Herz Frank- Dialogue with Epoch, People, and Oneself
by Abrams Kleckins, Dr.Art
Less than half of a century has passed since the beginning of an unprecedented bloom in the world's documentary cinema. All of a sudden, during less than a decade, in various places of the world - in majority of cases, independently from one another - a large number of differentfilms attracted public's attention, which testified not only to the appearance of new talents, but also to a new perception of the documentary cinema, and to the emergence of its new paradigm. Such was the course of events in England, France, USA, Poland,Yugoslavia, Latin America, and other countries including the small country of Latvia that had lost its independence and turned into a Soviet republic. English "free cinema," French ^cinema venter American "direct cinema," and even the Polish "black episode" that was created behind "the iron curtain" evoked great interest in the cinema world.

However, it was all utterly different with the new Latvian documentary filmmaking, the "Riga School of Poetic Cinema," Outside Latvia, even within the borders of the USSR, their works were rarely screened, and they reached the international film festivals only shortly before the fall of the Soviet regime when Nyon and Berlin film festivals screened large retrospectives. During the preparation of these retrospectives, the representatives of the festivals were largely surprised that they were dealing neither with standard examples of Soviet advocacy, nor - in the best case - with films where the first faint sprouts of perestroika could be felt, but, instead, with a whole film school that, consciously or subconsciously, actively motivated the perestroika itself (as it was pointed out by Moritz de Hadeln in the retrospective's catalogue).

However, more important than international recognition was the role that the Latvian documentary filmmaking played in the social consciousness, nearly for a quarter of the century - from the 60's till the beginning of the 90's when independence was regained, It is unheard-of that elsewhere the local documentaries would regularly become an event in the cultural life and the number of spectators in cinemas could be compared with that for the feature films, and even happen to be among the leaders (the record was 800 thousand viewers, which is about one third of the population of Latvia). Maybe, even more essential is the esteem that documentary filmmakers gained as personalities in the society during those years - exactly, esteem, although also their popularity could be compared with that of film and pop stars. Not only their films, but also their ideas about topical issues were interesting for a very broad audience, maybe, sometimes even broader than the number of their film viewers. Significantly, the case was different with feature film directors. Certainly, a part of them was not less known, and still - their opinions about things outside filmmaking were not especially requested.

This period in the history of the Latvian documentary filmmaking concludes with two very significant, although diverse events. First of all, there was a public scandal that was raised by a government ruling of the newly independence-regained Latvia, to repudiate grants for film production on the account of the budget deficit. Loud protests started that were not coming from cinematographers: the society was ready to accept that it was not feasible for the state to support the production of feature films, but it strictly demanded to assign means for making documentaries. And all this was happening in the period of
radical changes when the old system, the old economy was breaking apart and most of the people were not sure how their own lives would be settled. Still, they considered the troubles of documentary filmmakers essential. And the government had to find the resources.

The other event was a tragic one. In summer 1992, the most popular Latvian documentary filmmaker Juris Podnieks died in an accident. His funeral turned into a national event. It was not on account of the presence of official persons, but because of the thousands of people that attended that honoured and beloved man to the cemetery, and the hundreds of thousands that watched the funeral on TV. That was an expression of both honour and gratitude to the deceased one and to all his craft, and partially, an unconscious farewell to all the good that was achieved in spite of the totalitarian power and occupation and that provided the grounds not to be ashamed of the years of humiliation, to believe in the future, and to maintain the nation's self esteem. Today, when a decade has passed, we see how radically and irreversibly the life has changed, how different are the conditions and the rules according to which the society is currently shaped and transformed, and how the art created by the new life experience is being introduced in front of our eyes.

All this should be taken into account in order to grasp the spirit of the creative work of Herz Frank since he is one of the founders and all-time leaders of the Riga documentary filmmaking school. He constantly influenced its development with his films, creative ideas, and - what is not less important - with active support to talented beginners who consider him their teacher, and among whom there was also Juris Podnieks. His latest film, "Flashback," demonstrates that Frank has not lagged behind, with his craftsmanship, remaining in the previous epoch, and that he does offer new development options to the documentary filmmaking. Moreover, he achieves this not by mere dropping of the old, but by throwing a bridge (creating a flashback) from the documentary filmmaking of the time prior to the transformations to the one that is currently under development. Furthermore, just through this film one can really understand how precise was Moritz de Hadeln's evaluation of the Latvian documentary films of the pre-perestroika time, and it also explains how the documentary filmmaking values of the previous epoch could prove useful while searching for the values of the new era.

