Tallinn Gets Dark

in 16th Black Nights Film Festival

by Dieter Wieczorek

The Estonian Black Night Festival (it gets dark at 4 pm in Tallinn) offers a large panorama of main and parallel competition programs, including the official Eurasia competition, the Estonian competition, the debut film competition from the Baltic region, titled “Tridens Herring,” which from now on will also include films from the European Nordic region, as well as the North American Indies competition. Then there are the “Human Rights”, “Nordic Lights”, “Forum” and “Panorama” sections, and some other special retrospective programs, dedicated to a national cinema or individual auteurs. Within the first days of the framework of the “Black Nights” festival, a full-blown short and student film festivals are integrated, entitled “Sleepwalkers,” which offers Estonian, Baltic and international programs, as well as an animation and a children and youth film festival. And last but not least, there is also film market, growing in size and importance, which takes place during the last phase of this 16 days screening bonanza.

The film that received particular attention and the main award in the International competition, was the Ukrainian film “House with a Turret” by Eva Neymann. With a rarely seen intensity, this black and white work offers a spectrum of loneliness, experienced not only by the main character, an eight year old boy whom we witness during wartime: braving snowy winter days on the way to his grandfather, losing his mother, suffering from typhus in a provincial field hospital. We also see through his naïve and unprejudiced eyes all these people victimized by war, led astray and confused, finding peace and repose only in his dreams.

Another outstanding work was “Wadjda,” first work of a female film director Haifaa Al-Mansour and also the first film to be completely realized in Saudi Arabia. Through her partly hidden cameras, Al-Mansour portrays a self confident, rebellious 12-year-old girl, who tries to find her way in a hypocrite society, based on overwhelming rules. She succeeds in navigating the pressures, exerted by her mother and her teacher, yet never gives up her simple dream to have a bike, which becomes a symbol of female resistance against an educational system, based on patriarchal gender stereotypes and limitations. In order to reach her goal, she even learns passages of the Koran by heart, because there is a price money to win, and gets better in it than her feather-brained classmates. With fine humour, avoiding both the polemic and the pathetic, Al-Mansour offers an intense inside look at a society, ever so slowly moving towards treating its individual members and their choices with respect.  

The third film to mention is the Greek contribution “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food” by Ektoras Lygizos, which descends deeply into the distorted perceptions, motivating the erratic behaviour of a young man, suffering from psychotic instability. The tight and lingering close-up shots prevent the spectator from having an overview of the whole picture, setting her or him up within the same claustrophobic position as the main character, who invariably acts out  in a quirky, seemingly uncontrolled actions, provoked by hunger. Thus he tastes or eats everything he finds around him, including his own birds’ food, although they are the only beings he really takes care of besides following a helpless and silent young woman on the street. Inviting all kinds of expectations, Lygizos builds an increasing tension and discomfort for the spectator, thus strongly reminding of the speedy disorientation of a perturbed mind  in Darren Aronofskys “Requiem for a Dream.”

The German contribution, “Hannah Arendt,” by Margarethe von Trotta unfortunately fails to do justice to the emotional confrontation of her subject with the administrative banality of  Evil, and concentrates rather on Arendt’s sentimental relationship with people from her immediate private circle, mostly emigre intellectuals in the US, as well as her Israeli friends, not to forget Heidegger, whom we see on his knees, begging for the love of his young student Hannah. All of these tend to be portrayed as a hysterical group of youngsters, oscillating between resentment and simple moralization. Yet Von Trotta offers moments of pure intellectual pleasure, presenting a master discourse about the meaning and dignity of “thinking” in the valedictory speech of Hannah Arendt, which certainly stays in mind.

Shown in the Eurasia and Estonian competitions,  “Mushrooming” by Toomas Hussar attracts attention to his social satirical treatment of the mental and moral digressions of powerful politicians and a music star, who find themselves in critical situations. A subject that – no doubt – is seen in Estonia through the prism of recent disclosures of government corruption. In the same time, Hussars offers a splendid study of mass media strategies of manipulations, resulting in grotesque rhetorical and sentimental falsifications. Remarkable in the Estonian competition was also Ain Mäeots film “Demons.” While on the surface it comes through as a study of gambler mentality and dependence, on a deeper level it represents a transparent comment on a consumerist, money-centred society, which leads straight to catastrophe everyone who is naively unprepared for its “games” and risks.

From the well-selected Human Right section, I would like to mention the important Swiss  work “Forbidden Voices” by Barbara Miller, which follows three women in three countries (Cuba – China – Iraq) in their struggles to survive with dignity by using facebook and new social media tools as their only but quite efficient forms of resistance and communication.

And last, but not least, The Black Night festival team offered all of its guests an overwhelmingly generous and attentive treatment, which made it difficult to leave without wishing to come back soon.

Edited by Christina Stojanova