In 2021, the LGBT+ film festival Festheart celebrated its fifth anniversary in Estonia. I spoke with Keio Soomelt, one of the founders and head organizer of the festival, to discuss what it is like putting together one of the only LGBT+ film festivals in the Baltics and the impact Festheart has had on Estonia.
How did you initially become involved in Festheart?
I’m the head organizer. In the beginning, there were just two of us: the author of the idea, the artist Teet Suur, and myself. I have worked as a professional cultural organizer for more than ten years. Teet is my friend who came up with the idea to do it. The same year, Rakvere opened a new cinema hall, so Teet visited me and said he had an idea for Estonian film because there is no LGBT film festival in our region. That evening I talked with my partner and asked if it would be ok to host such an event because, obviously, it would be very public. Now he is our volunteer. He had to because he is family, he can’t say no to me! But yeah, he said let’s do it, and so we started.
The first year was very quiet; we just met with different human rights organizations. But then, when we asked for some money from the Rakvere city government — like any cultural group — they started to make a huge fuss. There were protests against the festival, and the city government didn’t support us. We thought this was homophobic, so in the second year, when they also denied us funds, we went to the courts and sued them. We went to the court two years in a row, and both times we won. So for the last two years, the government has supported us.
What is the focus of your work?
My role is mostly organizing. There are three people in the main team: the program director Tiina Teras, who is the one picking the movies and making all the arrangements to screen them; Teet, who makes all the visuals, including posters and commercials; and everything else is my job. This includes making rental agreements with cinemas, organizing media campaigns, and finding volunteers. Every year we have around 10 or 12 volunteers, so I am in charge of giving them work to do and checking in with them to ensure everything is done.
Can you tell me more about how you organize a film festival in multiple cities?
So we first started in Rakvere five years ago. The first question we always got was, why are you doing it in Rakvere and not in Tallinn. However, the idea was that we wanted to do it in a smaller town. For one, it is easier to organize because we are both from Rakvere; you know everybody and if you need anything you can just ask. However, the main reason is that it is easier to be out in Tallinn as an LGBT community member. We want to show that living out of the closet in the smaller towns is possible. Everywhere in the world, it is easier to be gay in the big cities because you have your community centers, parties, and festivals, but in small towns, you can often feel like you are the only gay in the village.
During the first few years, we also had screenings in other towns such as Narva, Pärnu, and Tartu. In our third year, we had a Tartu screening , which was so cool, so we thought we should do something longer also in Tartu. Another thing is that Rakvere is in north Estonia, so it’s nice to cover all of Estonia and do something also in the south. So for the last two years, we have had a full program in both cities. It is more work because there are two festivals, but it is also better because it is easier to get movies if you have more than one screening. It’s also a little cheaper because when you screen a movie, you pay a price, but two screenings don’t mean double the price. In addition, everything else, such as the commercial advertisements, can be shared between the two festivals, so there are many things making it easier and a little bit cheaper. It also gives us more opportunities to see movies on the big screen. During the first years in Rakvere, it was quite hard to see any movies ourselves because we were busy organizing, but now we can see some in Tartu and some in Rakvere. Most of the audiences are different as well, though some people visit both festivals because they say it is easier to see some things in Rakvere and some in Tartu — they don’t have to live in the cinema 24/7 in Rakvere.
Have you ever had any difficulties putting on the festival?
When we had the first festival, it was also a local election year, and the festival was just one week before the elections. Of course, the radical conservative party organized a huge campaign against us. But it is always two-sided. On the one hand, it was very annoying, because if you organize something, it’s not so nice if someone is fighting against you. On the other hand, it was thanks to them that we got a huge commercial campaign. They were talking so much about us that we didn’t have to do anything ourselves in terms of advertising; they did the job for us!
In the first years, we also had some trouble with the Rakvere local government because they have this very strict system regarding how they support different cultural events. Basically, a special commission rates the projects, and then the projects that get the most points will get the money. Our project was always at the top, but they didn’t support us because they didn’t want to. However, this went against their own rules, so that’s why in the second and third years, we went to the courts and our partner, the Estonian Human Rights Centre, helped us to cover the costs.
Now, for the last two years, it has been fine. In Estonia, it’s quite difficult to find sponsors because even if they say they are very supportive, they don’t want to be seen as supporters of the LGBT community or LGBT events. So for the first four years, we had one private company in Rakvere that supported us, but this year we had two, so we doubled the number.
Of course, at the beginning, the bullying on social media was quite hard. I got many private letters or public comments about people wanting to kill me or telling me they wanted to come and beat me up. However, at one point, I realized it was more their problem than mine. In the beginning, it can be very frightening. If you have lived in your own bubble and only communicated with your own friends, you start to think the world is so tolerant and nice, and then comes the day it hits you. The second wave came when the radical party EKRE entered the government. Then I saw that there was again some social media bullying against us, but at some point, you just have to ignore it. And I have to say, while we don’t need it anymore, we had a good relationship with the Estonian police during the first years. We were ready at the beginning that maybe we would need their help, but luckily it went better than expected.
Another thing was that at the very beginning, all of the film companies — when you say you are making the first LGBT film festival — they had a lot of questions: Who are you? What’s that? Why is this the first time? But now we have more and more partners who we don’t have to ask to screen their movies, instead; they ask us.
Organizing the festival is always a bit tricky. You can feel quite strong hate from the radicals or from radical politics, but also feel very nice support from your own community. Different people come and you see that they are happy and they thank you. During the festival it is always quite emotional.
