Estonia is currently in its Centenary Week, the peak of celebrations marking 100 years since the country's independence was officially declared on 24th February 1918. In fact, all three Baltic States including Latvia and Lithuania are reaching the same anniversary this year, and neighbouring Finland reached it last year. The Estonia 100 celebrations began in April 2017 and they continue throughout 2018 with two leading themes: children and youth, and building a better future together. Film is a flourishing part of Estonian culture, featuring widely in the 100 programme, and its most high-profile annual flowering is the internationally-renowned Black Nights Film Festival (Pimedate Ööde Filmifestival or PÖFF). Referred to by the media sometimes as 'small Estonia', the country has big cultural visions for its place in the world which are reflected in PÖFF.
Set mostly in Estonia's capital city Tallinn in the second half of November and early December, when the nights are indeed black, PÖFF caught my attention early on in its story because of its intriguing brand and increasing reputation: more recently, I've been following its growth into one of the world's leading film festivals. I’m interested in the strategies and structures of film festivals and in how we can learn from others about their experiences and experiments. I think the best film festivals are ones organically linked to their own setting and its cultures, but reaching out beyond it for new ideas and connections contributes significantly to strategic and structural evolution. Thanks to Film Hub North support, I was able to visit PÖFF for the first time during its 21st anniversary edition to experience its own evolution for myself.
Just before I traveled to Tallinn towards the end of November 2017, the EU ruled there could not be a European Capital of Culture in the UK for 2023, which was a big blow for Leeds and the other applicant cities. While I was in Tallinn, the EU announced that one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2024 would be Estonian: Tallinn and second city Turku have already shared ECOC status in 2011. Estonia also happened to hold the Presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2017, replacing the UK because of the referendum vote. Despite these Brexit consequences and reminders, I was buoyed by the shared experience of European culture at PÖFF in Tallinn with its fascinating mix of medieval history and high-tech immersion.
The main industry conference I attended was a uniting event about one of the Estonia 100 themes, building a better future together. Organised as part of the Estonian Presidency of the EU Council and taking place in the Tallinn IMAX (at Cinamon Cosmos), Pictured Futures was a bumper two-day programme of debates and talks connecting content, tech and policy, with rousing session titles like ‘Moonshots for Europe’ and statements like ‘the whole of Europe is a Silicon Valley for storytelling’, all culminating with a call to action from British producer Sir David Puttnam. The same uniting theme was apparent in the Storytek sessions I attended, involving creators who could help realise some of the visions from Pictured Futures. Storytek’s sessions at PÖFF were coordinated with their prior ten-week boot camp in Tallinn – called the ‘Accelerator’ - for companies with creative-tech prototypes, working across film, music, gaming and advertising: joining up different creative industries is a leading theme at PÖFF. Accelerator participants presented their prototypes during PÖFF and were in the audience for a wide-ranging ‘Forum’ with panels of leading creative specialists. I first heard about Storytek at a Creative Europe conference in Brussels in December 2016 and it was great to experience it a year later during PÖFF: Storytek founder and CEO Sten Saluveer is an inspiring innovator himself.
Pictured Futures and Storytek featured as part of industry@tallinn, accurately billed as ‘the fastest growing summit for film professionals in Northern Europe’, and one of three ‘sub-festivals’ that run alongside the main PÖFF programme. Other events in industry@tallinn also successfully join together different creative industries, including co-production and film market Baltic Event, the European Genre Forum talent lab, technology showcase Digitech Corner, Estonian Film Music Showcase, and Gamejam. The second sub-festival is PÖFF Shorts, which is a new combined name for two formerly separate sub-festivals for shorts, Animated Dreams and Sleepwalkers. I expect the name change was made to better promote the shorts together using the high profile PÖFF branding and for practical reasons, but it hasn’t affected the variety, breath and inventiveness of the short film programming, or its regular signature events like the seven-hour Night Cinema. There is Yorkshire inspiration at work here too as the head of the Sleepwalkers side of PÖFF Shorts is Laurence Boyce, who first worked at Leeds International Film Festival and then directed Glimmer Short Film Festival in Hull. The third sub-festival is Just Film, especially for children and young people: 50 films were presented in 2017 and the main themed sections included Children's Rights, Science360 and Travelling World. Just Film also runs a campaign called 'But Me?' to highlight the importance of welfare for children and young people, with related films in their selection.
