Head of PÖFF, Tiina Lokk
If you take a look at the ranks of A-list film festivals, you will find alongside the well-known leaders of the cinema world that the latest addition is a curious little festival called the Black Nights Film Festival held in Tallinn. The Black Nights Film Festival or ‘PÖFF’, as locals name it, is the first A-list film festival in the Nordic region and also the smallest one on the list. Founded in 1997, the festival aimed initially to give a voice to local filmmakers and bring Estonians to see, well – Estonian films. The challenge of attracting audiences to watch their own local output had spread across Europe following the massive wave of North-American film production, so a post-Soviet country like Estonia could not avoid this. Now, 20 years later, PÖFF still flies the flag for local films creations, but with much bigger ambitions. PÖFF and its Industry Days program for professionals have made large contributions in bringing Estonian cinema to the world arena. And the results are something to be proud of: we can find Estonian films on most A-list film festivals’ programme around the world and Estonian film has subsequently found recognition in the international press. But it was not like that for PÖFF at the beginning. PÖFF started out as a very small festival. The first years were hard – it was the end of the 90s, people were short of money and the tradition of going to the cinema, rather than watching films on TV at home, had been forgotten in Estonia since the 1970s. But over time, the festival grew in terms of both quantity and quality. The first years of PÖFF were a mix of financial restrictions and serendipity: the very first festival was opened with a very special guest: the recognized Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. From the beginning, the Head
of the Festival, Tiina Lokk, has taken great care of all the international and local guests invited to the festival. She remembers moments when in the late 1990s, with no money and with the concomitant low expectations, the festival had the opportunity to host thanks to its generous sponsors, with glorious dinner parties for guests. Dinner parties that none of the festival team members had ever had a chance to attend before themselves. ‘In post-Soviet Estonia, there was no place for cinema. It was not in the focus of our Ministry of Culture’s policies and the former institutional structure for Estonian film had completely collapsed after the shifts in the power structure following independence. Something had to be done in order to give Estonian filmmakers the attention they truly deserved,’ says Lokk with friendly authority.
Rub Shoulders Only With the Best of the Best To build up a film festival from scratch takes a long time of course. Jumping ahead, it was only in 2014 that we could give testimony to an international breakthrough for all the hard work of the PÖFF’s team – when the festival was included among the 20 A-list festivals around the world. PÖFF has since then had the right to organise international competitions in its program. ‘But we cannot keep it a secret,’ comments the Head of the Festival – ‘our budget for the festival is 1.4 million Euros. The next A-lister is San Sebastian, in Spain, with a budget of 9 million euros. When I travel around festivals, my colleagues cannot hide their surprise when they hear the minute amounts of money we are working with in Estonia.’ On the other hand, international filmmakers clearly have a soft spot for PÖFF and last year the Grand Prix winners from South Korea, Lee Joon-ik and Cho Chul-hyun generously donated their award money of 10 000 Euros back to PÖFF. They added that this was intended to go towards next year’s festival preparations.
LIFE IN ESTONIA #43