As the guide books are quick to point out, there’s something unmistakeably Disney about Tallinn’s old town – its medieval spires, the charming narrow streets and the perfectly preserved merchants’ houses, all overlooked by the stern towers of an ancient fortified hill, and wrapped, at least during the month of December, in a tangle of lights and tinsel. Market sellers proffer GlÃÂ¼hwein and gingerbread, while students dressed in medieval cassocks beckon from the doors of Hanseatic-themed restaurants: it’s all rather twee.
So it’s something of a surprise to step out of the cobbled courtyards and into the urban sprawl of the modern city, wherein lies the Coca-Cola plaza, a neon no-man’s land indistinguishable from any other multiplex in the Western world, as well as the sleek surroundings of the Hotel Forum, where director Tina Lokk presided over proceedings for the 12th Black Nights Film Festival (named for the seemingly endless nights that cast the city in darkness from 3pm to 10am at this time of year). Having built the festival up from modest beginnings, Lokk can be credited with hosting one of the most inclusive and (ironically, given the sub-arctic temperatures outside) warmest festivals in Europe, featuring a host of small strands aimed at promoting minor works that might otherwise slip under the radar, and a number of events for students, including a dedicated competition and a Film School connecting future talent with well-known specialists.
The Black Nights’ open-door policy is aimed to some extent at allowing Estonian audiences otherwise starved of international fare access to a selection of world cinema, with the emphasis on European films. The programme mostly comprised the great and the good from this year’s circuit, bulked out with the best of the Baltic’s offerings and spiced up with a regional focus, this year on Turkey (who produced a sadly lacklustre set of films, rife with the melancholic self-indulgence that art-house poster boy Nuri Bilge Ceylan has made his trademark). The weighting was somewhat reflected in the awards, with Jos Stelling’s panel handing out the top prizes to the already heavily decorated Hunger, Genova, Waltz with Bashir and Il Divo. Some plaudits were deserved, others less so; but tempting as it would be to put the Jury’s choices down to jumping on the bandwagon, the general feeling was that after a strong couple of years, 2008’s regional contingent lacked bite: inspiration was thin on the ground this time round, and it was whispered that the winner of the Tridens prize for best Baltic film, Laila Pakalnina and Maris Maskalans’s Latvian documentary Three Men and a Fish Pond (for which Maskalans also won best cinematography), was the best of an undistinguished bunch, despite the Jury’s gracious description of the film as an affecting portrayal of the parallel ecologies of human friendship and the natural world. In fact, it was from neighbouring Finland that the Black Nights’ real discovery may have come – although not from the expected source. Directed with a firm hand by brother of Aki, Mika Kaurismäki, Three Wise Men had masculine melancholia in spades, but served it up with a light touch and a refreshing sense of aesthetic restraint, doubtless in part a result of the younger Kaurismäki’s background in documentary film. The semi-improvised script allowed for superb performances from the three leads Kari Heiskanen, Pertti Sveholm and Timo Torikka, justly rewarded with a joint prize for best acting.
It was in keeping with the kitsch cityscape and the mostly middlebrow tone that the festival’s gala performances and dry-ice-swathed award ceremony were held in the resplendent Russian Vene Theatre, a throwback to a bygone age burnished in red velvet and gold brocade. But a short clatter down the city’s side streets revealed hidden gems tucked in between the city walls in the form of the tiny Kinomaja and Von Krahli theatres. It was in the latter, a black-washed performance space with a makeshift screen, that audiences could discover Bulgarian neo-noir Zift (loosely translated as ‘Shit’), a pounding, putrid pastiche of classics such as Gilda, which made for an exhilarating experience. Admittedly, it was followed by the loathsome Blink, from the Philippines – putrid for altogether different reasons; as is the case with the city itself, you take your chances by venturing off the beaten track, but the rewards may well be worth it.