Latvian Documentary Cinema: The New Generation

By Līva Pētersone

© Līva Pētersone, 2012

In Latvian cinema, similar to national cinemas elsewhere, the term “documentary” has served various purposes. In the 1930s, newsreels and so-called “culture films” were, in part, manifestations of the state ideology of the time, enhancing the nationalistic notions exerted by the newly-formed Latvian free state.

After World War II, but starting with Soviet occupation, official and “parade films”—documentaries and newsreels defined by the guidelines of Socialist Realism, bearing a little relevance to the term “documentary”—were the only modes of documentary cinema.

In the 1960s, during the so-called Thaw when social life and art blossomed, the movement of the Riga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema presented a cinematographic change in vision (towards individualism) and a quest for cinematic and artistic poeticism in shooting ordinary people and quotidian life. The movement had a profound effect on the formal and ideological aspects of films of the decades to come. In the late 1980s, director and cinematographer Juris Podnieks was one of the key figures to reveal the essence of the political and social friction in society through intimate individual portraits.

Presently, Latvian documentary cinema experiences great diversification. Following many years of mainly state-controlled output, twenty years after the end of Soviet rule Latvian filmmakers have come to define their very own, vastly varied subject-matter and cinematic language. The films produced in recent years—mainly by a relatively young generation of filmmakers—could be loosely grouped into several thematic strands. First, there are explorations of history, conflict, World War II, and the ensuing trauma: films compiling archival footage, present-day research on the subject, and interviews attempting to present a multi-lateral view on controversial historical topics. Another, slightly different body of films deals with examinations of personal histories through an individual prism, focusing on a single or several characters to convey the ways collective history has altered (and vice-versa) personal histories. The third group involves a look at contemporary social issues in Latvia, jarring political conflicts, variously deprived individuals, etc. Next, there are “exotic stories,” portraying either places or protagonists out of the traditional bounds of “nationality.” Lastly, there are poetic sights transcending the quotidian life used by filmmakers as source material to create their very own, highly formalist structures.

soviet storyIn the first group, which achieved the highest national and international resonance, is The Soviet Story (Padomju stāsts, 2008, dir. Edvīns Šnore). The film reveals the crimes—the genocide and massacres of millions of people—of the Soviet regime, equaling them to those of Nazi Germany, also drawing parallels in regard to the structures of politics and propaganda tools of the two totalitarian powers. Its scale is vastly international, tackling such issues as the Ukrainian famine extermination of 1932/33, the Katyn massacre, and the Holocaust. As the voice-over narration is in English, however, the grander historical narrative implies the effect it had on Latvia, always in the midst of the collisions of superpowers, a victim and both a willing and an unwilling accomplice in the crimes. The film takes the form of a narrative-collage: the story is revealed gradually and consists mainly of archival footage and interviews with massacre survivors and international area scholars; as such, its function and effect—apart from a few personal testimonies from eye-witnesses—is a matter-of-fact account, despite the harrowing subject-matter.

Controversial History (Pretrunīgā vēsture, 2010, dir. Ināra Kolmane) is an exploration of various viewpoints regarding the events and aftermath of WWII and the commemoration days in Latvia associated with the events of the time. The controversial interpretations of history are presented by three individuals of different nationalities—a Latvian, a Jew, and a Russian. The film follows each of the protagonists while they revisit sites of war crimes or reveal their own life stories, and gives a multilateral view of collective history, while posing such questions as why a day which for some still means glorious victory, for others is the beginning of occupation and oppression, and how Latvian society is dealing with these jarring and still very topical viewpoints on an annual basis today. Children of Siberia (Sibīrijas bērni, 2001) is the first of series of films by Dzintra Geka, dealing with the Siberian deportations of 1941 and 1949. Dealing with more recent issues of  war and trauma is Debt to Afghanistan (Parāds Afganistānai, 2008, dir. Askolds Saulītis), a film recounting the experiences of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which took many lives of Latvian recruits, whose mobilization was compulsory.

