A beautiful, claustrophobic sensory assault

PRISON / An experimental journey into the history of Estonia's notorious Patarei Sea Fortress.
Director: Riho Västrik
Producer: Riho Västrik
Country: Estonia

The peeling Tsarist fortress slowly emerges from the Estonian capital’s foggy skyline. It was completed in the late 19th century, and since abandoned, its past remains vague. In the opening scene, ghostly piratic ships penetrate the fog. The slaps of the waves sound almost sticky against the brick walls.

The movie splices into scene amid the grey sails of uncertainty, waves, and atmospheric caws, and lines, and gulls. Percussive marching boots hack the eeriness: the reels seem dissonant but carefully picked, suffused with clouds. The viewer is clearly supposed to feel captivated by the intensity and mystery. But much like the prison itself – whether intentionally or unintentionally – it is also extremely claustrophobic.

I first visited Patarei in late 2015, shortly before its first closure. My younger sister recommended it to me, for which I am grateful, as it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. The darkness, the trauma tourism that the location encouraged, was overly-glorified, but it didn’t need to be in many ways. The reality was bad enough, and much had been left as-was: operation and execution rooms, pornography-papered cells — the typical green and white Soviet arches.

Patarei, a film by Riho Västrik
Patarei, a film by Riho Västrik

Dangerous romanticization

Romanticizing Patarei is dangerous, and the peeling remnants aren’t wonders in and of themselves. The scenic, sensory approach is interesting, but punctuating the scenes with more context and personalized histories could have strengthened it.

That said, there are one or two stories spoken over the scenery. The docufilm tells the viewer of a young girl in the 1920s. She was «poor, starving, with scant education,» but the description seems vague. We don’t know who ‘she’ is – she was anonymous, invisible, possibly fictional. «She took to studying in prison,» «she never came to know the Republic of Estonia.»

The director does not explain whether or not she ever really existed or whether the docufilm is a venture that fabricated her existence. Is that the whole point? That this speaker could have been anyone, so worthless was human life? Or perhaps these are fragments of real stories spliced together?

We are introduced to another nameless character who tells us that in the Soviet era, «political prisoners were treated the same as … murderers.»

Romanticizing Patarei is dangerous, and the peeling remnants aren’t wonders in and of themselves.

Close-up shots of those green and white archways pervade the middle regions of the film, almost as if producers fully understand the ruin porn of former Soviet prisons. But – at least for someone who has spent a great deal of time in the FSU – this can be slightly tiresome. The USSR was to a certain degree hegemonic, and many similarly painted structures and shelters survived.

The second storyteller says that «with the 1940s came a true rollercoaster. As WWII broke out… regular people who had nothing to do with politics began to suffer at the hands of the system.»

«The communists coming from the east and Nazis from the west tried to top each other even though victims often overlapped.»

Patarei, a film by Riho Västrik
Patarei, a film by Riho Västrik

The Jewish Community

The Jewish wartime population was smaller in Estonia than in Latvia or Lithuania, but all three Baltic nations were still Holocaust sites, and Patarei was still their prison. Any Jewish people surviving the 20th century in each nation was a miracle. In the 1930s, Estonia was home to some 4,300 Jews – many of whom escaped to the Soviet Union. «Local Jews were brought here, but some arrived from Czechoslovakia, another voice tells us. «There were even some French Jews once.»

Guards remembered female prisoners trying to exchange sex with guards just for food, with some other tidbits to give a sense of the cold and some camaraderie between the staff and inmates. «My hair had frozen to the wall while I was sleeping;» «I missed seeing his back disappear in the doorway,» the disjointed voices tell us.

The Jewish wartime population was smaller in Estonia than in Latvia or Lithuania, but all three Baltic nations were still Holocaust sites, and Patarei was still their prison.

As the film draws close, we hear loud birds – an interesting touch as often in Baltic documentary films, birds were used as a symbol of hope and freedom during the occupation. No doubt director Riho Västrik is a professor of documentary film at Tallinn University, would have been aware of this. Born in 1965, he has focused predominantly on the post-Soviet world throughout his career.

The sensory assault is quite captivating in its own way but perhaps not entirely effective in telling the stories of Patarei’s real ghosts. Perhaps this is a failing at my end – as a journalist, I would love nothing more than to put some names or faces to the quotes, but the anonymity does lend itself well to the general claustrophobia and confusion. After all, would inmates know one another’s names? I would truly love to see it screened somewhere massive, or even at the prison itself, as it was earlier this year.

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Aliide Naylor
Aliide Naylorhttps://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-shadow-in-the-east-9781788312523/
Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and editor, and the author of 'The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front' (I.B. Tauris). Her work has been published with Vice, the Guardian, and Politico Europe among others. She tweets: @Aliide_N

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