Black Nights Film Festival: When the night shone bright in Tallinn

The Black Nights Film Festival in the capital of Estonia, PÖFF showcased 212 feature-length films, 52 films in the youth and children’s festival ‘Just Film’; plus 230 shorts and animations

Romain Maitra

Without the night, we can’t see the stars -- and the darker the night, the brighter the stars. And, like every year, with the advent of winter, those long dark nights in Tallinn were lit up again by the bright screens of the Black Nights Film Festival.

But this year has been special. To celebrate the centenary of Estonia establishing its national independence, a big birthday party had been going on throughout this year. Further, the focus of this year’s Black Nights (locally known as PÖFF) was also dedicated to the 12 other countries, besides Estonia, that have been celebrating their 100th anniversary of freedom as Europe’s map was radically changed at the end of the First World War -- dissolving empires, and creating new small nation states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

Undisputedly, the most prominent event in North Europe’s film calendar today, PÖFF was mainly a showcase for Nordic film when it began in 1997. However, as the festival grew under the tenacious guidance of its Founder Director Tiina Lokk, it expanded its overview to include world cinema more and more. Since four years, when PÖFF was absorbed into the ‘higher league’ of the A-list film festivals, more and more aspiring filmmakers and producers from all over the world have sought to have their films selected here and even have world premieres. This year, PÖFF screened 212 feature-length films, plus 52 more films in the youth and children's festival ‘Just Film’; plus 230 shorts and animations in Tallinn and Tartu -- its second venue.

As the nights were long and black, with the temperature outside falling to minus eight or below, it was highly comforting to remain indoors and watch the festival films in the big and warm multiplex right next to my hotel. Also, I could catch up viewing the unseen ones of my choice on the large monitors in the media library room, located within the hotel itself, or replay portions to discern their finer grains which were missed on the first go.

Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair’s debut feature ‘The Third Wife’ took us to the feudal setting of 19th century Vietnam in which a 14-year-old girl (remarkably portrayed by Nguyen Phuong Tra My) was married off to a much older rich landowner who already had two other wives. Apart from a few subplots within the family, Mayfair delicately showed not only the harsh limits of her married existence in the feudal set-up but went way beyond to depict her emotional growing up, her equivocal sexual feelings, and her pregnancy -- being illustrated with a series of metaphoric images from the natural wold, like life-cycle of silkworms, or seasonal transitions. With DoP Chananun Chotrungroj’s mastery and Ton That An’s sensitive score, this delightful saga eased my journey into the cultural mores and emotional cores of the women, seeking intimate freedom through the cracks of a feudal household.

Black Nights Film Festival: When the night shone bright in Tallinn
A still from ‘The Third Wife’
Black Nights Film Festival: When the night shone bright in Tallinn
A still from ‘The Werewolf’

Set immediately after the end of World War II in 1945, the strikingly powerful Polish/Dutch/German co-production ‘Werewolf’, written and directed by Adrian Panek, unfolded the struggle of several child survivors of the concentration camp Gross-Rosen. They landed up in a temporary orphanage in the woods run by fellow survivor Hanna. However, in the process of their recuperation, the orphanage was invaded by ravenous German Shepherds of the Nazis that had previously guarded them in the camp. Released by the SS earlier on, they had gone feral and famished. The children became terrified and their camp survival instinct were triggered that drove them to exercise means to extend their survival tactics, now with the dogs. This breath-taking thriller also drove home the notion of how inner evil could become contagious and how, ironically, the perpetrators of evil would turn themselves into its victims in the end.

Inspired by a true anecdote, ‘Broken Island’ from Dominican Republic reconstructed the mass murder and mayhem of thousands of black men, women, and children in the mission named ‘El Corte’ or the Parsley Massacre in October 1937, which was one of the most shameful events in modern history. Through the life of a village boy who managed to migrate from Haiti to Dominican Republic, the film’s director Félix Germán dovetailed two main places and time scales – the border of Haiti and Dominican Republic around 1918 and the sugar plantation terrains of Dominican Republic around 1937. This action-packed saga was a filmic addition to the several novels that already exist in Spanish and French on the Haitian genocide.

In the festival’s significant section ‘Rebel with a Cause’, I liked two films of entirely opposite genres and treatments. The Iranian entry ‘Iró’, directed by Hadi Mohaghegh, narrated pain and silence in the most visually ascetic way with long, silent takes and exploration of darkness. A lone old man, probably a shepherd, in a desolate Iranian countryside, wailed all by himself as his son would be executed the following morn. A severely slow-paced, taciturn, and underpopulated film, it would demand a lot of pluck to attempt on such a subject, while cocking a snook at the box office angle. However, in the same section, an entirely opposite entry in the spectrum of style and temper was Anamika Haksar’s ‘Ghode ko jalebi khilane le ja riya hoon’ which was a medley of intersecting narratives that negated a film’s normal narrative form. This kaleidoscopic documentary was construed out of the interviews and talks with the lower rung people from Old Delhi that included the unorganised labouring class, deviants, tricksters, and pavement-dwellers and these people’s dreams during sleep (Haksar asked them to be shared with her) and realities were interwoven -- often layered with fanciful designs. Somewhat expressionistic in the vein the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica’s films, plus the surplus of special effects and video graphics, Haksar’s ambitious project had surely cut a special groove.

