The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, named for the winter darkness that cloaks the capital at that time of year, held its 20th edition last November. It was the year Estonia also celebrated 25 years of independence from Soviet rule, and it’s instructive to consider the development of the festival within the wider context of the rapid changes the nation has undergone in that short time.

Perched up by the gulf of Finland, Estonia feels much more Nordic than its Baltic neighbours to the south, Latvia and Lithuania. To an outside eye this seems evermore so in the last few years, as design stores and bars with trendy modular furniture have multiplied around Tallinn. An initiative whereby foreigners can become e-residents for business purposes is just the latest manifestation of the reputation for digitally advanced, modernising innovation Estonia has swiftly become known for. But it has stayed its own unique enclave, as yet free from the sky-high prices of Helsinki or the calm conformity bred by bourgeois prosperity of a more Scandinavian capital such as Copenhagen. For western fetishists of imposing, Soviet-era architecture, many of these buildings persist looming over Tallinn’s winding cobbled streets, such as the hulking Kino Sõprus, still in use as a cinema, where we attended the awards ceremony of the Animated Dreams animation side-festival. A large guest dinner was held by the festival’s Baltic Event industry segment in KultuuriKatel, a factory-turned-event space with giant boilers and chimney where Tarkovsky’s Stalker was shot, further legacy from Soviet times inscribed on the cityscape, and now repurposed. Uncommercialised grit still abounds: just head to Valli Bar (so legendary there is even an Estonian documentary by Manfred Vainokivi about it) any night of the week to encounter eccentric, elderly patrons that seem to have leaned on the counter in the ‘80s and not left since then.

Tallinn, in other words, is a fascinating, endlessly surprising mix of influences, which like that of its Baltic neighbours is the manifestation of a history that’s turbulent and harshly contested. Invasion, mass displacement of citizenry and a tiny population (1.3 million, of which around a quarter are Russian) intent on retaining identity have been strong factors on the Estonian psyche, as is continued unease of border security in relation to former occupier Russia. Uncertain and disjointed collective identity at an era’s crossroads were the themes of two of the best new Baltic films screened at the festival: Estonian director Triin Ruumet’s feature debut Päevad, mis ajasid segadusse (The Days that Confused) and Melānijas hronika (The Chronicles of Melanie) by Latvia’s Viestur Kairish.

The Days That Confused: black humour, black money

For a tiny nation, Estonia is punching above its weight in terms of quality films produced. Of the no less than seven new features showcased in the Estonian Film competition this year, the standout was The Days That Confused, a debut feature that marks 28 year-old filmmaker and painter Triin Ruumet out as a distinctive new auteurial voice. The film, which combines hypnotic digressions into visual poetry with bellicose wit and the youthful energy of abandon and excess, won her a Special Jury award for her directing approach at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival earlier in the year.

Tallinn Black Nights

The Days That Confused

The onslaught of capitalism and growth of organised crime that came to the Baltics with independence in the early ‘90s in a region unequipped for this brand of “freedom” is a theme that has been of central concern in the region’s cinema of the last decades. Ruumet takes on this ambitious scope, setting the action in small-town ‘90s Estonia in a film that makes admirable work of reproducing the fashion and iconic markers of the era (from walkmans to a soundtrack of catchy Estonian pop, characters singing along to lyrics such as “Our dreamboat starts to sink”).

Allar (Hendrik Toompere Jr.) is in his lack of direction like many laddish youths. His father demands he work with him at the sawmill that summer, but he’d rather roar around in cars with his friends on the wood-lined country roads, drinking heavily. A crash at the start of the film sees him staggering, dazed and bloody, to a lake where he encounters Juulius (Juhan Ulfsak) who, sensing potential, takes Allar under his wing into a local crime gang. The sequence, tinted with absurdist surrealism in its brutal disorientation, brings to mind Veiko Õunpuu’s The Temptation of St. Tony (2009), another take on the existential quandaries of new capitalism that has quickly become a defining Estonian post-independence classic and begins with a similar accident and lurching, blood-covered man. In its more esoteric bent it’s a very different film, but the significance of Õunpuu in opening the way for a young generation of filmmakers such as Ruumet to confidently experiment with bold, visually and aurally daring work is obvious (while still actively innovating with his own work; his new feature The Last Ones is set to be shot in Finnish Lapland in 2017, with the same talented cinematographer as Ruumet worked with, Sten-Johan Lill, on board).

In an industry as small as Estonia’s, the cross-pollination of ideas and renegade touchstones means everything. Taavi Eelmaa, who starred in St. Tony and is one of Estonia’s most recognisable character actors, adept at playing deadpan eccentrics, in The Days that Confused inhabits the role of gang boss Pontu, who Allar first encounters at a party high and loping around in speedos and a purple, satin gown with a Rottweiler on a lead. Ruumet takes an infectious joy in such hedonistic scenes, while earthy humour saves the film from any too-hip pretension. The woods, the natural beauty of which are the basis for a number of dreamlike sequences, are also the raw material for black money, with timber-theft a major racket the gang is engaged in – an effective symbol for a nation at a crossroads of conflicting mentalities.

