Baltic Cinema Conference: Riga, September 2008

September 17, 2008 at 12:51 am

The conference, organized by Prof. Irina Novikova of Latvia’s National University with the participation of several Latvian organizations, took place at the intimate premises of Riga’s Film Museum, tucked away at the end of winding cobblestoned pedestrian alleys, among the lovely buildings of Riga’s Old Town. The conference coincided with the museum’s exhibition on Riga’s famous son, director Sergei Eisenstein, who spent here the first seventeen years of his life (one-third of the directors’ short life). This imaginatively organized exhibit was impressively curated by the Museum’s Elina Reitere; it came along with the publication of the booklet Riga’s Boy (pictured).

The conference brought together scholars involved in the study of film from the three Baltic republics and the United States. There were sociologists, as well as film, cultural, and media studies people, who gave presentations highlighting different aspects of cinema in the region. Some looked into the work of the Baltic documentary school, analyzing the work of such important directors like Juris Podnieks (Maruta Vitols) as well as various films related to memory representations (Violeta Davoliute, Olga Proskurova, Aune Unt). Others explored the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, looking at issues of memory, nationalism, narrative and space in these cinemas (Aija Rozensteine, Eva Naripea, Irina Novikova). Pritt Parn, the highly esteemed Estonian animator, was the subject of Mari Laaniste’s wonderful presentation on his masterpiece, Eine murul/Luncheon on the Grass (1987). Some of the talks were dedicated to the most recent cinema from the region — e.g. Viktors Freibergs’ talk on the Latvian Vogelfrei (2007), a project by four directors, or Arturas Tereshkinas’ on Lithuanian commercial hit Zero. Lilak Lithuania (2006). Documentary filmmaker Jonas Ohman, a Swede who works in Lithuania, showed an excerpt of his new film The Hitmen (2008), featuring interviews with Soviet collaborators from the late 1940s. Critic Dita Rietuma presented a detailed talk on the work of Laila Pakalnina. Alina Zvinkliene (Vilnius) explored the matters of stereotyping and cross cultural representations. Industry and audience conscious scholars like myself and American Bjorn Ingvoldstadt kept bringing the discussion back to issues of audience research, relevance, and distribution.

In the post-Soviet period the film production in the region initially dwindled but then previous output levels were restored. Nowadays each one of the three republics releases several features every year, as well as animations and documentaries (and, of course, the national film centers are working hard to attract international runaway productions). We had the chance to see two recent Latvian films. The first one was Monotony (2007) by Juris Poskus, a drama about young people from the Latvian periphery, who have difficulties communicating and who, as a result, end up making moves that they would probably not take if they were able to talk properly to each other; the film has won several awards at festivals in the former Soviet sphere, touching on issues of lack of direction in life, outmigration, and so on. The other one was a recent absurdist short by Latvia’s leading avant-garde filmmaker Laila Pakalnina, called Stones (still to be released), a film picturing the weird way in which a local oligarch is building his stone garden but in fact a treatise on human exploitation and inertia revealilng the director’s idiosyncratic sense of humor.

© Dina Iordanova
17 September 2008

Kevade/ Spring (USSR – Estonia, 1969) Arvo Kruusement

September 8, 2008 at 5:19 am

Kevade/ Spring is clearly a classic of Estonian cinema, and is probably the best film to see for whoever wants to get acquainted with this cinematic tradition. Shot in 1969 parallel with the great hit Viimne Reliikvia, the film cost about 300,000 roubles to make (just about a third of the other film’s budget). Director Kruusement really wanted to shoot in color but all the resources at Tallinnfilm at the time were directed to The Last Relic, so he could only afford the usage of a black and white stock. Cameraman Harry Rehe intervened and persuaded the director that a black and white film would certainly be closer to the spirit of the work, set around the turn of the the 20th century. In addition, the black and white photography would give the film a more timeless feel.

