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

seen Thursday 3 December

Chaque jour est un fête : France/Germany/Lebanon 2009 : Dima EL-HORR : 90 min : seen at Coca Cola Plaza 
   A contender for the International Prize here, this film begins strikingly with a poetic sequence  as a young freshly married couple flee police down a tunnel and into the sea. Naturalism follows with distinguished Palestinian actress Niam Abbass making a frantic phone call in a Beirut bus station, and soon we're in a bus laden with prisoners' loved ones (all women) making the 3-hour trek across the desert to visit. But a bullet through the driver's head soon spills them out to their own devices in the stony unforgiving countryside. Will they find safety? Mobiles don't work, and it isn't clear which way they should go. Unfortunately the narrative which should have been suspenseful, and does begin so, contains too many anomalous elements.
   We need to believe in these women's increasing plight, but a series of unlikely events and decisions dissipate our concern. In a serious film that clearly wants to be metaphorical as well as naturalistic, it seems churlish to question the nuts and bolts of the plot, but, for example, walking in unsuitable shoes and with uncovered heads across a stony terrain for many hours in the middle of the day should induce pretty severe dehydration and incapacity quite quickly, but apart from one fainting episode that soon passes the women seem to continue fairly unscathed.  There are too many convenient plot contrivances, not the least of which is the unlikely isolated shooting of the driver in the first place.  The interplay between the three women who find themselves together is good, but at times they might as well be sitting bonding in a Beirut café.

Nunta in Basarabia : Romania/Moldova/Luxembourg 2009 : Napoleon HELMIS : 92 min : seen at Coca Cola Plaza
Winner of the special Jury Award, this is an intriguing and comic glimpse into present day tensions of the area known as Bessarabia, now mostly located in Moldova, and its complex historically-based relations with Romania and Russia. We join music students Vlad (Romanian) and Vica (Moldovan) in a train en route to her family in Chisinau for their wedding, accompanied by his wheeler dealer uncle and nervous  mother. They're rowing already, but it soon becomes clear that this is an intrinsic and mostly welcome part of their relationship, a microcosm, in fact, of their two countries.  After a cheery reception and breezy drive through the city that would make a tourist office proud, things turn somewhat awkward as disapproval of Vlad rises to the surface, and it doesn't help when the guests get accidentally locked inside the family flat on the morning of the wedding.
   It soon becomes clear that one of the perceived purposes of holding the wedding here is to prise as much money as possible out of family and friends. It's not clear how much this accent on gifts to the happy pair is a staple of Moldovan weddings or a particular feature of this one, but it provides further tension for Vlad, as he hates appearing the poor, token bridegroom who can't provide for his wife. Farcical and real divisions mingle throughout the evening, with the dodgy Romanian uncle trying to do business on the side, unwelcome Russian guests, and wealthy ex-brother in law attempting to put a spanner in the works. The festivities and contretemps all go on a trifle too long, but it's a nice attempt to show a very niggly situation to an almost unknowing wider Europe.


Maman est chez le coiffeur : Canada 2008 : Lêa POOL : 97 min : seen at Kinomaja
Part of the North American Indie competition, yet with its smooth production values and experienced actors, bearing few of the hallmarks of true Indie, this is a nice enough coming of age tale, with an impressive central performance  by teenager Marianne Fortier as Elise, the daughter who holds together a family that starts out looking perfect but soon disintegrates before our eyes. In the wholesome 60s sunshine of their lakeside community, over the long summer vacation the kids seem the only sensible ones, as the discovery of father's gay tendencies sends Elise's journalist mother into a tailspin that dispatches her practically overnight to a well paid job overseas, leaving guilty and hapless husband Laurent Lucas (similarly at the bemused end of a marital partnership in Lemming) to hold it all together as Elise's little brother becomes more behaviourly challenged. I spent too much energy having my credibility strained by the unlikelihood of a smart cake-baking mom deserting her kids like that, but otherwise it's a bright, likeable film. 

NYMPH    [7/10]
Nang Mai : Thailand  2009 : Pen-Ek RATANARUANG : 94 min : seen at Cinema Artis
   The first several minutes of this film are one of the most enthralling, disturbing and magical of any opening I know. A camera circles above tropical forest, swooping, and lifting, probing, drawing away, changing direction and focusing, at once as curious as we are and totally detached from whatever horror is going on below, indicated by cries of female distress and scarcely glimpsed human figures.  Then we're back in an urban landscape with uneasy couple Nap and May, he a photographer, she an office worker  who is having an affair with her boss. As in Ratanaruang's Ploy, seen coincidentally at POFF two years ago, the focus here is marriage, and how two unhappy people might be reconciled. Playing with myth and reality, we follow the couple into the woods where Nap has a photography assignment, and mysterious, unnerving things happen. 
   As before the camera suggests and conceals, and natural shapes assume sinister meaning. It's exceptionally creepy – the hairs were up on the back of my neck – but subsequent events make us unsure whether the forest presence is malign or holy. Concrete reality jostles with spirituality and myth in what is ultimately a strange and beautiful trip into wildness and the archetypal fear and longing at the root of many cultures' legends. An affecting and at times frustrating film that sometimes taxes the patience, in the end it's a very strange amalgam of horror, timelessness and modern morality tale about love.

seen Friday 4 December

LA TIGRA, CHACO    [7/10]
Argentina  2008 : Federico GODFRID, Juan SASAIN : 75 min : seen in video-library 
   Multiple recommendations for this film which was sold out in the cinema prompted me to watch it on the small screen. They were not wrong, it's a delightful, modest and simple film, a loving observation of dusty country life and its small pleasures, shot on a minimum budget. It centres on the return from the city of twenty-something Esteban to the little village where he grew up, La Tigra. He wants to see his father, who is permanently elsewhere, but as he lodges with his ageing but sparky aunt, he meets again the beautiful and vivacious Vero, grown up since he went away, and for the first time his young stepbrother, and returning is not so simply done as he thought. Lovely performances from Ezequiel Tronconi as Esteban, and particularly Ana Allende as his lively and voluble aunt make this almost plotless and potentially routine tale a gentle pleasure. 


