Sunday, October 26, 2008

Cinema Riga

Aleksejs Tapinsh often offers interesting and revealing perspectives on Latvia. He doesn't often venture into the world of Latvian cinema, however. Here's one time when he does. All About Kino Riga.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Why my blog isn't really a blog

Main Entry: blog
Function: noun
Etymology: short for Weblog
Date: 1999
Definition: a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer ; also : the contents of such a site

I have a friend who loves language the way other people love, well, the things they really, really love. I often affectionately refer to him as a language fascist. He is a poet by choice so I can understand why language is important to him. I, however, would best be considered as a language liberal. Perhaps a dilettante would be an even better descriptor. I am a non-native speaker of English and quite frankly an awful student. Didn't pay much attention in my high school English classes and by the time I got to college it was too late. My only saving grace is that I love to read so I picked up some of the general gist of the English language, if not always the mechanics of it, along the way.
So why not a blog? Simple. It ain't a journal and it won't always be reflective, and it won't always be commentary and I am tired of the term and I guess I have a little of the language fascist in me as well. Blog might hold the world record for going from a neologism to a commonly used word. But the general idea has been around for a long, long time.
I started using computers sometime around 1979-1980. Yes, kids the Internet isn't new either. Okay. The kids probably don't know it isn't new. So for all of you over 30 who can still remember the dark days before computers, the Internet has been around for a while. In the beginning there was ARPANET and they saw that it was good and things went on from there. My first Internet experience was on PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations). No worries, I didn't actually learn much other than how to play DnD and various other multiplayer games on line. Yes. Multiplayer games have been around for a while too. I have to admit that the graphics have gotten much better. There's quite a difference between seeing bone shards and blood splatter in all of its HD glory accompanied by Dolby sound effects and looking at a text string on a black screen with a blinking cursor waiting for your next move.

"You are in a twisting passage."
"Enter W, D, A or X to continue."
"You run into a troll."
"Troll hits for 20 hit points."
"You die."
"Press enter to restart."

I was also exposed to such things as P-Notes (e-mail), Notes Files (now referred to as forums, newsgroups, etc.), term-talk (IM). The founding blocks of what we now consider to be common place. Reading and sending e-mail, google, sharing thoughts and exchanging ideas online, etc. I don't mean to sound bitter. Things change. And they should. But for some reason the term Blog bugs me. To me it was a meaningless neologism used to describe something which wasn't new.

And yet here I am.


Zvejnieka Dels (The Fisherman's Son)

Drama. 1939.
Directed by Vilis Lapenieks.
Written by Vilis Lacis.
Starring: Peteris Lucis, Nina Melbarde, Haralds Vazdiks, Evalds Valters and Roberts Berzins.

"Zvejnieka Dels" (The Fisherman's Son) is a remarkable film when considered in the
context of the historical period in which it was made and the two people who were primarily responsible for its making. It was made in the shadow of the emerging Soviet Union and a newly resurgent and bellicose Germany, both previous colonial powers that had at various times ruled over Latvia. It was independent Latvia's first full-length feature film and, at the time, it's largest budgeted production. It's actors and filmmakers were some of the best the nation had to offer. It was released in 1939. The following year Latvia would be swallowed up in the turmoil of World War II, alternately occupied by both Germany and the Soviet Union. It wouldn't regain its independence until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The director, Vilis Lapinieks, would eventually have to flee Latvia for the West, where he and his son would go on to respectable Hollywood careers, to escape Soviet persecution. The writer, Vilis Lacis, would become occupied Latvia's Minister of the Interior under the Soviets. Neither lived to see Latvia independent again.
Even without the historical background the film stands on its own merits. To the modern eye it might seem dated and a bit overblown, but taken in the context of the times, it is really a marvel to watch. Full of realistic characters, eye-catching cinematography, and an earnest look at the issues of the time.
The story uses the universal themes of an individual triumphing over insurmountable odds by being steadfast and uncompromising in his principles, but it also manages to capture Latvian life at the time. The emergence of Latvia from the shadow of feudalism and foreign rule and brims with the hope of a future where Latvians are the masters of their own fate. Oskars (Peteris Lucis), the fisherman’s son of the title, is set up and betrayed by his brother. After being cast out by his father he sets out to creating an independent fishing operation, one that would not be dependent on usurious middlemen.
While the story seems simple, the performance of the actors and the beautiful cinematography helps flesh it out and transforms the film into something bigger than the sum of its parts. In parts doe eyed melodrama and in parts an eye catching glimpse into a time long past.

Ziemassvetku Jampadracis (The Christmas Hullabaloo)

Children. 1993.
Directed by Varis Brasla.
Written by Alvis Lapins.
Based on a story by A. Zapere.
Starring: Dace Everss, Janis Paukstello, Inara Kalnaraja, Uldis Dumpis. Liga, Lasma, Liene and Almars Zostini, Edgars Eglitis and Kaspars Adamsons.

Great films don’t always need to be “Great” films. They don’t have to be perfect or about important topics. Sometimes they can just simply be small gentle films that tell their story with heartfelt sincerity, humor and warmth. “Ziemassvetku Jampadracis” is such a film.
“Jampadracis” tells the story of the Cirulisi, a tight knit family down on their luck, and their trials and tribulations during the Christmas season. Father Cirulitis has just been turned down for a job as a music teacher. He can barely support the family as a piano teacher with far too few students. They can’t even afford a Christmas tree. The landlord is threatening to kick them out. The kids have just received their report cards and some of the marks are not, well, they are not the kind that you would want your parents to see. The eldest son has been summoned to the police station falsely accused of hitting a policeman with a snowball. And, to top it all off the child prodigy that the two youngest kids have been entrusted with entertaining has just been injured on the eve of his concert, for which they are sure to be blamed.
What ensues is a story that is as genuine as it is warm. A wonderful tale that transcends whatever weaknesses it might have simply because it is told from the heart. The Cirulisi might be poor and going through hard times, but the love that they have for each other can triumph over anything that comes their way. In contrast, the family of the child prodigy, which has all the wealth and status that anyone could possibly need, seems lost and sad because they lack precisely the one thing that the Cirulisi have been blessed with.
The winner of several awards, among them Chicago’s and Frankfurt’s children’s film festivals, “Jampadracis” might be characterized as a children’s film, but it is a film for the child in all of us. It transcends the genre. The performances do not contain a single false note and Varis Braslas direction and the script by Alvis Lapins are exemplary.

Vella Kalpi Velna Dzirnavas (The Devil's Servants at the Devil's Mill)

Comedy/Adventure. 1972.
Directed by Aleksandrs Leimanis.
Based on the novels of Rutku Tevs.
Written by Janis Anerauds.

If "Vella Kalpi" has not aged well, then time has been even less kind to its sequel, "Vella Kalpi Velna Dzirnavas." Its a pale imitation, as most sequels are, of the original. It has a Ballywood, and it was made long before the term was coined for the Indian movie industry, feel to it. Musical number, fight scene, love scene, a gag, repeat until done. They don't really have to be related. There are those who have drawn parallels between Indian and indigenous Latvian culture. There might be something to it.
The fight scenes are poorly choreographed. The love scenes never progress past adolescent lechery and the gags are forced. The musical numbers, if you are a fan of Raimonds Pauls circa 1970, at least seem to work and it does have Eduards Pavuls in it. One of my favorite Latvian actors and he, even when hamming it up, always seems more natural than most of those who share the screen with him.
The story is your standard swashbuckler fare. The Kalpi steal the ceremonial key to Riga. The burgermeisters of Riga try to get it back. Musical number, fight scene, love scene, gag, repeat, and everything ends happily with the Kalpi emerging victorious.
As with the original "Vella Kalpi," I wish I could have seen it when it first came out. I remember looking forward to its release with the same bated breath as today's kids looked forward to "Harry Potter," but we left Latvia before it hit the screens. I am sure I would have loved it. I would have been 10 at the time.

Vella Kalpi (The Devil's Servants)

Comedy/Adventure. 1970.
Directed by Aleksandrs Leimanis.
Based on novels by Rutku Tevs.
Written by Janis Anerauds.

This is my first memory of a Latvian film. I recently saw it again. Unfortunately, it has not aged well. The cinematography is average at best, the sound is tinny, the story over-blown, and the acting hammy. About the only part of it that doesn't seem to have aged is Raymonds Pauls soundtrack. Then again, if you aren't a big fan of Pauls that isn't much to crow about either. Despite all of that, I still loved it and always will.
You have to take this film in its context. You have to see it through the eyes of an 8 year old, sitting in a darkened theater eyes glued to the screen. An eight year old who was growing up in a confusing world not of his own making. Trying to make sense of a contradictory existence that adults only whispered about. I was a Latvian and I lived in Latvia, but I lived in Soviet Latvia. Up to this point my mythology only contained Soviet heroes. They might have spoken Latvian. They might have been Latvian, but at the core they were Soviets. This was the first time I had ever seen Latvian heroes and I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen.
Basically, Vella Kalpi, is a swashbuckler. The film itself is based on the stories of Rutku Tevs, but anyone familiar with the many variants of the "Three Musketeers" will recognize the plot. It's about three young men who, motivated by both circumstance and national pride, rise up to protect Riga from a foreign invasion. They do this with strength and cunning, exhibiting all of the traits that we consider to be Latvian: Hard work, loyalty, and a sense of humor.
I am sure that the film was supposed to reinforce the Soviet ideals of being vigillant to bourgeoisie ideals, our heroes are strapping farm lads with simple tastes and simple needs, and all of the villians were either nobility or foreigners, but all I could see was Latvian heroes doing great deeds with a great bit of panache. This is who I wanted to be when I grew up.
It was my first exposure to Latvian role models outside of my own family. You might think it hyperbole, but you have to understand the total control that the Soviets had over all media. The goal of Soviet media was to produce good Soviets and not good Latvians. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that this movie managed to bypass of all of that and while on the surface seems to reinforce Soviet mythology, at its heart it is about Latvian identity and Latvian ideals

Vecas Pagastmajas Misteria (The Mystery of the Old Parish House)

Drama. 2000.
Directed and Written by Janis Streics
Starring: Renars Kaupers, Ivars Kalnins, Arturs Skrastins, Aurelija Anuzite, Eduards Pavuls, Andris Berzins, Mirdza Martinsone, Olga Drege and Inese Saulite.

