Producer Aija Bērziņa: Looking For New Crossroads

The film production company Tasse Film was founded seven years ago. At its core were the two young producers Aija Bērziņa and Alise Ģelze, who had already gained recognition on the international cinema scene. The company’s first feature-length film was Renārs Vimba’s debut work Mellow Mud / Es esmu šeit (2016), which won the main prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in the Generation Kplus competition. This was already the second Crystal Bear in this competition for Ģelze, who had won it previously as a producer for Jānis Nords’ feature film Mother, I Love You / Mammu, es tevi mīlu (2013).

Ģelze and Nords’ second film together, now produced by Tasse Film, came out last November – Foam at the Mouth / Ar putām uz lūpām (2017) is feature-length film about a former policeman named Didzis, who also trains fighting dogs. In the span of just a few days, Didzis’ life is turned upside down when he suspects his wife of being unfaithful and his beloved dogs become infected with a dangerous disease. Bērziņa comments on this working together again: “If people successfully manage to go through the process of producing one film, they stay together. It’s just the same as in personal relationships – you have to struggle through those first two or three years until you’ve got things smoothed out and know what to expect.”

Director Madara Dišlere’s debut film Paradise ’89 / Paradīze 89, also produced by Tasse Film and developed within the framework of the National Film Centre of Latvia’s Latvian Films for the Latvian Centenary programme, will premiere in February 2018. But the company does not produce only films by Latvian directors; it is also actively involved as a minority co-producer in a number of international film productions. “Last year was a test of our capacity – having three Latvian films and three foreign films in production is a kind of limit if we don’t want to sacrifice quality,” says Bērziņa.

Director Jānis Nords says that acquiring the rights for Origin of a Species by American screenwriter Matt Gossett was a major challenge for the producers of his film.

Yes, that was a challenge because we had not had any previous experience with the acquisition of screenplays. Especially from the United States, where the Screen Writers Guild has very strict guidelines, and we needed a far-sighted plan to get through the process. But herein lies the magic of cinema – each new project brings with it new situations that you have to deal with. For example, Nords’ film features trained dogs. Where do we find animals like that? How do we work with them? Each time a completely new world opens up.

Nords’ previous feature-length film, Mother, I Love You, won the main prize, the Crystal Bear, at the Berlin International Film Festival in the Generation Kplus competition. Did that create an additional burden?

I believe that such achievements make things a lot more difficult for a director. He feels more pressure because peoples’ expectations have gone up. But this isn’t right! Making a movie is a creative process, and the outcome is not predictable. It’s the same with music – your work might result in a hit, but the song might just as well turn out to be not so popular.

The film Foam at the Mouth is a Latvian/Lithuanian/Polish co-production.

The Lithuanians and Poles joined us at the very beginning. For us it was important to find partners as early as possible so that they could participate in developing the script. They might have different ideas, and those are valuable contributions, because they will have to sell this project in their respective markets, too.

One of your studio’s projects is being realised in the framework of the National Film Centre’s programme Latvian Films for the Latvian Centenary, which will result in a total of 16 new films. How important is this programme for the local cinema industry?

This programme has been a very necessary shot of energy and funding for the Latvian cinema industry, which suffered greatly from the last economic crisis. State funding had been cut by 70%, and the film industry never recovered from it. With this programme, people have begun to feel that the sector is recovering, and film professionals no longer have to work additional jobs in order to continue working in their vocation. I hope that the programme’s results will demonstrate that film creation is important in Latvia, that by entering co-productions and offering cinema-related services the industry has the potential to become self-sustainable, thus creating jobs and contributing to Latvia’s economy. And I hope that this upturn will be supported with new programmes, for example, support for making historical films, for which there is never enough funding because they are very resource-intensive.

One of your productions deals with Latvia’s recent history.

You’re referring to Madara Dišlere’s feature film Paradise ’89, which is based on her own childhood memories and the summer of 1989, a very significant time on Latvia’s way towards regaining independence. When we organized test-screenings of the film to children, it produced many questions: why are the shops empty, who are the soldiers, and so on. This resulted in a dialogue between three generations, two of which had experienced this time themselves. Dišlere has dedicated this film to her children in order to tell them about her own childhood and the place where she grew up. Our children know little about this time of the Reawakening, and a feature film is a great means for talking about it.

