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Big in Estonia: Kati and Me
Canadian couple make a film that hits it big in Estonia

Kim Bagayawa (left) and Mike Dell goofing around in Talinn, Estonia

Mike Dell and Kim Bagayawa had no idea how big they’d get in Estonia. In the small country of 1.29 million, their video ode to an Estonian friend circulated rapidly, spurred on by the Estonian president himself, Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

In a country that receives relatively sparse international coverage, any notice at all can perk interest: particularly notice from outsiders. I once wrote a piece about what it’s like to live in Sault Ste. Marie, ON and it amassed an impressive 1000 likes over the course of the day. The traffic was fueled solely by Saultites who love hearing about themselves, even if it is negative. It’s external validation.

The video, Kati and Me, is a short film consisting mostly of still shots of the trio frolicking in Canada and Estonia. They threw it together in a few days, prompted by a woman from EstDocs festival in Toronto. She affirmed they could enter, even if they weren’t Estonian. So, on the flight back, they started crafting a brief story line.

Kati and Me

“We didn’t even really know what we had for images,” said Dell. “But we just thought, as long as our story is clear it would fall into place.”

The video resonated with Estonian audiences. “A lot of Estonians are always explaining and telling about their country,” says Bagayawa. “We had one girl email us and said ‘I’m totally going to make all my non-Estonian friends see this.’

“It’s kind of like a Coles Notes to Estonia,” adds Dell. Moreover, the primer is an ode to a friendship that formed across International boundaries.

Dell and Bagayawa put up an ad in craigslist, seeking a third roommate. They decided on an Estonian student, Kati. They knew virtually nothing about Estonia. During the first week, both parties were awkwardly shy. Then after a dinner party, Dell and Bagayawa got to asking Kati where she would like to go in Canada. When Niagara Falls came up they had an idea:

“We said ‘Oh! you’ve never been to Niagara Falls.. theres a Casino there. Have you ever been to a casino? Let’s go!’  They hopped in the car and arrived at the Falls at 3 a.m. “If she’s totally up for spontaneous road trips like that, she’s gonna be fine.” They shared a similar absurdist sense of humor.

In addition to subjecting Kati to the quintessential Canadian experience (ice-skating, North Bay winter, etc). they also brought her to a Philipino Christmas & Karaoke celebration in Guelph and a tour of adult entertainment establishments in Toronto.

“She said, ‘you guys have better strip clubs!’ We’d compare; this one’s better because of the lighting and the stage is higher. And this one is good because the girls rise from the floor on a little elevator,” explains Dell. “So we introduced her to gambling, strip clubs…”

“A lot of things that we left on the cutting room floor,” laughs Bagayawa.

In return, she taught about going mushrooming in the Red Pine forests, how to make mulled wine (it was an grotesque failure) and Kringel (a specialty sweetbread that curiously, they only ate here in Canada).

The rapid ascent to recognition in Estonia caught the couple off guard. “The film that won (the EstDocs festival) was a pretty dark one about the country suffering because of joining the Euro. And then ours was totally opposite – I think because we were the first non-Estonians to ever make a movie. And I think because the country might not get a lot of attention, it was really like, “Oh, it’s so fun to see what we look like to other people.” Or because the movie was kind of upbeat. So the festival ended up hosting our (film) on their YouTube channel and then linked it to their facebook.”
It was picked up by a magazine called Estonian world, and the President caught wind of it and tweeted it. From there it went viral  – the Estonian Embassy, Estonian Air, Delfi and 24 (major Estonian news outlets). They gleaned approximately 20,000 new hits within a couple of hours.

They find it comical how once things go viral, they really are out of the jurisdiction of your own intentions. They noted that the comments below the video have incited a spiraling debate into Estonian political history.

“First of all, every YouTube video that surpasses about 50 or 60,000 views usually ends up in some sort of debate about the Middle East,” says Dell, half-jokingly. “I don’t care what your video is about – it could have a cat on it, whatever. The comments always end up talking about the Middle East. So eventually, it will get there.”

“But at this point, they’re still debating about Estonian history and historical events. Like ‘THANK YOU for making this film. But it’s not accurate. But THANK YOU!’”  The film was never meant to be a hard-hitting documentary unveiling sensitive Estonian historical events. It is about friendship.

Their trip to Estonia was brief. For a few days, they were charmed by Kati’s elderly grandmother and sisters and mother (who appeared to do the brunt of the farm labour)  and the omnipresent love of music (Estonia was where the Singing Revolution was spawned).

“We went to all these places and it seemed like every place had a grand piano in it. There’s even an Estonian made grand piano that just says Estonia on it. Here in Canada, if you go to a museum or whatever and if there’s a piano, there’s usually a rope around it. DO NOT TOUCH! And a lock and snipers guarding –  ‘Don’t touch one of those keys! Shoot to kill, shoot to kill!’  We went to these museums and it was like, “Hey! Here’s a grand piano! If you can play, go ahead!”

Dell and Bagayawa truly felt their height among the Estonians (they are 5’6” and 5’0″ respectively and Estonians are typically tall). Dell says he also came up against differences in drinking customs. “Nobody told me that the half litre beers are only for girls. So I was like, oh I’ll take a half litre of whatever this is. And all the guys are drinking one litre. I looked around and said to Kati’s boyfriend, ‘Christian! Why didn’t you tell me?!’ So I had to chug it fast so I could get a big one. I was hiding it.”

Estonia is a remarkably progressive country with an advanced economy that traces its roots back 11,000 years. It has undergone numerous occupations and has suffered enormous losses of life and economy as a result. Yet the Estonians that Dell and Bagayawa met were joyful, resilient and proud of their culture. They remain in close contact with Kati and would love to go back.

“The whole video thing was really just for Est docs. And then we thought, well, if we win some money then we can pay for a little bit of our trip. And then we did!” says Dell. “So then we thought – maybe we could make a part 2, go back, get them to pay for it. And we could start making travel videos to different countries…”


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

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