“It’s called Black Nights for a reason,” previous attendees of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival had warned me on my way to Estonia. Named after the darkness that takes the Baltic capital hostage toward the end of the year, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (or PÖFF, in its Estonian acronym) celebrated its 21st birthday last November with a 17-day gargantuan cinematic feast that showcased a staggering 285 feature films from 70 different countries.
It was my first time in Estonia, and I had admittedly no clue what to expect. Cursory readings said Tallinn had been elected European Capital of Culture in 2011, and had gradually turned into a hotspot for all things digital, with an e-residency program specifically targeted to attract foreign investors. Little did I know the city retained a traditional charm that made it a movie set of its own. Take a walk around Tallinn’s quiet cobblestone alleys and you’ll feel immersed in a Wild Strawberriesesque dream sequence; exit through the city’s Teutonic walls, where the traditional wooden houses make room for the austere Soviet-era architecture, and you’ll bump into the Kulturikatel, a former power plant turned event space where Tarkovsky shot some of Stalker, and which PÖFF organisers have very aptly turned into a venue for one of the many parties that warm the capital’s dark nights.
In 2014, PÖFF joined the ranks of the 13 other A-list film festivals around the world. The accreditation, awarded by the International Federation of Film Producers Association (FIAPF) effectively places the festival on the same level as its more illustrious relatives – among them Cannes, Venice and Berlinale – and consolidates its role as a prestigious window for established and emerging directors alike. But the perks come at a price. The A category can only be awarded to festivals offering competitions of international premieres (first public screenings outside country of origin) and world premieres (first public screening anywhere). And as previous Senses of Cinema coverage from Estonia has noted, 1 the pressure of other major early-year festivals, especially Rotterdam and the Berlinale, makes it difficult for Tallinn to fit quality entries in the slot.
It should therefore come as no surprise that two of this year’s best entries came from the First Feature Competition. Macedonian Gjorce Stavreski and Kosovar Blerta Zeqiri added their names to an ever-growing pool of young Balkan directors to watch. Their Iscelitel (Secret Ingredient) and Martesa (The Marriage) worked in a strikingly similar fashion, where dysfunctional relationships served as synecdoches to look at present-day Macedonia and Kosovo.
Weed Cakes and Social Realism: Secret Ingredient
A rollicking and life-affirming father-son comedy where laughs graciously coexist with bitter social realism, Secret Ingredient follows Vele (Blagoj Veselinov), a thirty-something mechanic from Skopje who has lost his brother and mother to a car accident, and must look after his bed-ridden and cancer-stricken father Sazdo (Anastas Tanovski). Money is tight, the medications cost too much, and the cancer has already metastasised to the soft tissue. But the discovery of a bag filled with weed helps the story take an unexpectedly brighter turn. After a failed attempt at making money to pay for the meds by selling the narcotics on Skopje’s turf, Vele resorts to baking. Unbeknownst to his strictly anti-drug father, the young man feeds Sazdo a weed cake that slowly – and somehow magically – makes the cancer go away.
Weed cakes and cannabis-fuelled chats aside, Secret Ingredient is not a stoner comedy, and labelling it as such would fail to pay justice to the multiple layers Stavreski’s debut juggles. For while Vele belongs to Skopje’s lower-middle classes and inhabits a purgatory stuck in a “never ending transition”, where “people die for no reason”, Stavreski does not let him be smothered by his bleak surroundings. The dignified look on Vele’s face as he rejects the spare change his boss offers him in lieu of a four-month overdue salary bears an uncanny resemblance to the stoicism of the characters populating De Sica’s Neorealist masterpieces, from Bicycle Thieves to Umberto D. And as the story unfolds, Vele’s leitmotiv – “I’ll work something out” – loses its initial self-convincing tone to become a more assertive, defiant motto.