The three sub-festivals are each extensive, while the main PÖFF programme is enormous. As a whole, PÖFF 2017 presented more than 280 feature films and 300 shorts from 70 countries. The public screening schedule is staggering, with a vast variety of choices throughout every day: I’ve seen this kind of public schedule at some major 10 to 12 day film festivals but PÖFF keeps it up for 17 days. Not only that, throughout its duration PÖFF also presents a substantial part of its programme in Estonia’s second city Tartu, almost like another film festival in itself. Screening venues in Tallinn include two multiplexes Coca Cola Plaza and Apollo Kino Solaris, and many others are used regularly: my favourite venue was Estonia’s oldest cinema, the 1950s Soviet-style Kino Sõprus, literally meaning ‘Cinema Friendship’. Pricing is flexible, with €8 for single tickets, a good offer of 5 or more tickets for €6 each, and a great offer of 30 tickets for €120.
The FIAPF-accredited Official Selection leads the PÖFF competitions and 19 world or international premieres were presented in 2017: all films were by established filmmakers but not ones who would be familiar to most audiences, so PÖFF's support for them through their main competition is significant. The well-received Kyrgyz drama Night Accident by Temirbek Birnazarov won the Grand Prix, while Best Director went to Ju-hyoung Lee for Excavator (South Korea), written by Kim Ki-Duk. The national film in Official Selection, The Manslayer / The Virgin / The Shadow – three powerful portraits of Estonian women by Sulev Keedus – won awards for Best Cinematography and Best Score. German director Isa Prahl won the First Feature Competition with intimate family drama Different Kinds of Rain and the winner of the Estonian Competition was November by Rainer Sarnet, a black comedy fantasy based on a bestselling novel by Tallinn writer Andrus Kivirähk. PÖFF launched a new competition in 2017 where the audience is the jury: Rebels with a Cause is for ‘films whose message or tools of expression are fierce and contradictory’: the winner was the suitably-titled occult drama The Wild Boys, the debut from French director Bertrand Mandico about five adolescent boys on the run who end up on a supernatural island.
The variety and volume of non-competitive programming at PÖFF is impressive with major panorama and forum sections, and smaller documentary and midnight sections. Most of the films in these sectons have appeared at other film festivals throughout the year and they range from previews of high-profile releases like The Death of Stalin, The Florida Project and Three Billboards to little-known titles, one of which won the overall PÖFF 2017 audience prize: Dutch romantic comedy Tulipani, Love, Honour and a Bicycle by Mike van Diem. Additional special selections at PÖFF 2017 included a focus on film from Belgian Flanders, the films of contemporary Japanese female directors, and my favourite, a 48-hour non-stop 100th anniversary retrospective of Finnish cult film and classics.
PÖFF has been directed from the start by one woman, founder Tiina Lokk, who heads up this quite extraordinary programme undertaking that is backed mostly by sponsors rather than public funders. PÖFF is successful, says Tiina Lokk , as it is ‘continuously on the move... evolving into a great cultural and film event for North Eastern Europe, opening the gates of the world in both directions.’ This strategic vision is embodied by PÖFF's programme structure which adapts fast and changes fluidly with the creative industries and audiences, often leading to new and exciting programme innovations. Alongside PÖFF's global outlook, there is also strong home support for, in Tiina Lokk's words, the ‘small but original Estonian cinema'. We hope to bring an Estonia selection to Leeds International Film Festival in 2018.
Since my visit to Tallinn just after the 2023 news from Brussels, Leeds City Council has announced a very welcome commitment: to continue the energy and momentum created by the city's bid for European Capital of Culture. There will now be a six-year investment programme culminating in a year-long celebration of the city’s diverse cultures in 2023. I know my experience in Tallinn with Estonia 100 and PÖFF 21 will help to further shape our vision for film in Leeds and how it can contribute to the 2023 plans. Thank you, Estonia!
The 22nd Black Nights Film Festival will run from 16th November to 2nd December 2018
Estonia 100: ev100.ee/en
Black Nights Film Festival: poff.ee
Pictured Futures: picturedfutures.com
PÖFF Shorts: shorts.poff.ee/en
Just Film: justfilm.ee/en
Kino Sõprus: kinosoprus.ee/en