeling like humanity has essentially lost its compass. If you love old films, then unfortunately you notice this most in films. There have undoubtedly been a lot of big, technological advances in filmmaking, but it’s been years since I’ve seen a film by a contemporary director where the ideas really shook me to the core.

You said that there have been times of heightened sensitivity in the past but some poets always die of hunger. But some people say that if a poet is fed until he’s full, you’ll no longer get anything good out of him.

I don’t know who those people are, but I’m sure they’re very nasty people (laughs). It seems to me that things are bad, though it seems lame to say such a thing on a sunny, summer day in this island city. You can manage if you play along. And then it becomes possible to live your life. If you go to Finland and make a film, for example. Accepting your boundaries gives you a new kind of freedom.

“Free Range” Trailer: