SCREEN SUBSCRIBERS: Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn celebrates its 18th birthday by hosting the European Film Forum for the first time and selecting a global programme worthy of its new FIAPF status. Tom Grater previews this year’s event.

Black Nights Film Festival 2014

The timing of Black Nights Film Festival (November 13-29) in Tallinn couldn’t be better, as the film industry winds down from the buzz of the autumn festivals and gears up for awards season.

“I see our festival in Tallinn as being a great chance to wrap up the festival year and also start preparing the new one,” says festival director Tiina Lokk, who has been a fixture of the Estonian event since founding it in 1997.

“It is a place to see films that have been talked about throughout the year, catch up after intense markets like Toronto, Venice and AFM, and to see something completely new.”

According to Lokk, it is Black Nights’ “laid-back environment” that differentiates it from its competitors.

Its industry programme continues to grow each year, and the recent decision by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF) to accredit Tallinn as a non-specialised competitive festival puts it in the rarefied company of only 14 other festivals including Cannes, Berlin, Warsaw, Tokyo and Venice.

This stamp of approval meant that from August 2014 onwards, the programming team was able to widen its net and select features from all over the world for the competition selection (the festival’s early years came with an emphasis on Nordic film).

Lokk says that change has made the organisation “feel a bit like the new art exhibition in town. Everyone wants to be a part of something in the making — to see us rise or see us fail. But that’s normal, to be a festival at this level means a lot of responsibility… towards our audience, towards the international part of the industry, towards the Estonian industry and towards film-makers and sales agents. The people who have trusted their so-called ‘children’ to us.”

Despite Black Nights’ burgeoning status, the event’s $1.7m (€1.5m) budget has remained at the same level for five years. About a third of the money comes from public funding — including from state bodies, Estonian organisations such as Enterprise Estonia and EU support such as Creative Europe — while the rest is derived from ticket sales and sponsors.

“It has never been easy,” says Lokk of running a large festival on a modest budget. “But we really feel the budget should get bigger to stay in the game and be equal with other A-class festivals, whose budgets are significantly higher.”

But there is certainly no shortage of content. In total, the 2015 edition will screen 622 films, including 268 features and documentaries, and the event will also offer a diverse range of competitions, panels and workshops.

Getting competitive

There will be three competitive programmes this year: the International Competition, the Tridens Estonian Feature Competition and, new for 2015, the Tridens First Film Competition.

The International Competition will include 18 titles: seven world premieres, three international premieres and eight European premieres. One highlight, Vitaliy Manskiy’s North Korea documentary Under The Sun, chronicles the often absurd, often sinister nature of daily life under the nation’s oppressive regime.

The inaugural Tridens First Features Competition — sponsored by the Estonian wholesaler — showcases 14 debut features, all of which will be international or world premieres, with an additional two selected to screen out of competition. The titles have been picked from diverse locations including Norway (Staying Alive), Iran (Two), the US (Lost In The White City) and South Korea (Snowy Road). The line-up also includes co-productions between France and Colombia (Anna), Paraguay and Argentina (Guarani) and Israel and the UK (A.K.A. Nadia).

“First films are very important. You can see very clearly which directors have the energy and power,” says Lokk.

The festival’s opening film will be Grandmother, the 1929 Georgian silent comedy with live accompaniment from the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nikoloz Rachveli. The opening event will be a part of the festival’s country focus on Georgia this year.

“We want to show the audience real masterpieces from Georgian cinematic history,” says Lokk. The Georgian programme, presented with the Embassy of Georgia and the National Georgian Film Fund, will also screen standout films from the country’s cinematic history, such as Giorgi Shengelaia’s Pirosmani and Tengiz Abuladze’s The Wishing Tree. Closing the festival will be The Boy And The Beast, the latest animation feature from Japan’s Mamoru Hosoda, the man behind Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

While the majority of the festival is ramping up, one regular feature that will not return this year is the American indie strand, which first appeared in 2008 and ran as a competition between 2009 and 2014. Past winners include Mommy and Starbuck. The decision to remove the programme is part of the shift in emphasis towards making Black Nights an event on the world stage, a move inspired by the FIAPF accreditation.

“When we became A-class we felt the [American indie] competition had lived its life,” says Lokk. “Having a separate competition for one continent seemed unfair regarding the others.”

To put a unique Tallinn twist onto proceedings, the festival’s gala screenings will be accompanied by black-carpet events, rather than the usual red, and will put less emphasis on the spectacle, glamour and celebrity seen at other festivals. “Our audience is not used to dressing up for the cinema — wearing a tuxedo or a long dress is not yet a tradition,” says Lokk.

The festival’s name itself is not the result of any gothic obsession; it is just that late November in Estonia means lots of long, dark nights — ideal conditions for cinemagoing. Ns

Industry Insights

The future of European cinema

This year’s Industry@Tallinn event — the festival’s industry programme — is bigger than ever before.

In 2015 Tallinn will partner with the European Commission (EC) to host the annual European Film Forum, which Black Nights’ industry director Sten-Kristian Saluveer describes as the “key industry event” taking place at the festival. The primary focus for the forum will be the future of European cinema, specifically the debate surrounding the EC’s stance on the digital single market (DSM) proposals.

EC vice-president Andrus Ansip, previously the prime minister of Estonia, will be in attendance at the festival, taking part in a fireside chat with Screen International editor Matt Mueller. Ansip will discuss the DSM proposal and its implications for the region.

“The festival is a nucleus between all key parties in the DSM debate,” says Saluveer. “We have to acknowledge the needs of film-makers and distributors, but at the same time respect the changing nature of the audiences and the distribution markets in Europe.”

Another highlight of the industry programme, the annual Baltic Event co-production market — the largest of its type in the region — will return for its 14th edition in 2015. The market has seen 54 projects come to fruition since its launch, including Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days and Marius Holst’s Norway-France-Sweden-Poland co-production King Of Devil’s Island.

Another part of the Baltic Event, the works-in-progress strand, will showcase feature films in production or post-production that are searching for a sales agent or a festival slot to host an international premiere.

Having previously selected only Baltic and Finnish projects, the programme, which has been running since 2003, has this year opened up to submissions from central and eastern Europe and the Nordic countries.

Elsewhere, the Game Jam event, hosted with a local branch of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), will involve a selection of video-game developers creating prototype games based around selected film titles. The event is designed to explore the possibilities of monetising film content across different platforms.

Black Nights key dates

November 13-16: IGDA Game Jam
Video-game designers explore the prospect of monetising film content across different media

November 13-22: Just Film
A sub-festival dedicated to films for children and young people

November 13-29: Black Nights Film Festival

November 16-18: Baltic Event
The festival’s co-production market and works-in-progress showcase

November 16-20: Industry@Tallinn
The industry programme of Black Nights

November 17-21: Short Film Festival Sleepwalkers
Live action and documentary shorts from across the world

November 18-19: European Film Forum Tallinn
The annual event will focus on the future of cinema in relation to the proposed digital single market

November 19-23: Animated Dreams
Showcase for animators and their work