For all the bitter social commentary on present day Macedonia, from the country’s broken health system to the self-appointed shaman-like “healers” selling magic water for €25 a glass, the real victim of Stavreski’s satire is the unnerving go-to fatalism people around Vele resort to as a way to justify their unwillingness to change things – an illness just as cancerous as Sazdo’s own. And while laughter can hardly be a solution to everyday problems, it nonetheless serves as a powerful antidote. Circumventing any over-the-top comedic situations, Stavreski permeates his debut with an understated humour. Chuckles abound, but they are often inscribed within Vele and Sazdo’s tumultuous relationship, and retain a distinct bittersweet taste – a nostalgic melange between Mike Mills’ Beginners and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
The past is a foreign country: The Marriage
Five years after Khtimi (The Return), which Sundance crowned Best International Short Fiction Film in 2012, Blerta Zeqiri sets her debut feature in her hometown Pristina. Bekim (Alban Ukaj) and Anita (Adriana Matoshi) are only a few weeks away from getting married, when the groom’s childhood friend and now France-based musician Nol (Genc Salihu) unexpectedly shows up, throwing the couple’s future into disarray. Nol and Bekim had become close friends during the 1998-99 Kosovar war, and the friendship gradually turned into love – a relationship neither could make public, and which resumes during the days preceding the marriage.
In an ever-growing sea of LGBT dramas, Zeqiri’s stands out for the way in which it interweaves the virulent homophobia that suffocates Nol and Bekim’s love story with the country’s inability to exorcise the relics of its horrific past. Same sex love is hashed out as a taboo, but Zeqiri perceptively depicts it as one of the many moral codes regulating a society which, in a way that mirrors closely Stavreski’s Macedonia in Secret Ingredient, is portrayed at a standstill – a place where the past still dictates the way people act, and shapes the futures they can fashion for themselves.
Echoing The Return, which follows a Kosovar man who comes back from a Serb prison to his wife and son years after being declared missing, Anita’s parents are among the many casualties whose bodies are yet to be returned to their families, and in The Marriage’s opening sequence, Bekim follows her as she browses through a sea of bags filled with body parts of unidentified Kosovar-Albanians murdered by Serbian troops, hoping to find them – to no avail. “I want to look forward from now on,” she says as they head home, “I don’t want my kids to live through this.”
But in Zeqiri’s outstanding script, the characters’ relationship with the past is much more ambivalent. Anita may well claim to be dead set on moving on, but a few moments after she shares her resolution with Bekim, she tells a tailor friend of hers she wants her wedding dress to look exactly like her mother’s, and a flashback takes us to pre-war Kosovo, when she would steal her mom’s cigarettes, wear her gown and stare at her angelic reflection in the mirror. And while the memory of the armed conflict is ever-present, Zeqiri shows a perceptive eye for the way each character remembers things in different, often counterintuitive ways. A flashback of Nol’s time with Bekim during the war, arguably the film’s most heartwarming scene, shows the two lying next to each other in the dead of night. “I know we’re at war,” says young Nol, a serene look on his face as the air raid sirens howl in the distance, “but I’ve never felt so complete.”
What makes Zeqiri’s debut a profoundly tragic tale is not the impossibility for Nol and Bekim to be together, but the acknowledgment that the trio seems incapable and unwilling to let go of their respective ghosts. By the time The Marriage clocks its 97 minutes, Nol has turned into the symbolic counterpart of Anita’s missing parents – a legacy of Bekim’s past that awaits its own burial, and will likely never have one either.
Secret Ingredient left Tallinn undeservedly empty-handed. The jury awarded the Best First Feature prize to German director Isabel Prahl’s 1000 Arten, den Regen zu beschreiben
(Different Kinds of Rain), a portrait of a family whose teenage son decides to lock himself in his room, shutting out a helpless father, mother and sister – a debut that may have been stylistically more ambitious than Stavreski’s, but whose often implausible script made it difficult to empathise with any of the characters. The Marriage, on the other hand, nabbed a well deserved FIPRESCI award for Best First Feature and a Special Jury Prize for its ensemble cast.
The Main Competition: Central Asia and Beyond – Night Accident and Excavator
The pressure of other early-year festivals notwithstanding, of the 19 features in this year’s Main Competition, ten were world premieres. The line up signalled a penchant for hot topics – the refugee crisis, portrayed by Italian Pasquale Scimeca’s Balon (The Ball) – genre-focused works – Fereydoun Jeyrani’s gripping Iranian noir Khafegi (Asphyxia) – and of course, Finland’s independence – celebrated in Antti-Jussi Annila’s war epic, Ikitie (The Eternal Road). But the two finest entries came from farther east, and echoing Stavreski and Zeqiri’s debuts, starred characters fighting against unresolved past traumas.
Based on a short story by Talip Ibraimov, The Old Man and the Angel, Kyrgyz Temirbek Birnazarov’s Tunku Kyrsyk (Night Accident) nabbed PÖFF’s Grand Prix for Best Picture. A lyrical late-life salvation tale, it zeroes in on Tentike (Akylbek Abdykalykov), an “old man” – as people around him call him – confined to a hermit-like existence along the shores of a sea-big lake. A construction worker who seems to be hired mostly to dig up latrines and graves, Tentike has lost his wife and children to a local mogul, who provided them with a life of riches and turned them against him. An early and impromptu encounter between Tentike and his rival sets the old man on fire: humiliated and enraged, the old man waits for the night to fall, loads an old rifle and jumps aboard his sidecar to take revenge. But an accident en route forces him to abort the mission: having run over a young girl (Dina Jakob) and knocked her unconscious, he takes her home to tend to her wounds.
What follows is a delicate, mostly silent and carefully choreographed dance between two perfect strangers, which slowly leads Tentike to break free from his self-imposed exile. Yet Birnazarov skilfully avoids turning the blonde-haired and pale-skinned girl into a silent plot device. If Ibraimov had depicted her as an angel-like figure, in Birnazarov’s Night Accident she is much closer to a mermaid – a more ambivalent and inscrutable figure with a voice and a few tragic secrets of her own, who resists any attempts to be caged into the man’s two-room house, both physically and figuratively.
Accordingly, the transformation Tentike undergoes through the encounter is much more spiritual than it is aesthetic. Moments after taking the girl back home, the old man becomes suddenly concerned with the way his messy house and weathered face look: he cleans up the place, buys food, puts on a suit, wears cologne and lavishes her with gifts. But Nurifa Umuralieva and Birnazarov’s script avoids any hint of explicit sexual tension between the two. The old man looks more humbled than infatuated by the girl’s beauty, and treats her more as an otherworldly creature than an object of desire. He opens up again to the world through her – but the transformation is tinted with a deep sense of nostalgia, as if the encounter had happened too late to change the way things eventually play out.
In a way that speaks to another 2017 Kyrgyz festival darling, Aktan Arym Kubat’s Centaur, Birnazarov’s Night Accident possesses the rare gift of stirring mysticism out of everyday life. Tentike playing one last song on his Weltmeister accordion, sitting alone again by the lake with his suit and traditional white Kyrgyz Kalpak hat, was one of the saddest and most evocative images I’ve seen all year.
Zeqiri’s The Marriage wasn’t the only feature to explore the memory and legacy of past armed conflicts. Written by Kim Ki-duk and directed by Lee Ju-hyoung, whom the jury crowned Best Director, Poclain (Excavator) follows Kim Gang-il, a former member of the battalion that was sent in the 1980s to crush the pro-democracy student movement in Gwangju, and ended up massacring several hundred innocent civilians – paving the way for the dismantling of the country’s military regime. Having abandoned the army, Kim Gang-il ekes out a living working his excavator from one construction site to another. But when the vehicle digs up the skeleton of an executed student protester, the memories of the atrocities perpetrated over 30 years ago come back alive. Unable to face the PTSD on his own, Kim Gang-il embarks on a journey to meet his former comrades and superiors, whom he confronts with the same, haunting question: why were we sent there?
