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Oscar-worthy storytelling as taught at TAMK

The people of Tampere are following current Oscar nominations process with a keen eye. The movie representing Finland is called Miekkailija/ The Fencer, and the screenwriter responsible for its story none other than Anna Heinämaa, a graduate of Tampere University of Applied Sciences TAMK's screenwriting programme.

Anna Heinämaa visiting a screening of Miekkailija held in November of 2015 during the Nordic Film Days Festival in Lübeck, Germany. The reception was in line with the themes presented in the film. Photo: Nordische Filmtage Lübeck.

Anna Heinämaa began her studies in TAMK's Screenwriting Master's Programme in 2010 and took very little time to settle. In fact, as everyone she encountered seemed to share a common passion for storytelling, things fell into place almost effortlessly – this was home. Heinämaa feels that the knack of storytelling is a talent that some have and others don't. You can get better at storytelling by reading books and by watching movies. Starting early is key, though.

What the screenwriting programme offers is the opportunity to check your true level at this craft and, once that has been done, to improve it. However, according to Heinämaa what is most important, is that the programme gives you the tools required for visual storytelling.

Heinämaa has a literary background – she has, among other things, worked on fiction and scripted radio dramas. Prior to beginning at TAMK, Heinämaa had, however, been on a 10-year sabbatical from writing. This was due to her unwillingness to put herself through the burdensome process a writer has to go through to create a novel. She also feared that such a process would no longer fit together well with various aspects of her personal life. For Heinämaa, screenwriting studies represented a great way to restart her writing career.

– I've always loved movies. I'm what you could call a heavy consumer – I watch about 10 movies per week! And the fear of  blank pages went away when I had to focus on learning new things.

In Miekkailija/ The Fencer, which is set in early '50s Estonia, a primary school in the town of Haapsalu welcomes its new PE teacher, Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), who sets about teaching his new students the art of fencing. Photo: Making Movies

Heinämaa already had the first themes of Miekkailija/ The Fencer in her mind when Heinämaa started her studies at TAMK. She actually got the idea for the story while visiting Haapsalu: during her visit, Heinämaa noticed that there were very many people walking the streets carrying fencing equipment. Being a fencer herself, she became interested and decided to find out where they were going.

– I ended up at a local fencing club where I met Endel Nelis' daughter, Helen, who shared her father's life story with me and suggested that I write about him, Heinämaa recounts.

This was a story that simply had to be shared with the world – but how to do it? Heinämaa decided to switch to a different medium: rather than write a novel, she would write a movie.

This theme is, in a way, also present in Miekkailija/ The Fencer, in which Endel Nelis has had to give up a successful career as a professional fencer and hide in the quiet town of Haapsalu to escape from the clutches of Stalin's secret services. In Haapsalu, Nelis begins to teach fencing to the town's children and in doing so begins a process, which continues to bear fruit today. Stalin soon died and state persecution waned, but to this day the fencing club continues to operate and flourish.

– A seedling planted with love just keeps on growing, says Heinämaa.

According to Anna Heinämaa, a moving scene is created when the hero of the film manages to surpass himself. Photo: Making Movies

Though drawn from the life story of Endel Nelis and set in the realities of 1950s Estonia, Miekkailija/ The Fencer is not a documentary. To better understand the emotional climate of the film's era, Heinämaa interviewed people who had lived in Haapsalu in the early '50s. While conducting these interviews, she encountered people upon whom some of the films characters are based. That aside, everything else is pure fiction for which the screenwriter alone is responsible.

– It is up to the screenwriter to create the movie's story, characters and world and to provide it with a moral point of view. The responsibility for these is hers alone. I do owe a huge debt of gratitude to my studies at TAMK in one regard: it was during those studies and as part of them that I wrote Miekkailija/ The Fencer.

According to Heinämaa, a screenwriter always has a huge responsibility, primarily because without a good story a film simply will not work. Every viewer can tell if the story is good or not, and there is no trick that can replace its failings.

– If during the film the viewer starts to feel bored or fed up, it usually means that the screenplay is poor.

”Vehkleja sai Kuldgloobuse nominatsiooni”, was the joyous statement posted on Miekkailija's/ The Fencer's Estonian Facebook page in mid-December once it had become known that the picture had been nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Foreign Film category. Excitement is also beginning to rise in relation tio the Oscars. Miekkailija has been designated as Finland's official entry and has subsequently been provided to the Academy for selection to become an official contender at the 2016 Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Heinämaa has her feet firmly on the ground when it comes to awards.

– Don't get me wrong, I ardently hope that the film gets as many awards as possible. That would be a great way to underline the fact that, in the end, it's the story that counts.

thefencermovie.com

Translation: Lingoneer

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