When, over the course of two days a town of 8 500 inhabitants is inundated with as many as 9 000 eager festival thinkers, who are there to just listen to the opinions of others, it must be quite a sight. According to Ott Karulin, the Director of The Opinion Festival (Arvamusfestival) − which took place for the fourth time this year in the Estonian town of Paide− and Communication Manager Katerina Danilova, the discussion-based festival format might be exported to other countries too.
How would you rate the fourth Opinion Festival?
Katerina Danilova (K.D.): There were 9 000 visitors this year. We did not see a record number of participants (last year there were over 10 000 attendees − ed.) but the number of visitors is not the most significant criterion for us. What is more important is that people come to The Opinion Festival with open minds and interest in general societal developments and specific topics. This year we had 230 discussions. This is a very large number and next year we will probably have to limit the program to avoid generating the feeling of ‘oh no, I missed something’ instead of ‘yes, I got to participate in that!’ However, next year we definitely want to increase the number of foreign language discussions both in English and in Russian.
Ott Karulin (O.K.): We had 40 subject areas, which were organised by almost 130 organisations, and all festival topics were generated in January of this year. It is our role to consult the organisers of the discussions as to how to develop their conversations and make them truly engaging. This year, there were many public organisations participating in the festival, ranging from government ministries to the Estonian Data Protection Inspectorate and The Unemployment Insurance Fund − both bodies which have the real power to implement or legislate ideas voiced at the festival. I hope for more active participation from entrepreneurs who can find suitable topics from amongst the diverse selection of themes. It is also a good opportunity for companies to present themselves, as instead of the usual channels of promotion, we offer them the opportunity to introduce their own themes as they wish.
K.D.: It is characteristic of the festival that it represents all sectors − media channels, private companies, political parties, and civic society. The festival takes place in the summer when everyone should be in a relaxed, holiday mood, the pace of life is easy and people from very different backgrounds come together − perhaps people who work in the same field but never meet in their daily lives. Joint discussions may lead to collaborations or a new way of seeing one’s activity. The discussions have to be based on arguments, not just statements and regular ‘bullet points’; there needs to be dialogue based on facts and evidence. Such discussions are the path to an open society where the opinions of consumers, citizens and critics are heard and considered.
Do you see that the Opinion Festival as a concept is working and may develop into a longer tradition?
O.K.: It is a laboratory of ideas in the best sense of the word and I believe we have not yet exploited its full potential. It is a place for the presentation of one’s ideas in calm debate where one can receive immediate feedback. People can even debate with ministers in front of an audience, so that promises made remain in the public sphere, which makes it difficult to back down from them later.
What are some of the tangible changes, ideas and processes which have so far been born at the Opinion Festival?
O.K.: The Opinion Festival is the only festival in Estonia where a real result is expected. It means heightened expectations and for us that is a compliment. One should not forget that almost ten thousand visitors are arriving who want to hear people debating. They want to enjoy a debate based on solid arguments and that is a value in itself.
K.D.: Definitely one of the ‘winners’ is Paide, a town of 8 500 inhabitants, where − even though it is situated in the heart of Estonia − there had been no previous event of its own. When we first met with the city government, they were sceptical to say the least. Now we have witnessed how the whole town makes an effort all year round in order to guarantee the success of the festival! For example, The Estonian Free Party have said that two years ago, the Opinion Festival was the place which was the effective founding date of their party. Last year was the first time that supporters of private schools met at the festival, and they have now reached the stage of founding a new private school in Tallinn. Based on our model, a second festival in Latvia took place this year. But the main achievement is the improvement of debating and opinion culture in Estonian society. It is our wish that such debates will not only take place over two days in a year, but all the time and all over Estonia − on social media, the television and in the newspapers.
How do you balance the festival program?
We know that in addition to discussions there are many side activities. For example, the opportunity to use virtual glasses to see the route of a Syrian refugee or even to watch a public autopsy. At the same time you have your own unwritten rules, like the one that presenters should not make use of a slideshow or hang up a lot of banners.
O.K.: The last point really points to the most time-consuming aspect of our work! It is understandable that organisers want their brand to be present. But we try to convince them that it is the content which promotes an institution rather than just a tent with a large logo. But this attitude is improving every year. As positive examples I can bring in Eesti Energia and Swedbank, who are our regular supporters. In addition to active participation in discussions, they created a health track at the festival area which admittedly does name the companies but is a welcome, playful solution. But side activities must always serve the main goals of the discussion area and they should not be out of proportion. For example, if we have the topic of immigration, we can really see the daily life of a refugee camp through virtual glasses. This is something where pictures can tell more than a thousand words.
You also organised the second (pre)Opinion Festival in Narva and the first one in southeastern Estonia, in addition to the Lampa Festival in Latvia. Who else have you inspired ? Is your idea spreading?
O.K.: I recently met with a group of Belgians. But there has been interest in the format from other places as well. The current (pre)Opinion Festivals in other parts of Estonia are taking place on the principle of a franchise − we provide them with the conditions and rules of the game and local people organise the event. As the event itself has already really grown, we can make it even larger internationally by offering know-how to different countries. But we are a non-profit organisation and work on a voluntary principle, which means that we need to consider to what extent we are able to guarantee this growth and not turn into a too-large institution. We have been in contact with Ukrainian and Moldovan activists as well, but only time will shed light on the result of those discussions.
K.D.: The main goal of [pre]opinion festivals is to deal with local issues and it was especially evident in southeastern Estonia that people came to not only hear opinions, but also to get solutions for long-term issues and problems.
How can you organise such a large event purely on a voluntary basis?
K.D.: I have been involved with the festival from the start, that is four years now. It is such a great and fulfilling feeling when you organise something for a year and it leads to such an event. It is very motivating. And the motivation of volunteers really comes from the heart − you need to understand exactly why you want to do it.
O.K.: My experience tells me that those volunteers who just want to get a prestigious entry on their CV do not last even a year. One needs to believe in the idea of the event. But leading more than two hundred volunteers was a big task for me in terms of including everyone personally. Our entire office was located on Google Drive. So when someone needs tips on how to run an organisation with over 300 staff, without a real office, we can give you some advice!
You called the festival participants word rockers. How was that term born?
K.D.: In the first year of the festival we were trying to come up with a good title for the event and we ended up with two options − ‘opinion festival’ and ‘word rock’. We decided that it is indeed the opinions which matter to us and not just words. Word rock is something we use as the title of our magazine and we expect each discussion to rock!
Source: Life in Estonia