Excavator may be a very South-Korea specific tale, but the issues around which it gravitates are universal in scope. As Lee Ju-hyoung’s preface makes clear, this is a film about the ways in which History is constantly re-written, and the consequences people suffer depending on who holds the pen. The ex-soldiers Kim Gang-il visits may have been able to hide their past – to different degrees – but society hasn’t forgotten about them. A poignant meeting between Kim Gang-il and an old comrade, now crippled and forced to beg for money on the streets, is interrupted by a twenty-something student. “You have no sense of shame,” the young man shouts at them as he realises they took part in the repression, “you are no wounded veterans but mass killers!”
But while the journey takes on an increasingly gloomier tone, Lee Ju-hyoung resists the temptation of turning it into an apology of the horrors Kim Gang-il and his comrades perpetrated. The former soldier does not seek forgiveness for what he did, for Lee Ju-hyoung makes it clear there can be none, but an answer to a more fundamental question: why did the military regime send young soldiers to kill innocent and unarmed students. The painstakingly slow and gigantic excavator he rides from one comrade to another is the symbolic transfiguration of his quest to dig up the truth, and demolish the narratives the military’s high cadres have fashioned to overcome their guilt. As well as Best Director, Excavator also nabbed the Ecumenical Jury Prize.
Baris Bicakci and Pelin Esmer were awarded best screenplay for Ise Yarar Bir Sey (Something Useful), a Turkey-France-Netherlands-Germany co-production following the train journey of two Turkish women, while Rhys Ifans won best actor for his portrait of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s last days in Steven Bernstein’s Dominion. Barbara Auer nabbed the best actress award for her role as a HIV-positive mother in Christine Repond’s drama Vakuum (Vacuum), and best cinematography and best music went to Mehetapja / Süütu / Vari (The Manslayer / The Virgin / The Shadow) a three-part Estonian drama directed by Sulev Keedus and lensed by Erik Põllumaa and Ivar Taim, with the original score composed by Martynas Bialobžeskis.
Toward PÖFF 22: future projects, a year of records, and the way ahead
With the festival now a few months behind us, PÖFF could look back to its 21st edition as an overwhelmingly positive one. Running parallel to the ever-growing line ups of PÖFF’s sidebars and its two sub-festivals (PÖFF Shorts and Children’s and Youth Film Festival – Just Film), a packed industry section bringing together the Baltic Event co-production market and the Industry@Tallinn summit, showcased and awarded a number of projects in different development stages. Suuri Karhu (The Great Bear), a look at the spiritual world of shamanism set in Finland and directed by Jan Forsström, won the Eurimages Development award, while Хрусталь (Cristal Swan), a Belarus-US-Germany co-production following a wanderlust Belarusian DJ trying to migrate to the US, nabbed the Post Production Award. Script Pool, a new initiative designed to connect screenwriters with script doctors and other industry specialists, crowned its first ever winner: Indian director Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink, the portrait of a family trying to survive a horrific tragedy.
In a year that saw a new attendance record, now set at 80,289 – a slight rise from the previous two editions – PÖFF 21 also marked a staggering growth in the festival’s media coverage. The global online reach crossed the one billion mark – more than twice the figure registered last year – and festival coverage featured in publications from 70 different countries.
But while the staff’s scrupulous organisation makes one’s trip to PÖFF as a journalist a memory to cherish, the festival still has some way to go toward increasing the number of non-press and non-PÖFF regulars. Public screenings rarely filled up, including those one would expect to have a greater appeal among the home crowd – a concern the organisers will have to address if the festival is to grow among ordinary Estonians as it further consolidates its reputation as an unmissable event for cinephiles in and beyond the Baltic.
Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival
17 November – 3 December 2017
Festival website: https://poff.ee/eng/index