The astonishing fact here is the topicality of these issues today and the inexhaustible opportunities for yet another and another take on the past, unraveling, writing, and re-writing collective and personal histories with a persistency that again and again testifies to the deep-seated sensibilities of a nation that underwent decades of political, social, and individual trauma.

klucisThe second group of films also probes historical schisms dating back to the decades before, during, and after WWII, but does so through a specific character. These films intriguingly use a range of techniques—reenactment, drawn animation, collage, and animation of photography, compilations of archival footage—in a specific way so that the techniques and aesthetics mirror the very subject of the film. A curious film is the award-winning animated documentary Little Bird’s Diary (Čiža acīm, 2007) by one of the most promising Latvian animation directors, Edmunds Jansons. The film consists of animated, authentic hand-drawn diaries by a woman who has thus documented the story of her life, from as early as 1945 onwards. The humorous images, which could be described as naïve art, are accompanied of the voice-over narration by the protagonist, thus making the film all the more intimate and personal. Another two films, historical “reconstructions,” deal with two significant Soviet propaganda-associated figures in art, addressing the uneasy subject of the artists’ willing or unwitting role as an accomplice in the construction of a mass ideology. Klucis: Deconstruction of an Artist (Klucis. Nepareizais latvietis, 2008) is a painstakingly elaborate film by Pēteris Krilovs, a director of the older generation of Latvian filmmakers. A vivisection of the life and art of Gustavs Klucis, the Latvian-born constructivist avant-garde artist, who created Stalinist propaganda with his pioneering work in photography. The film is a veritable deconstruction, wearing theories of early avant-garde on its sleeve, with aesthetics mirroring the montage theories of another Russian avant-garde trailblazer—Sergei Eisenstein, as it dissects, assembles, and reassembles Klucis’ artworks, persistently drawing movement and space out of the two-dimensional images, while the collage-like principle is enhanced by the layering of staged events, historical documents, archival footage, voice-over narration (partly done by the director himself), etc. Based on the diaries of Klucis and his wife, fellow artist Valentina Kulagina, official documents and historical accounts, it is both an intimate story and at the same time also a dissection of the grander historical narrative, exploring the irony of the fate of propaganda-collaborators like Klucis: to a certain extent, he was an accomplice in the atrocities of the regime which eventually turned against him, arresting and shooting him in 1938 with the charge of conspiracy against the state. These controversies, multiple layers of “truth” and “narrative,” are aptly manifested in the collage-like aesthetics of the film.

Version Vera (Versija Vera, 2010, dir. Ilona Brūvere), though similar in theme, represents a radically different mode of expression – it is an impressionistic, soft-focus-shot, dreamy and very mannered version of the famous Soviet, Riga-born sculptor Vera Mukhina, possibly best known for her massive sculpture “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” that decorated the Soviet pavilion at the World Fair in Paris in 1937. Comprising the time period starting from the turn of the 19th/20th centuries to the 1950s, Version Vera, too, follows the protagonist’s life chronologically, in parallel to the historic events. Again, based on personal diary texts, the film consists of stylized staged action and archival footage; but the overall sentiment here is more feminine, almost naïve. There is not as much sense of tragedy and drama, and the emphasis is not so much on action as emotion and reflection. If it can be surmised that the film, similar to Deconstruction of an Artist, portrays a character who is certain of the ideological righteousness of her and the state’s actions, and is a player of the political system, it certainly is almost redeeming, as if justifying Mukhina’s deeds and stressing the notion of the artist as a medium of his/her time, and thus the regime he/she is serving.

What is intriguing with regard to the last two films, similar to the group of films dealing with war trauma, is the eagerness to study grand-scale narratives and protagonists in unremitting pursuit of their relation to the national identity and culture—a task not easily accomplished, as the subject matter more often than not is too controversial to offer any unanimous conclusions.

In a similar, though less grandiose manner, Ilze Burkovska-Jacobsen, an ex-pat Latvian-Norwegian documentary filmmaker, in My Mother’s Farm (Bekons, sviests un mana mamma, 2008) tells the story of the political and social changes in post-war Latvian society (agricultural reforms, work at collective farms, Soviet ideology and propaganda) through the life of her mother, compiling personal photographs, present-day interviews, and archival footage. It is, again, a story of a single person, but, because in many ways it is a typical example of a whole generation, its properties are ultimately generic and collective.

Collective fate and sentiments of a generation are also explored in Antra Cilinska’s sequels to the Soviet smash-hit documentary Is it Easy to Be Young? (Vai viegli būt jaunam?, 1986, dir. Juris Podnieks), which, in a daring approach, revealed through unusually candid interviews with several young people, the hopes and anxieties of the last Soviet generation. Is it Easy to Be...? (Vai viegli būt?, 1997) and Is it Easy...? (Vai viegli...?, 2010) revisit the people interviewed in the first film after ten and twenty years respectively. In so doing, the films create a fairly accurate portrait of the social and economic changes Latvia and its society have gone through since the restoration of independence in 1991. In its personal approach in its attempts to define the general by exploring the individual and the personal, the trilogy bears a striking resemblance to the famous The Up Series (1964-2012) by Michael Apted.