It is not often that I feel I have to watch a film more than once. Not because I missed some important plot point, but because I am not sure I liked or disliked the film. I am still not sure. The films of Janis Streics have that effect on me.
“Mystery” is loosely based on real life events that took place in Krimulda, Latvia. It tells the story of an aging KGB agent Eduards Pavuls) who is forced to live the rest of his life in a house in whose basement he had tortured and murdered people during the summer of 1941. Yet, the film itself is really about much more than that. It is about filmmaking and contemporary life and the notions of guilt and responsibility.
The film is told in three parts. The first, “Mea Culpa”, is a film within a film. It is about the screening of the KGB agent’s story. In the film within the film, the KGB agent hires two construction workers (Renars Kaupers and Andris Berzins) to brick up the door to the basement to prevent the ghosts of all those he had killed from coming after him. As the two workers discover the true nature of the job they resolve to avenge all those who had died by killing the Chekist, but eventually end up saving him from killing himself. Unfortunately, no one, other than the director (Arturs Skrastins), likes the finished product and it is decided that additional scenes need to be shot to improve it
The second part, “Agnus Dei”, is about the shooting of an additional horror scene to in which the ghosts, accompanied by a spectre of Jesus nailed to a cross, chase the Chekist. One of the people hanging around the shoot, a filthy drunken bum looking for a free drink, unbeknownst to anyone is the actual real life KGB agent. During a break in the filming, while no one is watching, he nails the actor (Kaupers) playing Jesus to the actual cross.
The last part of the film, “Tuba Mirum”, is about the relationship between the young actor (Kaupers), the film’s producer (Ivars Kalnins) and the woman they both love (Aurelija Anuzite).
It all comes to a head as the sadistic producer tries to rape Anuzite, Kaupers comes to her rescue, and with the help of the ghosts of the victims of the old parish house, they triumph over all.
The major flaw of “Mystery” is that so much of the story is dependent on the fact that the film within the film is supposed to be flawed and we spend too much time watching a bad movie being made. It’s not that this is a bad idea. Films about bad films are not a new genre. I can think of two examples, “Ed Wood” and “Living in Oblivion”, that worked. However, neither of those films tried to focus on anything other than the basic premise. Streics tires to reach far beyond that by also making “Mystery” about the true life events of what happened to Latvia under Soviet occupation and all of the real and imagined scars that they left on the Latvian psyche. If he had focused on either story the film would have been much stronger. By trying to combine the two he succeeds in telling neither.
This is not to say that “Mystery” is a bad film. There are many parts of it that work and others that are downright profound. Streics’ combination of mysticism with realistic themes and execution show a great deal of talent and depth. The three parts all complement each other. You have layers upon layers of symbolism here. The real life events are often more absurd and surreal than their celluloid representation. Reality and fantasy blur and complement each other to the point where you can’t tell them apart. All in all, while some of the parts might not work, the sum is greater than the whole.

Vai Viegli But Jaunam (Is it Easy to be Young?)

Documentary. 1986.
Directed by Juris Podnieks.

The body of work of Juris Podnieks lends itself to superlatives that often sound too good to be true. His accidental death at the age of 42 deprived Latvian film of an incredible talent who would have been entering the prime of this career. His skill and talent combined to make a filmmaker who would be considered great not only in the context of Latvian film, but by any global cinematic standards. This is made even more extraordinary when taken in the context of where and when he made his films. Working under Soviet rule as a documentarian, a genre that demands clarity and truth under a government that provided neither, he managed to make singular films that withstand the test of time.
Perhaps no other film exemplifies this better than “Vai Viegli But Jaunam?” (Is it Easy to be Young?). Released in 1986 the film played to packed houses across the Soviet Union and to critical accolades in the West.
The film opens with rock concert footage spliced with coverage of the trial of several youths who were charged with the vandalism of a train at the conclusion of that concert. Podnieks contrasts the exuberance and implied rebel spirit of the concert with shots of the accused standing uncomfortably before those who would judge them. There is no question how this trial will turn out. It’s a forgone conclusion. They don’t stand a chance before these authoritarian figures who deliver the “facts” without passion or emotion and with an unwavering conviction of their “right” and “righteousness.” The accused don’t even attempt to defend themselves, not as an admission of guilt, but with a hopeless resignation to their fate. The only one of them to even attempt to raise a defense is eventually sentenced to several years of hard labor.
And so starts the exploration of whether it is easy to be young. Podnieks presents a variety of subjects in various settings providing us with a wide cross section of youths from various walks of life and divergent destinations. He creates a snapshot of time which not only captures the difficulties of growing up, but also of the Soviet Union as it was beginning to unravel under its own banality, hypocrisy and utter disregard for humanity.
We meet an eager Krishna who seems to be rebelling against what he perceives as a corrupt society, but who does so by replacing one form of blind allegiance with another. Down with Lenin Up with Hari! We meet a young punk who is exceptionally articulate, intelligent and informed, but for all of that can’t see beyond his own fatalistic nihilism. There’s a young girl who failed in her suicide attempt being browbeaten by those who are supposed to cure her and a first time filmmaker who isn’t sure of what he wants to say but knows that he needs to say something. All of them will seem familiar to those of us who can remember entering adulthood regardless of where and when we did so. But perhaps the most poignant moment in the film is the before and after interviews with young conscripts who were sent to Afghanistan. The contrasts are as shocking as those of the most cynical and broken combat veterans as seen in any documentary about war and its consequences. Watching a young veteran walking through a city filled with people on whose behalf he had believed to be fighting and in defense of a system and ideals that he no longer can share is as powerful of an image as I’ve seen on film.
Podnieks greatest strength is in getting these individuals to reveal so much of their selves. We get the feeling as if we are sitting in on a late night conversation between friends where they let down their guard and reveal their true selves and feelings. Even more extraordinary is that Podnieks got them to do so in a time and a place where public introspection of this kind often had severe consequences. A place where thinking the wrong thing was considered to be as bad, if not more so, as doing the wrong thing. The film’s greatest strength is in the way that it shows what it means to “grow up,” and answering the title question with: It never is, nor should it ever be.

Svesais (The Stranger)

Drama. 1988.
Directed by L. Locmele.
Written by Alvis Lapins.
Starring: C. Glaudans, A. Licitis, Janis Strenga and M. Berzina.

Filmed in the waning days of the Soviet Union, "Svesais" (Stranger) is part road film, part mystical exploration and part social commentary. Filled with apocalyptic imagery, desperation and aimless nihilism L. Locmele's film takes us into a nightmarish world of alcoholism as seen through the eyes of a child who is losing his father to the bottle.
Having run out of options and tired of being embarrassed by his father, young Zigis (C. Glaudans) attempts to travel from Cesis, by whatever means available, to meet Zila Kalnu Marta, a real life faith healer played by Marta herself, in the hopes of finding a cure for his father. On the road to and back from Zilkalns Zigis runs into a cross section of characters representative of the stagnation that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. From well-meaning, if ineffective social workers and policemen, to nihilistic kids who steal simply for the sake of the thrill.
The film has a documentary feel to it, but at times comes across too strong. There are only so many times you can look at images of alcoholics destitute on the streets before you become inure to the image. While flawed in many small ways, mostly because of trying to hit the audience over the head with its message, it still manages to capture a small corner of the zeitgeist of the end of the Soviet era.

Spridits Amerika vai Does it Look Like Happiness?

Documentary. 2003.
Written and directed by Ieva Salmane.
Produced by Salmane and Maris Locmelis.

Spriditis Amerika vai Does it Look Like Happiness? tries to answer an important question: Why have so many Latvians in recent years decided to leave Latvia to seek their happiness in the United States, and have they found it?
It's a much-debated question both in Latvia and wherever else more than two Latvians can be found. Spriditis (as well as another film on the same topic, Atrasts Amerika) has certainly stimulated the debate. But, other than showing that, in general, happiness is hard to find and even harder to define, the film doesn’t really answer its own question.
The fault is perhaps with the premise itself. Looking at Latvia or the United States through the eyes of those who decided to choose one over the other doesn’t really address the merits or faults of either. By definition those who left Latvia found Latvia lacking and chose the United States as a place where whatever it is that Latvia lacks can be found. Those kinds of judgments are best left to those with an objective eye with nothing at stake.
Spriditis really isn't a film about Latvia or the United States, so much as a film about individuals who seek the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and they can be found in any immigrant community regardless of county of origin or ultimate destination.
The short answer to whether they found their happiness in America is, well, really neither short nor simple. The film certainly demonstrates that for the most part they have not. But whether this was due to something intrinsic to the respective nations or the individuals in question remains unanswered. One gets the sense that they could have been just as happy or just as unhappy in either place. Their reasons might change, but the degree of either remains the same.
Spriditis is not a bad film. Other than at times comical English translation, it is technically well executed. One gets the sense of place and lives. The film flows with a natural rhythm that captures the spirit of the moment it sets out to capture. It fleshes out its background much better than Atrasts Amerika. Where Atrasts Amerika was mostly talking heads broken up by cutaways, which didn’t always add to what the heads had to say, Spriditis adds background footage that accentuates the interviews.
Overall, Spriditis offers a glimpse into the motives and introduces us to people who most of us might never otherwise meet. It's a film that captures the immigrant experience, the hardships and sacrifices, even if it doesn't really tell us anything particularly new about the place those immigrants left or the place where they now live.

