TALLINN DISPATCHES: Sheila Seacroft reports : Black Nights Film Festival, Estonia
A Man's Fear of God (Takva) [7/10]; 186 Kilometres [5?/10]; Orangelove [6/10]; Frozen[7/10]; Parting Shot [7/10]; The Yacoubian Building [6/10]; Daisy Diamond [6/10]; Yella[8/10]; The Namesake [7/10]; Ploy [8/10]; The Pope's Toilet [7/10]; Day Night Day Night [7/10] 4 Elements [6/10]
Sunday 2nd December
Arriving late afternoon in a monochrome Tallinn airport, a slight covering of already grey snow, dark birchwoods, grey concrete buildings, twilight coming on, it all seems very Le Carré. An impression immediately dispatched by the very warm welcome of my Estonian hosts. As we drive into the town, they gleefully point out a burly band of men in uniform lining the street edge - bus inspectors, waiting to leap on buses and trams mid-stop to pounce on fare dodgers.
Next minute we're at the Radisson Hotel, POFF headquarters, which is completely encircled by a long long queue of people – it's voting day in Estonia's large neighbour Russia, and the hotel is one of the two polling stations for Russians living here. In their big coats and earmuffed hats they wait as patiently as English in the rain. Trams slide by, the rain has stopped, and the Christmas lights are on – I think I might like it here.
Just time to get into my hotel room and then I'm off to my first film, at the Vene Teater, or Russian Theatre, which turns out to be the grandest cinema interior I've ever been in. Like a Fabergé egg turned inside out, it's glittery with decoration, chandeliers and little apses and curves, with marble staircases and an obligatory cloakroom - which adds an air of occasion.
A Man's Fear of God
Directed by Özer Kiziltan
Turkey, 2006 96 minutes
Since the last Turkish film I saw was Head On, I expected intensity, and here it certainly is, but of a quite different dimension. Modern Turkey seems at first far away, as we enter the oldest part of Istambul, a place of narrow alleys and poverty, where Muharrem, a humble and godfearing man, works as general dogsbody to a small businessman selling sacks, and devotes his time to worshipping with a small mystical sect in the neighbourhood. His honesty and devotion bring him to the notice of the Sheik, and he is offered the job of administrator to the sect's fiancial dealings. After accepting the job with some awe and humility, it gradually dawns upon him, as he collects rents from very impoverished people and is expected to turn blind eye to what he considers trespasses against holy law, that it involves actions which he finds morally repugnant, and his crisis of faith tears him apart. It's a simple story, but told with an incredible force and beauty, in particular the scenes of worship, where a mystical dervish-like rhythmic chanting and movement all but seeps into the auditorium. The narrow streets of the old city are glowingly beautiful, but timelessness is tempered by very modern concerns, such as funding for terrorism. Erkan Can as Muharrem brings incredible authoenticity to the role of a very simple man who is faced with the ruination of the naive beliefs which have formed the mainstay of his life.
(Jan Uuspöld Läheb Tartusse) 5?/10
directed by Andres Maimik and Rain Tolk
Estonia 2007 105 minutes
In my determination to see an Estonian film, I make what turns out to be an ill-advised decision, and opt for this comedy. As I learn from an Estonian the following day, it is likely to be the most impenetrable for foreign audiences, featuring as it does many very 'in' jokes and Estonian personalities whose absurdist appearances are meaningless to outsiders. It's the tale of an actor with a crisis of condidence in his calling, played by famous actor Jan Uuspold as a daft version of himself, and follows the road trip he makes to 'find ' himself. Along the way he engages in many encounters with stereotypes – there's Lennon, a softy hippy, a gorgeous blonde attached to a priggish new-ager, a politician who turns out to be a real politician playing a cameo role - and he indulges in many a sauna, drunken binge, fight, and whingey monologue to whoever will listen. Without knowing the in-joke dimension it seems terribly self-indulgent and weak, and the jokes get repetititive pretty soon, but neverless it has been incredible successful at the box office here. The directors, who gave an introduction to the film which was much funnier than the film itself, have a TV programme which mixes fiction and celebrities, rather on the lines of Sacha Baron Cohen, and I bow to a funniness I do not have the background to appreciate.
