Northern Lights, Respites and Redemptions

in 20th Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn

by Florian Vollmers

If a film show rises in just twenty years from a series of 22 contributions of local importance and 4,000 spectators to a so-called A-Festival with a world premiere competition, over 300 films and almost 100,000 visitors – then it can be assumed that the quality of the official program can barely compete with the speed of the increase in meaning. This was the most frequent complaint at this year’s Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, whose Estonian abbreviation “PÖFF” is based on numerous merchandising products: That the festival lost its function as a showcase in order to screen repetitions of the best A-festival contributions of the year meant its independence ended.

This has mainly to do with the accrediting of the festival by the Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films two years ago, according to which the curators are compelled to scrape some attractive world premieres for their main competition. This is quite difficult as filmmakers are still waiting for Berlin, Cannes, Venice or Locarno – next to Karlovy Vary or San Sebastián, even if Tallinn is to play in the same league with the A-Festival stigma. Compared to the prominent competition, this year’s PÖFF main competition fell off qualitatively then. For many, Lev Shaket by Eitan Anner was the only high-quality contribution. The Israeli film also won the main prize.

By contrast, the PÖFF has created its own profile with its striking secondary series: For example, the contest of 13 debut films from nearly all global continents offered the more interesting view of the new cinema. The best contributions of this series deliberately avoided the global turn around and turned with a relaxed – and relaxing – self-awareness of local moments and sensations, too.

There is, for example, an old man’s gaze through binoculars in the Indian family drama Antardrishti, which was far removed from Bollywood and largely independently produced. His three daughters are almost grown up and are striving from the backward province of the Indian state of Assam by the retired geographer, who archives – a beautiful picture for his time-out – printed newspapers. Even the film title, translated as The Man with Binoculars, applies a simple but striking metaphor: When the father secretly observes the daughters in the fields and meadows of the surrounding area as they meet the men who surround them, they are visually close to him, but their longing and desire is far away. Antardrishti avoids every political or social context of this generational portrait depicting calm images – which is provoking by the fact that the youngest of the daughters to be married in the film is at most a mere 14 years old.

The opening sequence of the Brazilian action dystopia Reza a lenda by Homero Olivetto, is feverishly and trembling, at first sight. It is, however, a Mad Max cut, and yet a very original and angry commentary on the lava bustle under today’s Brazilian society: Two girls in a nightly street in the Brazilian desert stare with wide-eyed eyes in the headlights of a coming motorcycle gang. After the ensuing frontal clash, a brutal and sexually charged adventure spins around a group of outlaws who are fighting a drug baron for a mysterious sacred statue. All figures are under the influence of the merciless centrifugal force of their obsessions, in the midst of which religious repression, repressed sexuality and violence work. Again and again, there are discharges, which are visualized despite the visibly low film budget with visual impact.

The Iranian director Navid Danesh, with his debut Duet, takes the path in the opposite direction. In this love-drama of the Tehran upper class, there are no interpersonal touches to show the pretensions of Iranian censorship by means of a kind of overexertion; deepest emotions are expressed by simple looks, a cautious movement, or a pause. A clear, aseptic, ice-cold world, in which ordinary conflicts swell to existential shocks: a woman meets an ex-boyfriend after many years and remembers the old love, her husband, is insecure and spies on his wife. More does not happen here, and yet it feels like a matter of life and death, when the two lovers, in the unforgettable key setting on the stairs of their house, are just looking, while a leaking pipe causes water to trickle down the wallpaper. A disturbing insight into a social stratum, in which outer appearance and inner life are interwoven.

On the terrain of European film traditions comes Lidia Leber Terkis‘ Paris la blanche: With a retrospective of the Nouvelle Vague, as well as French arthouse successes of recent times, the screenwriter and director born in Algeria tells sympathetically and melancholy about the journey of an old Algerian woman, who comes to Paris to get her husband home. Almost fifty years ago he had emigrated to France as a guest worker, regularly sent money to Algeria and never returned. “I have become too strange“, he says tiredly, when his wife visits him in a shabby place of a Parisian banlieue and asks to return home. Previously, the camera was struck by the downsized suburbs of the French capital, like an accusatory incantation of the deep division of society. At the same time, Paris la blanche plays a light-hearted naivete through the use of stereotypes such as the bargain barterer with a heart or the cleaning woman with social commitment, who are helping the Algerian on arrival in the Ile de la Cité. A strange, disturbing self portrait of today’s France.

The most honest and beautiful film in the First Feature Competition, however, was Suave el aliento from Colombia, which was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize in Tallinn. In the center are three figures: a 14-year-old girl who discovers her pregnancy and does not know how to tell her boyfriend of the same age who tries to seduce her all the time; a 70-year-old woman, who for a lifetime was only the lover of a married vivir, and now rejects his wish for marriage, because she understands that he needs only someone who regulates his offspring; and finally a 40-year-old man with three children from three different women, who retreats into a depression in the face of a new childhood of his fourth wife. As a daughter, grandmother and father, the three are interrelated and form a complex panorama of gender relations in Colombia. In beautifully composed black-and-white film sequences – in which only one red tone is dyed, which resembles the color of the strawberries quoted as a love symbol – the film chatters profoundly over men and women, over old and young, and about the fact that we decide whether we can be happy or not by the way we treat each other.

Edited by Steven Yates