Skersiela and Jaunie Laiki Skersiela (The Crossroad) and (New Times at the Crossroad)

Documentary. 1988 and 1998.
Directed and filmed by Ivars Seleckis.

The best fiction films are the ones that manage to capture some element of real life. It doesn't matter if they are set in a galaxy far, far away or taken straight from today's headlines. They feel real no matter how contrived. The best documentary films work in reverse. They take real life and give it scale and resonance that makes one forget that what we are watching is the mundane and common. They take things and events in life that most of us don't pay too much attention to or take for granted and elevate them to epic status.
Ivars Seleckis' documentaries Skersiela (Crossroad Street) and Jaunie laiki Skersiela (New Times at Crossroad Street) accomplish this with such effortless ease that one forgets that these are documentaries. They feel real and surreal at the same time. Both films take place in a small street in the Pardaugava section of Riga. The first was filmed in 1988 and the second 10 years later in 1998.
The first film slowly introduces us to the residents of Crossroad Street.
There's Julis the cab driver and his arch-enemy and neighbor, Aldis, a stone mason and part-time preacher, who has set up a what seems to be a major monument-making factory in his backyard. It's a noisy undertaking and a constant source of irritation to straight-laced Julis.
There's poor Daiga, pregnant and abandoned by her lover. She lives as an unregistered guest of her cousin in the same house as Julis, his wife and his daughter. She fears that any moment she will be kicked out into the street. The house itself was built by and belonged to her grandfather, a famous Latvian writer, during Latvia's independence. It has been turned into communal housing by the Soviets. Daiga is now nothing more than a squatter.
There's Osis, feeble-minded but gentle, who lives with his 80-year-old mother. There's Tolik, the son of a Latvian mother who was deported to Siberia and a German father whom she met and fell in love with there. He speaks only Russian and can barely move because of an untreated childhood disease he contracted in Siberia. There's Peteris and Olga, a bickering but loving, easy-going old couple who grind horseradish in their backyard for sale in the market. There's even a glimpse of the mysterious Casino Plumins tooling around in his Zigulis.
There are many more, but they all present a cross-section of Latvia and, as the title suggests, find themselves at the crossroads as a dying empire takes its last gasps. Their lives are filled with chaos and pathos. Aldis, the stone mason preacher, keeps mouthing homilies about the spiritual life while in constant pursuit of earthly rewards. Julis finds himself lost in this new chaotic world, not nostalgic for the past, but resentful at having to live in a world in which a taxi driver no longer has the same status as his enterprising stonemason neighbor. Then there is poor Daiga who, despite it all, keeps smiling through the tears.
Jaunie laiki Skersiela revisits the neighborhood 10 years later. Nothing is the same and at the same time it all seems strangely familiar.
Daiga, the helpless young woman, is now a mother with a 10-year-old son. The house from which she was kicked out is now entirely hers and she is busy making it into her little safe haven. She has a job and a man and a healthy and happy son. She is strong and vibrant and in full control of her life.
Aldis is still as devout as ever, if not more so, but his business has fallen on hard times. Racketeers have burned down his modern workshop and he now has to fight for control over his property with Galina, his father's second wife. Daiga has just turned off his water, water which he has been poaching off her pipes for his workshop all of those years.
Peteris and Olga are still making horseradish in the back yard and bickering in loving fashion. And Casino Plumins is now tooling around in a brand new Mercedes and living in a house right out of the pages of Architecture Digest with his beautiful artist wife.
A lot of old shacks on Crossroad Street are being torn down or remodeled and rebuilt. There is also a huge new addition to Crossroad Street: a mansion built by a mysterious and wealthy gypsy. Side by side we see modest, well-kept family homes with tidy gardens and run-down buildings with junk-filled yards. Times have changed mostly for the better, but in some ways for the worse. Latvia is independent and people have freedom to take control of their lives. But there is still chaos and uncertainty. People are rebuilding, but the first thing everyone seems to put around their property is a sturdy fence.
An abandoned freight train rests on the nearby railroad tracks. Everyone has to duck and walk under if they want to get to the store. Osis now receives his disability pension in lats and not rubles, but it is still barely enough to get by and perhaps even less than it was before. Tolik's health has taken a turn for the worse. And Casino Plumins, despite all of his wealth, seems sad and lost and hungry for something that he just can't reach.
The magic of Skersiela and Jaunie laiki Skerrsiela is that they allow us an entry into these peoples' lives. It's an honest look that neither glamorizes nor minimizes real life -- real life as lived by real people in extraordinary times.

Sahs Briljantu Karaliene (Chess for a Diamond Queen)

Thriller. 1973.
Directed by Aloiz Brencs.
Starring: Gunars Cilinskis, Uldis Dumpis and Lidija Pupure.

“Chess for a Diamond Queen” by Aloiz Brencs is a below average detective film that is utterly predictable and uniquely Soviet. It will be near to impossible for western audiences to relate to the stock and trade of the detective genre; understanding the motivation of the good guys and the bad guys. Then again, even for someone who has lived under Soviet rule the picture will seem a murky muddle.
A woman’s body is found in a communal apartment. Her face has been disfigured and no one is sure of the motive for her murder. Nothing seems to be missing. The primary suspect is one of her flatmates, a young woman who was overheard arguing with the victim the night before and fled to the countryside the very next day. The two detectives assigned to the case, Gunars Cilinskis and Lidija Pupure, arrest the young woman and she breaks down during interrogation and admits to striking, but not killing, the victim. Case closed? Hint: In a detective film, nine times out of ten, if a suspect is caught in the first 15 minutes of the film, and she happens to be a pretty young woman, she is innocent. Enter the attorney, Uldis Dumpis, who will prove this so.
The rest of the film proceeds in similarly predictable fashion. Characters are always in the right place at the right time to overhear that crucial clue. (A bad guy just happens to have an uncle living in the same building as one of the good guys and he just happens to be in the stairwell as an important bit of information is revealed). They are always a second too late or too early. (There is the literal scene of a fork in the road. One car goes left the other right, so that they can arrive at their destination minutes apart). Until the final climax, that is, when they seem to hit it right on the nose. In many respects this is true for most of the detective film genre. It all depends on the execution and the execution of “Chess” leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, it could be a simple case of just not being able to relate to the motivations of the characters. It is a very Soviet film.
How does it all turn out? By the end of the film you don’t much care. Hint: In detective films, when the face of a murder victim is disfigured or the body can’t be found, nine times out of ten, it is the person whose body you think it is. About the only positives about this film is the performance of the actors, primarily Cilinskis and Dumpis, and it does offer some insight into the emotional totems of the Soviet Union, unfortunately, for most viewers this will probably not be enough.

Rigas Sargi (The Defenders of Riga)

Drama. 2007.
Directed by Aigars Grauba.
Written by Lisa Eichhorn, Andrejs Ekis, Aigars Grauba, Valentin Jemeljanov, Andris Kolbergs, and Andris Kolbergs.
Starring: Uldis Dumpis, Arturs Skrastinš, Elita Klavina and Janis Reinis.