In the Estonian competition, the jury chose to award Kadri Kõusaar ’s Mother, another strong, female-directed choice. A deadpan, cynical and wholly unique crime mystery set in small-town Estonia, it premiered at Tribeca and is the nation’s Oscar candidate this year. With a colour palette more oppressively olive and beige than noir, the film is more a sharp and irreverent take on the demands of domesticity and the diminishing sphere of possibility women can be subjected to in motherhood and middle age, than a grasp at dingy underworld glamour. It stars Tiina Mälberg as Elsa, who is taking care of her son, bedridden and comatose after being shot. The question mark over who pulled the trigger has gripped the tightknit community, and a string of visitors to the house with their whispered conversations deepen the twisting plot.

Tallinn Black Nights

Mother

The Chronicles of Melanie: Baltic trauma memory

With the freedom to do so since independence and a pain that is still fresh, a spate of Baltic historical dramas are attempting to reckon with the legacy of the former Soviet occupation, and in particular the 1941 deportations under Stalin – a collective trauma that saw some 90,000 Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians sent by cattle car to enforced exile or death in Siberia. In 2013 came Lithuania’s The Excursionist by Audrius Juzenas on the topic. Estonia followed in 2014 with Martti Helde’s In the Crosswind, based on the letters of deportee Erna Tamm. With its unusual, experimental scenes of black-and-white tableaux, frozen as if time itself had been wrenched apart, it garnered widespread festival recognition. Now with The Chronicles of Melanie, directed by Viestur Kairish, Latvia bears witness on screen to the deportations. It’s also based on the writings of a deportee, Melānija Vanaga, whose husband was a former newspaper editor. Their house is raided in the early morning hours and as with other families they are split up by soldiers at the station and transported to different camps, she accompanied by their eight year-old son. This is a more conventional retelling in form than In the Crosswind but the rage and psychic dislocation can be felt in every frame in a film that does not shy away from the more harrowing aspects of this injustice, such as a woman slitting the throat of her small child and herself on the journey (a weeks-long hell cramped together without ability to wash), and forced sexual favours in return for bread – scenes of a people pushed over the edge.

Tallinn Black Nights

The Chronicles of Melanie

Years of desolation in enforced exile are captured in a film that spans through to 1957, when Melānija finally returns to Riga to determine the fate of her husband. The isolated, white snow-covered expanse of the endlessly forested taiga offers some scenes of striking black-and-white cinematography – a natural world that offers Melānija some slight respite in its steady, seasonal continuation despite her personal horizon being radically ripped out of joint. As with In the Crosswind, there is a sense at times that the personal investment of the filmmakers is too raw and entangled to enable nuance in a film unrelentingly fraught with suffering. But it could hardly be otherwise, given the annihilating intent of this Soviet atrocity, aimed at neutralising any capacity of these societies for independent action, and Melānija’s fortitude in barely imaginable hardship is bracing. These films are significant in bearing witness to this deportation history, and as repositories of collective memory.

Main competition: “A” status and its demands

The Chronicles of Melanie screened in the festival’s main competition, and won the Jury Prize for Best Cinematographer for Gints Berzins. Tallinn’s competition structure has changed markedly in the last two years due to its new status as one of the world’s 14 international “A” festivals – the only one in the Nordic and Baltic region, as classified by the FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Association). Black Nights director Tiina Lokk has been with the festival for its whole 20 years, and her tireless work in building the event up to this level cannot be underestimated. The shift to an “A” status is however a contentious one among both local and international industry players, being as it is a double-edged sword that has inevitably brought as many new pressures as it has opened doors. It can’t be denied that the grade confers status and clout in itself, and for a small, newly independent nation formerly under the Soviet yoke of film production, it thrusts it onto a par level at least superficially with the most prestigious festivals Cannes, Berlin and Venice (not to mention Moscow). It’s a confirmation that film culture is an important driver of cultural identity, and along with Estonia’s aforementioned growing reputation for progressive innovation, it endorses a belief that Estonians have the capability to take risks and step up to the task.

On the other hand, the “A” classification requires competitions of world premieres (first public screening anywhere) or international premieres (first public screenings outside country of origin). It’s certainly no secret that Tallinn, having to compete for premieres with other major festivals (especially Rotterdam and Berlin coming straight on its tail), has trouble getting quality films into this slot. This is by no means only a problem of Tallinn among the “A” festivals, and it’s only its second year having to conform to premiere regulations, but if it cannot become a recognised launch pad for noteworthy new fare that then travels widely to other festivals, the question mark over the logic of this status move will remain.

