“You’ve come prepared,” a member of the guest management team from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF, in its Estonian acronym) giggled at my extra-large winter jacket as I stepped out of the Lennart Meri airport and ventured into a Baltic late November afternoon. I shivered, as my body adjusted to the below 0 °C temperatures, and my eyes teared up under the wind sweeping the streets of Tallinn. There I was, a year later, back in the coldest and darkest festival of the year, and though the streets looked remarkably snow-free (a much-welcomed departure from the ice storm that greeted me on my arrival the year before), a car ride to the hotel and a few obligatory first-day strolls around the capital’s historical centre proved very little had changed. The quiet, cobblestone alleys around the walled city were still quiet and cobblestoned, the karaoke bars draped in the occasional Finnish flags were still buzzing with locals and students, the scent of chestnuts enveloped the Christmas market with a sweet, caramelised warmth – even the street artist who’d play the handpan in the central Viru was still there, only this time she’d brought a puppy along. I was back, the 22nd PÖFF was at the height of its 17-day-long cinematic grande bouffe, and in a way that I could barely articulate on that first promenade – and still find difficult to put to words now that so many weeks have passed since an Air Baltic flight shipped me away – I felt at home.

Accredited by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF) as one of only 15 A-list festivals around the world (a prestigious qualification that comes at a price, contingent as it is on the organisers’ ability to secure world and international premieres), PÖFF is still a long way away from the older, glitzier film events of the winter season. Attracting established and new auteurs can be quite a feat with the likes of Rotterdam and the Berlinale around the corner, all the more so if the budget available is an abysmally tiny fraction of the funds other A-list festivals have (as a reference, consider this: the annual budget for PÖFF stands at €1.5 million, while the Berlinale enjoys a whopping €25, of which €7.7 comes from government funding).1

Yet PÖFF keeps on growing, its prominence as a go-to international rendezvous for established and new auteurs from within and beyond the Baltic region reflected in the whopping 268 features from 80 countries screened; the number of guests, now consolidated at over 1100; and the number of admissions, which for the second consecutive year has exceeded 80,000. And as I zipped my winter jacket and braced for the arctic temperatures outside the airport’s arrivals, my eyes squinting at the wintry sky above me, my head thrumming with excitement at the list of films I’d jotted down on my notebook as the plane hovered above the Gulf of Finland, I remember feeling elated in a way few other festival ever leave me – the kind of happiness I knew would help me survive even the darkest, longest nights of the year.

Tales of Sisterly Love: Niña Errante and Yung

At a time when the festival circuit is still reckoning with the sweeping changes ushered by the #MeToo movement,2 POFF, while rejecting fixed gender quotas as a means to balance the festival’s line ups, has long been addressing the issues of gender parity and female representation in its program.3 To be sure, that this edition’s 19-strong official competition’s line up would feature only one film directed by a woman (down from last year’s three) should be a matter of concern, but female-helmed films featured prominently in other sections (four out of 18 titles in the First Features sidebar, seven out of 12 in the Baltic competition, and four out of nine in the Estonian competition). And as this year’s edition provided ample space for the debate around festival gender policies to flourish,4 I was pleased to realise two of the entries from PÖFF22 were both dramas zeroing in on two girls-only quartets – tales of sisterhood that pushed men to the margins, and crafted memorable heroines in their place. I am referring to Colombia’s Rubén Mendoza’s gorgeous Bildungsroman-cum-road trip, Niña Errante (Wandering Girl), awarded the coveted Grand Prix for Best Film, and the German Henning Gronkowski’s hypnotic feature debut, Yung, which entered PÖFF’s First Features competition, from which it regretfully left empty-handed.

A coming of age meets travelogue wending its way through the lush and belittling immensity of Colombia’s interior, Wandering Girl zeroes in on Ángela (Sofía Paz Jara), a 12 year-old who, having lost her mother at birth, is left an orphan after her father succumbs to a bike accident. Stranded in Cali, Colombia, with no relatives to look after her, the man’s funeral allows the preadolescent to finally meet her three estranged and older step-sisters, who agree to drive her to a hamlet nestled on a stretch of the Caribbean coastline some 1500 km away, where an old aunt has promised to look after the girl.

