A Film a Week - The Diary of Vaino Vahing / Vaino Vahingu päevaraamat

 previously published on Cineuropa

Estonian filmmaker Rainer Sarnet has often found his inspiration in literature. For his previous two movies, The Idiot (2011) and November (2018), he adapted the novels of Dostoyevsky and Andrus Kivirähk, respectively, into modern, artful fiction films. In his newest work, The Diary of Vaino Vahing, premiering in the Baltic Competition of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, he takes the life, work and importance of Estonian psychiatrist, writer and playwright Vaino Vahing, and turns it all into an inspired, deftly dramatised documentary.

Outside Estonia and maybe the rest of the former Soviet Union (most notably Russia), Vahing (1940-2008) is not that well known. Born in the village of Aravu, he left for Tartu at the age of 14 to study Medicine, which was the best opportunity for him to get a scholarship. He decided to specialise in Psychiatry, in order to be able to truly know his patients and to exercise his interest in how the human mind works. That led to him taking an interest in literature and theatre, with his focus falling on two crucial, contrasting topics. On one side, there were the pain and suffering (usually induced by love) usually dealt with in his prose, and on the other, the nature of various games and game-playing (as a potential path to salvation from one’s suffering in life) in his dramas and his ventures into the domain of theatre.

From 1968-1984, Vahing kept a diary of real events that happened around him, passed through the filter of his own subjective interpretation, which serves as the primary source material for Sarnet’s film. Sarnet, however, opens the movie with a scene filmed in black and white, with a young woman dancing to a Beatles song, jumping from one block of books to another, before she gets interrupted by a man stating that he wants to have intercourse. It proves to be an excerpt from Vahing’s short story The Rapist.

Sarnet maintains material from both the fiction and the non-fiction works of Vahing until the end of the film, combining them with more standard documentary elements, such as interviews with scholars, literary experts and surviving family members (his ex-wife, writer Maimu Berg, and their daughter, judge Julia Laffranque), plus excerpts from archive material. While the interview parts are filmed in colour, with bright lighting, and the archive material is, naturally, grainy black and white, the dramatised re-enactments of the passages from his literary works are filmed in a modern, digital, polished, graduated palette of black-and-white cinematography.

More importantly, everything from the diary and the works of fiction is staged – always on the same stage, as Sarnet even shows by casually breaking the fourth wall around the midpoint – while different actors play Vahing and his female partners at different points in their lives. Their different sets of characteristics simulate the internal dialogue the writer probably had with himself. Their style of acting is a tad theatrical, but in a way that is intentionally faithful to Vahing’s games and experiments. The cinematography by Erik Põllumaa is beautiful and evocative, and the editing by Martin Männik and the film’s producer, Marianne Kõrver, is simply magnificent in its associative approach, and completely in sync with Sarnet’s vision, making The Diary of Vaino Vahing an artful, beautiful, compact and deeply thought-provoking piece of cinema. One could argue that Sarnet has nailed the very essence of Vaino Vahing’s life and work.

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