Drama Quarterly: Dramatising disaster
When a Discovery Networks documentary investigating the sinking of the MS Estonia ferry aired in 2020, the revelations prompted a fresh review into the causes of a tragedy in which 852 people lost their lives.
Two filmmakers who were part of the documentary team were later found guilty by a Swedish court of illegally disturbing the wreck, which lies in Finnish waters in the Baltic Sea. But their video footage of holes in the Estonia’s hull prompted a new investigation into a disaster that is still shrouded in mystery almost 30 years later.
In September 1994, the Estonia was sailing from Estonian capital Tallinn to Stockholm, Sweden, when it sank in stormy weather. In 1997, an official investigation found that the ferry started to take on water when its bow shield failed, damaging a ramp and causing the car deck to flood.
Following the Discovery documentary, a fresh survey of the Estonia found it would not have been seaworthy had flaws in the bow visor been spotted during its certification. The holes in the hull were deemed to have been the result of the ship landing on the seabed, and didn’t cause the sinking.
Investigations are still ongoing, but a new television drama depicting the harrowing tragedy is set to shine a light on the multi-national response to what became one of the deadliest civil maritime disasters in recent European history.
The eight-part series, called Estonia, seeks to capture the true story behind the sinking by following the initial investigation team – made up of people from Estonia, Finland and Sweden – as they attempt to uncover what caused the ship to sink less than an hour after it first fell into trouble with almost 1,000 passengers and crew on board.
For Swedish director Måns Månsson (Chernobyl, Snabba Cash), the series represented the biggest challenge of his career.
“This is such a sensitive and complicated topic, still to this day. It’s basically a cold case, an ongoing investigation,” he tells DQ ahead of the drama’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival today. “There’s so much pain and there’s so much trauma. It was really something I never thought I would engage with.”
That was until he read the first scripts from Finnish showrunner Miikko Oikkonen (Bordertown), and found that he could resonate with the writer’s view of the tragedy, which Månsson had always imagined was a Swedish story.
“I was 12 years old when it happened. I was summoned in school for a head count. ‘Who’s here? Who did we lose?’” the director says. “But Miikko was actually explaining to me that it was equally a Finnish disaster and also, of course, an Estonian disaster. I don’t think we really took into account that this was also a disaster on the other side of the Baltic Sea. And that’s really the strength of the scripts, to bring together three different nations and their different perspectives on this one event that we all thought were our own.”
Across the eight-episode series, the investigation drives the story forward as flashbacks revisit the night of September 28, 1994, while the impact of the sinking and its repercussions on survivors and the families of the victims are also explored. It is produced by Finland’s Fisher King in coproduction with Panache Productions & La Compagnie Cinematographique, Amrion Production, Kärnfilm and distributor Beta Film for Finland’s MTV and Sweden’s TV4.
“Family members and survivors are, to this day, questioning the investigation itself, and it’s absurd that we don’t know what happened,” Månsson adds. “It’s science fiction in a way. These vessels are not supposed to be able to sink, but it’s just as much of a mystery that we can’t explain what happened.”
Estonia isn’t the first fact-based drama series on which Månsson has worked. He previously collaborated with director Johan Renck on Chernobyl, Sky and HBO’s five-part miniseries that chronicled the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster and the subsequent clean-up operation.
Månsson’s work as second-unit director on that show marked his first steps into television, having previously helmed feature films such as The Real Estate and The Yard. Crediting Renck (The Last Panthers) and showrunner Craig Mazin (The Last of Us) with teaching him everything he knows about working on the small screen, he says one thing that has stuck with him about making Chernobyl was the number of people who worked on the series who had first-hand experience of the real event.
“We were shooting in Ukraine and in Kyiv, having crew members who were part of these events and who would remember,” Månsson recalls. “We had supporting artists who remember how the choppers were flying over them making those sand drops [onto the nuclear reactor]. To be able now, as a Swede, in a Nordic Scandinavian setting back home, to engage on the same level that I felt from the Ukrainian crews we were working with, that was something I really felt helped in terms of guiding the project, guiding the tone, the ethical/moral lines and how to treat this.”
Månsson hasn’t been the only one to consider the emotional and ethical impact of dramatising the Estonia tragedy, noting the “tension in the air” when it is still discussed in Sweden and the question of whether it is too soon for such a series – or if it should even be made at all.
“But I’m very confident from my Swedish side of it that we’ve found an approach that is really relevant and that makes sense for us to revisit everything again and again through these three nations’ perspectives,” he says. “I rediscovered the whole concept of there not being any kind of accountability whatsoever – 852 people lost their lives and no one has been held accountable.
