It was less than a year after the unofficial première of the Lumière Brothers’ first films in a Parisian apartment that the first short films ever made were also shown in Rīga. Three years later Sergei Eisenstein, later to be called ‘the father of Montage’, was born in Rīga. Although it must have been a coincidence (Eisenstein left Rīga at an early age), creative use of montage along with other artistic aspects of film, is undoubtedly the strength of Latvian cinema. The Latvian film industry cannot impress with its size or budgets, but it will charm you with unusual stories and talented storytellers.
When considering Latvian cinematography, the most noteworthy is the documentary genre. The 1960s and 1970s were significant with the informal group, afterwards titled Rīga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema, most widely known with the iconographic film “Ten Minutes Older”;1 the 1980s were marked with Latvian film “Crossroad Street”,2 which won a European Film Academy Award, and “Is It Easy to Be young?”,3 which reached 28 million viewers. Latvians have had good documentary film-makers ever since.
When it comes to feature films, most represent the so-called auteur cinema, where the film director’s vision and style, the work of the cameraman, the composition of the frame, and the rhythm, play the main role.4 The number of co-productions has increased during the last three years both in feature5 and animation films6 thus bringing new influences to the Latvian film industry. Additionally, besides artistic and experimental films, Latvians aren’t lacking in their national action movies either,7 based largely on historical plots and warmly welcomed in the cinemas.
Laila Pakalniņa (1962) is one of the most prolific contemporary Latvian filmmakers. She has made dozens of documentaries, which were well received at inter- national festivals, and four feature films. Absurdity, an unusual sense of humour, particular attention to the sound and composition – Laila Pakalniņa has her in- dividual style. The stories that she tells are inspired by everyday life, though her detailed observations are often mixed with the imaginary or at times even the surreal. Her films have been screened at the Venice Film Festival, Berlinale, film festivals in Cannes, Locarno, Rome and elsewhere. Pakalniņa’s newest feature film “Pizzas” (2012) tells the story of two pizza bakers who rob the cash register and flee to avoid the consequences of their actions. A seemingly ordinary story in Pakalniņa’s hands is turned into a film experience for cinefiles.
Boy Band – New Latvian Cinema
Latvian filmmaker Jānis Nords (1983) was only 29 when he received the Berlinale K Generaton Plus Jury Award for his newest film “Mother, I love you” (2013). nords’ film is a touching story of a boy who, while trying to improve his relationship with his mother, delves into a world of troubles. Aiks Karapetjans (1983), being only 28 years old, surprised everybody with “People Out There” (2012) – a harsh urban drama set in the suburbs. Being so convincing at such an early age they give hope and raise expectations for the future of Latvian cinema. A generation older is Juris Poškus (1959), one of the most distinctive Latvian filmmakers. Poškus recently attracted attention with a stylish black-and white film “Kolka Cool”, portraying a small Latvian town doing nothing; this, as well as his earlier films, shows that Poškus is gifted in grasping the Zeitgeist and capturing it in artistically compelling language.
Instant soup, an obsession with downhill skiing in a country without mountains, the first gay pride and the anti-gay movement in Rīga, a dump, a Christian sect, 400 terns (sterna hirundo) nesting on the rooftop of a printing house – to name just a few themes that have attracted the curious eye of Latvian documentary film makers. Latvian documentaries are not so much about uncovering, unmasking or exposing; they are rather about refined details like the rhythm of the story, a visually captivating style, a sense of humour, expressive montage. Latvian documentaries are frequent guests at festivals, and their awards are piling up. The latest hit is “The Documentalist” (2012), by Ivars Zviedris and Inese Kļava, a controversial film about the relationship between a filmmaker and a protagonist, whether the film maker manipulates the subject, or, en contraire, the other way around? And, at the end of the day, does a true documentary ever really exist?
Latvian animation is artistic, inspired by local culture and powered by the excellent technical skills of illustrators and animators. Recent successes for Latvian animation films include the special Jury Prize for “The Kiosk” created by Anete Melece in application technique. It is a story of Olga, whose home has been a kiosk, simply because her sweet tooth and monotonous life has made her bigger than the exit. A story of two hedgehogs, adapting to the city life, titled “Hedgehogs and the City” by Ēvalds Lācis got awarded in Berlinale 2013. It was created in the studio “Avārijas Brigāde”, which is the most experienced Latvian plasticine and puppet animation studio. The Hiroshima International Animation Festival Jury appreciated “Ursus” by Reinis Pētersons. It is a charcoal drawing animation, telling the story of a bear who works as an acrobat-motorcyclist in a travelling circus but yearns for wildlife and forests. It is typical for the Latvian scene that artists with education in painting or graphic art turn to animation, bringing in unconventional fantasy and technical precision.
Herz Frank and the Rīga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema
The film “Ten Minutes Older” (1978) by Herz Frank (1926-2013) and cameraman Juris Podnieks (1950-1992) is a laconic yet emotionally precise study of a little boy’s face, and has become an icon in European film history. In 2002, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmush, Spike Lee, Chen Kaige, and Aki Kaurismaki, completed a short film project dedicated to the legendary film by Frank and Podnieks. H. Franks, along with Uldis Brauns (1932) and a few other of their contemporaries were later marked as the Rīga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema. There was no formal school though, rather a group of filmmakers who rehabilitated cinema as a visual art, paying particular attention to the visual language of the film. The documentary tradition was further on developed by Juris Podnieks, most widely known for his documentary “Is It Easy to Be young?”.
A benefit of having a small film industry is that good films have literally been seen by almost everybody, and they become shared culture, they get quoted and become part of folklore. Children’s films such as “naughty Emil”, “The Child of Man”, “Boy”, “Christmas Hullabaloo”, “Waterbomb for the Fat Tomcat” were all made at a time when film directors, who are at the beginning of their careers right now, were growing up. There is much we expect from them! Latvian animation also has strong roots, with famous studio Dauka, created by Arnolds Burovs (1915-2006) who started the Latvian puppet animation tradition, as well as Roze Stiebra (1942) and Ansis Bērziņš (1940) who were the first ones to employ the application technique and started a tradition of drawn animation in Latvia. It is thanks to them that Latvian animation has been praised as exceptionally painterly, and Latvian animators – as technically skilled.