I have never slept as much as I did here, on the European border with Russia… The sleep was thick like overcooked apple jam, paralysing like the smell of burnt sugar in the air. It reminded me of my childhood, of dinners at my granny’s tiny flat. She’d offer us dry chicken and mushy cauliflower. By dessert, runny whipped cream with frozen berries, my Dad was half asleep on the kušett, walls fell on me slowly like white gravy onto the chicken breast, I closed my eyes.
Those dinners were a comfort. Every Sunday we did not bear our loneliness alone. We sat in silence; not a single word was said about my chronic bellyaches. The strain of rebuilding a whole state from scratch was softly forgotten. All I remember is buffed stillness and swollen eyes. We dozed off between the eclectic patterns of flowery ignorance, carrots sliding down our throats, between images of ancestors on my granny’s office desk. In the new order of the state, she translated Finnish advertisements instead of Russian propaganda. Times had changed. On paper we were happy now.
In the eastern town of Narva I was back in that thick apple jam, trapped in that familiar flat, only to realise that this dense sleepiness was never my own, but a collective shutdown … tiredness … haze … The past started to glitter and flash like the winter sun on windows of blocks houses. Silent memories replayed in front of my eyes: kids sleeping in bus stops and drunk men in parks. I sat down on a bench with a Maxima bag in my hand. Fresh-smelling ideologies had been hung out to dry outside Stalinist buildings, on metal poles rusty from communist ideas. The repressive hands of the past tensed the tissue of my neck. My brain was flooded with gravy as I licked cheap Russian ice cream off my hands and all I wanted was … to sleep.
My breath slowed down when I filmed. I was living in a scene From the East by Chantal Akerman, encountering people from the past. Yes, the future is still unevenly distributed, unexpectedly exposed to the same overcooked fear that I see on my grandmother’s face when I ask her: what were Soviet times like? She says she does not remember. Was she asleep for all of those years?
Through the viewfinder of my camera politics, melted like a bag of frozen dumplings on the floor of a low-cost store, a triumph of capitalism morphed into an informal market. How do people live in this town that continues to flirt with the east, even in times when the physical borders are shut? A healthy haze, a continuous paralysis seems to be the only way out. This ideological silent disco is just too much to endure. I edit half-asleep, and sleep half-awake. Do people in this ghostly border town know that their lonely tiredness is not their own, but a common struggle? That it’s okay to feel trapped, even if on paper we are free?
The grannies across the fence in the allotment gardens seem to be made of tougher leather. They are alive, awake, and greet me with smiles when I point my microphone towards their flower beds to record their pink roses under buzzing high-voltage lines that bring electricity to Estonia from Russia. They really smile so kindly, full of understanding and care. I follow them to cafes, nail bars and saunas. I hide my camera under a silk scarf, listen to the rhythm of their mouths, the warm flow of Russian chit chat.
In the communal sauna, we whipped the pain out of each other. Like in my grandma’s flat, I was not an individual in a troubled society, but held and scrubbed by a community. I had nothing in common with those kind women, expert that the blobs on our bodies are called boobs and butts. In the heat of shared space, in the scent of soap, our conflicting political views evaporated. Integration policies ran down the drain. In the loud sound of a shared blow dryer, I realised: there is no fast lane out of communal tiredness, it has to dry on its own. Overcoming a social trauma takes time.
You might not be ready to wake up, but I am. I cannot stay silent. I speak of what I feel. I caught all of your silent tiredness on tape and showed it on a stage. I did not want to scare you, so I made a silent film. I wished all of you would fall asleep while watching the hot cinematic mess, but instead you all listened to me. Wide awake! We all know this pain too well. We are still living through the remains of the political dance party that has drained this land. After the film, we ate fish soup with mushy vegetables just like at my grandmother’s place, but nobody was silent any more. You all wanted to say how you felt deep down … while watching our communal tiredness on film.
Mia Tamme is an experimental filmmaker, who works with images and text, focusing on personal but political stories from her motherland Estonia. In the text, Mia refers to two projects of hers: HOME VIDEOS, a Youtube series that started in 2022, where she figures out what home means; and a silent film performance, 2 CATS ON STAGE, with Vaim Sarv, that is part of her artistic research about cinemas as a tool for creating shared narratives between ethnic groups and generations. The project was part of the Narva Art Residency and was supported by the Cultural Endowment of Estonia and the Culture Moves Europe programme.
Photographs by Anastasiia Savynska.
Some of the poetry is published at https://saal.ee/magazine/its-always-sunny-in-narva-683/
A short of the film is available at https://www.goethe.de/prj/sam/et/kun/bbz.html