Monday 3rd December
Directed by Alan Badoyev
Ukraine 2006, 84 minutes
A visually-stunning first feature from a young director who still has to learn, maybe, to use his considerable talents with more economy. Orangelove is the story, dark fairy story really, of two lovers in the time of AIDS. Roman, a wild-spirited photographer, meets Katya, slender, auburn haired pale as a wisp student of the cello, and it's amour fou from the outset. Longing to live together they come upon an eccentric advertisement from an elderly man dying of AIDS, who is offering his dead lover's old boarded-up apartment for free to a couple who will live there together and never step outside until his death, which is imminent. What's more he will bequeath them all his money. Somehow this enforced devotion will redeem his own abandonment of his lover. The pair agree, and a good half of the film now takes place in the old apartment, part dark and mellow, part bleakly monochrome. At first all is well, but Roman yearns to be in the outside world, and news through the door brings catastrophe. It's incredibly beautiful, a visual poem made up of orange, a significant colour in Ukraine, after all, featuring as autumn leaves, Katya's hair, and the light through the shuttering of the apartment; water; bare flesh, and constant movement of bodies, running through the streets or making love. Too much of this, however, together with an excess of rapid cutting and what seems to be a wilful obscurity for its own sake begins to look artful rather than meaningful, and the result can be not just confused but, dare I say it, just the tiniest bit irritating, to the detriment of the film's impact. What endures, though, is the doomed nature of an old tale, the ogre in his dark castle trying to expiate past misdeeds, the two innocent Romeo and Juliet-like lovers metaphorically locked in a high building, and the dreadful irony of their doom.
Directed by Shivalee Chandrabhushan
India 2007 110 minutes
Shot in striking black and white, this film is set in Ladakh, a remote area to the north of India, where conflict between India and Kashmir brings a military presence which threatens the age-old peaceful but bitterly poor life of its inhabitants. It isn't just the army which is changing things, though, and the traditionally made produce of Karma, a widower with two children, is no longer enough to compete with machine-made fare of competitors in the town and provide enough for them to live on. His spirited daughter Lasya is at first willful and childishly unconcerned with the matters of their livelihood, but events and personal betrayals conspire to destroy their well-balanced life, and she has to grow up fast. The bleak landscape has a terrible beauty, and this is an Indian film like no other you will have seen.
I escape into the sleet outside Ah, sleet, it's got to be the worst weather in the world – cold, and wet, and grey. But in the town hall square they äre selling glögi, hot spiced wine, and huddled at the sheltered tables it's cosy and companionable. Stalls all around sell candles, wooden goods, and knitwear, the kind my mother would have called fair-isle, intricate designs of jackets, scarves, hats. The hats, some of felted wool with huge pointy horns, are, I think to myself, pretty preposterous, until later I see many otherwise sober looking citizens sporting them along the narrow little streets.
Next up, the Soprûs cinema, part of a much bigger rather grand building with an impressive portico, a lovely spacious deco style, its wide marble staircase with squishy sofas positioned on every landing, comfortable roomy seating in the auditorium, a bar, everything one could wish from a cinema, in fact.
(Pas Douce) 7/10
Directed by Jeanne Waltz
France/Switzerland 2007 83 minutes
Isild Le Besco plays Fred, a nurse in rural Switzerland who is angry, angry with everything -her job, which though she is good at takes an emotional toll, angry with her father, angry with her (now ex) boyfriend, and most of all with herself. Suicidal, her pent up aggression suddenly, to even her surprise, lets rip on another subject, and she's put in a position of fear and moral ambiguity. It's a terrific performance, Le Besco's face betraying so little yet so much - smothered rage then guilt, and a gradual accommodation to a new way of looking at life and engaging with others. Her progress towards resolution is beautifully handled, and also engages the audience - will the truth come out? Should it? And the economic 83 minutes of the film keep keep up both a narrative and a moral suspense.
