The snow storm finally subsided. As guests, delegates and jury members arrived at the airport, the rain slowly filtered down from a dark sky, a black night looming towards us. It could have been an ominous start, but instead was the perfect setting for almost ten days of film screenings, lectures and special events which characterised this impressive festival, framed against the backdrop of a medieval town on the Nordic coastline.
The celestial drama of the overture night set the mood for the following days, and the opening film, Happy-Go-Lucky, by British director Mike Leigh, kick-started the festival. Comfortably seated in the magnificent halls of the old Tallinn's Russian theatre, we were projected into the hustle and bustle of Camden, London. In the film, the cheerfulness and optimism of the main character draws the audience into a circle of lives that meet and depart, like a dance which people join and leave, to then disappear into the shadows.
On the same evening my job as a Netpac Jury member began. Accompanied by Rahel, our guide in Tallinn, I headed towards another theatre hall, less grand but equally charming and cosy. This film, the first of 14 films selected for in the Netpac Award Competition, chosen out of the festival's 40 Asian films, was God Man Dog by Taiwanese director Singing Chen.
As hinted in the title, God Man Dog is a film which portrays different realms of life. Set against the beautiful Taiwanese landscape, it follows an intricate maze of souls all looking for some sense in their lives. Infused with Buddhist spirituality, the film speculates on the concepts of interdependence of all beings, human and non-human, leaving the audience with a sense of hope rather than despair, even when confronted with the crudeness of life's challenges. By the time we left the hall it was almost midnight, and Tallinn was now lit up with decorations and lights, a reminder of impending Christmas festivities. The film had left me with a sense of displacement, yet with a feeling that there may be a greater reason for being there, a reason beyond the scope of the festival. I started to chat with Rahel, wishing to know more about her, Estonia, about our passion for cinema that had brought us together. Hungrily munching our McDonald's burgers, we talked about Asian cinema, Estonians' pride in their language and culture, and Mediterranean cuisine. The usual mundane symptoms of globalisation, or a conscience, pricked by this film, that anyone of us is entwined in an invisible interdependent web of connections which we struggle to give meaning to? Left to ponder, I turn in for the night, and awake to the second day of the festival.
During the following days, I was able to see many films directed by young Asian filmmakers such as They Say I'm a Monkey (Indonesia, 2007) by Djenar Maesa Ayu, Beautiful (South Korea, 2008) by Jung Jaihong, Mozart Town (South Korea, 2008) by Jean Kyu-Hwan and Two Legged Horse (Iran, 2008) by Samira Makhmalbaf.
The first two films revolve around female characters, and we are confronted, in quite dramatic ways, with the conflicts of two Asian women who face the challenges of entering adulthood. Set against urban sceneries, the beautiful, young women must come to terms with their past and obsessions. Director Djenar Maesa Ayu, herself a young Asian woman, depicts a female character reflecting on the split aspects of her life, trapped in a world of guilt that she escapes through her writing. In Beautiful, the director leaves little hope for his character who embarks on destroying her own image, resulting in the loss of her life.
Mozart Town, also from South Korea, is perhaps less accomplished cinematically, but the film's plot is well narrated and holds the audience's attention,. The film conveys the over-riding sadness of a Korean town, whose inhabitants appear to live in their own microcosms. Less lyrical, if not utterly crude, is the film Two Legged Horse by Samira Makhmalbaf, certainly the most famous among the young Asian directors, but whom in my opinion, fails in this recent endeavour. Shot against the arid Afghan landscape, the geographical harshness is reflected in the human creatures who inhabit the place, almost completely de-humanised and dryly exposed in front of the camera. I had the feeling that the film was capitalising on a common, exploited notion of the cruelty of this region. The children's characters, far from being signs of hope, become the perpetrators of physical and psychological abuse. The film was awarded a Special Mention at the Festival, but I would have spared the praise for other films, in this abundant and competitive festival.
Of the films I found to be beautifully executed and truly worth mentioning are Gulabi Talkies (India, 2008) by Girish Kasaravalli and The Photograph (Indonesia 2007) by Nan Triveni Achnas. Also the documentary directed by Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City (Hong Kong, China, Japan 2008) and the intimate, slow-paced but deeply poetic film Still Walking (Japan 2008) by Hirokazu Kore-Eda.
In the end, the Netpac Jury gave its award to The Shaft (China 2008), the directorial debut of Zhang Chi, a young Chinese filmmaker. The skilfully mastered photography leads the spectator on a journey in to one of modern China's less exposed realities - a miners' town, where people are trapped in a geographically and socially closed world. The claustrophobia of the environment encapsulates the simple lives of a few family members whose ambition and dreams are crushed by poverty in a country which strives to convey an image of unparalleled success on the world stage whilst hiding the almost surreal reality of ordinary lives in China's backwaters.
These are only a few of the films that I saw in Tallinn. The programme of the festival was rich and full of surprises, not least for me, the discovery of a thriving cinematic scenario in Estonia itself. Every film gave me a chance to tap into another world, reminding me that like a family history, untold secrets can be finally revealed and wonders disclosed, to then be put back safely into a memento box for future generations.
The last film screened at the end of an enjoyable and professionally orchestrated closing ceremony, was appropriately titled Pandora's Box. A delicate and visually splendid Turkish film by director Yesim Ustaoglu, closed the 12th edition of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, bringing forward the message and poetry of human relationships, and the importance of respecting other ways of life.