Based on the work of Oscar Luts (1887-1953), the novel Kevade dates from 1912-1913. It had also been turned into a stage play that had often been part of the repertoire of various theatrical companies across the country. Usually, however, it were adult actors that were playing the teenage protagonists. It is for the film that director Arvo Kruusement insisted on casting young people of the same age, a move that was considered particularly progressive at the time. The actors were recruited as a result of a nation-wide search, which allegedly also increased the anticipation of the film across this small country. It was also the director’s decision to change the focus of the novel from the more comical characters such as Toots and Kiir (who still dominate the later films) to a scrutiny of the fragile relationship of Arvo and Teele, and make this lyrical tone dominant for the film.

The story evolves in the region of the town Paunvere; all the protagonists are in one way or another related to the small community and the center of action takes place at a mixed-gender half-boarding school where a wise Teacher, a Church Master, a drink-loving servant (Lieble), and a range of teenage pupils spend most of their days. It is a close-knit community where most interactions evolve around daily events of formative importance and where simple situations and exchanges can lead to serous ethical conclusions. Like in other coming-of-age films situations like first attractions, jealousies and disappointments are in the centre of attention, and so are funny and mischievous friendships. One of the protagonists covers up for a friend just to realize very soon that someone else is punished unjustly because of his false testimony; it is all resolved in an emotional confession from the culprit. All in all, the teenagers at the school form an interesting bunch of endearing characters — the funny Kiir, the phantasist Toots, the bear-like Tonisson, the dreamer Arvo, the musical wonder Imelik. It is mostly the boys, however, who remain in the centre of attention, with only one female character, Teele, developed to some extent and all the other girls remaining indistinguishable from each other on the background (the fact that they are all blond certainly does not help characterisation).

The centrality of this film for the Estonian legacy is remarkable also because it is typical for Central and West European literary traditions to have such coming-of-age novels (and films respectively) as cornerstone of their identity discourse at the onset of the 20th century (I am thinking here of German-language novels by Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Robert Musil, for example).

Even though every national cinema tradition probably has a film of this type, Kevade‘s superb artistry makes it stand out. The biggest achievement in my view is the superbly paced action — many various events are crammed in the 84 minutes of the film, many requiring detailed complex characterization, yet it is all balanced neatly in the space of the film. The performances are excellent, most likely due to the well thought-over casting and competent work of the director with the teenage actors, both the music and the camerawork are memorable.

The two further parts of the trilogy Suvi/ Summer (1976) and Sügis/ Autumn (1990) were made seven and twenty one years later, respectively. By casting the same actors, the director is able to capitalize on the natural process of aging and thus enhance the familial feeling that the trilogy leaves. Margus Lepa (as Kiir), Riina Hein (as Teele), and Rein Aedma (as Imelik) and Arno Liiver (as Arno) have only played in the trilogy and have never been engaged as actors in other films, thus leaving the viewer with the feeling that, by appearing in the three installments, they have shared part of their real lives. Director Kruusement is responsible also for other important Estonian films, most notably the cheerful musical Don Juan of Tallinn (1971).

Here is a non-subtitled clip from the film, a scene usually referred to as The Sauna, featuring characters like Tonisson and Toots.

Along with the two other parts of the trilogy, Kevade is restored and released on DVD. I saw the trilogy out of a box set where the three films are available with English and Russian subtitles. There is also a separate DVD edition of Kevade only, which comes with a 50-minute long documentary about the production history of the film (featuring interviews with the director, members of the crew, and the actors), and with a variety of subtitling options in English, German, Russian, Finnish, Swedish and Estonian.

© Dina Iordanova
8 September 2008

Viimne reliikvia/ The Last Relic (USSR – Estonia, 1969) Grigori Kromanov

September 5, 2008 at 6:50 am

The Last Relic is seen by many as the best Estonian film. It is, undoubtedly, the most popular Estonian film as well, a prime example of the attempts of the Soviet Union to produce appealing mass entertainment (other classical illustrations of this endeavor were films like Neulovymie mstiteli, a truly entertaining gem from 1966). The film has all elements of a good romantic adventure: love affair between two extremely good looking protagonists, who manage to be together against all odds and by overcoming all sorts of difficulties that an assortment of disguised enemies (clergy, ambitious suitors, envious rivals) put on their way. There are gorgeous horses, chases through lovely forests, exciting river passages, night scenes at burning castles, treacherous cloister underground corridors, funny jokes, and memorable songs.

