Five hundred-plus films and a cold, dark Baltic city filled with medieval churches and Soviet high-rises: what more could a cinephile ask for? Where you watch a film is always as important as what you’re watching, and it’s apt that, in their name, the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn chooses to emphasize the long November nights that lay over the Estonian capital across the duration of the festival. Cinema is meant for darkness and those 16-hour long nights are an invitation for indulgence. It was my first time at PÖFF – as it’s known by its Estonian acronym – but the rhythm of waking-up, seeing three movies during the day, taking a lunch break at dusk, and diving in for more across the long night that follows was a natural one, facilitated by the solid programming and well-oiled festival infrastructure.

It wasn’t a given, however – ever since finding myself sorely disillusioned at the Sundance Film Festival as a recent film school graduate, I’ve been somewhat repelled by the notion of large-scale film festivals. I don’t like the fake buzz; the hullabaloo over nothing; the strained, flashy self-marketing filmmakers exude; the endless networking culture; and, least of all, the glut of mediocre cookie-cutter independent films one has to wade through by default. But this is Europe, not the U.S. and, even if many films at PÖFF have the trappings of being “festival films” (overreliance on handheld camerawork, inflated sense of self-importance, too few genuine risks taken, etc.) absent is the exaggerated importance of money and the marketplace that dominates almost every single aspect of the festival experience at major events in the U.S.

PÖFF is, above all else, a festival dedicated to the celebration of cinema: to making, programming, talking about, and watching movies. There was a tangible buzz I could feel every morning as I stepped into the hotel cafeteria for breakfast, surrounded by the scores of filmmakers, producers, festival workers, financiers, programmers, and critics who were all gearing up for a long day of watching films and making connections. Cinema is an inherently communal endeavour, both in production and exhibition, and, as I soon learned, there are few better places to get a true sense of the importance of that community than at a festival like PÖFF where the shared sense of interest and purpose is palpable.

With over 500 films (including shorts) spread across two weeks and multiple different programs and sub-festivals, it’s also a great place to survey the breadth and variety of the current cinematic horizon. However, the only major problem with quantity is in figuring out where to start; luckily, coming straight off of my 11-hour long transatlantic journey, I hit a homerun with Živojin Pavlović’s 1967 Yugoslavian Black Wave masterpiece Kad budem mrtav i beo (When I Am Dead and White) which screened in a special program dedicated to the Black Wave. 

The story of a proletarian womanizer, Jimmy (Dragan Nikolić), who loses his job, abandons his wife, and lucks into a semi-successful career as a traveling folk-song singer; the film utilizes its road movie format to present a vivid and expansive view of Yugoslavian life in the 1960s. This is mainly achieved through Pavlović’s ever-curious camera-eye which always seems to be panning or dollying around the spaces his characters inhabit, poking into new corners of the environment to reveal what’s offscreen, be it provincial marching bands, children riding tricycles, or heaps of garbage. Across the scant 75 minutes of the film’s runtime it feels like the whole world is being served up to you: political, economic, and cultural life take up as much space as the narrative to form an aesthetic philosophy that is equal parts gestural and quasi-neorealist. It’s a film made with a genuine sense of curiosity and it gave me something of a rubric that I couldn’t help holding the other films I would watch up to.

I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me

The new film that perhaps felt closest to this ideal, that evinced the most aesthetic ambition and genuine curiosity, was Fernando Frías’ No voy a pedirle a nadie que me crea (I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me) which played out of competition in the Rebels With a Cause program. Opening with a manuscript getting pulled from the trash by a homeless man and then thrown to the wind in disgust after he’s read the first page, I Don’t Expect Anyone is crafted as one long absurd joke, wide-ranging in its choice of satire and bitter in its punchline. The author of that manuscript, as well as the film’s main character and narrator is Juan Pablo (Dario Yazbek Bernal) a bookish Mexican grad student who becomes the unwilling pawn of an international criminal organization shortly before embarking on his PhD program in Barcelona. Tasked with seducing the daughter of a Catalonian politician studying at the same university as himself, Juan Pablo is forced to change his major, abandon his Mexican girlfriend, Valentina (a stellar Natalia Solián), and fall in with a group of gangsters who are also immigrants. 