In the tragi-comic film ‘Lorik’, the eponymous character lived the imaginary world of his roles. Lonely and egocentric, he failed to perceive the realities around him as he hid behind the masks of characters from the past, now Cyrano de Bergerac, now King Richard, and so on. But soon he lost his work as an actor as the theatre closed down due to material loss and he was catapulted into the lives of people he knew and began to experience their pain and suffering. However, as one would see, he paid the price for this metamorphosis of being with his mortal life. The director Alexey Zlobin loosened the reins of the histrionic display of the Armenian actor Michael Poghosyan (probably because the actor wrote the story) whose Lorik physically transformed himself into others -- not into the roles he played on stage but into his friends and acquaintances to feel and empathize with their pains as his own.

In the similar genre of histrionic characterisation was ‘Van Goghs’, produced in Russia and Latvia and directed by Sergey Livnev, in which there was a strange chemistry of love-hate relationship between a struggling artist (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his famous conductor father ((Daniel Olbrychski). It was heartening for me to see the great Polish actor Olbrychski on screen after many years – and indeed those years have settled on his face.

Directed by Angelos Frantzis, ‘Still River’ narrated the familial intrigue of a Greek couple who had moved to an industrial Siberian town. Shocked to discover his wife pregnant with no prior intercourse, the man sought out to unearth the real reason behind the pregnancy as their previously unshakeable bond began to crack gradually, while their relationship being tossed in the tussle between the rational and the spiritual. And seen mainly from female viewpoint and juxtaposing sexual frigidity with the environment’s frozenness, the film moved on the thin edge between logic and metaphysics.

However, the most adorable entries for me were three documentaries. Just as there is no absolute light or darkness, there is no absolute documentary, and often fiction and documentation could be merged beautifully and truthfully. With a fictional guise, Gabrielle Brady’s ‘Island of the Hungry Ghosts’ was in the veritable lineage of documentary on asylum seekers but quite unlike them. It centred on a trauma therapist working at the detention centre in the Christmas Island, an Australian territory just off the coast of Indonesia. Brady interwove the therapist’s narrative with the island’s outrageous identity, while recurrently counterposing on the annual migration of the island’s famous red crabs, and moved the film along three axes.

The film also won the Grand Jury Award at the 2018 Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, apart from a few other international awards.

What is special about the nature of the Baltic documentary cinema that it is still considered an ace art form and consider documentary filmmakers are artists. At the beginning of the 1960s, when the French pioneers of ‘cinéma vérité’ set out to achieve a new realism, and when direct cinema in Québec began to vie for notice, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia witnessed the birth of a generation of documentarists behind the Iron Wall who favoured a more romantic view of the world around them. The exploration of humanity, the inner world, or the soul of a man or woman were the chief elements that typified this Baltic New Wave that challenged the Soviet dogma of propaganda and newsreels to turn documentary filmmaking into an introspective art form.

The meditative documentary essay ‘Bridges of Time’ by the Latvian writer Kristine Briede and Lithuanian director Audrius Stonys pushed past the limits of usual historiographic investigation to create a portrait of less-clearly remembered filmmakers. The result was a cinematic poem about cinema poets like Henrikas Šablevičius, Ivars Seleckis, Robertas Verba, Andres Sööt, Herz Frank, and so on. “Documentary cinema saves the moments that time takes away from us. A world without documentary is a world without past. We tried to save the memories of those who were saving our memories. … The importance is what images, moments, seconds, landscapes, tears or smiles you managed to save from oblivion,” said Stonys on the occasion of its screening at Karlovy Vary earlier this year.

In the category ‘Fashion Cinema’, the documentary ‘Timeless Beauty’ was a journey through the contemporary world of fashion, with some of the most unusual models from today's fashion industry, while exploring the ever-changing concept of beauty worldwide. Quite elderly and atypical models, who are now very popular with fashion houses, rode on the waves of change towards accepting diversity and redefining notions of beauty in fashion. These off-beat protagonists, rich in age-old charisma, tell their stories and dreams and fight back against the imposed ideas of beauty and youth. In a statement, its director Deyan Parouchev stated, “The big actors of the fashion world have often tried to format, to influence, to erase, and to exclude those who do not conform to their ephemeral definitions of beauty. Yet, in recent years, a reverse dynamic has begun and the faces and bodies that now grace the catwalks and fashion magazines are no longer so smooth, uniform, or perfectly proportioned as before. This has driven me to consider whether this is just a passing fad or a consequence of deeper changes in our society's codes and canons.”

The Colombian film ‘Wandering Girl’ directed by Rubén Mendoza which got the Grand Prix for Best Film is about the meeting and journey of a 12 year old girl with her three step sisters after their father died. "The film manages to unveil the inner worlds of four sisters and their relationships, while at the same time explore social issues of contemporary Southern American society at large with refreshing honesty, catharsis and originality," the jury said in its comments. Its composer Las Ānez was awarded for Best Music.

However, the award that a viewer like me took home after being submerged by the welter of plots and characters from the films was the idea to hold a mirror in the dark and try to look at oneself introspectively and to see how many of these characters were within me or how I viewed them around me. I am reminded in retrospect of what Ingmar Berman once said, “There's a lot of loose talk nowadays to the effect that children should be brought up to know all about brotherhood and understanding and coexistence and equality and everything else that's all the rage just now. But it doesn't dawn on anyone that we must first learn something about ourselves and our own feelings. Our own fear and loneliness and anger. We're left without a chance, ignorant and remorseful among the ruins of our ambitions.”

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