When the Western audience happens to see the best documentaries produced during the Soviet regime, they are surprised, asking: "How can it be that anti-regime films were produced with state financing?" And they are both right and wrong. As to Herz Frank's and other Latvian films of that period, there was no glorification of power whatsoever. Still, hardly they could be considered as truly nonconformist. By no means they boldly exposed the actions of regime - such was allowed only as criticism of exceptional cases and might not cast the slightest shadow over the perfectly clear image of power. Any, even illusory "distortion" - using the wording of that time - led to banning and destruction of the film. And still, the authorities had serious grounds for suspicion when they considered every new film made by the Riga documentary filmmakers. These films did not fight directly against the totalitarian power.

Actually they belonged to quite a different dimension. In this respect, they were even more radical than the nonconformist denial of power, because any denial is inevitably connected with the thing that is denied. But the works of Frank and his colleagues showed a completely different reality some kind of a parallel world that existed in front of everybody's eyes, but was considered immaterial and unworthy by the ruling power. All that was important to one world was totally unimportant to the other. The reason was that also in the real life two worlds co-existed that were continuously moving apart. As we all know, this ultimately ended with a collapse and vanishing of the world created by the official ruling power, which happened in no time from the historical point of view and which happened most unexpectedly even for all the Sovietologists and kremlinologists. But the other world has remained and will remain forever. When compared, the first one is only the environment that, similarly as the natural phenomena, we have to consider, while here we are talking about the unique life of every person.

The man as a personality is not only uninteresting tor the totalitarian power (and unfortunately, not only for it), but also unnecessary and even dangerous. The basis of the mightiness of this power is anindividual who, in Stalin's wording, is turned into "a screw of the huge state machinery" and who not only bears it, but also is proud of this! He denies himself as a personality or even does not realise what it means:
being a free personality

Even when the new filmmakers entered the Riga Film Studio wishing to. create documentary film art, but not "newsreels" (that was the name of the Studio's Documentaries Department), they inevitably, although unconsciously and handling purely creative problems, stood in radical opposition against the ruling systemo though outwardly not very showy It is because art as free expression of spirit in its nature cannot cohabit with totalitarianism, An artist not only expresses himself as a personality, but he also unlaces the personality of his recipients, creates the feeling of sovereignty of every human life and of self-esteem. This art is even not antagonistic to totalitarian "screw" ideology; such is completely unknown to art because they exist in different dimensions,

What "anti-system," "anti-Soviet" things could be seen in the Herz Frank's (cameraman Juris Podnieks) small film "Ten Minutes Older" (1978) that became an original business card of both Frank and the new Latvian documentary filmmaking? In this one-take film, a very small boy, with great devotion, lives through apparently a theatre show (film viewers see neither the stage nor hear what actors talk), he laughs, he cries, his facial expressions change continuously, and from this we can read all what he feels. It is very amusing to follow it. And is this all? The longer you watch the screen, the more worrisome you feel. Ideas are coming into your mind about what will happen to the young hero when he grows up, how his life will develop. And then, insensibly, you look back to your own life; what has happened to you since you were as ' old as this boy? And why the ability to live with such devotion has been " lost? Why the ten minutes are so thick and where the time of my only life is lost? There are no words in this film, but there is something that does not let you go and, actually, makes you think about the meaning of life.Merely a little film. Why should the authorities turn against it? It could be even used as advocacy for the beauty of childhood in the Soviet country. Unless it would make you think so irresistibly...