Its not often the Latvians, like most of the smaller nations of the world, get to tell their side of the story and when they do the tendency is to make up for lost time. Aigars Grauba’s Rigas Sargi (The Defenders of Riga) sets an ambitious agenda, the retelling of Latvia’s 1919 war of Independence against the forces of Russian General Pavel Bermont-Avalov and German General Graf Rüdiger von der Goltz. Defenders focuses on the pivotal battle for Riga and the events leading up to it when Latvian forces, outnumbered 5 to 1, held on to Riga on November 11, 1919. The date is now celebrated as Lacplesa Diena (Bearslayer’s Day), Latvia’s equivalent of the USA’s Veterans Day.
Like Grauba’s Baiga Vasara (Dangerous Summer) this is a big budget (at least by Latvian standards) crowd pleaser which doesn’t aim for either subtlety or historical accuracy. It aims squarely at its primarily domestic audience and plays on some of their most firmly held mythology and themes and as such delivers on all accounts. Defenders to date is Latvia’s highest domestically grossing film.
The events of November 1919 are framed by a love story between Martins (Janis Reinis) and Elza (Elita Klavina). Janis, an idealistic everyman, leaves his Elza on their wedding date to answer the Tsar’s call to defend the Russian empire (of which Latvia was a part of at the time) against German forces. As that war draws to a close Martins returns to Latvia, which by now has declared independence, and once again finds himself in the middle of a war. Elza unfortunately has gotten tired of waiting for him. While still retaining some strong feelings for him, her life, and she along with it, has changed and she’s no longer sure of her love for the idealistic Martins, who once again is preparing to leave her behind to fight in a war which most likely can cost him his life.
In Defenders Grauba again displays his talent for knowing his target audience and which emotional buttons to push. And push them he does none too subtly. The film’s characters come across as two dimensional caricatures and the script sets the story in the starkest black and white, good v. bad, us against them, terms. The us are heroic and noble. The them are either murderous goons, incompetent buffoons or devious manipulators. This is not unusual in war films, but unfortunately, while extremely satisfying for the us portion of the audience, the film probably will not find much of an audience for those who have no emotional stake in either side. Having broken the box office domestically its highly unlikely that the film will find much of an audience outside of Latvia.
Grauba, as in Vasara, certainly knows how to deliver a punch line, but the set up is unfortunately lacking. And it’s the set up which makes punch lines most effective. His actors don’t have much to work with, or perhaps its better to say that they have too much to work with. The script expects them to play to the last row in the house, and at that to the one person who sits in that row who is hard of hearing and near sighted, and play they do. The cast delivers as well as it can. There is real chemistry between the actors and when the script works, usually during its smaller moments which are unfortunately too few, the story comes alive and transcends its two dimensional themes.
Overall, Defenders is a better film than Vasara and Grauba certainly shows promise. If not necessarily as a writer and director then perhaps as a producer. As a side note, it would be interesting to see Grauba working as a producer for such Latvian directors as Varis Brasla (Ziemassvetku Jampadracis) or Viesturs Kairiss (Leaving by the Way). By Latvian standards this is an epic film with a budget of $4 million and Grauba milks it for its worth. While by Hollywood’s standards, where the average cost of a film can run over $50,000,000, this wouldn’t qualify it even as a low budget indy, but by local standards its about as good as it can get. Too bad that once it leaves the friendly confines of its domestic market it will be lost on the global stage as a solid B film which international audiences wont find of much of interest since they have no emotional investment in the subject matter.

Pie Bagatas Kundzes (At the Rich Lady's)

Comedy/Drama. 1969.
Directed by Leonids Leimanis.
Based on a novel by Andrejs Upitis.
Starring: Edurds Pavuls, Karlis Sebris, Liga Liepina and Zigrida Stungure.

Actor Eduards Pavuls is one of Latvia’s best known and celebrated actors. “Pie Bagatas Kundzes” is perhaps his best film. Not unlike a Marlon Brando he can steal a film in just a few scenes as he did in “Baiga Vasara” or without the proper reins he can ham it up as he did in “Vecas Pagastmajas Misteria”. Leonids Leimanis is one of Latvia’s most celebrated directors. The combination of the two makes “Bagata Kundze” (“At the Rich Lady’s”) a film in the tradition of such neo-realist classics as “Umberto D.” and “The Bicycle Thief”. Okay, maybe not that great, but it is a very good film with one tiny flaw. We will get to the flaw at the end.
In “Bagata Kundze” Pavuls plays Kurmis; an unemployed French teacher caught up in the turmoil of 1920’s Latvia. Reduced to pushing a dray cart for a living he shares a room with an elderly couple who make ends meet by doing other peoples laundry. His decency and work ethic catch the eye of the owner of a newspaper stand (Zigrida Stungure). She has visions of grandeur. Her husband has just started a new political party (referred to in the film as number 49 after it’s position on the voting rolls, and, yes, there are 48 other parties) and greener days are coming. And when they do come, Kurmis along with his friend Fredis (Karlis Sebris) get swept up in the wake of the now Rich Lady. Eventually, she hires Kurmis as her butler/handyman.
In the meantime, Emma (Liga Liepina), the daughter of the elderly couple, is released from prison after doing time for stealing. Emma is a young woman of strong will but with a weakness for things out of her reach. Unbroken and unbowed she returns home facing a return to jail if she doesn’t find a job at a time when no jobs are to be found. Kurmis, who has fallen in love with Emma, cons the rich lady into hiring her as a maid.
The story is told with acidic humor and great performances. Leimanis gets the most out of his cast and setting. Zigrida Stungure is great as the neurotic rich lady who can neither pronounce the name of the piano she has just purchased with her newfound wealth nor play it. Liga Liepina adds just the right note of anger to her performance and Karlis Sebris is perfect as simple-minded Fredis who even while trying to steal some cigarettes can’t stop apologizing.
The cornerstone of the film, however, is Pavuls. A great actor when he wants to be and in this film he seems to want it. Kurmis is a decent man in a world filled with only the haves and the have-nots. And more often than not, the haves are the ones who simply yell the loudest and get the most. Kurmis might bend, but he never yells.
Ah, yes. The flaw. This might only bother those of us who grew to despise the Soviet Union and Communism for all the woes it brought to Latvia. “Bagata Kundze” was filmed in 1969 in the Soviet Union and just like “Ceplis”, another film starring Pavuls, seems heavy handed at times. Latvia in the 20’s was certainly a chaotic place. Not unlike today’s Latvia, seems as if a new political party would spring up every day. Unemployment was high and corruption ruled the day. The people were desperate for a leader or a party to emerge from the mess that could lead the nation back to stability and prosperity. In “Bagata Kundze” that party could of course be only the Communist party. The symbolism doesn’t much bother me, but it might bother some of the older generation, especially those who escaped Latvia during the war. “The Bicycle Thief”, “Uberto D.” and the “Grapes of Wrath”, for example, had similar motifs and are still great films. While “Bagata Kundze” isn’t quite in that league, it has its moments and deserves to be seen.

Pa Celam Aizejot (Leaving by the Way)

Drama. 2001.
Directed by Viesturs Kairiss.
Written by Kaspars Odins. Based on a story by Sudrabu Edzus.
Starring: Davis Bergs, Andris Keiss, Guna Zarina, Elita Klavina, Liga Cizevska, Eriks Vilsons.

“Pa Celam Aizejot” (Leaving by the Way) is a lyrical and mystical film that is hampered at times by uneven performances, but bolstered by excellent direction from Viesturs Kairiss. The winner of the 2002 Lielais Kristaps (Latvia’s equivalent of the Oscar), and based on the classic Latvian story Dullais Dauka (Crazy Dauka) by Sudraba Edzus, Leaving transports the viewer into a world filled with beauty and heartbreaking tragedy. It transforms a fanciful fairy tale filled with symbolism to the present without losing a single beat or softening its mystical approach. The setting and characters might be “modern”, but the forces that drive them are as old as love and jealousy, curiosity and faith.
Set in a Latgalian village “Leaving” follows the lives of the village’s inhabitants in the wake of a tragic event: the loss at sea and presumed drowning of Ivars (Andris Keiss), husband of Ilga (Elita Klavina) and father of Dauka (Davis Bergs) and Liga (Liga Cizevska). Ilga is so overcome with grief that she can’t bring herself to tell her children of the death of their father. This is her way of not only protecting them, but also of shielding herself. Despite her best efforts, however, all of them have to deal with the same thing, their longing for someone (or something) whom they love but who is out of reach. Maybe forever. Each copes in their own way. Ilga has an affair with Viktor (Eriks Vilsons), a local married man, Dauka skips school and Liga often runs away from home.
In many ways it’s a tried and true dramatic formula no different from countless other films which have traversed similar tragic terrain and some audiences might be turned off by a story that starts out unhappy and ends unhappier. What separates this film from the pack is it’s poignant lyricism and mystical approach to the subject matter, and, in a manner of speaking, it’s very “Latvianess”. Ilga might be having a run of the mill tawdry affair, but the wife (Ruta played by Guna Zarina) of Ilga’s lover happens to be not only the local postmistress, but also a practicing witch and healer to whom quite a few of the villagers turn for aid and comfort. Or to deny others aid and comfort as the need arises. There’s magic, but it’s neither black nor white. When Dauka skips school it’s not to watch TV, but to hike through the forest while having imaginary (or are they?) conversations with his father. When Liga runs away she melts into the countryside like a woodland nymph. All of this is handled with such everyday matter of factness that it seems as real and natural as using a phone or riding in a car. When Ruta dances naked at midnight in the middle of a field to ensure that a potion she has prepared will accomplish what’s needed, it seems as normal and familiar as when earlier in the day she delivers a telegram.
“Leaving” is not a perfect film, but it’s not trying to be. It’s not really interested in telling a story or following a linear narrative so much as desiring to capture a mood or a feeling. It’s a film that, supplemented by rich and lush cinematography from Janis Eglitis and almost seamless editing by Juta Brante, shows great promise for Kairiss. This was his feature-length debut, and hopefully another step in what will be a long and prolific career.

Pa Balta Furgona Pedam (On the Trail of the White Lorry)

Children. 1991.
Directed by Olegs Rozenbergs.
Written by Alvis Lapins.
Starring: Kalvis Berzins, Janis Pencis and Normunds Apinis.

The beauty of children's films as a genre, and one of its major drawbacks, at least for adult viewers, is that the suspension of disbelief is a given. Children have no problem with accepting things and situations that adults would question.
"Pa Balta Furgona Pedam" (On the Trail of the White Lorry) succeeds, and fails, due to this simple quirk. Furgons has all the elements of a rollicking tale; hidden treasure, Saint Bernard puppies, cute kids, mystery, chases and adult villains that make Cruela DeVille seem nice. Sadly the acting, mostly of the adult cast, is so hammy that for adults it will be difficult to look past it. Kids on the other hand will probably enjoy the film for what it is, a simple tale of good over evil.
Three neighborhood friends in early post-Soviet Latvia have their eyes on a litter of Saint Bernard puppies. The problem is that the owner of the puppies isn't willing to just simply give them away. This is the newly independent capitalist Latvia and for each thing there is a price. A price that the kids can't meet, but the main bad guy who earns part of his living by selling Saint Bernard fur hats can. When the kids discover some pieces of jewelry hidden in the frame of an old bed salvation seems near at hand. Then the bed disappears. And the chase is on.
The kids are great in their roles doing the things that kids do. Unfortunately, the over emoting adult cast drags the film so far down that even the kids performances can't raise it back up.