The next group of films, and possibly the one which should be singled out most, can be characterized as a look at the contemporary situation in Latvia, especially though the prism of socially deprived individuals and jarring political conflicts.

family instinctAndris Gauja is one of the most promising and scandalous young documentary filmmakers thanks to the controversial subject-matter he portrays in his films. His second documentary feature, Victor (Viktors, 2009) was a daring and poignant portrait of a dying man, offering a bleak and uncompromising look at the inevitable and not steering away from despair, anger, and pain associated with it. The following film, Family Instinct (Ģimenes lietas, 2010), went on to cause a major controversy at home and to be screened and awarded at international film festivals. It is not easy to define what is more shocking about the film – its subject or the way it is presented. A portrait of a closely-knit community in a rural Latvian village, it is, essentially, a story about incest: the film’s protagonist is a young woman living with her brother, who has fathered their two children. Heavy substance abuse, moral degradation, social ineptness, even mental disabilities follow suit; however, the element of fiction is jarring. It appears that, although the original situation may not be far from what is seen on the screen, most of the dialogues, monologues, or pieces of action simply cannot be referred to as “documental,” as everything seems staged, re-played, and organized, the people portrayed acting as characters in a well-structured play. Thus the question really is that of the most controversial element here: the degraded subjects or the way they are exposed? In this sense, the film bears a striking similarity to an earlier film that managed to cause quite a stir upon its release: Worm (Tārps, 2005, dir. Andis Mizišs) portrayed the eccentric life of two individuals living below what would be considered a sufficient standard of living, and the unexpected tragedy of the death of their infant in the most uncanny circumstances.

homo lvUs and Them (Vai citi?, 2006, dir. Antra Cilinska) and Homo@LV (2010, dir. Kaspars Goba) could be called “political documentaries.” Through an exploration of several individuals and mass events they tell a story about a bi-polar society and mass propaganda events, exacerbated by the manipulation exerted by media and political parties. Reviewing issues of conflict rooted in national affinity and sexual orientation respectively, they illustrate the fear and loathing towards “the other” and draw an appallingly radical picture of a society divided by simplistic notions of “right” and “wrong.” Certainly these films are a form of anthropological survey and possess the properties of a litmus paper used to measure the degree of democracy, be it treatment of gay rights or ethnic disagreements.

behind the wireChildren of Karosta (Karostas bērni, 2010, dir. Jānis Jurkovskis) and Behind the Wire (Aiz žoga, 2010, dir. Liene Laviņa), films by recent film studies graduates at the Baltic Film and Media School, also add to the trend of grueling subject-matter and in new Latvian documentary cinema. In the first, it is the Karosta region, a former Soviet army base near one of the main port in Latvia, now an environmental and social disaster zone—barren, destroyed, unnecessary—,and its inhabitants that mirror the wider socio-political crisis in Latvia at large, showing the economic recession, unemployment, and depression. The film serves as a critique for a social system unable to support the less fortunate. By taking a close look at a detention centre for young offenders, Behind the Wire dissects young adult aggression, bewilderment, and ignorance, where physical confinement mirrors emotional and mental constraint.

Overall, the characteristic features of these films include rough, scandalous subject-matter in the present time presented by young filmmakers who dare look at individuals, situations, and social schemata that have gone wrong. However, one wonders if, at such an early age, whether they really have the capacity of understanding and tackling these kinds of topics in a deserving way? Certainly, credit should be given for not steering away from raw, “unprettified” imagery, showing a kind of fascination with the lower levels of society.

