Film festival chiefs the world over have been having a tricky time navigating the pandemic, juggling ever-changing Covid rules with an industry desperate to return to normal. Yet it’s no surprise that Estonia’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF to the locals) has managed better than most. After all, the event was borne of adversity, 25 years ago, when Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union was inadvertently killing both its filmmaking, and its filmgoing.
“It was a very critical situation for Estonians, cinema, and for myself,” recalls PÖFF founder and artistic director Tiina Lokk (above, centre right, with filmmakers dressing down for the black carpet). “Before independence the film industry received its budget directly from Moscow, so suddenly it was in really bad shape. They didn’t have any money at all.”
At the same time, the country’s cinemas, which had been waiting for Soviet-funded refurbishment, were languishing, and being closed and sold off in huge numbers. From around 600 in Soviet times, there were perhaps 10 remaining in 1997 – and they were showing mostly Hollywood films.
At that point Lokk had worked as a script editor, a critic and teacher; she also owned a film distribution company that was about to collapse. It was time to act. “I didn’t want to leave cinema, so this was my last chance.” She drew on the final resources of her company and sought help from friends and contacts, especially the Nordic film institutes, to establish the new festival. Black Nights was, originally, a small film week, showing just 24, mostly Nordic films. But it was a start.
Fast forward 25 years. PÖFF’s programme this year had 181 features, 257 short films plus around 50 children’s films. It’s been a class A competitive festival (alongside the likes of Cannes, Berlin and Venice) since 2014, with an energetic industry market to match, properly international in its programming but retaining a focus on the region.
More than all of that, perhaps, is a reputation for status-free hospitality. “From the very beginning we tried to create an atmosphere where everyone feels he or she is welcome. It doesn’t matter how big a star you are,” says Lokk. “We don’t have a red carpet, we have a black carpet. For us, glamour is good – to a point. You must feel comfortable and cosy.”
Of course, it’s hard to feel cosy when a deadly virus is on the loose. Last year Tallinn orchestrated the first hybrid film festival on the circuit, with films shown both physically and online; this year it was close to full strength as a live event, with around 1,000 filmmakers, press and industry guests flying into this pretty, bracing city on the Baltic sea.
And the Covid-related measures are impressive – from a testing station for arrivals in the festival hotel, to providing guests with an antibody nose spray and, for those speaking at events, a striking neck brace that uses UV technology to cleanse the air around the face – a freaky-looking contraption to be sure, but a sterling show of intent.
Nevertheless, Covid always has a say in the narrative. Three weeks before the festival was about to start, infections in Estonia shot up. “Everything was prepared, everything was paid for, we had around 80 premiers ahead of us. It was a very shocking, very nervous period for us,” Lokk recalls, before smiling. “But then numbers went down. It was like a miracle.”
Here are five picks from POFF25, some of which will hopefully make their way to UK cinemas.
The List of Those Who Love Me
This scintillating movie from Turkey is about the sort of man who shouldn’t be sympathetic – a delusional, celebrity obsessed drug dealer to the stars. But in the hands of director Emre Erdogdu, it’s a hugely entertaining and insightful drama.
Yilmaz is a man who loves life, and loves himself. Operating in a swanky district of Istanbul, he deals to a clientele of directors, musicians, writer and actors, who treat him as one of their own. In reality, their fondness extends only as far as the next hit. When the police start a major drug crackdown, and Yilmaz’s supply dries up, so the phone stops ringing. Yilmaz cares less about the money he’s losing than the fact that he is, suddenly, friendless. And so he takes dangerous measures to find a new supply.
Stylishly shot in black and white 16mm, the film has a mesmerising focal point in actor Halil Babur, who seems to be channelling something of De Niro, the Pacino of Serpico and Cruisin’, and a young Richard Gere all at once. The man exudes star wattage, with the skill to show the vulnerability beneath the strut, of a man from the wrong side of the tracks clinging to an ill-gotten sense of self-respect.
From Hungary, Erasing Frank is an extraordinarily effective foray into life in a totalitarian state. Director Gábor Fabricius seems to have taken his stylistic cue from compatriot Laszlo Nemes’ lauded Auschwitz drama Son of Saul. Like Nemes, Fabricius keeps his camera glued to his chief protagonist – a punk rock dissident – with a mostly shallow depth of field, so that the audience sees and experiences the world of the film entirely from his perspective. Also like Saul, that world is intense and frightening.
It’s set in 1983 Budapest, which Fabricius presents as something of a hellhole, where everyone feels spied upon, no-one can be trusted, and dissidents run the risk of being incarcerated – and lost – inside mental institutions. In fact, much of the film plays like One Flew Over the Communist Cuckoos Nest. One can’t help thinking of another Frank, well Franz, as the punk hero who won’t stop protesting is sucked ever deeper into a surreal nightmare.
No Looking Back
Violence is given a more cartoon presentation in the madcap Russian comedy No Looking Back. When Olga is released from prison, where she’s served four years for poking her lover’s eye out, she immediately heads home to retrieve her daughter Masha from her mother. Trouble is, Vera doesn’t want to let her granddaughter go – and will do anything to keep her, including kill her own daughter. Olga has no choice but to kidnap the kid and go on the run.
What follows is a relentless chase through woods and on highways, with the psychotic gran dragging Olga’s eye-patched ex along for the ride. The violence can be wearing, even when it’s so daft. But director Kirill Sokolov, whose Why Don’t you Just Die! opened in the UK last year, has talent to burn: this has touches of Tarantino and Leone, mixed with deadpan Russian humour and something enjoyably twisted to say about the love-hate family dynamic.
To say that Other Cannibals is an uncharacterizable film would be an understatement. Is it horror, satire, black comedy? Perhaps all three. Nothing is made explicit, nothing is quite what is seems.
For a start, it’s directed by a German, but set in Italy and comes with the slow-burn pacing, nay inertia that once characterised the Italian arthouse. And then there’s its creepy, chalk and cheese antiheroes, strangers meeting for the first time in the Dolomites, with a dark purpose. Their only obstacle is themselves – they can’t stop procrastinating.
One fabulous sequence involves the pair – one tall, gangly, with his long hair dyed white, the other tiny and beady-eyed – on a shopping trip to a hardware store, where they literally try out sheets of plastic for size, before asking a fellow customer for tips on what knives to buy ‘to slaughter a pig’. It’s a very clever film, expertly constructed and played, combining tension, weirdness and hilarity in equal measure. It could just as easily be an arthouse hit or a cult classic.
This terrifically engaging film from Lithuania has echoes of one of the classics of modern German cinema, Run Lola Run: in each film, a young woman races through the city in a desperate bid to save her boyfriend. Each has a temporal dimension to the drama; each asks its own philosophical questions.
Here, Marija is convinced that her runaway bipolar boyfriend Vytas is going to harm himself, so sets off to find him – to effectively save him from himself. She’s clearly well-intentioned, yet director Andrius Blazevicius raises the questions: does Vytas want, or even need to be saved, and might Marija’s presumption do more harm than good?
The result is superbly orchestrated and shot, and nail-bitingly tense. And while she may not have a name that trips of the tongue as well as Lola’s Franke Potente, Žygimantė Elena Jakštaitė is just as magnetic a screen presence.
This report first appeared on The Arts Desk