Now we have already done it for five years, and we can do it for maybe the next five years, but we are getting older. Hopefully, we’ll find some people who will join the team and take over because we can’t do it forever. Hopefully, also the political situation will stay normal in Estonia. In 2020, when we had this right radical party in government, it was quite hard, but now this is hopefully over. We try to stay apolitical, but to be honest, you can’t. If politicians are talking too much about LGBT issues, then the LGBT community has to talk with them or even against them. So politics are still a part of our community and also part of our festival.
What sort of reception do you see from both the international community and more locally?
The very first year, we had guests from the US, namely Gerald McCullouch. We try to have international guests every year. The first year we had a quite famous actor from America. We wrote to him, suggesting that maybe he would want to come, and I was 100% sure he wouldn’t. I mean, come on, you’re some famous actor, and some nobodies from the middle of nowhere are writing to you that they are organizing their first festival, but he came. So this was quite cool.
The embassies also support us. We have very good relations with the Canadian and Finnish embassies and some others like the Irish and Austrian embassies and the French Institute. It is always very cool that each year, some representatives from the embassies attend Festheart. It’s important because it shows support.
Then, in 2021, when Festheart celebrated its fifth anniversary, the Rakvere city government officially came to the opening for the first time, and they gave a small speech.
How do you decide what films are shown during the festival?
The final decision is always made by the program director Tiina. One of our issues is that we always want to screen as many new movies as possible. This year, we had many films from 2021. The other thing, which is not always possible, is that we try to cover all the main letters in LGBT, so there should be something for all the different sexualities. The biggest problem sometimes is actually finding movies about different ages. There are tons of movies about youngsters in love, but if you want a movie about older people or some LGBTQ stories about aging, then it is not so easy, especially if you want good movies. But I am quite proud that we have often been the first ones to screen some movies. For example, last year, the Finnish film Tove (about the Finnish creator of the Moomins) had its world premiere Saturday in Helsinki, and we screened it the next day at our festival.
Are there other events going on during the festival besides the film screenings?
In Tartu it is mostly showing the films. Last year, we cooperated with the Tartu Social Democrats and had a gathering in the central square. But in Rakvere, first of all, the movie program is a little longer, because in Tartu we only have one hall where we screen, but there are two in Rakvere. We hold the main program in the cinema and then a side program with documentaries in the culture house next door. In Rakvere, we also usually have two or three talks or discussion events; it always depends on the guests and the hot topics. In 2021, we had one discussion about human rights in Poland and Hungary because we had Polish and Hungarian guests. We also discussed hate speech in Estonia because at the moment in parliament, there is a hate speech law. This year, we had two Estonian movies, so we also had small discussions and talks with the directors and actors. Usually, we have a party, but this year we didn’t plan one, though it happened anyway. In Rakvere, on Sunday mornings, there is a Lutheran church service that is very open, and they allowed us to add the service to our program. There has also been a theater play from a local youngsters theater group. For the last four years, we have had small concerts from the Estonian LGBT choir Vikerlased. Festheart is not the only LGBT film festival in the Baltics because, in 2021, they started one in Vilnius, so now there are two. I hope they will continue, so we can say we are not the only ones in the Baltics, but Vikerlased is still the only LGBT choir in the Baltics, and they always participate in the festival. The festival is more and more like a family reunion. Every year, you see some of the same people, but there are also always some new people, which is quite cool. The first few years, our audiences were mostly from the community, but more and more, we see straight allies participating.
What impact would you say the festival has had for LGBTI people in the Baltics?
It is still mostly Estonians who come. The cooperation between the Baltics and LGBT film isn’t that strong — we have this common Pride, but that’s it. However, I am happy that I know many people who say they are proud to be out now and that the festival has helped them. In addition, for the LGBT community, it is definitely a family reunion. It’s a place where you can come once a year to have a nice festival, spend quality time with friends, and see all the newest LGBT movies. And for the other audience, while it is, on the one hand, an LGBT event, on the other, it is a very important film event because we are screening the best of world cinema. Most of the movies are very successful in Cannes, Milan, and Berlin, so it is also an option to see a very good film in Estonia and to see movies that will never be in Estonia again. We always have one or two movies that go to the cinemas after, but usually, the festival is the only chance to see the film. We also put a lot of effort into translating the films. All of our films have both English and Estonian subtitles so that all these generations of people who have problems with English can also enjoy the films.
For our community, it is important that we have such a big cultural event. The impact on the local community is not just for the LGBT community but for Rakvere and Tartu in general. I know that before the first festival, there were radicals who spread fear into the community. They talked about how now the gays are coming to Rakvere and will destroy the town; run naked down the streets and do whatever. But after the festival, the local newspaper wrote about what actually happened, which was that some people came to watch some movies and then left. There are still so many people for whom the LGBT community is seen through very strong stereotypes, and I think festivals like Festheart can show these people that the LGBT community is still as human as you are and that they are your neighbors. Normalizing the LGBT community and removing the stereotypes is very important. Also, just talking about these topics, because every year Festheart gets some media attention, which helps make these LGBT topics more common to everyone and helps people see that it is normal. An LGBT film festival should be seen as equal to any other film festival, but this isn’t true in Estonia. So we need to talk about it and get people to come with us to the 21st century.
How can readers support your work?
I think our budget is half and half. Half of the budget comes from different funds, like the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, the Tartu and Rakvere city governments, and some film associations, and the other half is from tickets and donations. I would say that donations are a very important part of our budget. It’s nice to see that we already have some donors who donate every month. I think that the amount of donors is a little bit smaller than it was at the beginning, but the budget has stayed the same because the people who are donating have donated more.
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