On November 3rd, the most important film event in Northern Europe began: the Tallinn Black Nights Flim Festival. In just over two weeks, many important film premieres will take place, cinema industry professionals and film creative teams from all over the world will congregate in the capital of Estonia. Lithuanian film critic and film scout Edvinas Pukšta also contributed to the program compilation of the only A-class festival in Northern Europe. At the beginning of “Black Nights”, he agreed to tell the Vilnius Film Office a few interesting details about the backstage of international festivals, the Baltic countries’ cinema scene and what makes films successful.
The Tallinn Black Nights Flim Festival begins. It is the only A-class film festival in the Baltic States. What does this mean?
The international organization of producers, FIAPF (Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films; English: International Federation of Film Producers Associations) singles out the most important festivals in the world. In order for the festival to receive A-class accreditation, all managers of festivals that already have this class must agree. After eliminating Moscow, today we have 14 such festivals. The most important difference between an A-class festival and others is the competitive programs, which include films not screened anywhere else yet. For example, the Vilnius film festivals select any films that they like and find relevant, in contrast, Tallinn chooses only those that have not yet been presented in Berlin, Venice, Cannes or other festivals.
For a film festival programmer and a film scout, a world or European premiere is a big responsibility and risk because you have to convince not only the festival organizers but also producers and agents that Tallinn is the right place to present the film to the audience for the first time.
The fact that an A-class festival takes place in Estonia is a great achievement for the country.
If we say that Poland is part of central Europe, then Tallinn Black Nights Flim Festival is the only A-class event of this kind in Northern Europe. By the way, the festival’s founder, Tiina Lokk, is the only woman who has founded and is currently managing an A-class cinema festival. A lot was determined by Tina’s work in convincing the Estonian government and city authorities that it was worth investing in. She personally met with the heads of other A-class festivals. This is already the sixth festival in which I actively participate and I feel that Tallinn is strongly expanding, growing, and asserting its authority.
Every year, thousands of films are made around the world. With so many choices, how are films selected for festivals? According to the theme chosen for that particular year? According to the topics that dominate headlines worldwide?
I don’t believe in selection by topic; this is the shortest way to a self-made trap. Since we are in charge of the program, we depend on a lot of things, like when the film came out and what other festivals its team dreams of entering. The intuition of the programmers and the risks they can take are also important. I feel a responsibility towards the producers I convince to come to Tallinn, but they also have to weigh their chances correctly. If you go to the Cannes Film Festival with a small film, it may be its one and only screening, because the film will get lost among bigger and more important projects.
Of course, we must not forget that ticket sales are one of the goals of every festival, so it is necessary to partially take into account what the audience prefers. The goal of the Tallinn selection is to make the program as broad as possible and to present as many films as possible from Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Africa.
Does the release of the film at a festival of this class guarantee its further?
The premiere of the film at the festival may not yield anything. I would say that one third of the success formula depends on the festival, one third on the team itself and how they will be seen, another third on how the film will be received, how the audience and critics will react to it. The remaining percentages are a series of fortunate circumstances.
It matters a great deal to us that all films have a level playing field, so each premiere is given a convenient time, and the first screening always takes place in the same hall. Every film needs to find the right program for it to blossom and unfold. After all, not all films shown will receive reviews. Whether the film will not be forgotten, whether it will be noticed, whether it will travel to other festivals – this is the true success of the festival’s programmer. We can name many cases where directors were “killed” at Cannes and never made films again.
Another example is that it may win an award, but it will not determine the further distribution of the film. Sometimes it’s more valuable to get a lot of movie reviews that will get you noticed. For me, as someone who is in charge of the program, it is no longer enough of an achievement to screen the film in Tallinn: I think it would be a failure to present a film like that. My goal is for the film to “hook” other people who are in charge of festival programs and keep traveling through festivals.
What makes Tallinn’s Black Nights unique compared to other European festivals?
The face of the festival is shaped by how many films we receive each year and which directors believe in it. This year we will present a film by creator Emma Dante – the director’s last two works were presented in Venice Film Festival’s main program. It will also be possible to see the film “Familiar” by Calin Peter Netzer, who won the Golden Bear a little earlier.
We are lucky that none of the Tallinn festivals have been canceled due to the pandemic. Remembering the 2020s, I can still recall many rules and instructions, warnings to the audience – this undoubtedly had a big impact on the attendance. But it was in 2020 that we started the tradition of jumping into the cold water of the Baltic Sea quite by accident. It all started with 4-5 enthusiasts and has now grown into a unique adventure that no other festival can offer. A large bus is needed to accommodate everyone who wants to swim in the waves of the Baltic Sea.
Which festival programs stand out the most, in your opinion?
Much of the success of the festival is based on the program “Rebels with a Cause”, which includes films that could be in the main competition, but are bolder, have different forms and languages, and need specific audiences. I would say that the most inventive directors gather here, those who are not afraid to take risks, receive less favorable reviews. In fact, their films often travel to festivals for several more years.
Another important program for young people is Family and Teen Movies. The sessions are held during the day and are attended by a young, still unspoiled audience. Sometimes a surprisingly large number of spectators gather here. There have been cases where a film from this program won the Audience Film Award.
For the first time, the Baltic competition will be so incredibly diverse, from experimental cinema to highly visible films.
Regarding the Baltic countries’ program’ what’s your take on the film industry in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia?
I wish Baltic films got more attention from festival programmers at other festivals. Baltic films have long ago caught up with, for example, Romanian films. I think that the new wave of Romanian cinema was shaped by a series of invitations to Cannes. And there is still not so much faith in Baltic films.
Every year in Baltic cinema is very different, I see that Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian filmmakers have turned in very different directions.
I would say that in Estonia, the focus is more on commercial films that bring in quick profits, and less attention is paid to whether the film will travel and be attractive abroad. They also work a lot on documentaries. “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is a good recent example, the film is already touring festivals and is even a candidate to be nominated for an Oscar.
Latvians are the leaders in animation. In my opinion, they are more advanced than Lithuanian, who started making progress in animation only recently. However, I think that the strongest forge of debuts is Lithuania. A lot now rests on the shoulders of such directors as Marija Kavtaradze, Laurynas Bareiša, Saulius Baradinskas, Vytautas Katkus, Saulė Bliuvaitė, Jurgis Matulevičius – these directors deserve to be noticed. We have a lot of hope and prospects. I am also waiting for the first feature-length film in which Lithuania will be the lead.
Where do you think Lithuanian filmmakers could do better?
I would like to wish all the producers that they start thinking about how to sell films not only in Lithuania, but also to interest the international audience. After all, we do not only make films for ourselves. I believe that there should be an important aspect of internationality in film financing models.
It is very important that the creator be noticed by foreign festivals. We have a few very good examples: Emilis Vėlyvis’s “The Generation of Evil” has been as far as a South Korean festival, and the first Lithuanian horror film “Pensive” (directed by Jonas Trukanas) that came out last year is currently being presented internationally and has already been screened at least 15 important festivals; it was also sold to television, so it is definitely visible. By the way, the film’s premiere took place here in Tallinn, in the competition of the Baltic countries’ films. Titas Laucius set a good tone for himself with “Parade”. On the other hand, in foreign countries there is still a lack of trust in the Lithuanian sense of humor and our ability to make people laugh.
The next year will be very productive for Lithuania. If the leader this year was Marija Kavtaradze’s film “Slow”, then next year we will have more premieres. I can’t wait to see how these films do at international festivals.
Thank you for the conversation.