Volia Chajkouskaya • Founder and programme director, Northern Lights Nordic-Baltic Film Festival
“For us, it’s important to highlight that we’re being welcomed in the European film-festival community”
- In Tallinn, we spoke about this year’s hybrid festival, run by filmmakers in exile and showcasing the best of Nordic-Baltic cinema to Belarusian audiences
At the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (3-19 November), we met up with Volia Chajkouskaya. The programme director of the Northern Lights Nordic-Baltic Film Festival (13-26 November), who is also one of the founders of the newly established Belarusian Independent Film Academy, spoke about the event’s mission and its history, touching on this year’s line-up and being a Belarusian filmmaker in exile.
Cineuropa: Could you please retrace the story of your festival?
Volia Chajkouskaya: The first edition of the festival took place in three Belarusian cities [Vitebsk, Homel, and Minsk] in 2015. This was a festival I was asked to programme by the Finnish Embassy. They wanted to showcase Nordic films in Belarus and needed a curator who could do it. When we were developing the project, I felt I didn’t want to do it as a one-off thing but more of a long-term event. So I created the name of the festival and developed a logo with the designer, thus the first edition already looked like a proper festival. However, we screened only eight films, and they touched on some social or political themes, in order to spread democratic values inside the country.
The event was successful. We had crowded screenings, although I had little experience and funds back then. Then I was asked to do it again, and it became an annual festival. We started programming more films, setting up interesting side events and thinking about how to expand the festival. We began inviting Baltic films in addition to Nordic titles, bringing filmmakers from the region to Belarus… It was a very audience-friendly festival in terms of films, which were all subtitled in Belarusian language. We aimed to bridge the gap between people looking for some kind of “enlightenment” and connections with Europe, so they could get inspired and start producing their own films. We started organising different workshops, some pitching sessions and project scouting initiatives like B2B Doc – Baltic to Black Sea Documentary Network. Before the 2020 protests and Covid, we were even organising the events within the premises of the Art Academy. It was important not to exclude people who studied in institutions, in order to show there was something else they could benefit from. Then many things have changed.
What happened in 2020?
The festival was supposed to unfold in April 2020, and we had to cancel it owing to the pandemic. At the end of that spring, I felt very worried but I didn’t want the festival to die out. I reached out to my team and we started developing the concept for an online edition. Next, on 9 August, presidential elections took place and, after the results were announced, it was clear they were rigged. Protests were fully suppressed by the state, with several deaths and many people beaten, put in jail, or gone missing. It’s been emotionally devastating; it was like a civil war. There was also a three-day Internet disruption nationwide. For us, it meant we couldn’t upload our films on the servers. So we had to put the festival on hold again. Some people wanted to give up, but I led the part of the team which was pushing for it to continue. In the end, we managed to kick off our online fest in October.
Then, I approached Tiina Lokk, Marge Liske and the Tallinn festival team – since I’m based here – and asked to collaborate, to see whether we could screen the works of some independent filmmakers, and whether they could provide a “shelter” for us, as filmmakers in exile. They agreed and they were very interested in our proposal. We were supposed to have our first conversation on the fourth day after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But Russians entered Ukraine coming from Belarus. It was very shocking. We were devastated and couldn’t believe this was happening. Tiina encouraged us to speak out. We published an anti-war statement on the trades and collected over 130 signatures. As of last year, we went hybrid with online screening and on-site screenings in Tallinn and Vilnius. Running this fest for nine years gave me a push to keep the community united.
What about the highlights of this year’s programme?
We’re very happy that we’ve managed to programme films such as Anna Hints’ Oscar contender Smoke Sauna Sisterhood [+see also:
interview: Anna Hints
film profile], Liis Nimik’s Sundial [+see also:
film profile], Lea Glob’s IDFA 2022 winner Apolonia, Apolonia [+see also:
interview: Lea Glob
film profile] and Kristoffer Borgli’s Sick of Myself [+see also:
interview: Kristine Kujath Thorp
interview: Kristoffer Borgli
film profile]. Borgli’s film was sold to Eastern Europe to a Russian distributor registered abroad, and in the end we didn’t manage to screen it last year. This year, we got it.
We’re also hosting for the first time a short competition, Shortcut, made of eight films. Last year, we also set up a special programme, Ukraine Mon Amour. In this section, we’re screening Alisa Kovalenko’s We Will Not Fade Away [+see also:
film profile], Marysia Nikitiuk’s Lucky Girl [+see also:
interview: Marysia Nikitiuk
film profile] and Maksym Nakonechnyi’s Butterfly Vision [+see also:
interview: Maksym Nakonechnyi
film profile]. And, of course, there’s our Belarusian Competition programme including Hanna Badziaka and Alexander Mihalkovich’s European Film Awards nominee Motherland [+see also:
film profile]. Even though it’s a Swedish-Ukrainian-Norwegian production, the filmmakers are Belarusians and it’s a Belarusian story. In total, we’re screening about 40 films.
Finally, let’s touch on accessibility. Belarusians in Belarus can watch films for free, right?
Yes. European audiences and Belarusians abroad can also watch some of the titles for free. For us, it’s important to highlight that we're being welcomed in the European film festival community. For example, for the first time, we have an international competition programme, and the jury includes filmmakers Anna Savchenko, Vytautas Puidokas and Viktor Nordenskiöld, whilst the Belarusian competition jury is made up of Aliaksei Paluyan, Darya Bassel and EFM director Dennis Ruh. For us, their presence is important. We don’t aim to grow in a ‘capitalistic’ sense, but we surely aim to expand our reach. You can support the festival and our online platform Vodblisk by donating here.
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