Every November, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival embraces the cold of the coming winter, Estonia’s capital shining bright in the darkness of night, showcasing the latest the Baltics and beyond can offer. Each year, for over two weeks, the annual festival, now in its 27th year, offers up hundreds of features and shorts presenting them to both the international press and the cinema-going public. Nearly ten years ago, the festival was awarded A-class status, which puts it alongside the likes of Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Karlovy Vary, Warsaw, and San Sebastian. For the past few years, we’ve been invited along to sample its many delights.
This year, the festival played host to 185 feature films from 73 different countries, including 51 world premieres and 24 international premieres, distributed among 5 competitive programmes and 14 side programmes. Launching on 3rd November, the festival’s 2023 event kicked off in style with an opening ceremony at the Alexela Concert Hall in the heart of the city.
The ceremony kicked off with a stunning visual arts presentation; Murals, a nine-minute short of British artist Banksy’s work following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Impactful and solemn, the project was concluded by an immediate silence, followed by rapturous applause throughout the packed hall.
This was followed by composer and musician Rein Rannap, a Tallinn native, who was presented with the festival’s highest honour, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Then it was onto the opening film. Serbian filmmaker Dragan Bjelogrlic presented his latest work, Guardians of the Formula, a feature based on real events, set in the late 1950s at the height of the Cold War. The tense thriller revolves around the Vinca Scientific Institute near Belgrade where the story revolves around the build-up to a catastrophic nuclear event and the treatments for radiation that were offered later.
Pictured: The Guardians of the Formula on-stage Q&A following the screenng.
The film was referred to as the Serbian Oppenheimer, linking it to Christopher Nolan’s recently released blockbuster. Fans of that movie – which grossed nearly $1 billion, let’s not forget – should be satisfied with Bjelogrlic’s new work, too, a strong opener for this year’s festival that went down an absolute storm in the hall.
Following the presentation of the film, and its engaging and informative Q+A (pictured above), the audience was invited onto the stage for drinks and dancing under sparkling glitter balls and flashing red lights—a perfect end to a sensational evening and a wonderful start to this year’s festivities.
The first few days of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, or PÖFF as it is referred to locally, are centred on a couple of different strands – the Just Film sub-festival for Youth and Children among them. We picked out a couple of films that caught our eye.
The first is the magnificent Kensuke’s Kingdom, an animated adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s famous book of the same name. With a screenplay by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the glorious work revolves around a family of four who venture off into the seas after the father (voiced by Cillian Murphy) loses his job.
The youngest of the family, Michael (a superb Aaron MacGregor), is swept overboard along with their pet dog Stella and is washed up on what looks to be a deserted, idyllic island, somewhere in the Pacific. It is there where he discovers that indeed he may not be alone after mysterious gifts are left for him in order to aid his survival. It’s a really wonderful film – both emotional and heart-warming – and I really cannot wait to see it again.
Playing in the same strand is No Way Home, another stand-out. The film is about a young boy, Ryan (a breakout Mitchell Norman) who is more than struggling at home with his mother (Hayley Squires) and particularly her new, verbally abusive boyfriend, Jason (Josh Herdman). Ryan spends his days playing alone on nearby building sites and on one particular day, comes across an abandoned container that is inhabited by an escaped prisoner (Goran Bogdan), still handcuffed and wounded. Ryan, desperate for the absent father figure in his life, takes it upon himself to look after the man, feeding him and bringing him supplies, and a bond soon forms.
However, local builder Jason has stumbled upon the makeshift living quarters and suspects his girlfriend’s son of being up to no good. It’s a brilliant film; touching and absorbing throughout featuring superb central performances and wonderful direction from Yousaf Ali Khan who also co-wrote the screenplay with Andy Porter. Also stay around for the beautiful, haunting theme song from Birmingham-based folk singer Katherine Priddy which plays over the end credits.
As with most festivals, Tallinn offers up some of the greatest hits from other events throughout the year. Best of Fest this year included the likes of the sure-to-be-Oscar contender Anatomy of a Fall, which first played at Cannes, winning the Palme d’Or, as well as Alexander Payne’s highly anticipated The Holdovers, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Venice Golden Lion Winner, Poor Things and Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Both of those last two filmmakers were also confirmed to pick up the Dennis Davidson Spotlight Award at this year’s Black Nights festival, which honours artists whose most recent work contributes to improving diversity, inclusion and representation in the cinematic arts. The gong will be presented with the other awards at the final day’s closing ceremony.
Following the opening weekend, the Tallinn Black Nights Festival kicks in with other programs, including the Baltic Film Competition, where The Writer from Lithuanian filmmaker Romas Zabarauskas stands out. A delicate two-hander, the impressive film focuses on two former lovers who reunite in contemporary New York after decades apart. It’s a beautiful feature from Zabarauskas about Lithuanian-American Kostas (Bruce Ross) and Russian-Lithuanian Dima (Jamie Day) who were parted when Lithuania gained Independence in the 1990s, with Kostas heading to the United States to become a writer and Dima remaining in Vilnius. When Kostas publishes a book about their separation, Dima heads stateside to reconnect with his former friend and lover.