Naves Ena (Death's Shadow)

Drama. 1971.
Directed by Gunars Piesis.
Based on a novel by Rudolfs Blaumanis. Screenplay by Janis Kalnins.
Starring: Gunars Cilinskis, Eduards Pavuls and Karlis Serbis.

Movies are often a reflection of their times. This makes them neither good nor bad, but they don’t always age well. What seemed like a searing and deep exploration of the human condition becomes a simple and dated period piece with the passage of time. To truly appreciate them you have to judge them in the context of their times. Gunars Piesis’ Naves Ena (In the Shadow of Death) transcends time. It is about universal themes and characters that are just as valid today as they were in 1898 when Rudolfs Blaumanis first wrote the story or in 1971 when it was filmed. The simple structure and setting of the film allows Piesis and his cast to focus on fleshing out the characters and making a stark and limited location seem real and infinite.
The emotional center of the film, like that of the classic Zvejnieka Dels (The Fisherman’s Son), is Latvia’s ties to the sea and the lives of those whose livelihoods depended on it. On an early spring day a group of fishermen are stranded on an iceflow that breaks away from the pack. These are hard men. They hold no illusions about the sea, their chances or fate. As the iceflow drifts further and further from the shore and their food and water supplies start to run out and any hope of rescue fades each has to confront their own mortality. Each of the characters undergoes a change, or more accurately, the illusion of who they are is slowly stripped away layer by layer as their odds of survival dwindle.
Starring some of Latvia’s best known and well respected actors (Eduards Pavuls, Gunars Cilinskis and Karlis Serbis among others), at the prime of their careers, Naves Ena is a film that from beginning to end never let’s up. From the opening sequence as one of the fishermen dives into the frigid waters in a desperate attempt to make it back to the shore only to drown in seconds, to the ending when even the prospect of rescue is complicated by the fact that the rescue boat can only take some and the men have to draw lots to see who will get rescued and who will remain behind to face certain death, Naves Ena is a film that isn’t afraid to look into the void. The true strength of the film is that we all can see bits of ourselves in these characters and through them are forced to examine our own notions of nobility, heroism and the inevitability of death.

Monotonija (Monotony)

Drama. 2007.
Writen and directed by Juris Poskus.
Starring: Iveta Pole, Varis Pinkis, Madara Melberga and Artuss Kaimins.

Juris Poskus’ debut full length feature film Monotonija (Monotony), the Perspectives Award winner for first and second time filmmakers at the 29th Moscow International Film Festival, and a nominee for best full length feature film in this year’s Lielais Kristaps, can be best described as a Latvian Dogme film as done by the English director Mike Leigh. The focus of the Dogme film movement, headed by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in the mid 90’s, was to return to a more naturalistic style of filmmaking, one free of special effects, artistic flourishes or genre. It produced such diverse and notable films as Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune, Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. Mike Leigh, the director of such well known and respected films as Secrets and Lies, Naked and Life is Sweet, is known for his improvisational style which relies heavily on his actors to create character, improvise dialogue and develop the plot. While Monotonija doesn’t exactly reach the lofty standards set by the aforementioned films, it comes close and, if nothing else, establishes Poskus as a talent to watch on the Latvian film scene.
The film is an improvised collaboration between Poskus, the director of the 2003 Lielais Kristaps winner for best documentary Bet Stunda Nak (But the Hour is Near), and actors from Jaunais Rigas Teatris (the New Riga Theater). They started out with only one precondition. Each character in the film needed to have a dream. “We wanted to make a movie about everyday banality where there is no big story. We just wanted to show small guy story that usually are not being shot in movies,” said Poskus. What results is the story of a girl from a small Latvian village who leaves the routine monotony of small town life for what eventually turns out to be the routine monotony of the big city.
As the film opens Ilze (Iveta Pole) is part of a crew of cannery workers who still use old fashioned methods to catch fish which wouldn’t seem out of place hundreds of years ago. As we follow Ilze through her daily routine we are introduced to a village where life and time seems to have stood still. It’s a place where people still chop wood by hand and have to use that wood to heat their houses. It’s a place where people still get their milk straight for the cow and rely on horses as their beasts of burden. It’s a drab and grey dead end place with little future or promise for the young.
Eventually Ilze comes across a newspaper advertisement for an open audition for a film shooting in Riga and after mulling it over with her boyfriend Ojars (Varis Pinkis) leaves him and her village behind for a shot at the big time in the big city. Arriving in Riga she moves in with her cousin Linda (Madara Melberga), fails the audition, has a fling with Archie (Artuss Kaimins), reconciles with Ojars, breaks up with Ojars, finds a new job and, in short, falls into the routine monotony of big city life.
Monotonija’s greatest strength is in capturing the zeitgeist of present day Latvia as it continues emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union and into independence and the present of the European Union. It’s a place where the young often find themselves with few options and where the future always seems to lie elsewhere. For those growing up in the rural areas it’s in the big cities. For those who are already in the big cities it’s in Ireland, and Germany, and the U.S. It’s a country whose people seem to be trapped in a vicious cycle where they are always searching for that greener grass and that greener grass is always just slightly out of reach.
Poskus documentarian’s eye serves him well and allows the actors to disappear into their characters. When it works, like during the opening sequence when we are introduced to life in Ilze’s village with virtually no dialogue, we are treated to moments of movie magic where the line between fiction and reality blurs. When it doesn’t work, like during Archie’s exercise at self-absorbed and bad joke telling, it feels forced, artificial and, well, self-absorbed. Overall, Monotonija is an interesting film filled with talented, if sometimes spotty, performances that gives us a glimpse into the present day lives and experiences of Latvian youth.

Limuzins Janu Nakts Krasa (Limousine the Color of St. John's Night)

Comedy. 1981.
Directed by Janis Streics.
Written by Mara Svire.
Starring: Lilita Berzina, Uldis Dumpis, Liga Liepina, Romualds Ancans and Evalds Valters.

“Limuzins Janu Nakts Krasa” (Limousine the Color of St. John’s Night) is perhaps Latvians' favorite film. Like the American Christmas tradition of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it has become a staple on Latvia’s TV screens around Jani, St. John’s day, the Latvian celebration of the summer solstice. Written by Mara Svire it is director Janis Streic’s best film.
It is a film that can be watched on many levels. At the surface it is a broad comedy with universally recognizable characters and themes that are also uniquely Latvian.
Aunt Mirta (Lilita Berzina) wins a car in a lottery and faster than you can say “prieka”, relatives and acquaintances descend on poor Mirta’s house like locust. There’s her nephew (Uldis Dumpis) who, with wife and son in tow, gets off a tour bus in mid excursion and hitchhikes to Mirta’s house for a visit the moment he hears of her windfall. There’s her former daughter in law, with husband and daughter along, who pop in for a visit out of the blue. Even her next door neighbors, hard working and earnest farmers, are suddenly more helpful and attentive. None of this is lost on Mirta and she makes the most of it.
It’s a very Latvian film. There’s a Latvian folk tale about a poor traveler who stops by a farmstead. Being hungry he asks the farmer’s wife for some food and she promises him a meal in exchange for work. The labor is backbreaking, but he does it without complaint. When he finishes, the stingy farmer’s wife tries to renegotiate. Pleading poverty she offers him some thin soup. He doesn’t complain, but as he sips the watery brew he remarks that the soup is missing something. It needs something to go with the broth. The farmer’s wife apologizes that she has nothing else to offer. All she has left is an old ax. The ax will be good he replies. The farmer’s wife is incredulous, but he reassures her that in his travels he has often had ax soup and its one of the best meals he has ever had. You just have to know how to prepare it properly and it will be as tender and savory as the finest cut of meat. The farmer’s wife seeing an opportunity to make something out of nothing drops the ax in the pot, but no matter how long they wait, the ax stays, well, as hard as an ax. The traveler suddenly remembers that the last time he had ax soup it also had some potatoes in it. Maybe that’s what’s wrong? The potatoes tenderized the ax. Unfortunately we have no potatoes. And just as suddenly the farmer’s wife remembers that she might have some potatoes after all. Into the pot they go. The ax is still as hard. Maybe it was the carrots? There’s carrots. Cabbage? Here’s cabbage. On and on and into the pot they all go. Of course the ax never becomes any softer, but in the meantime the traveler has himself quite the meal.
“Limuzins” is like that folk tale in reverse. It’s the poor old farmer Mirta who exploits the greed of her guests. It doesn’t take long before they are cutting her grass, building her a new cellar and doing all of her cooking and cleaning. All begging at the chance for being the one’s to end up with the car.
The film can also be viewed as one of those typical Soviet morality plays about bourgeoisie values being a corrupter of the human spirit. However, most importantly it’s a film that took this very superficial party line and, between the lines, managed to pillory and parody that very same Soviet system. Where else but in the Soviet Union would an 80 year old woman who can’t drive would end up with a car that she has no use for and doesn’t really want, while everyone else has to scrape and then wait for years to end up with one? Even the title itself is a sarcastic reference to a car that was the Soviet equivalent of a Ford Pinto in a color that can be best described as off-white.
“Limuzins” works on all of those levels. Like most of Streic’s films its about characters and relationships. Its filled with humor and warmth and great performances, but it is it’s ability to amuse while parodying a system that didn’t tolerate being parodied that is perhaps its greatest achievement.

