When the first coronavirus lockdown went into effect in Estonia this spring, the organizers of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival—the leading cinema event in the Baltics, which unspools Nov. 13-29 with a hybrid edition—knew they had ample time to prepare for when and how the curtain would rise this fall. For festival director Tiina Lokk, there was never any doubt that a physical event should go on, even as she realized that “this virus will shift paradigms,” the Black Nights topper tells Variety.
The explosive spread of coronavirus across the globe has been impossible to predict, and Lokk says planning this year’s festival was like “solving a math equation with endless unknown variables on the one hand, and like sitting on a time-bomb on the other.” But as the festival’s industry arm, Industry@Tallinn & Baltic Event, shifted to a digital edition, and a VOD platform was built to complement physical screenings in the Estonian capital, one thing remained clear. “Virtual, for us at least, is here to stay,” Lokk says.
Now in its 24th year, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival has grown into the premier showcase for the growing Estonian industry, as well as the wider Baltic region. This year, Lokk and her colleagues looked at how they could expand their efforts to become an even more useful platform for the region at a time when global travel and film production have been disrupted by the pandemic. “In that sense, the virus was somewhat useful, forcing us to think and act outside the box,” she says.
To that end, festival organizers have created a new virtual platform, dubbed “X-Road,” that will serve as a digital gateway to filmmaking in the Baltics, showcasing regional production companies and filmmakers, highlighting locations and services, and offering a virtual screening room for local movies. “Our web will become a hub that’s active all-year-long,” says Lokk, with new features added to the platform over time.
With the pandemic presenting a threat to filmmaking across the globe, however, Lokk says the virtual shift “only cements the importance of having the physical event now and in the future,” adding that “nothing can fully replace physical communication.”
To that end, the organizing team was determined to host screenings in Tallinn, where one of Europe’s lowest rates of coronavirus cases hasn’t diminished wide-ranging efforts to provide a safe environment for festival guests. Another concern for organizers, says Lokk, was the decision of many premier spring and summer festivals to postpone until the fall, adding “an extra layer of fear” over whether there would be enough films—or attention from the movie-going public—to go around.
“We are usually among the last of the year’s bigger festivals, and this has been a challenge on its own already before this year,” she says. “But I’m glad we’ve managed to prove that films from Black Nights can fly high, and that a premiere at the end of the year does not interfere with continuing a great run at the circuit during the next year.”
Bolstering that belief is a record number of 33 world, 29 international, and nine European premieres at the 24th edition, which for the Black Nights topper underscores the festival’s importance in the midst of a global pandemic. “At some point we realized that our festival might be the last chance for many of the filmmakers to screen their films on a big screen, to a live audience,” says Lokk. “Because in the present situation, nobody can even be sure that the first festivals at the beginning of [next] year can have organized physical events.”
Along with the 25 films selected for the main competition—the festival’s biggest lineup ever—an additional 14 films from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will take part in the Baltic competition, presenting what Lokk describes as an “exciting and exhaustive cultural and cinematic overview” of filmmaking in the region. Eighteen titles from emerging cinematic voices have been tapped for the First Feature competition, while 13 features will compete in the Rebels With a Cause international competition, a sidebar dedicated to avant-garde, experimental, and boundary-pushing filmmaking.
As part of Black Nights’ spotlight on contemporary cinema from this year’s focus country, Germany, Oskar Roehler’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder biopic “Enfant Terrible” will open the festival. It’s a selection that highlights a long-standing emphasis on what Lokk describes as “bold cinematic statements.” “This has always been something that has driven our programming,” she adds, “fresh perspectives, courage, and intellectual capacity to do things differently and challenge the viewers.”
The 24th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival runs online and in the Estonian capital from Nov. 13-29.