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The Secret Life of a Festival Jury

The Awards of the 23rdedition of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival have been handed out. Did your favorite film win? Was that actress, you were blown away by, awarded? And if not, why not? You might be wondering who these mysterious jury members are, who get to decide which films are worthy of an award. 

That’s why, we sat down with six of them just a few days before they had to make their final decision: producer Ilkka Matila, who is a jury member for the Rebels with a Cause Competition, actress Lisa Carlehed, director Mike Newel and director/cinematographer Fabrizio Maltese who judge the Official Selection, and festival programmer Milja Mikkola and German writer Ricardo J. Méndez who are concerned with the Baltic Competition. 

Can you describe the festival week of a festival jury?

Lisa: ‘Well, it’s my first time on a jury! Until now, our jury has seen 17 out of 21 films. In the mornings, we try to get to the press screenings all together. If we can’t make it to a press screening, we go to the official premiere of that film in the evening. After the screenings, we have a small discussion. But we don’t make any decisions yet, before we have seen all of the films. In the evenings we have had several dinners.’


Fabrizio: ‘Other than that, we don’t have much time to socialize or see the city. Just imagine; seeing 21 films in a week!’

Mike: ‘What I really did enjoy, was the Kitchen Filled with Cinema Event. We were all invited for dinner by locals. It was a nice getaway. Where did you guys end up?’ 

Ricardo: ‘Art students. It was really cozy. We had fish and some small eggs. Quail? How about you?’

Mike: ‘I got investment bankers.’ 

Fabrizio: ‘Ahh, the big head of the jury got the luxury spot!’

What makes a film not only enjoyable but good enough to win at a festival? 

Ilkka: ‘Well, to give an example. One of my personal favorite films to watch is The Lion King. I saw it for the first time when I had just become a father myself. So, it was very entangled with my own emotions. And I wouldn’t say it’s a bad film. It’s a really well-made film. But you would never see it at a festival.
Why? Because this film is made to be likeable by big audiences. It has been stripped of everything that would make it surprising or innovative in subject or form.’

Mike: ‘Films are, of course, made for an audience. We do see some films together with the audience and that can be a nice experience. But we can’t consider every audience when judging a film. For example: in England, people don’t like to show outward emotion. They’ll sit on their hands after a film finishes. While in other countries, its normal to applaud.’

Fabrizio: ‘We have the purpose to spot what is original, ambitious and most solidly realized. But there are also plenty of other things to consider. Like: is it really necessary to give a film that has already won several awards another prize? Or would it be better to give the award to an outstanding newcomer? In case of the latter, an award from a festival can really make the difference in the film getting distributed and seen – and can even mean making the career of a fresh, talented director.’ 

Fabrizio (M) and Mike (R) waiting backstage at the Award Ceremony.

Does the way you view a film differ when being a jury or a member of the audience, or, for you, Milja: when selecting films for a festival?

Lisa: ‘I don’t think so. I go into the cinema very open-mindedly. I don’t have a checklist with me, or anything like that. I see a film in the same way as I would see a sculpture or other work of art in an exhibition hall. You walk in, and you first see the general impression of the piece. After, you start to dissect it into details and observe its different parts.’

Ricardo: ‘Once, I went back into the film library to re-watch a certain scene from a film. I wanted to know if I remembered some details correctly. But otherwise, I also see the films only once – with the other jury members in the cinema.’

Milja: ‘At my festival (Midnight Sun Film Festival, ed.) we focus on author cinema. So, in selecting the films I always look at them from this angle: do they have a strong signature of the maker? I guess, being a jury, I have to broaden this view. 
In the Baltic Competition, we judge films that have been released already. So, this also makes a difference. We consider less the impact that our decision has on the distribution and focus more on the quality of the film.’


What makes a good jury?

Mike: ‘Open-mindedness. As a team, you have to be open to the other jury members’ opinions, to be able to have a discussion. You cannot make up your mind on your own and then just impose your wish on the others.’

Ilkka: ‘I’ve experienced two jury members resigning before a festival had ended. They just could not agree or even consider the film the other three liked. Luckily, it didn’t result in a big scandal that time.’

Fabrizio: ‘The so called over-my-dead-body moments… They happen.’ 

Lisa: ‘Being on a jury is a study of human character. Some people reach decisions very quickly, while others need more time to contemplate. The nicest thing for me, actually, is to see how my view can be altered by the opinions of others. Other people let you see other details.’

Official Selection Jury with, from left to right: Fabrizio Maltese, Lisa Carlehed, Mike Newell, Rima Das, Pivio, Kerem Ayan.


Can you tell us a bit about the films you have seen this year?

Ilkka: ‘I just saw a Russian film in my category. I did not like it that much. Can I say that? No, it wasn’t the LGBT-film. That, I though, was really brave!’

Fabrizio: ‘I don’t think we are supposed to disclose anything.’

Lisa: ‘What I miss, are documentaries. There are so many good documentaries made. But there aren’t any in the Official Selection!’

Mike: ‘I am about to see this film about a reenactment of Monty Python in the Balkans. I feel very hesitant about it. How can I not be? I’m English. Monty Python is sacred to us! But I guess, this is such an incidence, where I’ll have to put my personal opinion aside…’

SEE ALL THIS YEAR’S AWARD WINNERS HERE

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