A death reunites a family – better yet, it creates one from scratch – yet Wandering Girl percolates with the lingering nostalgia of a protracted goodbye. The journey that brings the four step-sisters together culminates with the quartet’s dissolution, and as much as Mendoza enjoys grinding antithetical characters and their recollections against one another, it is when the four finally begin to share and exorcise the memories of their father that Wandering Girl ceases to pivot around a grieving process and becomes instead a journey of self-discovery, with the girls re-negotiating and strengthening their ties in the face of a looming adieu. Indeed, everything from a shared joint to a dance to a group hug portend an inevitable farewell, the journey’s happy-go-lucky vibe cleverly reined by its expiry date. Sofia Oggioni’s cinematography adjusts to an ever-changing landscape, the tunnel-like canopy of trees bent over the car in Colombia’s South West opening up to the warm, sunset-coloured immensity of the Caribbean as the trip comes to an end.

But the changes are geographical as well as mental, for the trip – observed through Ángela’s perspective, and kickstarted by an untimely tragedy as it may be – coincides with her sexual awakening, and the consequent death of her childhood. She is grappling with adulthood – the trip will end as her puberty begins – and Oggioni’s camerawork captures the transformations as a game of doubling images and contrasting universes. An optical effect on a mirror splitting the girl’s reflection into two echoes the two worlds she navigates: an outer one grappling with the mysteries of womanhood and the fears of growing up, and an inner one wrapped in a private realm of child-like reveries, where JVC diggers join in impromptu dances.

Paz Jara plays out the sexual awakening as a series of furtive and searching glances – exploring, caressing and marvelling at her step-sisters’ adult bodies, and that the process doesn’t feel lecherous in the slightest owes to her preternatural talent as much as Mendoza’s respectful touch behind the camera, and the stage chemistry between the four girls. Speaking after the world premiere in Tallinn, I asked Mendoza if he’d seen either Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (2015) or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Umimachi Diary (Our Little Sister, 2015) prior to embarking on his third feature film. He told me he’d seen Ergüven’s, but was only shown Kore-eda’s during the shooting – and was relieved to see neither one really mirrored his own project. He’s right: while Wandering Girl tips its hat to both, sharing Mustang’s sensuality as much as the sisterly tenderness that permeates Our Little Sister, it sits comfortably in between them, crafting a language that thrives on ellipsis, evasive sentences, oneiric images, with Paz Jara’s luminous face as a glorious centrepiece.

Niña Errante (Wandering Girl, Rubén Mendoza, 2018)

I saw Wandering Girl on the morning of 25th November; the night before, I had found a spot in the iconic and opulent Kino Sõprus, Estonia’s oldest cinema, to catch the public screening and international premiere of Henning Gronkowski’s Yung. An enfant prodige scouted by German indie icon Klaus Lemke, with whom Gronkowski worked as actor and starred in Finale (2007), Berlin für Helden (2012) and Unterwäschelügen (2016), the now 30 year-old’s first feature is an entrancing tour de force into the drugs-, booze- and techno-fuelled lives of four Berlin-stranded teenage girls aged 16 to 18, united by a shared flair for aimless drifting and self-destructive behaviour. Janaina (Janaina Liesenfeld) works as a webcam girl and escort; Joy (Joy Grant) cuts and sells her own drugs to ravers and friends; Abbie (Abbie Dutton) dreams of rapping her way out of “K-hole” Berlin in between weekends-long raves; and Emmy (Emily Lau) is so addicted to liquid ecstasy by the time she confesses to “have done enough stupid stuff for three lifetimes,” the admission sounds like a cheeky understatement.

Seesawing between fiction and reality until the distinction hardly matters, Yung unfurls as a 95-minute long ethnographical study of four deranged best friends. More a rhapsodic collection of vignettes and episodes than your standard three-act plot, the film follows the four as they hop from one party to the other, frittering time away while indulging in all sorts of hedonistic, carnal reveries. Adam Ginsberg’s cinematography captures the raw physicality and tactile beauty of the quartet’s escapades: bodies twirl to maddening tunes, nostrils are pierced, lips meet in voracious kisses, with the camera allowing faces and limbs to eat up the whole frame. Billed by some as Germany’s response to Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), Yung seems to me to find a more recent relative in Michal Marczak’s Wszystkie nieprzespane noce (All These Sleepless Nights, 2016), of which it shares the same empathy toward a generation of young adults aimlessly drifting in a techno-and-drugs cloud hailed as a pret-à-porter palliative to all questions about the future.

