VENT D’EESTI : Sheila Seacroft reports from the Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn : first dispatch

Arriving not long before dark from a sunny early morning London, a quick first read of Tallinn's programme shows a new presence in the city and in the festival. The brand new Solaris Centre, a smart shopping and cinema complex in the centre of the city, is hosting half of the screenings this year.
   The first reaction of this somewhat reactionary critic was sadness. One of the real treats of my festival-going is the cinemas – the bricks and stones of their history, their stairs, their lights, their plasterwork, their seats, their lovable foibles. But I soon have second thoughts: as much as anything here, this change denotes advance and expansion (10 screens each showing between 3 and 5 films each day is a real achievement).
    The festival here is, as it should be, as much for the citizens as about providing a marketplace for professionals. The wolf which is POFF's symbol is everywhere on the streets, and Solaris has huge festival posters decorating its main doors, and small black wolfy footprints on the brand new wooden floors leading the way to the Cinamon Multiplex, where 3 screens are showing festival fare.
   What's more there's another pair of screens, the Artis, dedicated to non-mainstream films. How many cities are even contemplating building two new arthouses at the moment? My euphoria drops rather when I hear that my favourite cinema here two years ago, the Soprus, with its splendid staircase, in the old town, will be closing its doors by the end of the year.
   But if using new cinemas mean even a handful of people might be tempted almost inadvertently to try something other than the week's general releases, in just the way that many of my generation in the 60s, far from arthouses, stumbled on late night films on TV (Bicycle Thieves, Ashes and Diamonds...) then it's got to be a good thing.
   The many sold-out screenings show it's working – including the first I try unsuccessfully to book for, the temptingly named documentary Kill the Referee, with a special Q&A with doyen of English footy arbiters, Howard Webb. Films are for people, in the end, and if it means I sometimes have to watch screenings with the smell of popcorn around or in somewhere called Coca Cola Plaza rather than "Kinema", so be it.
 
Tuesday 1 December
THE PERFIDY    [4/10]
Perfidia : Chile/USA 2009 : Rodrigo BELLOTT : 80 min : seen at Kinomaja
A young man travels, receives a telephone call and sets off on a mission which is unknown but clearly dangerous and probably murderous. Intense it certainly is, but slow deliberateness is not suspense, and a mysterious and promising beginning all too soon dissolves into something approaching tedium and at times becomes nothing more than the mesmeric viewing of a beautiful male face and body. By the time we understand, it's almost too late to care. There are good things in this film, but on the whole it would have made a far better short.
 
LITTLE SOLDIER    [7/10]
Lille soldat : Denmark 2008 : Annette K. OLESEN : 100 min : seen at Kinomaja
Lotte (Trine Dyrholm) is a hardened soldier, home after a bruising time in Iraq, depressed, solitary, jobless, and drinking too much. Her overbearing father, proud of his  'little soldier', runs a haulage company with a lucrative sideline in human trafficking, and she reluctantly becomes driver and bodyguard for his girlfriend, who is also one of his  'girls', the Nigerian, Lily. The two women have next to nothing in common other than unhappiness, and an unlikely friendship builds up. But Lotte has always wanted to  'make the world a better place', and her interference in a world more complex and corrupt than she understands only brings more pain to everyone. Sometimes a little long in exposition, nevertheless there are terrific performances from Finn Neilson as the bullying, fond, violent father, and particularly from Dyrholm as the downcast, damaged daughter.
 
Wednesday 2 December
ENTER THE VOID    [8?/10]
aka Soudain le vide : France/Germany 2009 : Gaspar NOE : 155 minutes : seen at Coca Cola Plaza
   You know you're in for a punishing time from the moment the credits blast themselves across the screen, loud, shuddering, flashing, names blinkingly glimpsed rather than read. I'm still struggling from the experience of 155 minutes of what almost amounts to hallucinatory trip.  'Birth copulation and death: that's all the facts, when it comes to brass tacks', said Eliot. And here NoĆ©'s written them all large and painful. Using mind-blowing (or as one critic had it, mind-fucking) techniques, the camera swoops, slides, soars and penetrates drugged minds, bodies, and most of all the bleak streets of Tokyo, from its grimmest corners to its exhilarating but menacing light and colour.
   We begin inside the head of an American addict, the narrative opens out to his sister and other associates as dreams and memories, hallucinations, out of body experiences, death moments and birth moments, and lots of sex, to make connections which are mostly Freudian, but also a nod towards the immortality of the soul according to that old potheads' favourite the Bardo Thodol, a.k.a. the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Here is a life experienced and remembered, chopped up and with the focus rambling from past to future to dream images. That the characters are mostly repellent or intensely irritating does not really matter in the end, in fact the banality of the individuals somehow makes it more of a ride.
   The narrative, such as it is, throbs along irregularly with its own perverse momentum. Joyful and harrowing images jostle, the ugly becomes beautiful, or rather things are simultaneously both. It's a bleak view of humanity living life which is mostly pain and loss, often almost unwatchable, not for the queasy, (nor those with epilepsy it must be said), but also at times utterly gorgeous, especially the  'trip' images which look like unknown sea creatures or microscope-viewed bacteria, dancing and exploding in colour. Turn off your mind and float downstream – but never relax. This film is hard work, uncategorisable, something to be experienced rather than watched, if you have the stomach.