Liktendzirnas (The Mills of Fate)

Drama. 1998.
Written and Directed by Janis Streics.
Cinematography by Harijs Kukels.
Music by Raimonds Pauls.
Starring: Ivars Kalnins, Agnese Zeltina, Arturs Skrastins and Romualds Ancans.

Liktendzirnas is a flawed film that manages to capture the spirit of the years shortly following Latvian independence despite it's tendency towards overwrought sentimentality and substandard production values.
Eduks, Ivars Kalnins, is a college professor caught between the reality of the present and the desire to regain the past. He has inherited a mill. To him the mill holds priceless sentimental value. To his ex-wife and children the mill has only of monetary value. He wants to restore the mill to it's former glory and live happily ever after in it's pastoral setting. Everyone else is pressuring him to sell it and get all that he can while he can. There is no shortage of buyers, including Vincent, Romualds Ancans, a quasi-Mafiosi, who wants to turn the mill into a Roman bath/brothel. Eduks is joined in his struggle to restore the old mill by Agnese, Agnese Zeltina, and Beisiks, Arturs Skrastins. Agnese is an old student of his who, in a twist of fate, had lost her eyesight years ago after being struck by a car driven by Vincents. Beisiks is a young musician wandering from job to job who knows every Latvian folk song, but dresses like a Metallica groupie.
This broad soap opera outline is symbolic of all that was happening in Latvia at the time and, to a point, is continuing in the present day. Shortly after independence, as people reclaimed properties usurped by the Soviets, similar real-life stories were played out all over Latvia. The joy of our regained independence often had to take a back-seat to the need to live and the desire to thrive in a Capitalist society. A society in which traditional Latvian values, at times, clashed head on with the realties of having to make a buck.
Eduks represents the idealized model of what a Latvian is. Strong, stoic, and with a lyrical love of the land. Always willing to do the right thing. Vincent symbolizes the forces of change that were sweeping through the nation. He borders the fine line between a legitimate businessman and an old fashioned crime boss. Beisiks symbolizes the lost youth of the current generation. Aimless and fatalistic. Proud of his heritage while adopting the mannerisms and language of Western culture. Trying to bridge the two into one. Agnese represents the Latvians who have decided to make the best of what they have despite all of the obstacles.
Liktendzirnas is not a great film, but it is a good one. Streics starts off slowly, but eventually manages to create a believable story full of lyricism and warmth. However, what really makes the film work is the performances of the actors, primarily of Skrastins. Skrastins manages to capture the dichotomy of Latvian youth. Caught in a mess that was not of their making and persevering with a combination of fatalistic resignation and youthful exuberance and optimism. Kalnins brings just the right note of soul to Eduks without, as often happens in Latvian films, making him seem overly dramatic and brooding.
This film could have easily have turned into a heavy melodrama, but in the end it manages to tell it's story with humor and warmth. It captures the hardships of adjusting to a new world and manages to show the difficulty of reconciling our expectations with the realities life. There is a bit of these characters in all of us.

Labas Rokas (Good Hands)

Comedy/Drama. 2001.
Directed by Peeter Simm.
Written by Toomas Raudam and Peeter Simm.
Cinematography by Uldis Jancis.
Starring: Maija Apine, Rezija Kalnina, Tonu Kark, Tiit Suuk, Atis Tenbergs and Lembit Ulfsak.

Labas Rokas (Good Hands), the Estonian and Latvian co-production directed by Peeter Simm, is filled with characters and character, sadness and humor. There's Margita (Rezija Kalnina), a two-bit thief who along with her sister will steal anything that isn't nailed down. There's Adolf (Lembit Ulfsak), an engineer in a dying industrial town that no longer needs his skills, and his best friend, Dr. Lepik (Tonu Kark), who performs dental surgery on himself with the help of a mirror but without the benefit of anesthetic. There's Arnold (Tiit Sukk), Adolf's son, the town's policeman whose primary job seems to be to ticket his father each time he catches him speeding. And then there's Pavo (Atis Tenbergs), a caustic and jaded 8-year-old who seems to be going on 80.
All of their lives become entwined when Margita, after stealing a car with her sister in Jurmala, gets into an accident and has to flee across the border into Estonia. She reaches the outskirts of the town of Vineeri (Plywood), named after a now non-functioning and shuttered plywood factory, and attempts to steal Adolf's car while he is taking a swim in a river. As she is trying to get away she notices that Adolf still hasn't come up for air. Thinking that he is drowning she jumps out of the car and tries to save his life, much to Adolf's disappointment and surprise. Eventually they end up back in Adolf's house. When Margita finds out about Arnold the cop, who shares his father's house, she realizes that hiding in the house of a policeman might be the best way to wait for the heat to blow over.
What ensues is an exploration of character and relationships. Simm weaves a simple story that is brought to life by wonderful performances from his cast. Rezija Kalnina is almost perfect as a seemingly amoral thief with no loyalty to anyone or anything, but who once literally walked on glass to prove her love. Lembit Ulfsak and Tonu Kark are perfect as a the quarrelsome and quirky odd couple who have long ago learned to accept each other despite their differences. Tiit Sukk, like Kalnina, is good as the lonely and morose cop, but at times seems a bit too wooden in his performance.
The true standout of the cast, however, is young Atis Tenbergs. When his real mother (Maija Apine) is admitted to the hospital, he adopts Margita as his surrogate mother and mentor. Its not a novel cinematic device, but Tenbergs pulls it off perfectly as a child in a world of mixed-up and often childish adults who has to be both a child an and adult.
Lab?s rokas is also an interesting exploration of the two different national characters of Estonians and Latvians and how they perceive each other. Too often the Baltics are seen as a single entity where the people are indistinguishable from each other outside of their languages and borders. The rest of the world might perceive them as "the Baltics," but they can be as different from each other as night and day. As Pavo's mother explains to Margita, she loves the town of Vineeri and its people but she is desperate for a conversation with a fellow Latvian. The locals never seem to go beyond hello and goodbye. On the other hand, the locals perceive the Latvians as "chatty" and "aggressive" and while in public seem remote and cold, on an individual level speak to each other about topics and in an intimacy that most of us are incapable of.
At the heart of it Lab?s rokas is about individual choices -- and living with those choices -- as well as loyalty. It is a wonderfully quirky film about wonderfully quirky people who have learned to accept and live with each other. The film has won a few awards on the European film circuit and the Latvian "Lielais Kristaps" for best film. It deserves a broader audience.

Kurpe (The Shoe)

Drama. 1998.
Written and Directed by Laila Pakalnina.
Cinematography by Gints Berzins.
Edited by Sandra Alksne.
Starring: Igors Buraks, Vadims Grossmans and Jaan Tatte.

Three young soldiers discover a woman’s shoe on a sandy beach and chaos breaks out. Sirens go off, officers appear and hurried orders are shouted out. Welcome to Liepaja, Latvia, 1950. The new frontier. A time of paranoid suspicion, absurd reality and good old fashioned Latvian stoicism.
The story of Laila Pakalninas “Kurpe” (The Shoe) reflects the absurdities of Latvian life in the early days of the Soviet occupation. This was the period in which the sand of Liepaja’s coastline was dredged each night by a tractor, like a conscientious golfer would a sand trap, and the following morning checked for fresh footprints. When a pair of border guards discover a woman’s shoe in the sand that wasn’t there the previous night, it could only mean one thing. A saboteur must have landed. It is the only possible explanation.
The commander of the border guards orders them, in classic Soviet fashion, to find the woman to whom the shoe belongs in the most direct manner possible. They are to traverse the city and to see whom the shoe will fit. A bit of Soviet Cochranism “If the Shoe will fit, you must convict.”
What ensues is an absurd tale that reflects the absurdities of Soviet life. Pakalnina’s direction and cinematography perfectly complements the realities of the time. The film is an “art” film and as such might not appeal to those who are used to more traditional forms. There is very little dialogue and the plot assumes that the viewer understands the backstory. The shot selections often will often have the characters shot in silouethes or as reflections. The cinematography is in high contrast black and white.
However, for what it tries to be it is a nearly perfect film. The pacing and the style perfectly capture the helplessness and pragmatism of Soviet Latvian life. The ability of people to persevere with stoic resignation, all the while never quite submitting to their fate.
Pakalnina’s background is in experimental and documentary films and it shows in the best possible way in this film. “Kurpe” resists the temptation to judge the period, but presents it in a straightforward manner allowing the audience to reach their own conclusions. Often films like this tend to be a bit heavy, but “Kurpe” never crosses the line.
Pakalnina is greatly helped by the actors ability to appear natural. Their understated performances make the film's absurd tone even more poignant.
In many ways this film shows how to accomplish a lot with a little. According to Pakalnina, the story and the style were driven by the fact that she could not find the funding for some other projects and in the meantime decided to film a story with what she had available.

Juris Podnieks: The 20th Century as seen by the Latvian filmmaker

CD-ROM. 2000.