It might be a noir-thriller, but if there were no guns it’d simply be a fish out of water tale, and Frías’ greatest trick is how deftly he manages to use this tightly wound crime narrative to simultaneously deliver a wide-ranging portrait of the Latin American experience in Spain. The film is brimming with dozens of characters, rich in detail, that create a tapestry of cultural and economic realities of Barcelona such as: an overly-flirtatious, coke-addicted Argentine landlord and his bratty, poetry-pilled eight-year-old daughter; an alcoholic Italian anarchist who Valentina spends her days drinking with on the streets; or a racist veterinarian with an overly indulgent sense of humour. More than just a collection of bizarre non-sequiturs, the film’s ensemble adds up to a black comedy portrait of estrangement and disillusionment with a Spain that is both unrelentingly itself and also in the midst of a seeming identity-crisis.

Like Pavlović in When I Am Dead and White, Frías has an innate curiosity with the world and is consistently trying to expand the scope of the film to include more side-characters, more physical details, and more emotional perspective. Frías not only avoids traditional coverage but develops a camera style that gives as much weight to the spatial environments of the scenes as it does to character and narrative. Juan Pablo’s trips to school are framed mainly in wide shots that allow the expressionistic angularity of the staircases and windows to take prominence; pans and tilts frequently open or close scenes, finding new aspects of the world to take our attention; an early party scene in Mexico frames the action through the windows of the house, allowing us to see the window into the kitchen where the maid is working diligently as well as the window into the living room. What we are left with, at the end of the film, is a sense of Barcelona as an overwhelming city, filled with irresolvable economic and cultural contradictions.

The Life and Death of a Christmas Tree

Traveling internationally to go to a film festival presents not just a cinephilic adventure, but a cultural one as well, which is perhaps why I was drawn to films that reflected a strong sense of inquisitiveness toward the world – I felt a constant urge to explore my surroundings and admired films that reflected that. Another film that impressed me with its scope, although in a more limited way, was Kalėdų eglutės gyvenimas ir mirtis (The Life and Death of a Christmas Tree) by Lithuanian-Georgian filmmaker Artūras Jevdokimovas which premiered in the Baltic Film Competition. Hopping around Europe from Georgia to Denmark and back, the documentary explores the socio-economic effects of the transnational Christmas Tree industry. From a Danish Christmas tree farm owned by an upper-class family who love quoting Tarantino films and nagging each other not to buy Himalayan salt because of the climate crises, to their lower middle-class employees who fret over never having had achieved their professional ambitions, to the working-class Georgians that risk their lives climbing 40 metre trees for pine cones – Jevdokimovas mines the many contradictions of contemporary capitalism for all they’re worth, delighting in the diversity that goes into the production of a single, simple, natural object: a tree.

Fittingly for a film intent on exploring the ironies and contradictions of today’s economic reality, Jevdokimovas is adept at deploying wild tonal contrasts through sudden music cues (the quietude of the Danish forest giving way to Georgian electro-pop music blaring from the back of a pickup truck) and narrative leaps that are only elaborated on after the fact, such as when we’re thrust into a tense Georgian funeral with a bereaved mother decrying the authorities at the top of her lungs with the context of her son’s murder only coming to us a few scenes later. There’s a sense of overload that comes with all of these different techniques and storylines being constantly thrust at you and, after a while, I was hoping they could all breathe a bit more, even if I still enjoyed the perpetual sense of surprise.

Also premiering in the Baltic Film competition and equally adventurous, but far more culturally specific, was Čulbanti siela 3D (Twittering Soul 3D), the first feature length work by Lithuanian sculptor and video artist Deimantas Narkevičius. A folkloric mosaic of characters and stories that are related in ways which eluded me, the film is heavy on atmospheric imagery of the forest and spectral happenings, but light on narrative clarity. A bird flies out of a dead man’s mouth (and later back into it, reviving him); a corpse hovers off its deathbed and floats towards the river; two women stand on opposite sides of a large field, singing toward the heavens; an eerie full moon peeks at us through a network of clouds – Narkevičius packs the film with an intense array of sounds and images. 

This was aided immensely by the film’s impressive use of 3D, a technology that’s only grown in aesthetic value the further it gets away from the post-Avatar 3D boom of the last decade. From the film’s opening three shots, all of which played with contrasting and complementary uses of stereoscopic depth – an extreme wide of two women singing in the forest; a close-up of a 19th century bourgeois man crafting stereoscopic images by hand in the office of his mansion; and finally the reverse-angle over the shoulder shot where we see his wife and servants traveling back and forth across an interlocking network of hallways that form something of a mise-en-abyme – the versatility and virtuosity of Narkevičius’s handling of depth was without doubt. It barely mattered that, as a complete layman, it continually eluded me as to how all of these techniques tied into the folk imagery and what exactly the film intended with its imagery; no other film at PÖFF seemed to open as many visual horizons.

Twittering Soul 3D

I’m always drawn to films, like Twittering Soul 3D, that push the limits of aesthetic possibility and so it was no wonder that the program that most aligned with my tastes was the Rebels With A Cause program. Highlighting aesthetically innovative and politically transgressive cinema, the program featured a wide-range of films and styles that spoke to the breadth of the current cinema landscape. From a rotoscoped autobiographical tell-all by a former Israeli drug kingpin, King Khat (Uri Marantz); a kaleidoscopic, and gimmicky, collection of absurdist non-stories written by an AI, The End (Fragments artificiels de l’espece humaine) by Aurélien Héraud and Olivier Héraud; and a Montenegrin rewrite of Robinson Crusoe set in a supermarket, Supermarket (Nemanja Becanovic), that contained more than a few traces of Kubrick; what they most had in common was how little they resembled one another. A very welcoming attribute in a world where “festival film” has become a genre in and of itself. None that I saw, however, seemed to offer as singular of a vision as Hong Ji-Yeong’s The Waves, The Sand, and Two Lovers in the Middle of… from South Korea.

The Waves pares down its simple story of queer romance and melancholy into a few basic, essential elements: wind, water, sand, the city, a ghost, and the titular two lovers. Starting with a blurry, ultra-zoomed-in image of the ocean shot on lo-fi video, the majority of the film comes to us as a collection of abstract images, many of which are rendered purposefully opaque through deliberately shaky handheld camerawork and simple visual effects like flipping images upside down or surrounding them by long chunks of black. All of this is supported by a poetic voiceover track that offers little in the way of narrative, but a lot in the way of musings on the depth of the romance between the two titular lovers, Youngjin and Jaeyon; the potency of failure, and even quotes Adrienne Rich at liberty. 

As the film starts to reach further out of its simple imagery, incorporating archival footage from the Seoul Queer Culture Festival and turning the camera onto its own production, capturing the crew making the film, it also starts running up against its own limits. It’s a vibe heavy film and it works because of its dazzling visuals and emotionally sincere delivery, but I’m not sure how much of what it actually wants to say, mean, or provoke gets across. In the end, both The Waves and Twittering Soul leave a little something to be desired as an audience member, namely a larger point to the whole endeavour, but amidst a sea of films that are often trying to convince of their own importance and craft, it’s comforting to find yourself in the hands of a competent, talented filmmaker who doesn’t give a lick about what you think and is content on using their canvas as a place for pure experimentation.

Film Festivals are meant to be an opportunity for discovery; a place to not only find what is new (or, in some cases, old) in cinema, but also to find more about your own changing tastes and predilections when it comes to the seventh art. Even if many films in the main competition at PÖFF can be overly-reliant on reheated arthouse conventions, overall, the festival is too robust not to deliver ample opportunity for exploration. It may be the smallest big film festival in Europe, and that’s certainly a compliment – it’s precisely in the smallest films that the biggest discoveries are usually made.

3 – 19 November 2023

About The Author

Joshua Bogatin is a freelance film critic, filmmaker, editor, and programmer based in New York City. As a writer he has contributed to Mubi Notebook, Screen Slate, Senses of Cinema, and In Review Online, among other publications. He has also been a programmer at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn since 2017.

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