Maybe, the humane nature of Herz Frank's art is introduced especially vividly in his films-portraits, in the centre of which often are socially active, popular people and even people recognised by the ruling power. It seems that there is nothing more "Sovietic" as the chairman of a collective farm graced with all rewards and honorary titles. Although, the film "The Trace of Soul" (1972, cameraman Kalvis Zaicmanis) is not about a chairman, it is about a man -the brilliant personality of Jekabs Kaulins. In fact, it became the first post-war Latvian piece of art showing the characteristics of a man who had assumed the responsibility both for himself and people that trusted him in the totalitarian environment where obedience was considered the best value. In the collective farm that he had managed from its beginnings, people were not driven by force. They joined in when Kaulins agreed to become the chairman, because they believed in him - in the man who being the partorg (assignee of the Communist Party) of the parish, during Stalin's regime, did not allow to deport anybody from his parish by taking the responsibility (and a huge risk) that there were no "anti-Soviet elements" in his parish (while in the list prepared by the KGB there were 90 names), In this film, the audience saw that even in the conditions of that day there were people incomparable to screws. And he was not an image created by an artist, instead, he was an existent personality who dared to live as many would have liked to, but still lacked the courage. His existence in itself creates a belief that a man can trust himself even in the most difficult situation. Latvian audience got to know Kaulins and started loving him by watching "The Trace of Soul," although, both before and after the film, there were attempts to chasten him. Still, this was a film about the "front-rank chairman of the collective farm" showing what he should be according to the official canons, though actually "The Trace of Soul" is about a unique personality, a peerless man who is faithful to himself in any position and situation,

Probably, Edgars Kaulins is the man closest to Frank in the gallery of his film heroes. However, he lives with everybody that he has met on his cinematographer's track. This is both his own and his colleagues' attitude: a film is produced in close cooperation with the film subjects and there should be absolute mutual loyalty that should be never betrayed. Only in such a case, the genuine nature of the man can be discovered, let him express himself as a personality Each of his films shows respect for a man, a. faithful dialog between those on and those in front of the screen, whether it is about a teenager needed by no one, not even by his parents, who slowly sinks deeper and deeper into criminal activities ("Restricted Area", 1975, cameramen Juris Podnieks, Sergey Nikolaev): about a front-rank worker, an image on honorary plates, who cannot adjust to the model role which is imposed on him and constantly breaks through the official standards ("Without Legends", 1967): about a boy who is lost in life and actually against his own will has become a murderer, waiting in the hotel for the-execution of punishment, and who has entrusted his confession to the film director and thus, to all the contemporaries, who is mentally depurated and realizing his humane nature ("The Last Judgement", 1986):about a mother and her eleven children, a large and poor Siberian family where everybody's hobby is jazz, though having no options to realize their dreams, and they find no other way as skyjack a plane, and almost everybody dies ("Once There Were Seven Simeons" 1989, cameraman Jevgeny Korsun): about a man who has found his life task by undertaking the role of Messiah to help people prepare tor the coming of Messiah and, possibly, his own turning into Messiah ("The Man of Wall", 2001);
about,., (this listing could go on),

All Frank's films show the value of every single man and every single life experience. Each film brings to the audience the following message: every man's - meaning also, your -life is a unique and irreplaceable value, based of human self-esteem and responsibility This sounds pathetic when voiced, but isn't this based on the atmosphere created by art and isn't this the right oxygen that the air of our epoch is lacking?

Anyway, those that are carefully following the development tendencies of creative (authors, arts) documentary filmmaking will not doubt that one of those, and possibly, the most fruitful one, is the wish to get closer to the inner world of the man and to reflect it on the screen. And just this tendency goes through all the creative works of Herz Frank, At the moment, it has made necessary for many documentary filmmakers in various places of the world to reflect -themselves and their audience, their own inner world. There are no references to self-exhibition. The deeper documentary filmmakers afford to look into a human soul, the sharper become the ethical problems; it has nothing to do with the actor's performance, on the screen there is a real person - then, how deep can one look in his intimate world, dig into the depths of his soul? Can one anticipate, or undertake a responsibility about the consequences of such intervention? The only man who can undertake such responsibility is the cinematographer himself, although also he himself does not fully realise how dearly he will have to pay for his wish to reveal his soul to theworld, and maybe it is even dangerous to himself. It is not enough to have mastery and talent to perform such an experiment. In addition, also the bravery is needed. And Herz Frank verified this in "Flashback." This is not a story of life, but this is an attempt to look back not so much to the time passed as to the time experienced, an attempt to understand oneself and life.

There is no clear-cut plot, and one should not try to reconstruct it in imagination. Not the events, but the experience proves important. And if we follow this, any viewer sooner or later will suddenly realise that the film on the screen is talking about him, although the emotions of the film director, so well known to us, are provoked by absolutely different events. Of course, this is highly subjective; not everybody may be reached by the film. Though it is worth to clarify, to discover someone .from an unexpected angle; this is a great fortune, a gift that we cannot give . ourselves, this is the potency of art.


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Design and sequence Gilde film studio, 1998