Give me back my baby elephant!

This text was originally published in the Estonian weekly ‘Sirp‘, on November 27th 2020

The author sitting in one of the festival’s cinemas. PÖFF 2020

When the news about Covid-19 hit the media at the beginning of the year, we all shrugged them off as yet another virus happening “there” partly because we were magically spared of such dangers for a very long time and partly because we could not have possibly imagined what was about to hit us. Berlinale came, and with it the whole travelling circus from across the globe, same as usual. Sanitizers were introduced, but not the masks, although I did see a number of Asian journalists wearing them. That wasn’t particularly strange or new. Some Asian nations are used to wearing masks also as a protection from the ordinary flu. Better safe than sorry. And I think that we should slowly start adapting to the idea that maybe we would need them also when all of this is over. I am not just repeating the warnings coming from scientists that we will have more of deadly viruses spreading due to climate change, I am more thinking of that person sneezing in my neck during a film screening, or a random character coughing in my face in public transport.

I do admit that having “a semi-clothed” face in the cinema wasn’t something I immediately embraced mentally, although I did physically. It took me a while not to pay attention to it and fully concentrate on the film I was watching. Now I don’t even notice the damn thing. Masks became a part of my face, and my festival-going stubbornness.

Only this morning I was asked by the PÖFF director Tiina Lokk if I was scared for my health because of travelling during this second wave of pandemic. She saw my pictures from Akranes, Dresden and Venice on Facebook. My response was partly frank – those places were safe to go to at the time (although the day upon my arrival to Venice to attend Ca’ Foscari short film festival, wearing masks outdoors became mandatory). What I didn’t say is that I was testing and over-testing myself out of fear that I might get stranded in a foreign country quarantining on my own costs. This isn’t the cheapest sport either as you have to pay between 110-150€ per test in Austria. Words about the other type of inner fear weren’t uttered either. I am truly and profoundly petrified of Covid-19, especially in places where people behave “normal”.

I shrank in my chair last night at the sushi restaurant when I realized that NOBODY bothered wearing a mask. We are already trained (since March) to wear a mask indoors unless seated with strictly respected distancing protocol. That wasn’t happening yesterday either. We were sitting super close to two girls whose elbows brushed me a couple of times. I felt uncomfortable. Even more when the waitress approached, also with mask-free face and bowed towards me at 1/3 of the baby elephant distance (we are told to keep the distance of the baby elephant in Austria) trying really hard to etsablish the eye contact. I dread closeness. So does my English colleague who also started sinking deep in her chair. We were upset with ourselves for not saying anything, but English are polite, and I am trying not to get into conflicts.

How does PÖFF look like in these challenging times? Firstly, I was pleasantly surprised how many people came despite of the pandemic. Especially the filmmakers and producers. Also, from Asia. I feel nothing but deep respect for anyone who took such a long journey during this intimidatingly scary time. I am not that brave. My journeys were not that brave. 9 hours on the (empty) train or 4 hours on the plane can’t compare to long inter-continental flights with switching and waiting at multiple airports.

Speaking of Asia, I am super happy that so many Asian films screen at PÖFF concerning one of the two outlets that I am covering the festival for. I can’t remember the last time I watched an Asian film on the big screen. Since Berlin – maybe a couple of times.

Once in Tallinn, we were all collected from the airport and brought to the hotel where we had to wait to be tested. My luck was that the tall guy dressed as Martian came to my room 15 minutes after I checked in to take the samples. It doesn’t really matter that he showed no mercy in stubbing those things painfully deep down my nostrils, I had to quarantine only until 8am when I was informed to be “negativne”. “Negativna” is something I was called many times before in my mother tongue, but it never meant something so positive!

So yes, travelling in times of the 21st century cholera is risky, and I am scared, but I am also excited as a little kid for being back in Tallinn. I strangely don’t miss the parties regardless how cool they’ve been here in the past. I found the PÖFF shorts vodka tram parties amusing and original (damn, that guy with the rabbit head playing saxophone last year was my hero, Imagine having that thing on your head and actually playing an instrument), Polish parties are legendary, so are the dance-fuelled nights in Naga Naga, karaoke marathons and spontaneous gatherings in the Red Emperor that is unfortunately no more. F*** you Covid-19 for pushing that place into bankruptcy.

This time, we live the PÖFF festival life relatively healthy. Instead of hangovers, days start with early morning swim in the Baltic sea, and instead of bubblies in the afternoon receptions we are having ice-skating and glögi (virginal version pre-skating and the other one-post). I must say, those little things are very precious, and I am amazed by the creativity shown in organizing such events. It’s soul-soothing and it brings some sense of normality to this global abnormality.

Now, the truly awarding moment, the one we are completely deprived of in many countries in the meanwhile is the physical contact with the cinema and with the festival life. Here, live people speak. They got de-pixelized overnight. I feel like being in a parallel universe, in some other time and space. It fills me with excitement to see those full-size people in flesh and blood talking about their films. My skin gets electrified with excitement about sitting in a proper theatre watching films on the big screen but I worry that I might be dreaming one of those treacherous dreams that feel super real and fill you with joy, and then the alarm clock goes on.

In between those happy moments I start worrying about Covid-19 again. What ifs are piling, and those paranoia pangs strike again. I am thinking of in the meanwhile super-strict lockdown situation some of us are used to with all bars and restaurants closed, shops too (except pharmacies and supermarkets), masks, distancing, home office, home schooling. Then I look around and see people being cool about it and I start feeling a mixture of guilt and fear. I don’t know this reality. Mine looks completely different, and I am not alone.

I observe my British colleagues. I see one of them pulling the mask over her face because she got involved in the conversation with two people in front of the hotel. I can relate to it. I also notice her embarrassment for doing that. She reverses the process, but then takes two steps back. I often catch myself relocating my body under false excuses. I need my baby elephant.