Nele Volbrück

Nele Volbrück is a Tartu University journalism and communications alumna, currently working with old photographs at the National Archives of Estonia. She is passionate about literature and music and holds a deep appreciation for graphic design and illustration. Aside from her day job, she also loves throwing herself into project-based voluntary work, requiring organising skills, such as at the Dark Nights' Film Festival or the International Music Day nation-wide concerts programme.

The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival ties art and industry together as it celebrates its 20th year

In the cold and dark Estonian November evenings, the Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF, for short, in Estonian) lends its helping hand to those who seek escapism from a world that appears to grow more unstable by the hour. From 11-27 November, the cinemas in Tallinn and Tartu screen over 200 films from more than 70 countries, as well as host talks, parties and various other events.

A hunger for film

When the Black Nights Film Festival was called to life in 1997 by Tiina Lokk, the festival’s director, Estonia was a struggling country still trying to build itself from ground up after only six years of regained independence. The funds and attention of the country were placed elsewhere at the time, which made organising a film event difficult, since cinema culture was virtually dying out. The local film industry was non-existent; a lot of cinemas were shut down while only a few remained to show Hollywood blockbusters. Film was not a medium people were passionate about, especially alternative films.


The desire for a cinema culture, however, must have been bubbling somewhere under the surface, since nearly 5,000 viewers turned up for the first PÖFF event.

The 25 featured full-length films had lured such a crowd; hence it became obvious there was an actual demand that had to be catered for. From then on, the Black Nights Film Festival has steadily grown and bolstered up to be a world class film festival.

Last year, the festival had over 80,000 admissions, not to mention the 768 industry guests and journalists, to see approximately 650 films.

Official acknowledgement

Although the Black Nights Film Festival will happily celebrate turning 20 this year, by no means does that mean it can just rest on its laurels. Two years ago, the event was given an A-class festival status by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. This official recognition means a formal right to put together a thematically and geographically unlimited film programme.


The A-class status conveys the film industry’s trust, respect and recognition of the festival’s quality and reputation. So far, only 15 festivals around the world have received this badge of honour. The Black Nights Film Festival is in a fine company, sharing the status with Cannes, Venice and Berlin festivals, among others.

Despite the fact that compared with Cannes, the Black Nights Film Festival imminently lacks sunshine and glamourous evenings with fancily clad film stars gracing the red carpet, the festival manages to do an amazing job on a significantly smaller budget whilst keeping the ticket prices reasonable, making films easily accessible for the filmgoers.

With recognition comes responsibility

The audience has a generous amount of productions to choose from. The crown jewel of the Black Nights Film Festival is the international “Main Competition” programme. Twelve films from established directors worldwide, selected by an international jury, compete for the Grand Prix. For the first time in the festival’s history, all the films in the main competition are world or international premiers, with all the directors of these films present at the event.


It might be easy to dismiss the importance of this fact, but it really symbolises the festival’s reliability and the industry professionals’ trust. The premiere of a film can be a determining factor in its life and success. It is a special moment when the director puts their work into the hands of the audience and watches as it takes on a life of its own.

The Black Nights Film Festival award section includes the First Feature competition for debutant directors, the Estonian Film award, and various ceremonial titles like the audience award or lifetime achievement award.

What can you fill your black nights with?

The festival’s competitions are accompanied by many programmes, all of which are meticulously thought through. For example, the Screen International Critics’ Choice programme provides the local audience a chance to see the notable films that have made quite a splash in the festival circuit. The Forum programme presents issues that urge discussion, however uncomfortable the topics might be.


Similarly, Hot Topics underlines various humanitarian and social problems. The Across the Line programme deals with relevant topics in the globalised world today, wherein young storytellers use deep social analysis and allegories to reflect on the challenges European nations have to face.

Midnight Shivers, on the other hand, is a collection of the freshest and wildest films that simply demand to be viewed in the dark of the night. In addition to all this, fashion films have their own section, as do documentaries, and there are many more subcategories.


The films and programmes have all been chosen to be a part of the festival for a reason. The viewers should keep this in mind, since not all of the productions might be easy or pleasant to watch. The festival is modelled to provide the local audiences a comprehensive selection of world cinema in all its diversity.

Plentiful black nights to make room for sub-festivals

The Black Nights Film Festival programme has made way for a few sub-festivals, all of which now have a distinguished identity of their own. One of them is Just Film, a children’s and youth film festival that is known for speaking to children in their language and discovering the world with them. It touches upon issues that youngsters might not be interested in sharing with their parents or are even ashamed to discuss with their peers and in that way, Just Film oftentimes helps parents and teachers understand and connect with the kids better.

