Filming for five years, director Jaan Tootsen is able to provide incredible depth and unparalleled access into the lives of a group of activists who live in the Uus Maailm* (New World) neighbourhood in Tallinn, Estonia.
The arc of the film is well developed, following the New World group from its start to nearly its end. The film is primarily focused around the groups leader Erko, who makes a fascinating protagonist. He is funny, wild, and full of great ideas. His hope, vision, and later, frustrations drive the story.
When the film begins in 2006, the group is energized and radical. They organize a protest during the ribbon cutting of a new road, paint DIY crosswalks, occupy parking spots, and clash with authorities. But, as Erko and the group begin to turn their visions into reality, their house, a ramshackle old wooden building with a leaky roof, evolves into an unlikely community house, the Uus Maailm Seltsi Maja.
As the story develops the group becomes more and more focused on operating the house. They conflict with neighbours who constantly call the police, the landlord who is trying to sell the property, and the government which supplies a growing pile of paperwork. As a result, the group begins devoting considerably less time to protesting, and more time managing relations with neighbours, applying for grants and permits, and organizing fundraisers to pay the rent.
The results of the group’s efforts are mixed. They are very successful in creating a sense of community and gain a great deal of recognition. Even the President of the Republic, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, drops by for a tour. Yet, they fail to sustain the house financially and themselves emotionally. The wear of working intensely with the same people really begins to show. At the same time, the group’s growing frustration with the reality of operating the house begins to clash with the its initial radical aims. By the end of the film it was clear the group had run out of steam.
The New World group accomplished a lot. It redefined what a community group could do in Estonia. It established a community library, organized communal meals, events, parties and street festivals, and distributed a free local paper. However, its greatest accomplishment was to inspire a generation of Estonians to take ownership of their communities.
Anyone with an interest in community building, activism, and urbanism should see this film.
*The name of the neighbourhood Uus Maailm, or New World, is over a century old. It’s a moniker said to have come from a bar in the neighbourhood called “America.”