Last year we had our eyes open to one of Europe’s finest events on the film calendar, at the annual Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia. Needless to say after our last visit we were grateful to be invited back for the 2023 edition; the festival’s 27th year.

Taking place a little earlier in November, while the nights were still black (as advertised), the weather was crisp. Less snow, more sun – and a lot less slipping over on the icy cobbles. Another notable difference for our visit to the Estonian capital this year was that we went at the very start of the 16-day festival, able to experience and appreciate the opening night ceremony, which was a real highlight of our stay.

Taking place at the Alexela concert hall, the film was Guardians of the Formula, by Serbian filmmaker Dragan Bjelogrlic, which tells the fascinating true story of a secretive, mostly unknown Yugoslavian nuclear project that, as you’ll have probably guessed, didn’t quite work out. This dramatic, stirring production was heading up the festival’s focus programme, which was spotlighting the fine cinema from the nations of Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, North Macedonia and Slovenia.

Guardians of the Formula
The opening night film was Guardians of the Formula

What preceded the screening was a moving visual installation – as a short movie was shown to audiences called Murals by British artist Banksy, which transported the viewers to the devastating scenes in Ukraine, a war which, given the geographical proximity, is emotionally, and literally close to home, and struck a chord with the silenced auditorium. After these two videos were shown, naturally, it was time for a drink – and on that front, the opening ceremony didn’t disappoint. We’d go into more detail, but our memories are somewhat hazy.

Given the timing of our stay in Tallinn, it did mean our experience going to screenings was led mostly by two of the festival’s sub-categories, as there was the youth sections, head up by ‘Just Film’ which was showcasing the best of entertainment aimed at a younger audience. Then there was the ‘Best of Festivals’ which works as something of a greatest hits, a mop up if you will, of the other festivals to have taken place this year, with some of the highlights from the likes of Toronto and Venice. The festival’s official competition didn’t actually begin until after our trip ended sadly – but that’s not to say we didn’t see films that moved and compelled us.

We (finally) caught up with one of our favourite films of the year – if not the year’s very best – which was Poor Things, with a personalised introduction beforehand on the screen by director Yorgos Lanthimos. After which he took us on a journey we’ll never quite be able to forget. Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo turned in career best performances, to make for a cinematic spectacle unlike anything we’ve truly experienced before.

Side view of woman with long black hair and dressed in yellow in the forest.
Emma Stone in Poor Things

Another film that was playing having already premiered at a major international festival, was the Robert De Niro starring Ezra, which played at Toronto back in September. Sadly this film didn’t enlighten and entertain us in quite the same way that Poor Things managed, as it just lacked real cohesion, with a bizarre tonality that made for a disjointed film. The performances from Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne were impressive, as always, but wasted in this quite messy production. Seems these days it’s only truly Scorsese that gets a real tune out of De Niro.

As for the Just Film youth programme, we had our senses overwhelmed with the incredibly beautiful animation Kensuke’s Kingdom. A visual treat, with an overwhelmingly moving narrative, this is a film to keep a very close eye on, and be sure to take your kids to see it -or go alone, it doesn’t matter, just be sure to see this film. If this mini paragraph of praise isn’t enough to convince you, it’s worth noting that Cillian Murphy, Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe all lend their vocals to it – and let’s just be honest for a moment, they wouldn’t do that if the film was rubbish.

The very final film we saw is noteworthy for it was receiving its world premiere in Tallinn – and that was the profound drama No Way Home. The film, seven years in the making, is directed by Yousaf Ali Khan, which he co-writes alongside Andy Porter, and tells the story of a young boy, played by newcomer Mitchell Norman, who is being forced out of his home by his mother’s new boyfriend. Starring Hayley Squires as the mother, the film depicts a complex, dysfunctional home life. The boy finds a friend in the most unlikely of places, in the fugitive named ‘Bearded Man’ played by Goran Bogdan; a suspected terrorist hiding out in the woods. The film focuses on two displaced young men, and how despite their different backgrounds, they find a shared sense of compassion for one another. It’s a film certainly worth seeking out, and be sure to stick around until the final credits too, to hear an original song by up and coming British singer-songwriter Katherine Priddy.

No Way Home
Mitchell Norman turns in a strong display in No Way Home

That’s the experience of what we were able to see, but the festival was host to a whole variety of feature films, many of which were Estonian premieres, with a truly expansive programme that showcases films from all around the world. Some of the noteworthy award winners are Emma Dante’s Misericordia, which took home the Grand Prix for Best Film, while the leading star Simone Zambelli also won Best Actor.

Meanwhile, Lubna Azabal (Amal) and Kim Higelin (Consent) shared the Best Actress award, while the Best Director went to Manuel Martin Cuenca, for Andrea’s Love. These just offering a mere indication of the quality of film, and we’re barely touching the sides – such is the sheer volume of films that played in Tallinn this year, to lucky festival goers, both local and those who travelled from afar.

Needless to say, it’s not just the films that keep us entertained in this quaint city. Last year out we had the World Cup to indulge in, but without that on this occasion, never put it past a Brit abroad to still find a way to source live football. This time, we got tickets to a vital game in the Premium Liiga, between local rivals FCI Levadia, and Flora. It was a significant game too: for had the away side won the game, with it they’d have taken home the league title. Above who in second place? Levadia, of course. It was a tense game, in the shadow of the A. Le Coq Arena, and it ended with a hugely dramatic win for the home side, which took the title down to the final game (reader, if you’re interested: Flora did still eventually go on to win the league).

Misericordia took home Tallinn’s top prize

Outside of films and football – if this is anything else of note on this godforsaken planet – we had great fun into the early hours of the morning singing karaoke with the locals, and enjoyed a nice swim at the Nordic Hotel to relax in between films. We avoided the nude sauna, we should add – we are English, after all.

But all of this pointed to yet another wonderful few days, in this wonderful European city, for this wonderful film festival. Now as we look forward to next year’s stay, we are already wondering what to pack. Will it be nice weather again, or reverting back to the icy cold temperatures of the year before? Either way, just to be safe, we’ll be sure to pack our brand new FCI Levadia scarf.