“The authorities put in place to make sure something like this could never happen were tasked to find out who was to blame, and in the end they declared that no one is to blame. That whole absurd, almost Kafkaesque investigation was something that Miikko really found an entry point to and that really, to me, warranted us revisiting the whole thing.”
One aspect that helped Månsson make his decision to ultimately join the project was the freedom to surround himself with crew members he had worked with before and trusted, not least cinematographer J-P Passi and editor George Cragg.
“I was just lucky to be able to bring both of them into this; to have George be the lead editor across the whole season and J-P shoot every single day,” he says. “That was a really big thing for me in order to have the courage to take the leap.”
While the drama is largely set following the investigation, Månsson didn’t want this part of the story to lead the way he would direct the show. Instead, he wanted to focus on the recreation of the sinking and make sure that whatever he did stylistically for those scenes would then inform the visual style for the rest of the show.
“Otherwise, I was just concerned that we would find something we really loved and made sense for the ‘normal’ scenes, and then we would come to the water and the disaster and we would be forced to work in a completely different way, and it would just be such a strange mix,” he says. “Dealing with something that you have lived through, this has shaped me and Swedish society growing up. It was very easy, no matter how difficult or sensitive the scenes or the sequences or the shooting day, to go able to work instinctively as to what is right and what is wrong and not over-plan it, except when it was technically needed. There was really a gut-feeling approach to it.”
After Chernobyl – for which it would take three hours just to get into position inside the Ignalina power plant in Lithuania where large parts of the series were filmed – Månsson didn’t believe he would ever work on a more complicated show. But Estonia was “a new level,” he says. “I’m just really grateful that we had enough time to prep and figure those things out and that we that made it work.”
Part of the challenge was finding a ship on which they could recreate some deeply upsetting scenes aboard the Estonia. Local firms in Scandinavia weren’t keen to lend one of their own ships to the production, so the cast and crew travelled to Istanbul in Turkey where they were eventually able to secure a vessel.
That effort reflected Månsson’s wish for the actors – including Jussi Nikkilä, Claes Hartelius, Seidi Haarla, Kaspar Velberg and Pelle Heikkilä – to be placed in as realistic environments as possible, without leaning too heavily on visual effects. “If that made life more difficult for the camera operators or for me or Juuso [Syrjä, co-director], then so be it,” he says. “Maybe we have a 10th or even less of the budget of something like Chernobyl, so we wanted to capture everything in the moment and not try to fix everything later. Very early on, we felt that was the only way to try to reach the artistic levels we wanted and the realism we wanted without having a UK or US budget.”
Filming took place in Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Turkey, as well as Belgium, where scenes of the ship sinking were captured at Lites Studios’ underwater stages. It was also here that Månsson considered another dilemma – how much of the disaster the series should depict.
“There was always the temptation to show too much, because you have all these production toys and special effects, and it’s really tempting to do more than you sometimes need,” he notes. “J-P was really fantastic, constantly pushing us to limit ourselves. The temptation for high production values is always going to be there, whereas to really get the power and the experience of being there, you have to limit yourself all the time and play with the chaos and the darkness. That was a tough balance on set.”
However, there were natural limits to the series simply because part of the disaster still remains a mystery. Oikkonen has structured the show in a way that details are slowly released over the course of the story, “but in the end, no one still knows anything,” Månsson says. “It was tricky in that sense that it’s a real event, but a real event that is a mystery. You have to be true to something that is unreal, and that was the same balancing act every day for the art department, costumes and all the other HODs.”
How to conclude a story with no clear ending also became a big talking point, especially as the real investigation has been reopened in recent years. For the director, it was important Estonia would remain a timeless series no matter what conclusions might be made in the future. That means the main takeaway from the series remains the initial lack of accountability in the aftermath of the disaster.
“That’s what gave meaning to revisiting the whole thing,” Månsson says. “And then it became this multi-perspective look at something we think is our [Swedish] disaster. Of course, it’s always going to be someone else’s as well, but it’s a beautiful, powerful, open-ended story that in the end will be ready for whatever happens.”
That doesn’t mean the director himself is any further at ease with what happened in the days after the tragedy.
“I do hope to a certain degree, just for the general public in Sweden, we think about the fact that we weren’t holding anyone accountable,” he adds. “It’s a pretty Nordic – or maybe even Swedish – phenomenon, this fear of conflict. We don’t want to engage and we avoid conflict at all cost. Maybe in the US it would have gone to court. In Japan, maybe everybody would have resigned and just said, ‘We’re sorry.’ None of that happened, which to me is still inexplicable.”