In a series of unscripted confessionals, Gronkowski interpolates the four girls’ journey with talking heads, wherein the four take turn to share their musings on all sorts of things, from substance abuse to their dreams and aspirations. There’s hardly a trace of an apology in their confessions: far from placing them inside a glass box for them to be scrutinised, the talking heads allow the girls to let their personas run wild, elaborating on the dangers their lifestyle carries, and shrugging fears away behind vague future resolutions. Here’s what makes Gronkowski’s debut feature a much-needed entry in the genre: for all its nauseating raving and substance abuse, Yung remains an endearing ode to four deranged friends, which refuses to either glamourise or condemn their excesses, treating them instead as what they are – the escape mechanisms of four teenagers who simply reclaim their right to be young, messy and self-destructive.

Yung (Henning Gronkowski, 2018)

Spirited Places: Winter’s Night and Manta Ray

For a festival that prides itself on its dark, long nights (sunlight is a rare commodity at PÖFF, I count myself lucky to have caught about 45 minutes of it this year), Jang Woo-jin’s Gyeo-wul-ba-me (Winter’s Night) felt somewhat fitting. Set in the snowy landscape around the Buddhist temple of Cheongpyeongsa, Winter’s Night chronicles a few hours in the lives of a fifty-something Seoul couple at a sentimental standstill. Upon returning to the temple to find a mislaid mobile phone, Eun-ju (Seo Young-hwa, crowned PÖFF’s best actress) and her cantankerous husband Heung-ju (Yang Heung-ju) are soon separated – each embarking on a nocturnal stroll around the mysterious and quiet landscape.

Marooned between moments of whimsical beauty – courtesy of Yang Jeonghoon’s cinematography, here painting ice grottos and naked trees with a halo of unnatural, blue and red neon lights – and others of heart-wrenching loneliness, Winter’s Night is a melancholic portrait of middle-aged solitude, suspended in a hermetically sealed timelessness that adds the late night strolls a peculiar, circular vibe. Without ever bumping into each other, Heung-ju and Eun-ju walk in and around the temple until the night seems to come to a halt, and the hamlet  turns into a deserted stage: pots and pans simmer on unattended stoves, the wind howls in the distance, so eerie to be mistaken for the cries of a desperate woman, and while other insomniacs bump into the fractured couple, Jang Woo-jin’s enigmatic script leaves their presence somewhat ambiguous – are the fellow after hours meanderers really there, or are they soju-induced ghosts of lovers past?

Following up on his 2014 Sae-chul-bal (A Fresh Start) and 2016 Chuncheon, Chuncheon (Autumn, Autumn) – Jang Woo-Jin’s third feature thrives on its ability to hint at a subtext it never lays bare, and pokes at via ellipsis and omissions. There are scenes that feel like movies on their own, as when Eun-ju tells a monk the phone she has lost “is all [she] has,” and to his bemused “you can always buy another one,” she replies “it still wouldn’t be mine,” or when she bumps into a much younger couple (Lee Sang-hee and Woo Jihyeon), whose embryonic romance is a far cry from her moribund marriage, and to whom she dispenses advice as if she were addressing her younger self.

Gyeo-wul-ba-me (Winter’s Night, Jang Woo-jin, 2018)

Very little happens in Winter’s Night, which is not to say the late-night peregrinations are uneventful, only that the rhythm is slow-paced, and the stakes, save for a scene involving Eun-ju and a frozen waterfall, are resolutely low. Hong Sang-soo’s acolytes will sense a familiar terrain here, from the talk-heavy and heated up dinners to the obscene amounts of soju chugged, as well as familiar faces, namely Seo Young-hwa’s, of On the Beach at Night Alone fame. But the magical realism that billows out of Winter’s Night is Jang’s own making. Trapped in a snow-covered and motionless landscape, Eun-ju and Heung-ju trail behind the relics of their long-lost love, in a spirited place where time seems to have relinquished its sway.

