On Wednesday, November 9, SSN held a screening for the (Meteoriit) release of Mother, the Official Foreign Language Oscar® entry from Estonia, a former Soviet republic. Mother, also known as Ema (Estonian for ‘mother’) is the third feature film from young director Kadri Kousaar. The low-budget, quirky crime thriller opened domestically in January 2016, had its international premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, and is rumored to be considered for an English language remake. Following the Pacific Theaters at the Grove screening, SSN moderator Zorianna Kit sat down with Kõusaar and producer and screenwriter Aet Laigu for an insightful Q&A.
Set in small-town Estonia, Mother centers on Elsa, the attentive, yet frustrated caretaker to her comatose son, Lauri (Siim Maaten), a teacher who had been shot under shadowy circumstances. Elsa (Tiina Malberg) is an overworked and underappreciated wife and mother stuck in a loveless marriage inside her cramped rural home. Her life is reduced to cooking, cleaning, giving sponge baths to her grown son and fielding a steady stream of visitors, who have come to see the unconscious man, update him on their lives and occasionally spill secrets.
Through a series of bedside ‘confessions’, we learn that Lauri had withdrawn a substantial sum of money from the bank prior to being shot. His visitors include his students, friends, girlfriend, boss and a local policeman determined to solve the crime. Everyone seems to be looking for answers, and everyone is a suspect. Kousaar deftly builds a host of whodunit possibilities cleverly revealing clues as the well-paced story unfolds.
With the exception of a few flashback scenes, the film moves chronologically and seldom leaves the confines home, giving it a pronounced claustrophobic feel. According to Kousaar, this was by design. “At first I was a little intimidated. I mean, how do I make it compelling when it all takes place in the same house. But that’s the whole idea. That we must feel as trapped as she does. It enables us to understand her. Why does she take such risks eventually.”
Kousaar’s first feature Magnus (2007) dealt with suicide, and her second, The Arbiter (2013), tackled abortion and murder. When asked why she chooses such dark subject matter, the director explained, “perhaps it’s because my own life has been relatively easy, I have the courage to take on those really dark subjects. Another reason is I want to completely forget my own life problems, and darker movies help me do that.”
Kousaar credits the Coen brothers for inspiring Mother, which has all the ingredients of a satisfying mystery – secret affairs, missing money, bumbling police, and of course, a dark and puzzling crime. “Fargo was sort of the visual inspiration for me.” says Kousaar. “All this loneliness and lack of love — Elsa thinks that there’s a world out there, that she deserves to enjoy life. But life is elsewhere.” Laigu agreed, noting the similarity in writing style to the Coen brothers. “We wanted these characters to all have a certain naiveté to them. That kind of makes them believable. That’s also what Fargo did.”
Laigu was inspired to write Mother after seeing an Irish TV sketch about a man in a coma that has the entire town wanting to talk to him. Once she introduced a criminal element to the plot “the story kind of wrote itself” she explained. Kousaar loved the initial draft, and was on board immediately noting “it was such a fascinating script that it was impossible to say ‘no’.”
Laigu co-wrote Mother (along with screenwriter Leana Jalukse) in just 2 weeks, with a clear focus on protagonist Elsa and her unfolding plight. “I was much more interested in the mother’s character. What’s the worst thing that can happen to a woman who doesn’t want to have kids? Basically to change diapers for the rest of her life,” a reference to the complicated, unrewarding relationship she now has with her invalid son.
Many of the themes in the film — loneliness, despair, infidelity and bottling up emotions are themes that resonated culturally for the Estonian screenwriter. “You keep up these appearances. It’s particular to a certain generation like our parents. You have the set up of this family in a small town where they don’t talk about the elephant in the room. He obviously knew (about the affair). And you don’t talk to your children until it’s too late. It’s very Estonian” said Laigu.
The casting process for Mother went rather smoothly. Kousaar knew she found the perfect lead when she discovered Malberg, a stage actress making her screen debut. “I had seen her in a theater play. And she was perfect. There was no point in talking to anyone else” Kousaar explained. “You could just look at her face and you understand that’s there’s something else. Even when she just stares at you, there’s so much tension there.” She also added “It’s very dangerous what can happen to people when they’re so unhappy. It was our aim to try to get that across to the viewer. That’s why I loved her as an actress.”
While casting for the comatose Lauri, Kousaar first considered just using an extra but quickly changed her mind. “The more we thought about it, we needed a professional actor. I think it’s very necessary for this type of role. There had to be some emotion on his face.” Laigu agreed, noting “this character has more layers than most women in films who are, you know, awake.”
The production of Mother was unusually swift — going from script to premiere in just 6 months. Most films take 2 to 3 years. Casting was made easy due to the fact that Kousaar and Laigu have been working together for 10 years in a relatively small country. “Estonia has only 1 million people” said Laigu. “We know more or less all the actors personally.”
Given the subject matter, Kousaar and Laigu chose to work largely with a female crew. “I consciously prefer to work with women when the film talks about women. I want this to be the women’s point of view.” But they had to use some men in production. “It’s quite hard to find gaffers who are women, and there are very few female DP’s (Director of Photography) in Estonia. I know just one.”
When asked what the hardest part about making Mother was, Kousaar noted that it had to do with the fact that she had just become a mother herself. “My son was 8 month old at the time and I had never been away from him. Two and half weeks of shooting was difficult for me. But my husband took care of him and my parents helped.”
Kousaar hoped the Wednesday night screening provided a distraction of sorts from what’s going on in the world with the recent presidential election. “I hope everyone here could sort of switch off from their own lives.”