The International Short Film Festival Sleepwalkers emerged as a student film festival that screened many cult films. Now, however, they have expanded and adopted the short film genre and even hold an independent competition. Sleepwalkers collaborates with light and video artists and emphasises largely on the room specifics having established itself as an atmospheric festival.


The name Animated Dreams already gives itself away – yes, it is an animated film festival. In fact, the oldest and biggest animated film festival in Baltics. It showcases the work of Estonian directors as well as foreign ones promoting animation culture through and through. Animated Dreams’ special programs Late Night Comedy, and Late Night Love – which tackles desires and sexuality – can be considered fan favourites.

Introducing the Baltic film industry to the world

The focal point of the film festival naturally lies in the top-quality, diverse, bold and balanced film programme. In addition to that, however, there is a growing interest in meetings held for the film industry professionals. The Black Nights Film Festival works hand in hand with the Baltic Event co-production market, an endeavour with the sole purpose to promote the Baltic film industry.

That collaboration has taken the form of Industry@Tallinn, a week-long parallel event. Industry@Tallinn hosts panels, showcases, one-on-one mentorship sessions, consultations and a talent development camp. It aims to give the Baltic film industry a professional, clear and accessible identity by making local film and entertainment professionals visible and connecting them with the US, Asia and Europe.

Foto: Liis Reiman

The Baltic region is a hidden gem of sorts in regard to film production. There are plentiful options for picturesque nature scenery, beautiful cityscapes, including the unique old town of Tallinn, as well as kitschy reminders from the Soviet days. A group of film industry people are working together in the hopes of establishing a modern studio complex. Estonia woos foreign productions with a tax rebate scheme that can go up to 30% which could appeal to many producers and distributors who might otherwise simply be oblivious to the mere possibility of the area due to insufficient knowledge about the region.

Other previously mentioned A-class film festivals have successfully incorporated the reputation of a great film trade hub into the image of the hosting cities, in addition to boosting the economy through a blooming tourism industry. The Black Nights Film Festival might not be quite at that place yet, but with 20 years of experience and hard work, it is not naive to firmly set the sights on getting there.


Cover: The Black Nights Film Festival celebrates turning 20 this year (the festival catalogues/courtesy of the Black Nights Film Festival.)

Estonia makes a global mark on International Music Day

If there is one thing that can truly connect all people or the Estonian people at least, it is probably music and singing. The Estonian musical talents perform across the world on International Music Day on 1 October.

These days it seems as if every idea or cause has a day named after it. Whether it be hugging day, black dog day or a 24-hour period for simply declaring your love for bacon, it is quite likely that no one has the time or energy to fully celebrate all of these initiatives. That being the case, it’s only natural that people opt to devote their energy to some specific niche topics pertaining to their interests. However, if there is one thing that can truly connect all people or the Estonian people at least, it is probably music and singing.

What the Music Day concert programme is all about

Worldwide, 1 October is the date reserved for honouring the art of music – International Music Day. Initiated roughly 40 years ago by the violin virtuoso, Yehudi Menuhin, the president of the International Music Council of the time, the endeavour bears the idea of taking a step back from one’s everyday life and truly noticing all the music surrounding them. International Music Day boldly sets music in the centre of attention, encouraging everyone to recognise its importance and think about its place in the modern world.

Having taken the idea to heart, the Estonian Music Council annually organises a grand all-day concert programme on International Music Day that hosts more than 150 concerts all over the country. These performances are held in cities and rural places alike, even on small Estonian islands, such as Kihnu and Ruhnu. No county is left untouched.


The Music Day concert programme motto simply preaches: “listen!” and indeed puts this preaching into practice by making music easily accessible on that day, so that no one has to venture too far to get a glimpse of professional music performances.

Although the focus is mainly on classical music, you can even hear spellbinding folk, jazz and experimental sounds. Each concert lasts about 30 minutes, but might, extemporaneously, end up being an hour long. That is ample to neatly allow oneself a break from their day-to-day busywork, yet short enough to not disturb those who are distrustful towards the combination of classical music and public performances.

Muusikapäev. Estonia

What makes the Music Day concert programme even more exceptional are the concert venues. You can catch a top musician who feels at home on a swanky European concert hall stage, performing on public transport, in a public sauna, in a barn, on the side of a swimming pool or inside of a larger-than-life wooden megaphone hidden in the enchanting forests of Estonia. The list goes on. That being said, more traditional venues, like city culture centres, concert halls and churches, are used as well.