I urge you to seek out The Writer; an engrossing chamber piece – most of the film takes place inside Kostas’ apartment – full of subtle, very detailed, though simplistic production design, excellent writing and staging, and two phenomenal performances from Ross and Day. I hope this gets a wide release and Zabarauskas all the praise he deserves.
Then there’s the main competition, this year comprising 20 films, where the Grand Prix for the Best Film will be handed a grant of 20,000 Euros from Tallinn City Council. We caught The G, a thriller soaked in dark noir set in an unnamed, wintery location. The G of the title is played by Dale Dickey, an ageing woman who is caught up in a shocking situation where elderly people can be put into care by a legal guardian. In this case, recovering alcoholic The G/ Anne, and her husband, are snatched one day by such a guardian who believes they have tons of cash stashed. They are essentially imprisoned in a facility where all sorts of corrupt activity is taking place, not least when it comes to finding out where the couple’s hidden wealth is being kept.
“Dale Dickey as ‘The G’ is the kick-ass anti-hero we hope she’d be“The G plays in the official competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival
A deeply absorbing film from filmmaker Karl R. Hearne (who also wrote the screenplay), it reminded me of early Coens with hints of Breaking Bad/ Better Call Saul with brilliantly written characters and an outstanding central performance from Dickey. She’s magnificent as Anne, a character defiant of age, refusing to give in as those take advantage, she herself taking matters into her own hands as the kick-ass anti-hero we hope she’d be. Seek it out.
The top prize in the main competition went to the Italian film Misericordia, which is based on a play written and directed by Emma Dante. The story ‘revolves around three prostitutes who live in the wasteland by the sea, where a village of outcasts has emerged. It is life in a harsh reality of poverty, ignorance, and violence. The only ray of light in their lives is Arturo, whom they care for together. The young man is a weak-minded child in an adult body.’ Simone Zambelli was also awarded the Best Actor award.
The jury said of the film: “A powerful film about how to stay supportive and, above all, exhibit humanity in a marginalised environment.”
In the First Feature strand, we saw sixteen debut features with works from Miguel Faus with The Quiet Maid, a film about a discreet Columbian employee at a luxury holiday mansion who finds her own happiness in the summer working for the super-rich. There’s also Jiajun Oscar Zhang’s world-premiering All of Nothing At All from China set on an urban island in Shanghai, and Endless Summer Syndrome, a Czech Republic/France co-production from filmmaker Kaveh Daneshmand about a woman who discovers that her husband might be having an affair with one of their adopted kids.
The great thing about travelling abroad to film festivals is not only engaging with press and filmmakers from all over the world, and indeed making new friends, but also sampling life in the cities themselves. One of the best European capitals, indeed with the most welcoming people, Tallinn has so much to offer. From its cozy mulled wine serving cellar bars in the Old Town to hipster-magnet tap rooms, this marvellous city has something for everyone. I have visited four times and I am still entranced by its charm and frequently surprised at what it has to offer.
Away from the films we were treated to canapés and outstanding hospitality at the superb Nordic Hotel Forum, which is located at the gates of the Old Town, just minutes away from the famous cobbled streets.
For the first time, we attended an actual football game, too; Flora Tallinn vs FCI Levadia, a local derby that Flora had to win to secure the season title. Of course, Levadia (**LE-VA-DI-A**) had other ideas and scored a 94th-minute goal to clinch a victory, taking the title decider to a final game a week later (Flora ended up bagging it). The small, but very loud stadium is just a 25-minute walk from the Old Town and well worth seeking out if you’re in town and there’s a match taking place.
As I said, we were in Tallinn much earlier than usual this year, the place not the snow-covered white paradise that we saw last year. The city was unseasonably warm, perfect for a brisk walk through the streets of the Old Town to one of the quaint tea shops we recommend Tassikoogid for hot lattes and 5 Euro cupcakes (worth every cent), a place so good we went twice in as many days.
A walk over the top of the Old Town to get the shot (above) is worth spending 45 minutes doing before venturing back to one of the many restaurants down below serving up everything from local Estonian cuisine to burgers, steak and fries.
Those in more of a rush – like maybe a journalist attending a film festival – after a quick bite, can try the food hall next to the Apollo Kino Solaris. Think of it as a huge buffet selling already-warm snacks and larger meals, all ready to pick up and gorge before heading on your way. They had literally everything.
Finally, if it’s nightlife you’re after then throughout the week most places are open until the early hours. Bars and clubs stay open much later on Fridays and Saturdays and we **might** have sampled some karaoke action on our Saturday night in town where songs were being murdered until way after 3 am.
As the sun sets on yet another year, I can honestly say Tallinn is a festival, and indeed a city, that you must experience at least once. As soon as the nights start to close in here in the UK, I instantly look forward to my trip heading northeast to this stunning city in November.
This 27th edition was a triumphant celebration of cinema from all parts of the world; a strong year for in-competition films and those that have premiered before, all of them finding new audiences. The festival has an intimate feel that no other on the planet has, the ‘action’ playing out on screen and in venues within just a couple of miles, all so individually unique and accessible. It’s a wonderful place.
“The festival has an intimate feel that no other on the planet has. It’s a wonderful place.”
Now the awards have been dished out, we turn our thoughts to 2024 and to Tiina Lokk’s 28th edition and ponder just how on Earth she’ll manage to top this one.
Until next year, great Tallinn.