Last year’s main competition winner Under the Sun, a covertly made documentary in which Ukrainian director Vitaly Mansky expertly revealed the workings of North Korea’s propaganda machine, did find Tallinn a conducive setting for its international premiere (especially as it was awarded among a line-up of fiction features, upping its clout), even though as a co-production of five nations including Germany and the Czech Republic the film had already screened at DOK Leipzig and Jihlava, so Tallinn could not claim to have discovered it or first brought it into a spotlight of attention.

Tallinn Black Nights

A Quiet Heart

This year, the main competition was a mixed bag, which showed a general preference in direction toward genre-leaning fare at the more accessible, crowd-pleasing end of the arthouse spectrum. Israeli drama A Quiet Heart by Eitan Anner came away with the Grand Prix for Best Film wolf statuette. Suspenseful yet over-the-top, it plays out like a straight-faced version of one of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy films, without the surreal, black wit and with Ultra-Orthodox rather than occultist figures in the role of sinister neighbours. Frustrated concert pianist Naomi (Ania Bukstein, who deservedly won the jury’s Best Actress prize) is terrorised in her new home after moving to Jerusalem with anonymous threats and accusations that she is a missionary. When she takes up organ lessons from a monk (in one of the more tenuous plot turns), the sense of danger intensifies. It’s a fresh take on female grit under the invasively judgmental eye of fanaticism, though its black-and-white vision of social division is a fear-stirring one that’s hardly geared toward opening up cultural understanding. Still, the film held more weight than the likes of unawarded Sette giorni (7 Days), a diverting but unconvincing and inconsequential Swiss-Italian relationship drama by Rolando Colla about a brief but life-changing marital affair on a picturesque Sicilian island. Road movie Eastern Business by Moldovan writer-director Igor Cobileanski (who previously collaborated script-writing with Corneliu Porumboiu), starring Ion Sapdaru and Constantin Puscasu, came away with both Best Script and Best Actor awards. The influence of the Romanian New Wave is obvious here, with its world of haphazard schemers trying to make a buck from shady adventures (a deal involving 50,000 horseshoes is the hook) a more broadly comedic, less existential take on the same kind of tale as Cristi Puiu’s seminal Marfa si banii

(Stuff and Dough). The Spanish financial crisis found expression in musical comedy with Cerca de tu casa (At Your Doorstep) by Eduard Cortés, which won the Best Music prize for composer Silvia Pérez Cruz. None of these were terrible movies – nor were they particularly memorable. Another of the competition films, along with Chronicles, that did make more of a lasting impression was Russian director Pavel Lungin’s The Queen of Spades, which came away with the Audience Award.

The Queen of Spades and The Duelist: Russian Roulette and bravado as spectacle 

Extravagant, blood-splashed, lurid and overwrought: The Queen of Spades throws nuance out the window for a riot of opera and Machiavellian vice. Russian director Pavel Lungin, who penned the script with The King’s Speech screenwriter David Seidler, has previously written opera librettos and succeeds in translating the grand emotions of the stage into a feverishly stylised screen rendition awash in bold blacks, whites and reds that borders just the right side of high camp. A tale refracted by a tale, it sees a young opera tenor Andrey (Ivan Yankovskiy) gripped with obsession over securing the role of Hermann, the male lead in The Queen of Spades. The opera (which Tchaikovsky based in turn on a short story by Pushkin) is being staged by Sofia Meyer (Kseniya Rappoport), a former famous singer who after 25 years abroad intends to make a comeback, and who Andrey has long had a fan infatuation with. At first passing him over the role, she casts his girlfriend Lisa (Mariya Kurdenovich) as the female lead. Using Lisa as a route to the attentions of Sofia, Andrey ­– whose unique voice is the result of vocal chords frozen by a near-fatal fall into an icy lake as a child – decides to stop at nothing in his ambition. Gambling addiction in a merciless underworld of elite casinos is the counter-sphere of activity that drives the story. While set in the 19th century, this is after all a tale that resonates with contemporary Russia in its melding of high culture with brutal capitalist-style aspiration and organised crime (the infamous Bolshoi acid attack that sprung from casting rivalries in 2013 holds echoes in the film). “I have my voice, it is my capital,” declares Andrey, in a world in which money is grasped at as the essential pre-condition for luck. Gory death scenes, scandalous affairs and impressive stage set pieces combine toward a crescendo as the fates of Andrey and Hermann intertwine.

