How the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival Beat the Odds – The Hollywood Reporter

When, 25 years ago, Tiina Lokk launched the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, it was, to borrow a metaphor from the festival’s lone wolf logo, a howl in the dark.

The year was 1997. Just six years earlier, Estonia — a tiny nation whose 1.3 million people would fit comfortably inside Dallas, Texas — had voted to split from the now-defunct Soviet Union to once again become an independent nation. The Russian army had pulled out, Estonia had become a member of the United Nations, and the country had begun radical reforms that would tear up the statist economy and eventually lead to Estonian membership in the European Union, NATO and the OECD.

The future looked bright. Unless you were a film fan. “There were four and a half cinemas [in all of Estonia],” remembers fest director Lokk — who does not expand on what that “half cinema” looked like — showing “U.S, blockbusters or Chinese Kung Fu fighting films.” Auteur cinema, which had thrived in the Soviet era, with around 300 movie theaters across the country “had been completely forgotten.”

Lokk, a passionate cineaste who studied film theory and criticism at Moscow’s Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography and had spent the decade before working as a screenwriter, was at an impasse. Her employer — state film studio Tallinnfilm, producers of historic epics like Grigori Kromanov’s Sovietera hit The Last Relic (1969) and Kaljo Kiisk’s literary adaptation Nipernaadi (1983) — was shut down in 1991 shortly after independence. When it came to the movie business, Estonia had shut up shop. “So there was a dilemma in front of me: leave the cinema world and start something new or make one last try,” says Lokk.

Her one last try was Black Nights. In what Lokk now says was more “a protest action” than a festival, she commandeered shuttered movie theaters and erected screens in pop-up locations across Tallinn and held a week-long event celebrating cinema outside the Hollywood mainstream.

Drifting Clouds, a deadpan classic from legendary Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki opened the inaugural event. (The “Black Nights” label is a tip of the hat to Kaurismäki’s Finnish Midnight Sun Festival, held in August amid the 24-hour sunlight of the Nordic summer. Black Nights, in contrast, runs in November, when round-the-clock winter darkness cloaks the Estonian capital.)

There were 28 movies in the first festival, mostly Scandinavian titles, with a smattering of French and German films. “We didn’t know for how long we could survive, but our goal was that people would start to ask: ‘Why aren’t our cinemas showing films from other countries, except the USA? Where are the Russian, French, German, Latin American films?’” Lokk recalls. “Why don’t we have cinemas and why are the ones left in awful condition?”

The first Black Nights festival sold “just” 5,000 tickets — but Estonia’s long-suffering film fans, starved of on-screen culture, embraced it. “Everyone among my friends, people asked why I am doing this, including people from the city government and ministry of culture,” says Lokk, “but people, film fans, loved us from first sight and this reciprocal love has only become stronger. Last year we had more than 101,000 admissions.”

As Black Nights has grown, it has expanded its mandate. Twenty years ago, the festival launched the Industry@Tallinn & Baltic Event, a five-day summit and trade fair for industry professionals that brings together producers, financiers, and talent — as well sales agents, commissioners, distributors and film funds from all over the world — to encourage cooperation and get new movies made.

The event, which now encompasses a co-production market, the script competition Script Pool, a Works in Progress section and the cross-border European Genre Forum focused on the development of European genre films, as well as a TV Beats section for small-screen productions, can point to successes stories such as Christian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, an early co-production project, or Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines, a participant of Tallinn’s Works in Progress screenings in 2013, which became, in 2015, the first-ever Estonian film to be nominated for an Oscar.

This year, for the first time, the Black Nights Festival will take part in Goes to Cannes, the Cannes film market’s July 10 showcase of film projects in post-production looking for buyers. Tallinn’s Baltic Event Co-Production Market, yet another of the festival’s industry sections, focused on projects made between partners in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, will also participate in Cannes’ co-production day event at the Marche du Film on Friday, July 9.

“This represents how far our industry event has come as a global market and key meeting place for film professionals,” says Marge Liiske, head of the Industry@Tallinn & Baltic Event, who notes there were 619 industry attendees at Tallinn’s last in-person showcase in 2019 — compared to just 20 foreign guests at the inaugural, 2002 event. “In 2020, when it was an online event, we presented 74 projects from which only 9 were Estonian, to 886 accredited professionals from 62 countries,” Liiske says, proudly. “Our industry events have evolved into a very international scene, and so has the Estonian production landscape. [We are a] tiny country and we cannot become successful — or even survive — on our national productions alone. We are on the crossroads of east and west, north and south, and this has formed our ability to understand, cooperate and facilitate.”

Industry@Tallinn has been particularly effective acting as a bridge between western Europe —Estonia is both a member of the European Union and part of the Eurozone — and the rich and rapidly-expanding Russian market. Last year’s TV Beats showcase included the hit Russian drama series Dead Mountain – The Dyatlov Pass Incident. The production between local broadcaster Premier.One and TNT Russia was picked up by Beta Film for international distribution and sold to Netflix for worldwide release.

“The sweetest testimony I heard was from one participant who said we are their lucky charm — every time they present their project at our event, it becomes a success,” says Liiske. “This is what we are here for: To help to develop, produce, distribute, to gain new knowledge, contacts and networks.