The Yacoubian Building
(Omaret Yacoubian) 6/10
Directed by Marwan Hamed
Egypt 2006 165 minutes
Based on a bestselling Egyptian novel, this blockbuster of a film, though it at times infuriates with its stereotypes and longueurs, still wins one over with its tremendous scope and warmth and energy.It presents the interwoven stories of several inhabitants of the famous once grand building in the centre of Cairo, from the faded grandeur of the spacious lower floor apartments to the impoverished lean-tos up on the roof. A daft but sympathetic elderly roué with a poisonous sister trying to get her hands on his wealth; a young man disenchanted with his life who is easily drawn into terrorism; his sensible hardworking girlfriend; a corrupt nouveau riche businessman with political ambitions; a gay newspaper editor – their stories elegantly interweave in a superficial but engaging way. Like a superior soap opera, the issues raised though intriguing are not given much depth – the terrorism motif is trivialised and treated as thriller material, appalling moral hypocrisy (even involving a violently imposed abortion) becomes merely melodrama, and the gay strand looks old fashioned to western audiences (especially the 'explanation' flashback into the bloke's childhood which is clearly deemed necessary by the makers), though as this is just about the first serious presentation of the subject in Egyptian cinema maybe one should not carp. What delights though is the sheer exuberance and confident direction, the camera swooping with high old style around the building and through the lives, in particular a lovely grace-note sequence that tracks down the teeming street outside. A love letter to a great city.
Tuesday 4th December
Directed by Simon Staho
Denmark 2007 94 minutes
Beginning with a very nasty scene of sexual violence, this film starts as it means to go on, as misanthropic and despairing as you can get. The cry of a baby from offscreen reveals that the scene we have been flinching at is in fact a performance, an audition. Anna is an actress, a single mother with an unplanned baby, whom she loves but whose presence makes it impossible for her to get work. That is all we know – all other knowledge we think we are acquiring about her is constantly being undermined by being revealed as a succession of auditions for jobs she fails to get. The scenes with her crying daughter are harrowing for any parent who has gone through this even in normal circumstances, and this is the strongest part of the film. Short of sleep and dreadfully poor she's ground down and the inevitable, unspeakable, happens.
So far so bad, but she now enters a downward spiral of self-punishment that takes her further and further down the road to destruction, via hardcore porn movies, 'hostess' work, and street-side prostitution. Her 'performances' which we first mistook for her life have now become that real life. Isolation is highlighted by bleak empty interiors, and Noomi Rapace turns in a tremendous performance as Anna, omnipresent and intensely physical, and almost stops us noticing the unlikeliness of many of the scenarios. Problems: as each layer of degradation accrues, and Anna willingly turns herself into passive victim, compassion fatigue bites deeper into the audience, and, more crucially, the trick in the earlier part of the film of presenting each scenario as actually mere 'acting' is so successful at wrong-footing and alienating us that we cease to engage with Anna's troubles. It's certainly powerful stuff, and says terrible things about humanity, the self, betrayal, the non-existence of love, but the frequent use of images and words from Persona only serves to remind us of how much deeper, less histrionic and more recognisable a hell Bergman could deliver.
Glad to be out in the open air I take a fast walk as far away as possible from this film and up the steep path to the highest part of old Tallinn, from where I can look out over the grey Baltic. And there are the big ferries that cross over to Finland and Sweden. Fur coated and hatted babushkas are flitting in and out of the Aleksander Nevski Orthodox Cathedral, and well-heeled tourists poke about in the glowing interiors of the smart shops selling amber. Down a different slope and past the splendid Hell Hunt pub (which stocks a surprising selection of British real ale) I find the peaceful interior of the little Church of the Holy Ghost with its medieval carved and painted wooden altarpiece and lectern.
Directed by Christian Petzold
Germany 2007 89 minutes
What a pleasure this film is. A most unusual thriller in the mode of the best of Chabrol or maybe even Hitchcock, with a subtly portrayed heroine and an adult relationship you see grow before your eyes and can really believe in. Its feel is contemporary and truly grounded in recognisable ordinary life, that of business meetings in anonymous and featureless offices, mid-priced hotels, men in suits talking about percentages and risk, motorways… who'd have thought these things could be so thrilling? The excellent Nina Hoss as central figure Yella is looking to start a new life in the city to get away from her past, but that past rears up in the form of her estranged and somewhat deranged ex-husband on the very day she leaves her father's house in the country for a new job. Dramatic things happen, her plans go awry, but a meeting with businessman Philipp, out to make a career for himself, sets her on a new path which she finds herself unexpectedly good at. They form a working partnership at meetings, doing I'm not sure what, as the world of high finance is a closed book to me, but suffice it to say they always seem to come out on top, and they become close. But there's always some menace around, in the shape of the stalking ex, and odd sensations experienced by Yella. More, a lot more, than meets the eye, and something we may have had intimations of turns the ending into a true heart-chiller – a conclusion you will not have wished for but that is totally satisfying.