Aside from its official competition and first features sidebar, one of PÖFF’s several treats is the chance to catch up with some of the very best imports from the year’s festival circuit. Among the gems I sat for an overdue rendezvous with this year were Cannes’ darlings Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, and Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White, but the comparatively unsung charmer this year was Kraben rahu (Manta Ray), Thai director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s feature debut, already crowned Best Film at Venice’s Orizzonti, with subsequent playdates at Toronto and San Sebastian.

Dedicated to the Rohingya people, a stateless ethnic group that’s suffered decades of persecution in native Myanmar, Manta Ray zeroes in on the relationship between two strangers mired in a land of ancestral conflicts: a mute refugee (Aphisit Hama) who washes up, barely alive, on a remote stretch of mangroves by the border with Myanmar, and an unnamed Thai fisherman (Wanlop Rungkumjad) who in an act of astounding compassion decides to rescue the man, and takes him back to his unadorned riverside shack. Penned by Aroonpheng, a verbally parsimonious script (it takes over nine minutes for the first word to be spoken) follows the Thai man as he heals the stranger, in a process that takes on a near-otherworldly dimension – a re-humanisation which far exceeds strictly medical concerns. Having told the guest time and again that he’s welcomed to move in with him and stay for as long as he wants, the Thai lad gives him a name (Thongchai, after popstar “Bird” Thongchai), teaches him how to ride his sidecar, how to swim, and how to attract giant manta rays with the shiny gems scattered around the mangroves where the refugee was found.

It’s a relationship that often seems to veer into physical attraction, and if Rungkumjad’s androgynous beauty lends the fisherman an angelic look that bodes well with the Good Samaritan role he embraces upon saving Thongchai, the compassion belies an unresolved atonement for a mysterious night-time gig the young Thai cannot escape. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s aficionados will recognise familiar tropes in Aroonpheng’s excursions into symbolism – echoes of the magical realism that cloaked Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Previous Lives. There is something genuinely haunting in Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit’s cinematography, all the more so when the camera meanders around the forest in the dead of night, a perturbing sensation accentuated by the eerie soundscapes crafted by French duo Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry. Watching the forest’s floor billow to life in a carpet of flickering lights, the whispers of invisible refugees swelling the night into a voiceless lament, lodged itself in my memory the way few other images this year could manage.

Kraben rahu (Manta Ray, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, 2018)

Toward PÖFF23, and the Long Way Ahead

Writing about my first year at PÖFF, I remember feeling somewhat worried at the disconnect between festival regulars and Tallinn-based non-industry attendees, a gap which I saw reflected in the often-empty theatres that would welcome cast and crew during many of the official competition’s public screenings. This year, the tide seems to have changed. Far from deserted halls, and much to my limbs’ chagrin, securing tickets for non-press screenings and hoping for empty seats around me was a dire struggle, further evidence that the festival’s allure is growing among local audiences as much as it is consolidating its reputation among industry folks.

Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival
16 November – 2 December 2018
Festival website: https://poff.ee/eng/index

Endnotes:

  1. Geoffrey Macnab, “Black Nights 2018: Can you grow an ambitious film festival on a tiny budget?”, Screen Daily, 30 November 2018.
  2. Elsa Keslassy, “Cannes Festival Toppers Sign Pledge to Ensure Gender Equality”, Variety, 14 May 2018.
  3. Tom Grater, “Film festival gender policies in the spotlight at Tallinn Black Nights”, Screen Daily, 30 November 2018.
  4. A video of an Industry Panel on gender parity can be accessed here: “[email protected] and Baltic Event: Gender Parity Discussion.”

About The Author

Leonardo Goi is an Italian-born, UK-raised freelance journalist and film critic. A member of the 2019 Berlinale Talents and alumnus of the 2017 Locarno Critics Academy, aside from Senses of Cinema, he is a regular contributor to MUBI, The Film Stage and Kinoscope, where he currently serves as deputy editor.