LAILA'S BIRTHDAY   
[7/10]
Eid milad Laila : Palestine/Tunisia/Holland 2008 : Rashid MASHARAWI : 72min : seen at Cinema Artis
Pleasant antidote to the last film is this gentle bitter sweet tale set in Palestine, looks at the increasingly farcical day of once judge, now taxi driver, Abu Laila. It's his daughter Laila's birthday, and all he needs to do all day as well as driving his taxi is to get her a present and a cake. The double nature of normal life as we in the west know it alongside constant fear of destruction is set in the opening minutes as Abu Laila wakes thinking there's been a bomb, and fearfully checks his pleasant middle class home. It's the documentary aspect of the film which is its most appealing aspect – people going about their normal business, shopping, taking the kids to school, drinking coffee – and Palestinian life is brought more vividly to us in the strange juxtapositioning of the recognisable everyday grind – awkward customers, frustrating bureaucracy – with the real horrors of a violence that might come at any time. Renowned Palestinian actor and documentary maker Mohammad Bakri, onscreen throughout, plays Abu Laila as a wise, world weary everyman, and on balance the film ends on an optimistic note, that in a harsh world our small good deeds may repay us.

SORRY, THANKS
    [8/10]
USA 2009 : Dia SOKOL : 92min : seen at Cinema Artis
A perfectly made American Indie film, looking with loving but satirical eye at the relationships of a group of acquaintances, focusing on slacker Max, played by the deliciously named Wiley Wiggins. Bumbling, out of condition, self-centred in a kind of unintentional way, wussish Max still seems to get the girls, with his regular, Hispanic social worker Sara, and the occasional almost accidental liaison with smart Kara, who loves to travel in her work, but at the moment works at getting abbreviations and punctuation right in cookery books. Someone has to. Smart, ruefully and sometimes laugh out loud funny dialogue, and above all terrific performances from the ensemble cast, and particularly Wiggins, who still keeps your, and the girls', sympathy (it must be his dimples) as he crashes and limps through his own and other people's lives in his well-meaning way. It's a little gem.
 
KINOCARAVAN    [5/10]
Kino Caravan : Romania/ Germany 2009 : Titus MUNTEAN : 100 min : seen at Cinema Artis
   Two men arrive in a truck which is a mobile cinema at a scruffy Romanian village in the early 60s. One, name of Tavi, wears the smart leather jacket and keen look of a committed apparatchik, one the world wearied demeanour of a reluctant jobsworth. Inside the truck are reels of Communist propaganda film sent by the state to be shown to the villagers. It's chucking it down with rain, the street is a sea of mud, and there's no-one to meet them. The village is mostly uninhabited – everyone's gone elsewhere to find work, except for a motley crew gradually emerging which includes the old schoolteacher and wife, village dignitaries, the local Gypsy handyman, the village idiot, and the beautiful young librarian.
   After escapades in the mud, most of the propaganda film is unusable, but the ferry on which the outsiders arrived is swept away, so these disparate sets of people are bound to spend unwanted time together – unwanted that is except for Tavi and the librarian who have taken a shine to each other. The broadish comedy of paranoia, wily rustics, unsure young love and thwarted officialdom is too wordy and develops at far too slow a pace, but is redeemed somewhat by the shockingly harsh sucker punch delivered with the closing scenes, changing the nature of the satire of what the state did to the Romanian people over the following years from gentle to savage.

Sheila Seacroft
4th December 2009

SECOND DISPATCH