Latvian Documentaries
The Heritage From the Hidden Years
As an extra treat, this year's festival will present a retrospective Latvian program consisting of five significant documentaries. It will show examples from Latvia's "Poetical Cinema" covering the period from the sixties until the mid-eighties. Here Andrejs Apsitis, film producer and Head of Riga Documentary Film Studio, leads us through the golden years of Latvian documentaries.

At the beginning of the sixties Latvian documentary film came to a turning point: graduates from the VGIK, the Moscow film, as well as people from journalism arrived on the scene with new ideas about aesthetics. They gave rise to a lyrical and poetical style - "The Riga School of Poetical Cinema", as it was later termed.
The forerunner of this style was a short film The White Bluebird (1961) by Ivars Kraulitis. Two names appeared in the credits for the first time:
Herz Frank (script) and Uldis Brauns (camera). Now both are well-known documentary film directors.
The first film directed by Uldis Brauns has the symbolic title The Beginning (1961) and was followed by The Construction Site (1962) and The Worker (1963). All three are about the traditional theme of work, but in opposition to the former films of this kind - with the domination of didactic narration, Brauns concentrates above all on the visual aspect of film. Since that time picture and rhythm became decisive factors for creating meaning in Latvian documentary films.
Alongside Uldis Brauns, and working in the same direction, Aivars Freimanis filmed The Coast (1963), a film based on three months of living in a fishing village and portraying what life is like there. The cameraman for The Coast was
Ivars Seleckis, who six years later went on to make his own films.
The greatest achievements of "The Riga School" in the sixties are two full- length documentaries The Report of the Year (1965) by Freimanis and "235 000 000" (1967) by Brauns. The first one deals with the life of the people in Latvia, whereas the second is a collective portrait of 235 000 000 inhabitants of the USSR. Both films are looking for harmony between the individual and Society, and in both, daily life was shown mainly in the colors of its more beautiful side.
But at the end of the sixties it became clear that it was not the whole truth about life, which was also full of dramatic tension. Therefore socially critical documentary films appeared. This began with the films Dear Editor (1968) and Faces (1971) made by Imants Brils.
A number of films made by Ivars Seleckis (directing, camera) together with Talivaldis Margevics (script) caused a great response in the audience because the filmmakers had succeeded in touching on topical problems. The first to be mentioned is
The Cross-Road Street (1989), which was awarded the Felix prize as Best European Documentary of the year, to say nothing about prizes at film festivals around the world.
The deep research of the problems and the power of expression are also characteristic for the films by Hercs Frank, such as The Trace of the Soul (1972), Forbidden Zone (1975) and Ten Minutes Older (1978). Heroes of his documentaries are shown at crucial points of their lives, like in The Last judgment (1987), where the confession of a double murderer condemned to death draws attention to the social and moral discord in society and ends by becoming a plea for the abolition of the death penalty.
The assistant director for Forbidden Zone was
Jevgeny Pashkevitch, whose own film The Long Day (1981) had absorbed the aesthetic experience of "poetic documentary" - the attention to the details of everyday life. His film radiates harmony and peace of mind. Laima Zurgina, who started as an assistant director on Uldis Brauns' team, makes films about creative personalities. Her view of the world is poetical and rich in imagery, which could be noticed in The Ugly Duckling - a Child of Mankind (1985).
A constant search for new forms to express the view of reality is a dominating aspect in the creative works of
Ansis Epners. His best films Alive (1970), Sergei Eizenstein (1978), Mikhail Thal 20 Years Later (1980) are unique in their use of metaphors and saturated materials.
A great number of so-called documentary portraits made in the seventies had a very important impact on the further development of the genre. One can trace this line of Latvian documentaries right up to the present.
Juris Podnieks, a brilliant cameraman, who shot a number of films for Frank, Epners, Zurgina and others, demonstrated critical social commitment in his own films like The Constellation of Riflemen (1982) or The Stone of Sisyphus (1985). A new approach to reality was shown in his film Is It Easy to be Young? (1986), where, free of taboos, youth come to express themselves in words and pictures. About nine million people watched this documentary in the cinema theaters in the course of five months. It was a turning point in the history of Latvian documentaries.
Until the end of the eighties Latvian documentaries were almost unknown to Western audiences. At present the latest films are regularly shown at international film festivals. The success they have there is undoubtedly connected with the earlier consistency of Latvian documentary film work.

By Andrejs Apsitis
Press material by film critics A. Kleckins M. Savisko and H. J. Schlege) were used in this article. - Home

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