Another group of films could be titled “exotic stories”: unusual either in their subject-matter, or in their attitude towards the portrayed. How are You Doing, Rudolf Ming? (Kā tev klājas, Rūdolf Ming?, 2010, dir. Roberts Rubīns) is a veritable exception both in sentiment and subject. Its protagonist is a 13-year old boy, engaged quite passionately in scripting, drawing, projecting, and adding his own sound effects to his own films. Despite the common bait of the “eccentric character,” this film (whose motto could be “creativity conquers all odds”) is refreshingly life-affirming and naturally funny—a rare phenomenon in Latvian cinema.

jaguars cornerAndis Mizišs, the author of the provocative Worm, has developed a permanent interest in working with less than usual subjects and geographic areas. His The Church will Arrive in the Evening (Vienkārši pops, 2007), which portrayed a floating Russian Orthodox church situated on a barge and its journey down the river through remote villages in Russia, was followed in 2010 by Jaguar’s Corner (Jaguāra kakts, 2010), set in Rincón del Tigre, Bolivia. Its portrayal of a Latvian Baptist missionary settlement, established in 1946, is a truly startling account of the clash between the missionaries and their cause—the native tribe of Ayoero Indians there. The film exposes the hypocritical, colonist and racist notions at the heart of the mission (at one point, one of the missionaries confesses that “all the savages should be shot dead”), and their persistence despite the fact that their attempts to “civilize” the local tribe have proved a complete fiasco. The scenes of missionaries praying are juxtaposed with indigenous people tearing up and greedily consuming pieces of meat around a fire, accompanied by sounds of a traditional instrument, thus aptly signifying the uncrossable bridge between the two cultures, with the missionaries remaining separated from the Indians by their notions as well as the high fences and padlocks on their property used to guard their belongings and ideas from thieves and unwelcome influences. Apparently begun as a research piece on ex-pat countrymen, the whole project gains uncanny wider implications, also tackling the notions of evolution, race struggle, culture, and civilization.

three men fishpondThe last body of films could be labeled as “poetic takes on quotidian routines.” Although there are only a few filmmakers that could be related to this group, their work has been quite resonant in the context of national documentary cinema. Laila Pakalniņa is, undoubtedly, the most distinguished and internationally acclaimed of present-day Latvian directors. Her films have been included in the official selection programs of Cannes, Berlin, Venice, as well as Karlovy Vary, Locarno, and other major film festivals. Although she made several acclaimed fiction films, she is first and foremost known as a prolific and successful documentary filmmaker. Her films are characterized by subtle irony and profound social insight. Her initial international break-through, the documentary trilogy Linen (Veļa, 1991), Ferry (Prāmis, 1994), Mail (Pasts, 1995) (the latter two won the FIPRESCI award at the Cannes IFF), and, paradoxically, even her fiction film The Shoe (Kurpe, 1998) were very much rooted in the notions of the Riga School of Poetic Documentary cinema, seeking lyricism in mundane locations—hospital premises, the remote countryside, dilapidated suburbs that were presented in starkly black-and-white, carefully composed frames and static long takes, thus making a nod to the recent movement of “slow cinema”. Her latest works, such as Three Men and a Fishpond (Par dzimtenīti, 2008), On Rubiks’ Road (Pa Rubika ceļu, 2010) and 33 Animals of Santa Claus (33 zvēri Ziemassvētku vecītim, 2011) extend the notion of “slow” quite consistently, by making the spectator, willing or unwilling, grasp the notions of “real time” and of the detached, serene observation of the most quotidian actions in our lives, be it fishing, cycling, or walking dogs.

sounds under sunTwo very similar films by director Dāvis Sīmanis could be described as elitist works, which are best understood locally: Valkyrie Limited (2009) and Sounds Under the Sun (Pasaules skaņa, 2010, co-dir. Gints Grūbe). Both document the fragile process of composing and performing music: Valkyrie follows the staging of Wagner’s opera by a locally acclaimed theatre and film director, while Sounds is an account of the collaboration of a distinguished Latvian choir and 17 composers from all over the world, commissioned to write “Songs of the Sun,” which are then performed by the choir. Both films expose the anguish of the creative process and the mundane actions, interiors, and conversations that pertain to it. The narrative is fragmented, elliptical, and the overall poetic sense of the imagery is compounded by music, which plays the main role here, at least more important than the dialogue. Essentially, the director juxtaposes the divine act of creating or interpreting with plain, unadorned everyday settings and activities, trying to touch the divine through humble encounters, conversations, and observations, thus occasionally catching a glimpse of its manifestations.

On the whole, even if there is no single common theme or direction that could be pinpointed when looking at present-day Latvian documentary cinema, the variety of trends are there to stay, as long as the ever-topical needs of unraveling and taming the past, looking the conflicted present boldly in the eye, or simply transforming it to fit one’s own philosophical and artistic convictions are alive.


Updated: 09 Jun 12