The film is based on a classical Estonian book for children, which was substantially changed in the process of adaptation. One of the important new aspects was the introduction of dynamic songs which are still popular today (and which are performed by different singers and in different musical arrangements for the Estonian and the Russian versions of the film). In the documentary that is appended to the DVD, the makers of the film openly acknowledge that they were influenced directly by films like the French Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) and the classical version of Robin Hood (1938, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland). But they also indicate they had in mind many other adventure films of the time as well. The cameraman spoke of being influenced by Antonioni, but it seems to me there were influences also from the East European school of filmmaking with their long shots (mostly Miklos Jancso) — one scene that is reminiscent of a Pieter Bruegel painting includes a two-minute long uninterrupted take including over 200 extras in a complexly choreographed traveling shot.

The Last Relic was made for about one million roubles, a truly sizable budget for the time. At the time of its release it was seen by nearly 45 million people within the Soviet Union alone, and it was exported to 63 countries. Most of these countries, notably, are located in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe — a glance at the list of these gives a very interesting outline of the geopolitical distribution of the cultural sphere of influence of the Second World at the time. These also happen to be precisely those territories that we know very little about in terms of cinematc exposure.

One of the remarkable features of The Last Relic is that it puts the love affair in the center of the plot, and tackles it quite openly, by including erotic scenes of a type that has not normally been seen in Soviet cinema; in one instance Ingrid Andrina, the lead actress, is shown naked — the scene looks like out of a Scandinavian film of that time. The role of the nun Ursula, a young woman permanently attracted to men, is played by the well-known Eve Kivi (who enjoyed somewhat of a similar reputation in real life). Even though for an outsider like me Ursula’s presence appears to be a minor supporting role without any particular significance, it seems that due to the actrress’ special reputation the character acquires a much bigger importance, is given tremendous attention in the discussions of the film that I have come across and is credited as nearly key personage in the context of the film.

Even though billed as Estonian (as it is made in Estonia and based on Estonian material), the film is a true example of the Soviet dimension in filmmaking. Alongside beautiful Ingrid Andrina (as Agnes) and feisty Eve Kivi (as Ursula), several of the most important roles are played by Russian actors – Aleksandr Goloborodko (Gabriel) and famous Rolan Bykov (as Brother Johannes)*. Elza Radzina (best known from her roles in Grigoriy Kozintsev’s Shakespeare adaptations, here as the Abtiss of the Monastery), also has an important role. The role of Ivo Schenkenberg, a real historical personality, was initially planned for Lithuanian star Juozas Budraitis (but then went to Estonian Peeter Jacobi, who delivers a fully competent performance).

Here is one of the musical numbers, a song about fighting for one’s freedom. In the ‘making of’ documentary, the author of the lyrics said he worked on these precisely at the time when Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague in 1968, thus he truly embraced the chance to create a song about liberty and rebellion.

The entire film is available to view on YouTube , cut into ten minute-long segments, but these are only in an Estonian version. It is interesting that from over twenty videos that have been posted here, none has subtitles nor any explanation in English. Evidently, those who posted did not imagine that anyone beyond Estonians would be interested in it.

The Last Relic was restored with the assistance of Finnish collaborators and re-released in 2002, 33 years after its original premiere. It is available to purchase on DVD with English, German, Russian, Finnish, Latvian and Estonian subtitles.

* At the time of the shooting Bykov was simultaneously working on his own directorial Vnimanie, cherepakha!/Attention, turtle!, a great childrens’ movie of the time released in 1970.

© Dina Iordanova
5 September 2008