Juris Podnieks was one of Latvia's best-known and most successful filmmakers. His accidental death in 1992 was a tremendous loss to Latvian film. Podnieks' unique combination of talent, determination, skill, courage and incredible ability to motivate others to exceed their limits allowed him to create films that transcended their subject matter. His films are comparable to similar works by such notable documentary filmmakers as Errol Morris and Ken Burns.
In celebration of what would have been his 50th birthday the Latvian film forum Arsenals put together a CD-ROM in his honor titled "Juris Podnieks: The 20th Century as seen by the Latvian filmmaker". It is a must have for all those with an interest in Latvian film and Latvian and Soviet history.
Podnieks and his crew were on the front lines as Latvia and many others nations emerged from the yoke of Soviet occupation. His films captured the tenor of the times and the courage and determination of a people who would not be denied. "Is it easy to be young?" played to packed movie houses all across the Soviet Union and won numerous international awards. It captured the alienation of youth and the banalities of the Soviet Union at a time when to even raise the specter of such issues still carried a great deal of risk. "Homeland" captured the unraveling of the Soviet Union in vivid detail while chronicling the "singing revolution" in the resurgent Baltic republics. "Homeland. Postscript" chronicled the nightmarish crackdown by Soviet authorities. Two of his closest friends and collaborators, cameramen Gvido Zvaigzne and Andris Slapins, were killed during filming by OMON troops.
The disc is full of details about Podnieks the filmmaker, the person and general Latvian history. However, the true standouts are the bits and pieces from Podnieks' various films. It is impossible to watch them without being affected, both by their strength of vision, and powerful message, and by feeling a profound sense of loss at the death of the man who made them. His death at the age of 42, an age when filmmakers enter their best and most productive years, is still being felt across the Latvian film industry.
You can't help but be affected by footage of a young man, in "Is it easy to be young?" breaking down in a court room, while a passive monotone voice reads the judgement of the court which sentences him to three years in prison for getting carried away during a rock concert. In "We", a series of documentaries on the Soviet Union made by Podnieks' for England's Channel 4, you get a glimpse of the incredible courage that it took to stand up to the Soviets. A woman, in what was either an intentional or unintentional homage to the Odessa steps sequence in "The Battleship Potyemkin" and is eerily similar to a similar event that took place in Tianamen Square years later, runs into the frame and tries to stop armed soldiers from getting down an outdoor staircase to break up a protest in Armenia. In "Homeland. PostScript" you watch with horror the footage of both Gvido Zvaigzne and Andris Slapins getting shot as Slapins, despite being mortally wounded, exclaims, "Keep filming".
The only flaws of the disc are that the text, most likely written by a non-native English speaker, seems stilted and ackward at spots, and that there isn't more footage of Podnieks' works. It's ironic in a way. Podnieks was known for almost never using narration in his films. He allowed the subjects to speak for themselves. It's a shame that we couldn't have more of his films on this disc, and in the future, to do his speaking for him.


Documentary. 2002.
Directed and filmed by Herz Frank.

For a small nation Latvia seems to have produced a disproportionate number of exceptionally talented documentary filmmakers. Perhaps owing to the development of the school of poetic documentary filmmaking in Riga in the 1960’s the likes of Herz Frank, Juris Podnieks, the Selecki clan, Una Celma and Laila Pakalnina enjoy a global reputation. Out of them all it is quite possibly Frank who is the best known and well respected. The man behind such classics as “10 Minutes Older,” “The Seven Simeons,” and “The Last Judgment,” he has served as a teacher, mentor and an inspiration to several generations of Latvian filmmakers.
In Flashback the man who devoted his entire career to examining and recording the lives of others turns inwards and focuses the lens on his own life and career. What emerges is a portrait of a man who has been driven by the need to understand the human condition and who at the age of 75, facing open heart surgery, is not sure whether he has seen enough to understand and yet weary from having seen too much. Part travelogue, part biography and part mediation on the nature of documentary filmmaking and life, Frank mixes footage from his previous works with more recent work to accentuate and attempt to illuminate his present.
Opening with footage of the OMON attack in Riga in 1991 which took the lives of cameramen Andris Slapins and Gvido Zvaigzne, Frank freezes on an image of Juris Podnieks (a frequent collaborator and former student and cameraman of Frank’s), as his face registers the shock and realization that his own cameramen have just paid with their lives for his and their desire to pursue and document reality. (Podnieks himself would die in a tragic scuba diving accident only a year later.) As Podnieks’ facial expressions play out in slow motion, Frank cuts to an excerpt from his and Podnieks perhaps best known work Ten Minutes Older. Ten Minutes Older was a single take shot with minimal lighting recording the reactions of children as they are watching a puppet show. Their faces covering the spectrum of human expression and emotion from joy to sorrow. From there he cuts to the face of one of the children in Ten Minutes Older in the present day. The setting is now completely different. Rather than a play in which we expect emotion, we now find the child as a man in the middle of an international bridge tournament where the expression of emotion needs to be suppressed at all costs. The face is older, but unmistakable in its identity. What may be hidden from his opponents sitting only inches away across the table is evident in the naked eye of the camera.
It is this nakedness and what it ultimately shows us, and our desire and need to see it that is at the core of Flashback. The film covers In this day of an endless glut of reality TV shows which play to our most prurient desires Flashback reminds of us our higher need for the nakedness of “reality” that the camera can provide, our fascination with it and what it can ultimately tell us about ourselves.
The major weakness of the film is that it is at times disjointed and discordant. The film attempts to do too much all at once. Any of the topics he touches on, from his open heart surgery to his wife’s long illness and death, from his relationship with Podnieks to the follow up to the characters in Ten Minutes Older, his father’s life and legacy, his own journey from Riga to Jerusalem, among many others, deserved and would have been better served by their own films. We are often left wishing that he had stayed with a particular story line while Frank and his camera have already moved on. Even the footage from his past works, while poignantly accentuating the present, often leaves us desiring a second and longer look at the past rather than returning to the present or jumping to the next subject. Despite this flaw the film is a fascinating look at a man fascinated with looking at people and the lives they lead. A collage sometimes leaving us wanting for more, but also leaving us with no doubts as to the skills of its maker.

Dzivite (Life)

Drama. 1990.
Directed by Aivars Freimanis.
Written by Aivars Freimanis and Janis Peters.
Starring: Valdemars Zandbergs, Leonids Grabovskis, Velta Line and Indra Brike.

“Life”, as its title suggests, is grand in scope. It tells the life story of Krisjans Barons, the primary cataloguer of the Dainas. It also, in the context of Barons’ life’s work, attempts to tell the tale of Latvia’s emerging national identity and the men and women who brought a people, who had a distinct identity for thousands of years but no national identity as such, into the age of nations.
Where in “Abols Upe” director Ivars Freimanis’ attempt at combining a documentary style with a fictional story did not always work, in “Life” it works to near perfection. Perhaps its because the subject matter of “Life” lends itself to experimentation and a non-traditional approach. Also, by adding other stylistic elements such as animation and footage of folklorists performing songs and rituals from rich tapestry of Latvian folklore he adds to the narrative element of the story, captures the mystical and spiritual sides, and makes a biographical story resound in its lyricism.
Like the film, the dainas themselves serve a multiple purpose. They are primarily folk songs, but also a storehouse of the collective national wisdom and ethos. They are a combination of mythology, practical advice and religion. Barons’ effort to catalogue them, he collected over 200,000 dainas, came at a time when Latvia and Latvians were under the rule of Russia and Germany, and like many other nations at the time, were either emerging from or straining against the rule of empires.
Freimanis tells his story from the end to the beginning. Barons’, ably played by Valdemars Zandbergs and Leonids Grabovskis, in the twilight of his years is reflecting on what his life’s work has meant and whether or not the incredible sacrifices that were made to accomplish it was worth it. The film jumps back and forth in time, showing Barons as a man struggling between the choices available to Latvians of the period, torn between empires and cultural, as well as, political monoliths that demand obedience and offer little choice other than assimilation.
This tapestry is further filled out by the performances of Indra Brike and Velta Line, as Barons’ wife Darta, who sacrificed as much, if not more, in this epic effort. In Darta we see the effort and price that most of us, while not great players in the struggle for Latvian identity, had to pay to bring it to its fruition.
“Life” does drag on in parts, it’s about three hours long, but over all manages to accomplish what it sets out to do. It captures the story of a man and the people and nation that he grew to symbolize.

Drosme Nogalinat (The Courage to Kill)

Drama. 1995.
Directed by Igors Linga and Aigars Grauba.
Based on a play by Lars Nuren.
Starring: Armands Reinfelds, Uldis Norenbergs and Maija Jevhuta.

No one ever sets out to make a bad film, but somehow they get made anyway. “Drosme Nogalinat” (The Courage to Kill) is a bad film and in so many different ways that it’s not easy to pinpoint where it went wrong or why it was made in the first place.
It could be the script. It isn’t often that you run across an oedipal complex story set in a strip club/bordello. Our Oedipal hero, Erik (Armands Reinfelds), seems to earn a living by cross-dressing (as, surprise, Erika) so that he can tag along with the girls when a patron decides to take one of them home. He then ransacks the house while the john has his way with the girl. The only time we see him actually attempt this he gets beaten to a bloody pulp. I say “seems” because he doesn’t seem to do much other than hang out in the strip club. I’d imagine that couldn’t be cheap. You would think that the owners of the club would eventually wise-up. It can’t be good for business. Nor is it clear why exactly someone who has just scored two beautiful women would only pay attention to one of them while the other has free run of his house. I’ve never read Oedipus Rex or seen the play. I understand that it isn’t very subtle either, but I don’t think this is quite what Sophocles had in mind. But Erika does look stunning in her high heels.
There are many other flaws in the script. You can’t have an Oedipus without a father, but other than the predictable flashback scene where Erik watches his father make love to the maid that young Erik is in love with, we’re not sure what motivates either character. The father just shows up and moves into Erik’s apartment one day. Much to Erik’s dismay. Where he was before, why he chose to show up just then, and why Erik doesn’t just kick him out or just simply change the locks isn’t made clear. Well, it’s clear enough, but not particularly imaginative. Oedipus needs a father. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be much of a complex.
It could be the acting. As you can tell by the title and story this isn’t a very subtle film.Neither are the performances. This is the kind of film where characters laugh too loud.Their feelings are spelled out on the screen in capital letters. There is no middle ground.
It could be the direction. This film was based on a play and I would assume that the play wasn’t nearly as bad, otherwise, why remake it as a film? Unfortunately, things that work in an intimate theater setting don’t always work on film. You have to ratchet them down just a bit. For example, Erik is walking down a hallway and bumps into a stripper. They obviously have a past. She grabs him by the crotch and suggests he stop by later. Get it?
The name of the production company that made “Drosme” is “Between Europe and Hong Kong Productions”. I hope this was some sort of allusion to the film genres of Europe and Hong Kong. It would be the most creative touch of this film.
Europe is famous for making films of artistry and depth. They are not afraid to tackle taboo subjects and present them in a way that does not pander to the lowest common denominator. When they work. When they don’t they seem pretentious and boring. As exciting as witnessing a third-rate poet’s therapy session in a badly lit room. Hong Kong is known for exciting action films which hide what they lack in nuance and story by keeping the action coming at such a furious pace and with such visual panache that you don’t have much time to dwell on it. When they work. When they don’t there is no amount of atmospheric lighting and fast paced editing that can make you not regret picking movies because of the cool cover art and the blurbs on the back of the video box.
Europe and Hong Kong can be a wonderful combination when it works. In “Drosme” it doesn’t and you are left with the worst of both worlds.


Comedy. 1972.
Directed by Rolands Kalnins.
Based on a novel by Pavils Rozitis.
Starring: Eduards Pavuls.

It is impossible to view “Ceplis”, directed by Rolands Kalnins and starring Edmunds Pavuls, without putting it in the context of the time and the place it was made. The year was 1972 and the place was Soviet Latvia. There is good and bad here.
The good is that this is a great looking film. The cinematography jumps right off the screen. Looking at the film with the sound off you could imagine that this was a film from Hollywood or Europe, circa 1970. The lighting is just right, the composition of shots shows attention to detail, the costumes and actors are all just so. One of the advantages of working in the Soviet system was that filmmakers had access to equipment. They had crews and talent to milk that equipment, usually quite a few notches below what was available in the West, for all it was worth. They had time to film without the usual budget constraints that present day productions have to deal with.
Unfortunately, watching a film with the sound off stopped being a true option since “The Jazz Singer” premiered in 1927. Its not that the acting is bad or that the technical quality of the sound is “that” bad. (The movie seems to have been shot without sync sound and the dialogue added at post-production, but I am discovering that is more of a pet peeve of mine that doesn’t bother most. Felini shot most of his films this way and few complain about his work.) The bad is that since it was made in Soviet Latvia in 1972 it couldn’t just focus on telling a story without also, none too subtly, having to impart some ideological message as well. It is this need to drive home an ideological message that ultimately sinks the film.
"Ceplis’ is the story of the ultimate survivor. It tells the adventures, or misadventures, of a businessman who will do anything to survive and prosper. Ceplis (Pavuls) establishes a joint stock company that will make bricks from Latvian clay (Brunais Zelts or Brown Gold) and sell them overseas. There is no shortage of those who are lured by the promise that the phrase “Made in Latvia” will soon ring across the world. The possibility of becoming rich beyond their wildest dreams doesn’t hurt either. Soon everyone is scheming to acquire as much stock as they can. Alas, the clay used for these bricks contains too much chalk, the bricks themselves are worthless, and as fast as they’ve been trying to get in everyone now is trying to get out.
This is not a subtle film. There is not a single character whose motivation is anything other than greed. All of them, from the mighty captains of industry to the lowliest office clerks, from the highest politician to the local police officer, even their wives and paramours, are tainted by either their proximity to, or desire, of wealth. And it is this greed, of course, that leads to their eventual downfall.
The novel, written by Pavils Rozitis in the 1930's, on which the screenplay was based, was intended as a satire of contemporary times, but the film comes across as a heavy handed attempt at illustrating the evils of capitalism and, by extension, Latvian nationalism. Greed is bad. Nationalism is merely a tool to justify greed.
Ironically, this same stereotypical presentation of Latvian business and politicians can be found in the present. Let’s hope that if anyone ever thinks of remaking “Ceplis” they will remember that satire works best when it is subtle.

Baiga Vasara (Dangerous Summer)

Drama. 1999.
Directed by Aigars Grauba.
Written by Gints Berzins.
Screenplay by Pauls Bankovskis, Gabis, Janis Leja, Andrejs Ekis, Aigars Grauba.
Starring: Uldis Dumpis, Arturs Skrastinš, Inese Caune, Janis Reinis, Uldis.
Vazdiks, Varis Vetra, Eduards Pavuls.

Director Ivars Graubas' "Baiga Vasara" (Dangerous Summer) reaches high, but never quite attains its lofty goals. It is technically a great looking movie with a Dolby soundtrack, but is hampered by a weak script, uneven acting, and spotty direction.
Part of the problem is that Grauba is never quite sure which story he wants to tell. On the one hand it is a romantic story about a wartime love triangle between Izolde (Inese Caune), a young Baltic German student caught between the powerful Wilhelms Munters (Uldis Dumpis), the real life Latvian Foreign Minister, and Roberts (Arturs Skrastins), a powerless but idealistic radio reporter. On the other hand it is the story of the Latvian nation caught between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. If that wasn't enough, it also adds two subplots. One deals with Munters efforts to steal some overseas Latvian funds. The other deals with the role of journalists in a democratic society and the obstacles that they face. All of these are supposed to compliment each other, but unfortunately merely get in each others way. The screenplay had five co-authors, seldom a good sign.
"Vasara" is at its best when it focuses on the journalists. This is mainly due to the performances of Skrastins and, as Roberts reporting partner Karlis, Janis Reinis. They both bring a realism to their roles that takes their characters beyond the mostly two dimensional performances of the other cast members. There is a genuine chemistry between the two. Grauba seems most comfortable when telling the story of what it takes to be a reporter and the obstacles that they have to face. Grauba, who also had a hand at the screenplay, and the writers, Pauls Bankovskis, Gabis, Janis Leja, and Andrejs Ekis have all, in one way or another, actually worked in broadcasting and are intimately familiar with the subject matter. The first rule of writing is write about what you know and, in this case, it shows on the screen.
"Vasara " is at its weakest when it tries to tell the story of the Latvian nation. Partly this is due to the performances of the two leading actors, Dumpis as Munters and Uldis Vazdiks as Karlis Ulmanis. Their acting styles reflect the Social Realism style that was popular in the Soviet Union and the fact their craft was developed mostly on theater stages. Their performances lack the emotional depth needed for film. Their characters come across as two dimensional caricatures. This is something that might have worked on the stage where actors have to reach the cheap seats, but on screen it seems unnatural and forced.
There has been quite a bit of criticism of the historical accuracy of the film and the roles of Munters and Ulmanis. However, it is important to remember that this is a work of fiction and history is always a matter of interpretation. I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy, but from a historical perspective the film's major weakness is that the historical story simply falls flat and never progresses beyond its two dimensional presentation. I doubt that this was by design. It was due to flawed execution.
The other major problem is that history requires scale. You basically have two cinematic choices when dealing with history. You can either choose to tell it as an epic, for example "Lawrence of Arabia," and have a lot of sweeping wide angle shots, and a cast of thousands, to show the overwhelming obstacles and stakes, or you can choose to shoot it tight, for example "The Manchurian Candidate," and concentrate on the emotional and psychological obstacles and stakes. Grauba tried the first approach, settled for the second, but succeeds at neither. Of course, not all of this is Graubas fault. This particular story almost demands an epic approach, but that costs money. Money which Latvian filmmakers simply do not have access to. Then again, scale can be demonstrated in many ways. Grauba, for example, could have used newsreel footage to show the insurmountable odds that the Latvian nation faced. Instead he tries to fake it by shooting tight shots with epic implications.
The only place where this stylistic approach seems to work is in the central plot line of the triangle between Izolde, Roberts and Wilhelms. Izolde is torn between her love for Roberts and Wilhelms' offer of security and the chance to escape Latvia for Germany just ahead of the rolling Russian tanks. The only weakness in this portion of the film is that there is very little chemistry between Izolde and Roberts, or even Izolde and Wilhelms. Caune is a good and capable actress, but she seems to be in a tug of war between the stylistic choices of the two actors. Skrastins with his naturalistic approach and Dumpis with his theatrical emoting place Caune in a tough spot. She tries to respond by adopting the style of whichever character she shares the screen with, but never really makes a connection with either.
Overall, "Vasara" is not a bad film. Had it concentrated on telling just one of the stories it could have been a great film. It spreads itself too thin and tries to accomplish something which is just slightly beyond its reach, but in doing so it does have its moments of cinematic glory when the screen comes alive with the story of the Latvian people and the hardships that they had to endure during a period of history that seldom is dealt with from a Latvian perspective.