Presunto culpable : Mexico 2009 : Roberto HERNANDEZ, Geoffrey SMITH : 90 min : seen at Kinomaja
   The startling statistics from Mexico tell their own story – 95% of trials there result in convictions. A highly efficient police force? No. The entire justice system is based on the idea that if you are picked up for a crime, you did it, and it's up to you to prove your innocence in a system that makes that as difficult as possible. When stallholder Jose Antonio Zuniga was sentenced to 20 years for a murder he knew nothing about on the strength of one eyewitness (and he had 3 others to state he was elsewhere at the time), his friends and family secured the help of two Mexican lawyers from the US to put forward an appeal. Amazingly, they were allowed to film both his life inside the prison, where he shared a cell with 19 others, and the retrial itself.
   This footage provides the raw material for the film, which is far more than just a documentary account of a tremendous injustice, but an emotionally engaging and at times poetic experience, at once a horrifying glimpse into a world of banal corruption, where evil is done as much by omission as real intent (and is in a way all the more horrific for that), and a tribute to resilience and determination, and to the strength of ordinary people. And more importantly for Jose Antonio, the footage also provided proof of the corruption of the appeal process itself.

Ddongpari : South Korea 2008 : YANG Ik-June : 130 min : seen at Cinema Artis
   A terrific first film from director Ik-June, who also plays the lead, wrote and produced  it, this hard-hitting thriller is at times almost impossible to watch for its unremitting violence and bleak view of life. It follows the debt collector Sang-hoon, a man seemingly devoid of humanity and totally tuned to violence, who is as happy to beat up his colleagues as the debtors he's allocated to put the frighteners on, so heartless that even the boss who sets him out on these errands seems a model of kindliness in contrast.  When he meets tough schoolgirl Yeon-Hee, herself a victim of a violent father gone mad and a bullying elder brother, she shows she is not afraid of him, and a strange bond builds between the two. He begins to show his buried self, and we learn about his own terrible and violent family background.
   The story is apparently woven out of  the director's own  life and those of his friends, and a bleak view it is of a society overwhelmed with violence, where family life can be a salve but is often a terrible burden, and where love can so easily turn to hate. Shreds of decency are continually thwarted and there isn't much hope of a good outcome for even the best intentioned individuals in bleak circles of tragedy. Maybe the mix is a little over-egged, for it seems that behind every door and on every street corner lies violence. One leaves the film bludgeoned, and with a startling vocabulary of Korean swear words.

ANDER [6/10]
Spain 2009 : Roberto CASTON : 128 min : seen at Cinema Artis
   Much of it, interestingly, in the Basque language, made for half a million Euros, this film moves slowly with the deliberate pace of country life. Ander is a forty-ish man living with his uptight mother and soon-to-be-married sister on their farm in the ravishing Pyrenees. His life is comfortably humdrum – seeing to the animals, working at the bicycle factory, planting crops, gossiping with his over-hearty mate Peio from the farm down the lane, spending the odd night with friend and village whore with a heart of gold Reme. His mother complains that he has not married. We don't really know if he's happy. Perhaps he doesn't either. Then he breaks his leg. The farm can't manage without help, and Peruvian itinerant worker Jose arrives. He's hard working, modest, kind, and – beautiful.
   The outcome is predictable, what is not predictable is the very down to earth, unfancy way the story unfolds, and the ordinariness of the two men. Brokeback Mountain obviously comes to mind, maybe to its detriment (will anyone be able to do awakening male love among the beautiful mountains any more without it seeming almost a parody?),  and there is more than a whiff of cliché in the all-wise, wronged figure of Reme, the oafish Peio, the stiff mother figure, and the pure niceness of Jose. The non tragic resolution is too reliant on unlikely circumstances, and  one can't help protesting that life isn't so easy, but this wish fulfilment aspect is in its way charming and pleasing. Sometimes, after all, good and right things happen. 

– – – – –

   So, for me, the end of the Black Nights 2009. And the next morning I fly out from Tallinn's smart new airport building. It's been a great pleasure to be here in this beautiful vibrant city, where the grey days have been cheered by the whiff of chrysanthemums form the flower stalls at the old town gate, the clanking trams, the view towards the sea from the top of Toompea, and hot wine in the market place, and the black nights enhanced by the lovely Christmas lights and above all the hospitality of all those cheerful young volunteers.  

   On the Friday night prizes went as follows:
* Grand Prix  – Ajami (Germany, Israel)
* Cinematography  – No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran)
* Best director  – Klaus Häro for Letters to Father Jacob (Finland)
* Tridens Baltic award  – Vortex (Lithuania)
* Scottish Leader Estonian film award  – December Heat (Estonia)
* FIPRESCI prize – Disco and Atomic War (Estonia)
* Audience prize  – Castaway from the Moon (South Korea)
   As often happens, I didn't actually see any of these! But their status as winners should bring other opportunities. Meanwhile the true pleasure of a film festival is to come upon unknown films that may well stay practically unknown outside their own countries, and spend that precious time alone in the dark in a shared pleasure with strangers.

Sheila Seacroft
11th December 2009

includes The Perfidy; Little Soldier; Enter the Void; Laila's Birthday; Sorry Thanks; Kinocaravan