The Night Was Black, Indeed

in 18th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

by Kaarel Kressa

2014 marked the first year that the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival was able to host an international competition programme. The main programme therefore offered more diversity than the EurAsia competition of previous years. Still, there was one type of movie that seemed to be a rarity: the humorous, yet artistically credible movie that portrays the human condition without collapsing into melancholy or melodrama (like, say, ”Birdman” that was screened outside of competition).

The important exception in this respect was ”Lucifer”, a film by Belgian director Gus van der Berghe, shot in Mexico with a local team of actors that consisted almost entirely of amateurs. A supernatural tale takes place in a remote and pious village, which is visited by the Lord of Light (Gabino Rodriguez). The circular shape of the image is produced by a technology invented by the director: the “Tondoscope“, which is basically a set of cameras and circular mirrors. In addition to beautiful imagery, ”Lucifer” has a charismatic leading actor and a script which mixes Catholic mysticism with a healthy dose of humor. It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, that van der Berghe won the festival’s main prize.

On the other hand, there was one movie in the main programme that I absolutely loved regardless of its faults – or indeed because of those very weaknesses. ”Inferno”, a Slovenian drama, starts as an ordinarily harrowing social drama about poverty in Eastern Europe, but goes way over the top very quickly. The main character loses his job, then his home, then his wife – and it only gets worse from there. In Estonia, this kind of genre is often called ‘social porn’. And this time the term is to be understood in a literal way, because there is also a graphic depiction of forced fellatio in the movie — a scene which paves the way for another where the giver of said blowjob decides to immolate herself. And yes, it can still get worse from there. This outrageous, but sincere, Trotskyist parody of Dickens – complete with a disgusting fat capitalist and his goons – is really so bad that it should be seen. And the fact that the director (Vinko Möderndorfer) and the main actor (Marko Mandic) are actually doing a decent job helps to make the absurdity of the movie even more pronounced.

Both main acting prizes were awarded to healthy actors impersonating physically disabled people. Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking in ”The Theory of Everything” is indeed brilliant, considering that the main character remains motionless during most scenes. Sadly, this much-hyped British biopic/love drama was too saccharine for this writer’s taste and felt like a Disney movie at times. 

”Margarita, with a Straw”, for which Kalki Koechlin won best actress, offered a more interesting story. This is yet another tale of a young girl coming of age and discovering her sexuality but this girl is from a conservative Indian family and she’s suffering from cerebral palsy. When she develops a lesbian relationship with a Muslim girl, it may feel a bit too much – and it certainly feels like that when she loses a close relative to cancer late in the movie. But overall this film was certainly one of the more remarkable experiences of the programme.

Kyrgyz movie ”The Move” (Pereezd) won a prize for cinematography and the movie really felt like a beautiful and melancholic postcard. The story could be described as a more mature and realistic version of Inferno – a woman (Perizat Ermanbaeva) moves her daughter to a big city, only to see her dreams slowly crushed by post-Soviet reality. If you love long takes of Central Asian natural and urban landscapes (both equally devoid of people) accompanied by sinister string music, then don’t miss this artsy but realistic tale by director Marat Sarailu.

”In the Crosswinds” (Risttuules), a strong debut by a young Estonian director Martti Helde, offered perhaps even more astonishing a visual experience.The camera moves around motionless actors, giving the impression of entering into a mid-20th century black-and-white photo. I think thatthe makers of Estonian historical movies in general would do well to sometimes pay attention to other periods of history than the first half of the 1940s. But one has to admire Helde’s take on the deportation of civilians from Estonia in 1941 that manages to treat this traumatic episode in a tasteful and original manner.

The unofficial award for the moviemaker that I would like to hug goes to Reza Mirkarimi, an Iranian who directed and wrote ”Today“ (Emrouz): a drama where a taxi driver (Parviz Parastui) takes  an injured pregnant woman to the hospital. The medics get the impression that he’s her husband, but there are no legal consequences, because the Iranian justice system treats domestic violence as a strictly private matter. For some reason, the driver decides to go along with the act, and in doing so takes symbolic responsibility for all sins commited by men. 

The film got the nod from FIPRESCI jury and also the ecumenical prize that was given out by the Estonian heads of churches – which amounts to an affirmation that a Muslim can also be a good Christian. This piece of Iranian realism doesn’t offer much in the way of aesthetics, but it has a strong ethical foundation and regardless of the dark story it still offers the viewer a glimmer of hope.

Hope was certainly one of the things that the movie plots from the main programme were lacking. To summarize, this journalist remembers four instances where a family was expelled from their home: ”The Move”, ”In the Crosswinds”, ”Lucifer”, and ”Inferno”. There were three examples in which we were shown a concentration camp: ”In The Sands of Babylon” (a melodramatic Iraqi prison drama), ”Apostle” (a much better, but also much more brutal Korean movie) and ”In the Crosswinds”.There were four cases where a character has terminal illness: ”Yvone Kane” (a technically well-made, but mostly uninteresting white guilt-trip shot in Mozambique), ”Yokudô” (a forgettable Japanese movie about dealing with impending death) and ”Margarita, with a Straw”. And also four suicides: ”Itsi bitsi” (a Danish rock and roll movie about the 70s, perfectly watchable if you have a bong nearby), ”Angels of the Revolution” (Angely Revolucii) (a meticulously stilized, but plotless Russian movie about Chekists in wild woodlands), ”Elephant Song” (sorry for spoiling the ending, but there’s no pressing need to watch this Canadian psychological thriller anyway) and ”Inferno”, yet again.

Also, what’s wrong with the movie titles last year? To recap, we had ”Inferno”, ”Lucifer”, ”Apostle”, ”Babylon”, ”Angels” and ”The Theory of Everything” in the main programme. It’s an interesting sign of the collective subconscious, if not an eschatological omen.

Edited by Alison Frank