Can you tell us about your next project?

In January of this year we started filming Oleg / Oļegs, Juris Kursietis’ second feature-length film. Filming will continue until the end of April. Just like in his film debut Modris (2014), this is a character-driven story. It centres around a 35-year-old Latvian “non-citizen” who heads to Brussels in order to get his life into order. In a broader sense, the film addresses the issue of emigration in today’s world and what it means to find one’s place in this era of migration.

Your cooperation partners are Belgians and Lithuanians.

Half of the film is filmed in Belgium, where everything is twice as expensive as in Latvia. In order to address this challenge, we found a local co-producer. And because the film’s main character is the renowned Lithuanian actor Valentin Novopolskij, we also involved a Lithuanian co-producer. We call this a natural co-production, which results from the storyline or the team selection. At the turn of the year we overcame great odds to win financial support from Belgium’s Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel (CCA), for which fifteen different projects with lots of well-known names had been competing. These days you have to take into account that you’re competing with the whole world, and that forces you to raise the bar for quality and prepare your project to perfection.

Your company is actively involved as a Latvian minority producer in various international projects. What productions did you work with over the last year?

Last year Tasse Film represented Latvia as a minority producer in three projects. The Humorist was a Russian/Latvian/Czech co-production, Outside involved a Czech/Latvian/Dutch partnership, and The Sonata was a French/English/Russian/Latvian collaboration. All of those projects were filmed in Latvia.

Latvian cooperation with foreign producers has increased a lot in recent years.

There are two reasons for this development. First, funding for filming foreign productions in Latvia has become available in recent years from the National Film Centre of Latvia and the Riga Film Fund. Second, Latvia is increasingly being recognised as a location and as a cooperation partner. It also helps that the Baltic states have started to present themselves as one region, as is done by Scandinavia or the Balkan states.

What has facilitated this Baltic cooperation?

In recent years the Baltic states have made many co-productions amongst themselves, attracting and putting to good use the available funding and human resources in the neighbouring countries. This is a new development. Furthermore, we have joint marketing activities in Berlin, Cannes and elsewhere. By organising presentations and receptions together, we increase our network of partners.

What is your outlook for the future?

I believe that cooperation will continue to evolve. From our perspective, we’ve had only positive experiences with co-productions. For example, the Dutch actors were pleasantly surprised about their experiences in Latvia, because there are still a lot of stereotypes about us being a post-Soviet state and not knowing how to work on a European level. In addition to official presentations, mouth-to-mouth communication is also a very important factor in finding cooperation partners. When somebody has had a positive experience, he shares it – here you can get co-funding, here you work with real professionals, here you’ll have a good working environment. And besides, Latvia’s cinema industry is not as swamped with projects as, say, the Czech Republic or Hungary, where you have to compete for human resources with large-scale Hollywood productions.

 

You’re also the president and founder of the Riga International Film Festival (Riga IFF). Why is that also important to you?

The Riga International Film Festival plays a very important role in the context of the local film industry. Everybody in Europe faces a permanent battle with Hollywood films. Hollywood has enormous marketing budgets, and that’s why it dominates our cinemas. So, a festival like this is a good tool for maintaining and developing other kinds of film traditions, such as local and European cinema.

The Arsenāls Riga International Film Forum began in 1986 but ceased to exist in 2012. However, if you don’t maintain traditions like that and invest money in them, you cannot expect any results – you won’t get response or involvement from audiences, nor can you expect good-quality local products. So, Riga IFF is trying to fill that gap and continue the tradition.

This year the Riga IFF will celebrate its fifth anniversary. Much has been accomplished, but there’s still a lot to be done. If we look at the Baltic context, Estonia and Lithuania both have more than twenty years of experience hosting film festivals, and they have significantly more funding, more resources and capabilities. We realise we’ve still got a long way to go, but we see this as motivation to continue our work.

What makes your festival special?

Latvia has always been a crossroads, and we want to use this to our advantage in the context of our festival, too. Therefore, in our festival’s main competition, which is the most visible signboard of any international festival, we do not have any restrictions in terms of genre. It includes feature films as well as documentaries and animation, and we place special emphasis on experimental productions that try to combine different genres. So, we’re looking for new crossroads and new forms.

Text by Ilze Auzāne