This screening was in the auditorium of the Estonian National Library building, a magnificent, very modern new take on a traditional northern European architectural style of high-vaulted grey stone, with much pale wood and beautiful glass. Through the slight drizzle which is washing away the remains of yesterday's slush, I make for the utter contrast of Kosmos, a basic, utilitarian cinema from the Soviet era on a main road on the edge of the city centre, that has seen better days. I actually came almost by accident to this film when the one I intended to see turned out not to have English subtitles. You never know what serendipity might bring.
Directed by Mira Nair
India/USA 2006 122 minutes
A family saga which avoids sentimentality is a rare thing indeed, but here is one. The integration of Indian families in the US is a rarely looked at phenomenon in film, unlike the several treatments the UK equivalent has spawned. Here we have Bengali young couple Ashok and Ashima moving to New York immediately after their arranged marriage – he has a degree and a job, she, though bright, has little experience outside her traditional home life and has to quickly adjust to the mysteries of the American way. They have two children and move up into relative middle class affluence. Both children do well, and we focus on their son, Gogol, named for a particular reason revealed later in the film, but who comes to be embarrassed by the oddness of the name and changes it to the more American Nick. There are no out of the ordinary happenings, no real surprises, and parent children differences and the conflict between the young people's Indian heritage and lives as American born citizens is nothing out of the ordinary. It is often funny, never pretends to be more than it is, and through a very high standard of naturalistic acting, particularly by Tabu, a beautiful Bollywood actress who ages very credibly by almost 30 years in the dourse of the film, it contains moments that are genuinely moving. A film full of warmth, to which the audience responded openly and emotionally.
Wednesday 5th December
Directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Thailand 2007 107 minutes
A dreamy, beautiful film, slow paced but constantly absorbing, in the unpromising setting of the rooms and corridors of a luxurious but dull hotel, it stays as enigmatic as its characters to the last. While very little happens for much of the film, it never loses its sensual grip. Wit and Dag are a drifting-apart married couple who have returned to Bangkok for a family funeral, back from the States where they run a restaurant. Jet-lagged and unable to sleep Wit wanders down to the bar for cigarettes, where he meets Ploy, a vivacious, smart teenage girl spending the night there waiting for her mother, and he takes her back to spend the night in their room. Meanwhile the barman and maid are indulging in dreamy sex in one of the other rooms. Or are they? How much of what follows is reality, dream or fantasy is unclear, though Pen-ek says that in his mind, 'everything really happens'. A gorgeous subdued palette of greens and blues and silky smooth camerawork mesmerise, while unhappiness, sensuality and unexpected violence blend to make a film experience itself akin to a dream that you don't quite understand and are reluctant to let go of.
Keeping the sybaritic dream alive, I wander the streets of the old town to find Chocolat de Pierre, a gorgeous warm oasis of comfy decadence all decked out with velvet and soft candlelight, where I eat probably the nicest chocolate cake in the world, looking out into a little courtyard full of artisan shops of textiles, wood and pottery. Soon it's back through the darkening streets to the Russian Theatre, for the most intriguingly titled film of the festival…
The Pope's Toilet
El Bano del Papa 7/10
Directed by Enrique Fernandez, Cesar Charlone
Uruguay 2007 97 minutes
In 1988 the Pope made a journey to South America, getting as far as Melo, a down-at-heel little town near the border with Brazil, where he was to address a mass meeting of the faithful. A frenzied media imagines how many thousands of people will pour in to attend, especially more affluent folk from over the border. And this gives the townspeople an idea. These pilgrims will want to eat, won't they? And drink, and buy souvenirs, toys, sweets… What an opportunity! Foremost among these budding once-in-a-life time entrepreneurs is an affable bunch of small time smugglers, family men all, who fetch things like soap and batteries over the border by night on their bikes for the local shop. Beto is their leader, feckless and likeable, with a sensible wife and bright daughter who has ambitions to leave the town and become a journalist rather than her mapped out fate of going to 'sewing school'. While the rest of the town go crazy on chorizo-making, baking, blowing up balloons, building barbecues, buying up sugar for candy floss, Beto hits on the best idea yet – a public toilet outside his house. Never mind that he has to bring back first a door, then a toilet bowl on his bike from over the border, he's soon training up his wife and daughter to welcome the customers and dish out measured amounts of paper and make sure no one lingers too long in the services. Grainy, realist-style cinematography contribute to the feel of hard lives lived nevertheless with dry humour and many sweet moments of pleasure. When things go other than to plan, it's truly hurtful to see good people uplifted and dashed down again by the whim of the wider world.