In reference to its canine-themed brand, Tallinn likes to call its festival and industry participants “the wolf pack,” noting that, as a pack animal, the wolf “knows he’ll get farther working together with others.”

Tallinn’s international status got a significant boost in 2014 when FIAPF, the international federation of film producers associations, granted the Black Nights its prestigious category 1 classification, bringing the festival into the elite company of the likes of Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Busan and San Sebastian, as one of just 15 “A-list” film festivals worldwide. “During the last five years, we’ve made a huge jump forward, we took on a big challenge and with it a big responsibility,” says Lokk. “We are now the biggest film festival in Northern Europe…with the right to suggest films for the European Film Awards, BAFTA and Oscars competitions.”

The 2020 edition of Tallinn Black Nights, despite being held as a hybrid event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, smashed records for world (38) and international (32) premieres, for total submissions (1500 feature-length submissions, more than 4,100 shorts and animation films submitted to the festival’s PÖFF Shorts section), and for total admissions. By screening movies both online and in cinemas across Estonia — theaters were kept open, albeit under strict COVID-19 protocols — the 24th Black Nights Festival set a new audience record of over 100,000 viewers.

When the news came in March that Estonia’s cinemas would have to close down as a second COVID wave hit the country, Tallinn Black Nights launched an online cinema program to keep locals in the habit of watching non-mainstream movies, screening titles from its 2020 lineup, including Dinner in America from U.S. director Adam Carter Rehmeier, Angelo Defanti’s Brazilian black comedy The Club of Angels and 50 or Two Whales Meet on the Beach, a social media youth shocker from Mexican director Jorge Cuchi.

After a quarter-century of Black Nights, Lokk, remembering those “four and a half” theaters in 1997, sees a nation transformed. “Now Estonia has a lot of modern, very good cinemas, where festival and auteur films are expected,” she says and notes that 25 years of demonstrating that “film isn’t only entertainment but also art” has had a broader impact on her country’s culture. “Film is a silent way to teach people love, understanding and tolerance of different cultures. The festival has been like a Trojan Horse, hiding hundreds and hundreds of messengers [and] cultural soldiers.” The 25th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival runs Nov. 12-28.

25 Years of Black Nights in 5 Films

As the opening night movie of the first Black Nights Festival, Aki Kaurismäki’s droll, deadpan dramedy about a working class couple made redundant who struggle to maintain their dignity set the tone for the style of movie — auteur, offbeat and outside the mainstream — that Tallinn would celebrate.

One of the first projects to take part in the Industry@Tallinn co-production event, Christian Mungiu’s directorial debut — the story of a woman trying to get an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania — won Cannes’ 2007 Palme d’Or for best film and kicked off the Romanian New Wave.

A Tallinn Works in Progress project — shown at the festival’s industry event in 2013 — Zaza Urushadze’s anti-war film follows an old man (Estonian film legend Lembit Ulfsak) who cares for two wounded soldiers who fought on opposite sides of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. Tangerine became the first Baltic feature to get an Oscar nomination (in 2015), and established Black Nights as a leading launch pad for the Nordic region.

Presented in the second year of the Black Nights’ Tallinn Lab — part of the European Genre Forum training program which looks to support the careers of up-and-coming genre filmmakers — Hanna Bergholm’s horror tale has been snatched up by buyers worldwide, including IFC Midnight in the U.S. and The Jokers in France.

Black Nights’ early lineups featured catch-up screenings of the best from other festivals, but since getting an “A-list” fest designation in 2014, Tallinn has shifted to world and international premieres — like this Bulgarian drama from Ivaylo Hristov, the 2020 best film winner.

Tallin goes Cannes with in-production titles

For the first time this year, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival is taking part in the Marche du Film’s Goes to Cannes event, a showcase of new features, currently in post, that will pitch to potential partners, sales agents and festival programmers on the Croisette July 10. The five titles Tallinn picked for its Cannes coming-out — all beneficiaries of the festival’s co-production program — include a German war drama, a new animated take on Pinocchio and a buddy roadmovie set against the backdrop of Europe’s migrant crisis. Here is a closer look at them…

German director Florian Hoffmann combines real-life cell phone footage of the siege — by the Turkish military — of the Kurdish city of Cizre, with a fictional tale of an ethnic Kurd living in Berlin who, after he sees the images of war from his old hometown, is forced to question his entire life in Germany.

Viktor Lakisov directed this Estonia animated tale, based on the Italian classic. In this version, Pinocchio sets out to give other puppets their freedom, and the gift of life. Produced by Asymmetric Studios with Vsevolod Zorin as executive producer.

This Georgian/French/Bulgarian co-production from director Tinatin Kajrishvili follows a group of small-town miners who witness a miracle — a crucified saint returned from the dead. But after initial celebration, the group begins to wonder whether the holy man might be of more use to them if he was back on the cross.

A Belgian road-trip buddy comedy, from director Dorothée Van den Berghe, centers on a long-haul truck driver who finds a migrant hiding in her truck and who reluctantly agrees to let the stowaway accompany her.

A 15-year-old boy sets out to kill his father’s mistress in this directorial debut from Russian director Alisa Erokhina, set up as a French/Russian co-production between Salt Film Studio, Wish Media and Les Steppes Productions.

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