Foreign-Language Oscar Spotlight: Finnish Soviet Dissident Drama 'The Fencer'

Courtesy of Making Movies
'The Fencer'

Klaus Haro takes a fourth stab at an Oscar nomination with his true story of a Soviet dissident who becomes a fencing teacher in rural Estonia.

Klaus Haro is no stranger to the Oscars — his previous three films were all national candidates for the Academy Awards — but he does not underestimate the challenge he faces in a contest no Finnish director has ever won.

"If we made it to the shortlist it would be an incredible honor and to win an Oscar would be such a big thing. Some indie filmmakers don't rate the Oscars, but I have always held them in great respect. Those people who vote for the best foreign-language films really do love movies," says the tall, enthusiastic director, who speaks fluent English with just the slightest trace of a Finnish accent. 

For The Fencer Haro returns to the dark days of Stalinism. Set in Soviet-occupied Estonia, it is the story of a man on the run from the secret police who takes a job as a fencing teacher at a remote rural school. When his enthusiastic young students are offered the chance of taking part in a competition in Leningrad he is forced to choose between their ambition and risking the risk of arrest and imprisonment if the authorities recognize him.

"This was by far the most challenging films I've made; up to 50 children on set at one time; fencing scenes to choreograph and just the noise generated by the kids, who were all fantastic, was a new dimension," Haro says.

Fans of the director will see echoes of his earlier work in The Fencer. At its heart, the film is "essentially a story about parents and children," Haro says.

Haro's fascination with film — he calls it a love affair — goes back to his childhood, growing up in a small town east of Helsinki not far from the Russian border.

It was the 1980s and all the other kids had VCRs at home, but the Haro household was more old-fashioned. Young Klaus had to wait until movies came to the cinema in Helsinki before he could satisfy his yearning.

The budding director would sneak a tape recorder into the theater to record a film's dialog to replay at home. He'd play back the audio recordings of favorites, like Steven Spielberg's E.T., Hal Ashby's Being There and Zhang Yimou's The Road Home, seeing the action in his mind's eye. They became his first film school and inspired him to tell his own stories.

But every film remains a struggle, Haro says. 

"I'll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a film and say … 'damn' ... and my wife will ask what is wrong, and I'll sigh and say … 'I just had an idea for a new movie …'"

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