Day Night Day Night
Directed by Julia Loktev
USA/Germany 2006 94 minutes
In comparison with The Terrorist and Paradise Now, which look at the motives and impulses that lead to suicide bombing, this is a pure, intellectual look at the almost surreal and often absurd process itself, an exercise in suspense. A slight, unremarkable girl, never named, is led to an anonymous hotel room where she meets masked men who prepare her for her trip into the city the following day with a backpack full of explosives. Of her motivation or the cause for which she will act we know nothing. The men are intentionally not ethnically specific. She bathes, clips her nails, gazes through the window, tries to sleep… Concentrating on her body with such intensity we are brought face up to the thought of what will happen to it the following day. There's a preposterous humour – only we don't feel like laughing – in the men's tentative preparations of her – should she wear her hair up or down? What size is she, and which clothes would look best? They can't get her shoe size right but she doesn't mind packing the toes with tissue… Throughout the girl is a willing, diffident participant, as polite and accommodating as a well brought up schoolgirl learning new skills at summer camp. When she asks them to share her last pizza with her, the men themselves are as shy and socially uncomfortable as she. From the quiet awkward politenesses of the hotel, the second half of the film moves to noisy verite style. Reminiscent of Hichcock's Sabotage, as the girl walks through the teeming streets around Times Square, ground zero of consumption and tawdriness, but also a place of surprising kindnesses, the tension is almost unbearable. Absurdity arises again as this slender girl who look as if she lives on air is hungry for junk food and feasts on giant pretzels and toffee apples as she waits to do the deed. She's very scared, and we share not only fear for the random humanity around her at any time (a mix of actors and unsuspecting 'real people' giving it a fine documentary look), but also her own nerves and fear of not getting it right. The end is cruelly more unsettling than the pure catharsis we crave, and I left the cinema feeling I had scarcely blinked or breathed for the entire 94 minutes. An impressive first feature.
Now to my first documentary and last film of the festival, up the narrow stairs of the Von Krahli Theatre in the heart of the old town, full of atmosphere of the experimental and the avant garde, where the screening is in a high black-walled room that soon fills to capacity.
Directed by Jiska Rickels
Netherlands 2006 89 minutes
Not so much the four elements themselves but man's battle with and mastering of them, is the theme of this rather uneven documentary. While it has poetic moments and striking images, one feels, as it proceeds through fire, water, earth and air, that its early promise of saying something new about its subjects or bringing a fresh way of looking at them seeps away to a certain disappointment by the end.
It moves from a group of firefighters in the Siberian forest to crab fishermen in the oceans of Alaska, to a coalmine in Germany, and finally to a Russian training school for astronauts. The first two promise much – the firefighters, while never appearing to be in danger, form heroic, archetypal tableaux against the blazing trees, and there are striking images of the burning forest turning in an instant to smoky steam as the fires are put out. On the fishing boat the banality of cramped living quarters and snatched sleep is countered by the swoop of the sea, its movement and power as it smacks over the sides of the boat, its weird harvest of giant crabs and the sheer effort of the fishermen's nightly battle. So far absorbing and fresh, unfortunately the third section, while a respectable enough account of miners' life, does not keep up the momentum. It's a grim, brave life, full of camaraderie and danger, but we have seen it portrayed before, and there's nothing new brought to our way of seeing it.
So how will the director present air, you wonder – and it's surprising, but again disappointing. Astronaut training has little of the monumental about it. Though the moments during which we become the trainee, whirled around in a centrifuge with the attendant nauseating effects are certainly startling, I have to admit I found this section increasingly tedious and failing to convey in any way the power of this fourth element. A pity – the overall movement of the film, from the first image of a man emerging from a womb-like hole in the earth in the forest to a soaring off into the unknown air, was an ambition that didn't quite succeed.
So, my last night at Tallinn, though the festival continues for another 4 days. Overall more than 200 films were screened, in Tallinn and at subsidiary sites over Estonia, showing to an audience of over 50,000 in all. Grand Prix for Best film went to the Turkish film Takva – A Man's Fear of God, Aleksandr Sokorov was Best Director for Aleksandra, while the Estonian film Autumn Ball won several awards. The prize for Best Cinematography went, deservedly, to Ploy.