Monday, 29 April 2013

(10) Cinema in Latvia: A Look from the Outside

Republic of Latvia.

Nesoli man neko lielu. Man nevajag. /Imants Ziedonis/
[Don’t promise me anything big. I don’t need it.]

On March 21st Latvia celebrated its 7884th day of independence; which is exactly one day older than it was on June 17, 1940, when the Soviet Army occupied Latvia. 7884 days might not seem much, but it is the longest time period that independent Latvia has existed.
During these 20 and a bit years Latvia has defined itself as an independent and striving new country, and one medium through which it defines itself is cinema. Despite the fact that the oldest film studio in Latvia – Riga Motion Picture Studio – opened its doors during Soviet times, in 1948, only now Latvia starts to define itself in the art of cinema.

Dream Team 1935.
At the end of February, I went on holidays to Latvia, at the time the new hit from Latvian directors was the film Dream Team 1935, directed by Aigars Grauba. A sporty, funny, patriotic, sentimental piece of cinema, most importantly it tells the story of a small country and its big aims, which in cinematic fashion are reached. Dream Team 1935 is a film about the Latvian basketball team and their journey to the first European Basketball Championship in Geneva, Switzerland, in a sense echoing the famous British historical drama Chariots of Fire; both arousing feelings of nationalist pride and sentiment. Dream Team 1935 is a happy-go-lucky story with a happy ending; needless to say that Latvia won the first European Basketball Championship. In 1935 Latvia was still an independent country, but this was destined to change in 1940, when the Soviet Army occupied Latvia. This harsh reality is illustrated at the end of the film when onscreen text explains what happened with our ‘dream team’ after 1940. After playing on the one team, during the war few of them were fighting against each other, one on the side of Germany while another on the Soviet’s side. Upon viewing this, I felt national pride growing in me, after all we are no man’s servants now. Although I went to see the film almost four months after its premiere on November 19, 2012 (one day after Latvia’s Independence Day), still when the lights came on people stood up and applauded! Some elderly lady on her way out even shouted out: “Politicians should watch this film every day, to see that they are our nation’s enemies...”
In 2007, Dream Team 1935’s director, Grauba directed another film Defenders of Riga. A story, again, about Latvians’ heroism, only this time a love story about how after returning from World War I, the protagonist Mārtiņš is ready to fight for his beloved’s heart and defend Riga from Pavel Bermondt and his army. Needless to say, that we won! As a part of their history class, pupils were brought to watch this film at the time of its release. Dream Team 1935 and Defenders of Riga, conventionally tell their stories with elements of comedy, played up sentiment and patriotism, so that the viewers would come out of the cinema and feel proud and ardent about their country. And it works! But how much is it needed? Still, to many their favourite films are those which were made during the Soviet times. Even sadder, most of the new generation who were born in free Latvia aren’t informed enough about modern Latvian cinema, or when they hear this combination of words, it seems that they just ate a sour Haribo candy.

15YBY. The Story of Latvia.
An example of this modern Latvian cinema is 15 Young by Young – Contemporary Young Life in Post Soviet Countries, which is a work created by 15 directors, who were born during the Soviet Era, but grew up after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The film tells 15 stories from 15 former Soviet countries. It is an ambitious project by producer Ilona Bičevska. The film was premiered in Latvia last May on the opening day of The Freedom Film Festival. The producer Bičevska informed me, that she hopes, that the film will be released at the beginning of autumn. In this production, the story of Latvia is directed by Dzintars Dreibergs and its title is “Padoties aizliegts” (“Giving Up is Unacceptable”). It is the story of a 15 year old boy Mikrobs, who loves swear words and whose spite and vigour keeps him going through hardship. In some ways the boy symbolises young and confused Latvia, thus instead of telling tales of heroic old conquests, it seeks for understanding in this new country.
In 15YBY the patriotic old sentiment has altered to an eccentric-fearless approach. This approach has also found success in films such as, How Are You Doing, Rudolf Ming?, M Farm, Mother, I Love You. All of which have received awards in different European film festivals, for example, M Farm won Best European Independent Documentary award in ÉCU (2012), Mother, I Love You was awarded in this year’s Berlinale by The Kplus International Jury with The Grand Prix for the Best Feature Film. As informed by Mother, I Love You creators, in the first three weeks of screening the film in Latvia has been viewed by 20572 people, which is 1/10 of Latvia’s population making it the most viewed film in Latvia, putting it also above international films, showing that the audience appreciates and yearns for this new eccentric-fearless cinema.
These are only a few success stories out of many. Sadly however, not all of the films, which travel to festivals, reach the audience they deserve. In 2008 when an economic crisis hit Latvia, the film industry out of all art industries suffered the most. But films were made and are still being made. As Latvia celebrates its 7884th day of independence and counting, it will be interesting to see which route its cinema will take, whether it will go the way of the happy-go-lucky patriotic films of heroism or take the route of the new fearless, peculiar independent cinema.

P.S. If you happen to be in Latvia on May 4 and understand Latvian, don't miss out Latvian film marathon!

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