Tallinn Black Nights

The Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades wasn’t the only Russian film to feature an intense match of Russian Roulette as a plot device. Duelyant (The Duelist) by Aleksei Mizgirev was shown in Tallinn as a special screening out of competition. The lethal game of chance with revolver and single loaded chamber epitomises both filmic universes as macho stadiums of fierce physicality and bravado in which the spoils are there only for those with the madcap bravery to risk everything on a moment. Set in 1860 and filmed as an IMAX spectacle, The Duelist was also inspired in part by a Pushkin tale, Shot. Here, we have a handsome young maverick (Petr Fedorov) who can bear bullets gauged out of his chest with minimal flinching and who is out for hire for duels – the only blood challenge that can avenge a nobleman’s honour. Schemes, love scandal and stripped status are also part of this gory web, in a rain-lashed St Petersburg that appears filmed on a studio set but still conjures a sense of imperilling gloom that cloaks us into the spectacle for a time even if it can’t outlast the lack of psychological depth. In a current-day Russia in which critiques of society are stifled, a turning back to the past and a fantasy world of honour and raw might could be seen as signs of a national cinema largely in a relevancy crisis – or a telling reflection of regressive militancy and media-as-spectacle.

Tallinn Black Nights

The Duelist

Caina: dystopia as political theatre

Duet by director Navid Danesh, an Iranian family drama which this writer regrettably did not see, was awarded winner of the First Feature Competition. But the most-discussed film from that line-up was Italian director Stefano Amatucci’s boldly daring and highly divisive Caina, which had its world premiere in Tallinn and could best be described as the refugee crisis as theatrical dystopia. The dark unreality of the setting suits its sense of humanity on the way out; an apocalyptic half-world in which human decency scarcely flickers amid nihilism, and the continuous influx of bodies afloat on a vast sea evokes a sense of a planet no longer inhabitable. Its main protagonist is a corpse-collector (Luisa Amatucci), hired to pick up the bodies of illegal immigrants who have drowned trying to get to shore, and she guards her trade from criminal competition fiercely. Nasty and prone to bitter, racist tirades, she is the monstrous face of a social code that’s decayed into cynical monetisation at the expense of all else (“People don’t care how you get money, they only care that you have it,” we hear). A dismissive definition of bodies as nondescript raw material (used in the cement for walls) competes with the shreds of self-worth of figures differentiated by the origin inscribed within them – be it Senegalese, Libyan or Eritrean. It’s a repugnant vision of unrelenting ignobility and as such was too much for some audience members to take and smacked to others of reductive manipulation – but it’s also a confrontational wake-up call that cuts through the colonial hypocrisy that preaches altruism but turns its back on the desperation of others.

Tallinn Black Nights

Caina

Wild Estonian futures: upcoming projects

In a sprawling, ever-expanding festival that includes three full sub-festivals running at the same time under its wing (Animation Film Festival Animated Dreams, International Short Film Festival Sleepwalkers and Children’s and Youth Film Festival Just Film) as well as a loaded industry schedule spanning the Baltic Event co-production market, [email protected] summit for salespeople and distributors, and the European Genre Forum, focusing a mass of attention on any film or program or ascertaining a clear festival identity can be difficult in Tallinn, amid a sea of so much diffuse activity. But an urge to streamline would seem churlish, when dipping in at any point reveals so much productive energy and interaction alive.

A never-fail approach as a guest at Black Nights is to seek out the regional fare as a top priority. In the bustling industry meets running along with the film programs several highly anticipated Estonian projects in their development stages were showcased alongside other global participants. These included the feature debut of Lauri Lagle, an acclaimed theatre director known on screen as the star of Õunpuu’s 2013 Free Range/Ballaad maailma heakskiitmisest (Free Range/Ballad on Approving of the World). Starring well-known local actress Mirtel Pohla, Portugal is a philosophical love story set to be ready in autumn next year.

Miguel Llansó is one of a group of Spanish filmmakers who’ve earned big cult cred for their hallucinatory sci-fis of social critique made on a shoestring. In this year’s European Genre Forum he pitched a co-production between Spain, Estonia and Ethiopia. Following his 2015 mind-bending, post-apocalyptic feature debut Crumbs, shot in Ethiopia, Llansó is collaborating with well-regarded Estonian producer Liis Nimik (editor on In the Crosswind and Veiko Õunpuu’s Roukli, who also has her own feature currently in the works). Sci-fi thriller Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway promises to bring together Ethiopian government power struggles with Soviet spying under cover of a pest control company and a religious cult. Known for feverish pop-culture pastiche transplanting symbols and systems of control into unexpected new, globalised terrains, the prospect of Estonia’s plethora of captivatingly strange locations being added to the mix is an appealingly bonkers one. Tallinn as the incubator for the most futuristic, bizarre collaboration we’re likely to see next year? Sure, we’ll take it.

Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival
11-27 November 2016
Festival website: http://2016.poff.ee/eng/

About The Author

Born in New Zealand and now living in Berlin, Carmen Gray is a freelance film critic and journalist for London-based publications Sight & Sound, The Guardian, Screen International, The Calvert Journal and Estonian culture weekly Sirp. She is also part of the team launching independent cinema Wolf in Berlin.