Free of charge

All the performers and venues of the Music Day concert programme are participating in the venture out of free will and kind-hearted spirit, as no one takes home a hefty fee for their services – or no fee at all, for that matter. Consequently, all the concerts and other performances are completely free of charge.

The day culminates in the evening with the Estonian Classical and Jazz Music Awards Ceremony where the Estonian Music Council and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia award the most spectacular people in music. This annual event is held at the Kumu Art Museum and broadcast by the Estonian Public Broadcasting.

Crossing the borders

As the Music Day concert programme is about to be held for the fourth time in a row, the organisers are gradually getting the hang of taking on one day and filling it to the brim by staging the kind of amount of concert events which should truthfully require a whole week to host. So this time around it seemed only natural to set the sights on something even bigger and quite frankly, brash.

This year, for the first time, the Music Day concert programme crosses over borders as Estonian musicians are giving free concerts abroad in celebration of the day. The additional programme, “Estonian Musician Abroad”, will see five performances by Estonian top musicians in New York, NY; Washington, DC; Berlin, Germany; and London.

Given the fact that there are so many Estonian professional talents residing abroad, the idea to join forces with Estonian embassies and cultural societies to introduce Estonian music there was nothing less than logical. “It is amazing to see such a great interest on a global level,” Marili Jõgi, the project manager of the Music Day concert programme, says, adding that this is only the beginning.

Global Estonians

hando-nahkurThe performer in each of the countries represented in the “Estonian Musician Abroad” programme is also living there at the time being. Just like Estonians are hasty to (mis-)quote Hemingway on the “every-port-has-at-least-two-Estonians” situation, it is almost too easy to paraphrase that each metropolis has its own Estonian musician. It seems to hold true, though.

Living in Texas, but taking the stage in New York Estonian House, is Hando Nahkur, an Estonian pianist who is also renowned internationally. He has been awarded for stellar performances in numerous international competitions, given the prestigious Golden Medal of Merit in Canada for his unique contributions to Estonian music life in Toronto.

Zeit-Online, one of Germany’s most reputable newspapers, named Nahkur’s CD, “Deus Ex Clavier”, the record of the year. While these are all some acknowledgements of his talent, they are ultimately just words – in reality, his immaculate piano playing does the real talking for itself and it becomes clear that sometimes words aren’t needed at all.


Also on the stateside, there is Mari-Liis Uibo, young in age, but already a proficient musician. Having graduated cum laude both from the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, she now lives in Washington, DC. In the area, Uibo is giving two concerts.

In addition to Maryland State House, she is performing at Ginger Cove Retirement Centre, which successfully signifies the social dimension in the multifaceted nature of the Music Day concert programme.

From Berlin to London

The Music Day concert programme in Europe is just as dense.

In Berlin, at Mendelssohn-Remise, you can see the performance of Kärt Ruubel, an Estonian pianist known as a chamber musician and soloist. Ruubel has resided in Germany for the past eight years. She comes from a musical family and sometimes performs together with her twin sister Triin Ruubel.


Together they have given critically acclaimed recitals and taken the stage in many countries. As a nice cherry on top, one of the endorsers behind Ruubel’s concert is the piano repository, Steinway & Sons Berliner.

mirjam-mesak-photo-by-anett-hallapMoving on to London, there’s the soprano, Mirjam Mesak, and the pianist, Sten Heinoja, with the power to make local Estonians proud. On the first day of October, the charming duo will take the stage in the historical St Botolph’s Church.

For the Estonian audience, Mesak is a familiar face after years of singing in the Estonian TV Youth Choir and for taking part in a number of singing competitions. She is currently studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

Heinoja is a household name in the world of classical music and beyond. He is known from the Estonian television programme called “Klassikatähed”, a show following the growth and performances of a group of young classical musicians competing for the title of classical music superstar.

sten-heinoja-foto-by-kroottarkmeelNot only did Heinoja win the hearts of the viewers but he also won the show. Now, he is studying at the Royal College of Music in London.

New talents

While Estonia continues to be very proud of the incredible composer, Arvo Pärt, it is about time we also start acknowledging and supporting the new rising stars of classical music.

The Music Day concert programme holds the potential to create, on an international scale, a fertile soil to help young performers get their art, music, voices and names heard. And the added bonus is that through these means, the unexpecting audiences all over Estonia, and indeed the world, get to enjoy skilfully executed music performances that bring a change of pace to an otherwise busy life.


Cover: Accordion Orchestra of Narva Music School performing on the International Music Day 2015.

Scroll to Top