Film and media blog

Tanel Toom: You Must Love Storytelling

We asked the freshly elected Postimees Person of the Year and the director of the Oscar-shortlisted "Truth and Justice" about his time in university. Here's a small retrospective.

Tanel Toom


You graduated the Film Arts department at TLU in 2005. Looking back now: what did the uni give you?

I began to love film more and found out what filmmaking is about. I had no experience coming in, I was accepted last or second to last. I learnt to watch films at TLU and if you have the filmmaker's perspective, you're half way there and you can learn something from every film you see no matter how good or bad it is. All this happened thanks to Jüri Sillart, there's no going around him. Sillart was our course supervisor and we were his first students ever. In addition to teaching us how to watch films, he taught us to question ourselves about why we're making films in the first place. What do I want to say here? Questions that you need to be asking yourself.

One more step back: what inspired you to choose this career back when you were in high school?

That's a funny story. I remember always enjoying watching films but I had no idea as a kid, that this is something I could be doing myself or even that it'd be possible to learn this anywhere. Or that anyone actually makes them! It seemed to be something so grand and magical and unattainable that I really didn't even think about it. I wanted to become a sailor or an actor. But then my father brought a video camera back home from a trip and one of the first things I mustered up with it was a music video of my cat. The year was 1997 and the piece of music was The Prodigy “Smack My Bitch Up”. By the way, my unofficial production with Kessu the cat was born before Jonas Åkerlund's notorious official version. Although I wasn't considering real filmmaking back then, a seed must have been planted with that video. At the same time I had been writing plays for my class a lot in grade school. When the class had to perform something, I would usually be the one to write it up, and of course, having been the one to write it, I was the best person to say how it should be performed. So I would try and get my point across to others. Years later I found out it's called directing.

In addition to Kessu the cat, Prodigy's “Smack My Bitch Up", and writing school plays, was another fateful coincidence - and the reason I'm answering these questions right now. Who knows, maybe this interview will affect someone like it affected me when after high school my girlfriend serendipitously showed me a TLU booklet where Jüri Sillart wrote about a film being a dream. And after reading those two pages, I understood that this is what I've been wanting to do my whole life. Next thing I know I was in the middle of the admission process. 

What should a young person yearning to dive into the world of film, in your opinion, know or do?

That you should be ready to be devoured by it. It's not a 9 to 5 job. And the reasons should be inner ones. You must love stories and telling them.

Tell us a story of your student days!

We had World Film History lectures Tuesday mornings at 8. And this lecture meant that you went there, the teacher said some introductory words and the film came on. And since I'm not at all a morning person, all I remember from these lectures are the opening and closing titles. Years later I had to rewatch all the films. But watching black and white classics at 8 AM? Come on.

TLU is just opening it's new creative building Vita, where we have dance halls, art studios, music classes, a sound studio... a great addition to the Nova building (opened in 2012) with it's film studio, TV studio, sound studios, editing rooms, cinema hall and other facilities made for learning film art. How was the actuality of learning film back in your day and what do you think this new environment will offer students?

The actuality of learning film back in 2002-2005 cannot be compared to the current opportunities. Back in my day, making films was "voluntary-compulsory" - nobody could demand we make films, for the school had little resources to give us. We could only dream of studios, rails, editing rooms and professional cameras. It's a long and awe-inspiring road that the school has gone through. Without exaggeration, this school is up to par with the best film schools in Europe. I'm glad. And Jüri Sillart played a big part in fighting for all of this.

I hope Tallinn University realizes what kind of a small miracle the Film Arts department is. For such a small country a native film school is an endangered species and should be protected like the flying squirrel. 

About Truth and Justice: 

What experience was new to you on the set of Truth and Justice? 

By the time I was making Truth and Justice, I'd been making films for 17 years, so there were no big surprises for me on set. Shooting a full feature film, however, is an experience that you can't practice beforehand. I'd made 10 short films and a bunch of advertisements before Truth and Justice, the logic and work is similar for them all, but the team was much larger than I've ever had. And the bigger the team, the clearer you have to be as a director.

Oh - in none of the previous projects have I had as many animals in the same shot at the same time!

What's the most memorable moment?

I can't pick one. I'll remember this whole process for the rest of my life. And in the best sense. I really did like making this film. And I really did want to make it. I'm truly grateful that I was given this opportunity.

And the funniest moment?

Krõõt's cow Maasik was quite the diva, we had quite a bit of trouble with having her be in the shot or move in the right direction at the right time. She always had a different plan. It might have been funnier for Maasik than for us, because it seemed she didn't care about wasting time or that the light was changing.