Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival returned to the Estonian capital for its 21st instalment from 17 November – 3 December. Unlike some other A-list European festivals, the chilly darkness provides the perfect excuse to settle in and enjoy a wealth of international cinema.
Films from a variety of other European festivals were part of an eclectic programme. There were a range of world premieres in official competition and a First Feature competition offered a high calibre of big screen debuts. CineVue was in attendance for the first time, and we’ve run down ten of our favourite films that played at the festival.
A Gentle Creature
After growing success with his documentary output over the past few years – Maïdan, The Event, Austerlitz – Ukranian director Sergei Loznitsa has returned to fiction with his new film A Gentle Creature. Taking its title from a Dostoyevsky short, it evokes both him and Kafka in its depiction of a woman (Vasilina Makovtseva) struggling against the opaque bureaucracy of the Russian state. For the most part, it’s a meandering tale that sees the woman exploited and humiliated as she tries to account for her imprisoned husband. A fantastical turn in the third act has divided viewers, but it emphasises the deep allegorical messages that Loznitsa is attempting to impart. There’s also a great reference to a wonderful early Loznitsa short, The Halt, to boot.
A Skin So Soft
On the surface, Canadian director Denis Côté’s latest is an observational documentary about the quotidian lives of competitive bodybuilders. As images and moments layer up it becomes a far richer meditation on performance, self-creation, commitment, masculinity, and loneliness. It’s a film that portrays a group of men who parade their bodies as a vocation, but who are rendered truly naked by the intimate camera. Côté and his cinematographer François Messier-Rheault pay as much attention to texture and shape as these men do. Often following its subjects through their wordless daily routines, it’s a film of dualities: hyper-strong exteriors and interior vulnerability; a robust physique pampered by beauty regimes that are often considered feminine. Avoiding analysis, Côté finds the humanity in what can sometimes seem an alien obsession.
There aren’t many experimental documentaries about professional cricket. It is fortunate that Kabir Mehta has decided to redress the balance in style with his fascinating feature-length debut, BUDDHA.mov. In a slippery blend of documentary and fiction, it follows Indian Premier League cricketer Buddhadev Mangaldas, who is a medium-pace bowler for Goa. He is also a social media brand and a self-confessed (or is that self-proclaimed?) lady-killer. Mehta utilises candid observation, clear simulation, smartphone screenshots and desktop recording to compile a portrait of an astute man forging his own celebrity. Buddhadev is presented as a legend but, through the course of filming, both he and Mehta come to understand the power of deconstructing the myth. All the while, there are undercurrents pulling at threads of ambition, greed, and privilege that touch upon India’s wealth divide.
In Steven Bernstein’s Dominion, Dylan Thomas (Rhys Ifans) embarks on a determined one-day mission to drink himself to an early grave. It’s an often confused, but compelling take on the poet’s final hours, crossing an increasingly surreal monochrome chamber piece with fragmented flashes of memory: romance and marriage (to Romola Garai); literary tour; money, booze and egomania. The often quite experimental inserts are a clear attempt to distinguish the action from a stage play. It’s ironic, then, that the scenes in the pub are when the film is at its best. It’s a virtuoso performance from Ifans – he’s pompous, verbose, and charismatic. As he gradually breaks down, both in body and mind, he and his interlocutors consider his legacy and the deeper meaning of words.
Oliver Kienle’s Four Hands appeared in the ‘Midnight Shivers’ strand at Black Nights and it’s easy to see why. A slick high-concept thriller, it’s built on an unsettling premise of psychological trauma that gives it a resonance that genre plot contrivances might not otherwise warrant. About two sisters that witness their parents’ horrific murder as children, it picks up years later and studies the long-lasting effects of the event on Jessica (Friederike Becht) and how her uber-protective paranoia weighs on her sibling, Sophie (a fantastic Frida-Lovisa Hamann). As the narrative progresses, Four Hands begins to thematically evoke gothic horror, blurring the line between the sisters in a way that it reminds of the identity crises of a werewolf film, or Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.
The Heat After the Rain
Cristobal Serrá’s The Heat After the Rain may not appear so, but it’s an ultra low-key Costa Rican ghost story. Almost every scene of the film, a quiet drama about Juana (Milena Picado) bumping into her ex, Gustavo (Luis Carlos Bogantes), while on pilgrimage, is haunted by past tragedies and mistakes. It’s all shot in a rough and ready style, and the intimate camerawork and incidental lighting help to give an almost documentary impression that further enhance very naturalistic performances. Picado, in particular, is brilliant, her face etched with a grief she cannot let go of and her scenes with Gustavo have a deep, heartbreaking weariness to them. At 66 minutes it’s only slight, but a poignant debut.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts
Mouly Surya’s third film, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, is a singular work. Set in a striking mountainous region of Indonesia, it’s a funny and sometimes surreal feminist western exploring cultural gender conflict through a bloody revenge yarn. The narrative follows the titular Marlina (a brilliant, steely and laconic Marsha Timothy) as she administers bloody retribution against a group of raping bandits and sets off on a road to justice. Deadpan humour litters this handsome cross-cultural genre fare in which the stars are its leading ladies (Timothy and Dea Panendra) and a memorable score by Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani that puts a modern Indonesian spin on the motifs of Morricone.
There’s a funny resemblance to Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain at the heart of Temirbek Birnazarov’s gentle and touching Kyrgyz drama, Night Accident. Where Panahi harboured an illegal canine whilst under house arrest, the old man (Akolbek Abdõkalõkov) of Night Accident nurses a fugitive (Dina Jakob) back to health after he hits her with his motorcycle. This simple act of kindness is the primary focus of the film’s patient observation of the two people’s often wordless interactions. Through other locals, the broader community comes into focus, as does the old man’s hardscrabble existence and ostracisation by his family. Social and political points are woven in with subtlety, but in truth, this is a tale of how a chance encounter and a little kindness have the potential to save a life.
It’s unlikely that most people will have ever happened upon a stoner comedy-cum-fumbled crime caper laced with a sobering dose of social realism. That’s what they’ll find in Gjorce Stavreski’s darkly humorous Macedonian dramedy Secret Ingredient, though. An impressive debut, it manages to be a perfect balance of unbridled entertainment, national commentary and emotional poignancy. Set in Skopje, it follows Vele (Blagoj Veselinov), a mechanic who is struggling to afford medication for his father’s (Anastas Tanovski) severe illness. One day he comes across a stash of drugs and after an ill-fated foray into dealing, decides instead to bake his dad some pain relief. Taking particular aim at Macedonian celebrity faith healers, this is an enjoyable farce with real heart.
To See a Woman
“You fall for something, a gesture, a flaw, something you don’t understand that moves you.” This experimental analysis of an ardent love affair also perfectly sums up the elusive and beguiling effect of Monica Rovira Herrero’s To See a Woman. A blend of documentary and fiction, it’s the chronicle of a relationship told through tangential fragments. Featuring the director herself as one of the protagonists, it has the quality of a train of thought – of the recollection of a love, of a moment of melancholy, looking back at what was, and what might have been. It’s difficult to guess which moments are contrived and which genuine, everything has a beautiful emotional authenticity even when communication seems to have become impossible. As luck would have it, Herrero is able to tell us so much through a look and a cut.
For more information on the 2017 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival simply follow this link: https://poff.ee/eng/index
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson