Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Lesson

Written by Lauris Gundars, Andris Gauja, Aleksandrs Grebņevs.
Directed by Andris Gauja.
Filmed by Aleksandrs Grebņevs.
Starring: Inga Alsiņa, Mārcis Klatenbergs, Andrejs Smoļakovs, Gatis Gāga, Liena Šmukste, Marina Janaus, Edgars Siliņš, Ieva Apine, Elza Feldmane, Agirs Neminskis.

Andris Gaujas' The Lesson is a feature film which looks and feels like a documentary by design. It was originally meant as a documentary following a high school class through graduation, but fell apart during the filming once the principal of the school decided that the film was revealing too much.
The film tells the story of Zane Sirma (Inga Alsina) who is about to start her first year as a Russian language teacher in a Riga, Latvia's capital, high school. In addition to her duties as an instructor she is also to serve as the mentor for the current graduating class. She has just ended a relationship, her new coworkers seem indifferent to her for the most part, and her students resentful and rebellious. Zane grows close to one student , Inta (Ieva Apine), who is being abused by her father while one of the other students, Max (Marcis Klatenbergs), in the class seems to be developing a crush on Zane herself.
In documentary films we naturally accept that what we see on the screen is that way because that's how it happened. The filmmaker might have control over what he chooses to show us but not over what actually happens. In a narrative film our assumption is that the filmmaker has his hand everywhere and every single thing up on the screen is fraught with meaning. The documentary film approach doesn't really work for the first part of the film. As characters get introduced and the narrative arc established it all feels a little stilted and artificial. Empty spaces and extended silences seem to be just that. Characters seem to act and events unfold simply because someone wrote it that way in the script.
However, despite the documentary approach failing in the early, expository, parts of the film it really pays off towards the end. The narrative has been established, for better or worse, and now the film becomes about emotional truth. As Zane's and Max's relationship develops and races towards the inevitable cliff, the hand held camera shots, the odd angles, the extended silences and empty spaces enhance the tone and mood of the film and its story.
Overall, The Lesson despite it's early failings is a very good film that  truly captures both the tender moments between two persons as they grow closer and closer united against the world and the awkward moments as they start to drift further and further apart after being beaten down by that world at almost every turn.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rocks in My Pockets

Written, directed and voiced by Signe Baumane.

 As someone who has struggled with depression for most of my life I can say first hand there might not be a lot of fun in depression but there is a lot of funny. Perhaps its the predisposition to seeing doom and gloom even when they are not there that allows for the reverse on rare occasions and for most of us those rare occasions can be enough to carry us through the bad times.
Rocks in My Pockets, the first feature-length animated film by New York based Latvian artist Signe Baumane, is a very funny film about depression and mental illness. Baumane uses her life experiences as well as those of her family to draw a world that is both unique and personal and at the same time universal. Tolstoy was only half right when he wrote: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The ways might be different, but the scenery and destinations are all pretty much the same.
Starting with her grandmother the film's narrative arc follows the women in Baumane's family as they make their way through life. Their worlds and circumstances might change but certain patterns start to emerge. First there's grandmother Anna, bright and educated, who starts out as a young woman with seemingly endless possibilities and ends up as a desperate mother of 8 beaten down both by the events of history and personal circumstance who dies at 50. Cause of death undetermined, but whispers of empty bottles of pills and suicide attempts lurk in the shadows. Then there is daughter Miranda, bright and artistic, who sees beauty all around her but sinks into the deep well of despair following her marriage and the birth of her child. Then there is granddaughter Linda, bright and beautiful, who is undone by an obsession with a marriage that doesn't exist anywhere other than in her imagination, and granddaughter Irbe, quiet and musical, who eventually succumbs to the voices that only she can hear, and finally there is granddaughter Signe, the thread that ties it all together, whose search for meaning leads to an obsession with ending it all.

It would have been easy to over-dramatize the above. Especially in an animated film. Baumane's film works so well simply because it's not. The animation and art are simple and almost primitive. Her language is matter of fact and straightforward. Her voice-over at times droll and ironic and at times emphatic and melancholy. The humor emerges naturally from the narrative. She captures both the absurdity and banality of normal life as well as the highs and lows of those abnormal moments and people. Baumane is not a professional actress and gives most of the credit to her voice-over coach and co-producer Sturgis Warner. They rehearsed for 7 weeks, but having seen the film I can't see it working with anyone other than Baumane doing it. Her "unprofessionalism" adds a layer of personal honesty and intimacy that might not have been there with anyone else. It is after all her story and while it might be personal and intimate we can all see parts of ourselves and those around us in it.