The triumphant advance of feature-length animation

A gradual increase in funding and growth in capacity of the local film industry over the past few years has led to an unprecedented achievement: six feature-length animation films are currently being produced in Latvia and its partner countries. The first premiere will take place in 2018 as part of the National Film Centre’s Latvian Films for the Latvian Centenary programme. More will come in 2019 and thereafter.


The upcoming films address different audiences. Apple Pie’s Lullaby / Ābolrauša šūpuļdziesma, directed by Reinis Kalnaellis, will bring joy to the very young, while Jēkabs, Mimmi and the Talking Dogs / Jēkabs, Mimmī un runājošie suņi, directed by Edmunds Jansons, will target the curiosity of primary-school pupils. The several generations that have grown up with Roze Stiebra’s films will look forward to her newest work, The Sun Rides Up Into the Sky / Saule brauca debesīs. Stiebra wrote the script herself, which is based on motifs from Latvian mythology. Children in Latvia, Estonia, and further afield will cheer about the newest film from Gadgetville, Lotte and the Lost Dragons / Lote un pazudušie pūķi, directed by Janno Põldma and Heiki Ernits and co-produced by the Rija studio. The ironic My Love Affair with Marriage / Mans laulību projekts, directed by Signe Baumane, and the childhood memories told in My Favorite War / Mans mīļākais karš, directed by Ilze Burkovska -Jacobsen, will give adults a chance to have a laugh at themselves or perhaps shed a tear.


JĒKABS, MIMMI AND THE TALKING DOGS / Jēkabs, Mimmī un runājošie suņi
Director Edmunds Jansons
Studio Atom Art
Programme Latvian Films for the Latvian Centenary
National premiere – February 1, 2019

Edmunds Jansons is internationally known as a creator of short films, such as Choir Tour / Kora turneja, International Fathers Day / Starptautiskā Tēva diena, and Isle of Seals / Roņu sala. This is his first feature-length film. “The film’s idea developed slowly,” he says. “Only during the process do you understand a film’s deeper meaning, and surrounding events also have an impact. At this stage, the film has become a commentary about how I want to see my city – maybe also about a country in which the people, like Jēkabs and Mimmi in the film, don’t put up with the absurdities happening around them but do their best to improve their lives.”

The film’s target audience is 6- to 9-year-olds. “I’ve noticed that children are more sensitive and sometimes object to absurdities sooner than adults do,” Jansons adds. The film is based on Luīze Pastore’s award-winning children’s book, which screenwriter Līga Gaisa adapted for this project. The story is set in a romantic Riga suburb that a rich tycoon wants to turn into an impersonal district of offices and shopping centres. The children join forces with the talking dogs to save their home neighbourhood. Elīna Brasliņa, the film’s artist, spent a lot of time exploring this particular district of Riga in order to get a better feel for the location.

The film was created using computer animation. After gaining support from the Polish Film Institute’s minority co-production scheme in 2017, the film has become a joint production between Latvia’s Atom Art and Poland’s Letko. Part of the Polish partner’s contribution will also be the film’s music, for which the composer Krzysztof Janczak will be responsible. New Europe Film Sales, which focuses on the distribution of quality European original productions, has obtained the distribution rights for Jēkabs, Mimmi and the Talking Dogs.


THE SUN RIDES UP INTO THE SKY / Saule brauca debesīs
Director Roze Stiebra
Studio Locomotive Productions
Programme Latvian Films for the Latvian Centenary
National premiere – November 18, 2018

The Sun Rides Up Into the Sky is based on Roze Stiebra’s original screenplay describing the mythological fight of light against darkness. The theme is rooted in Latvian folklore, but many of the motifs are familiar to other cultures as well. Stiebra is considered to be the founder of Latvian hand-drawn animation and was awarded the National Film Prize in 2017 for her lifetime achievements. She has a talent for telling myths and folk tales through the creation of compelling characters, and her story-telling is brisk and authentic. The upcoming film begins with a mummers’ party, but it quickly transforms into an action-packed journey between the visible world and the afterworld in which the film’s heroes – a little girl and her young brother – try to find and save the kidnapped daughter of the Sun.

The film’s artist is Ilze Vītoliņa, who has already proven her ability to create rich and secretive worlds in Stiebra’s short-film series The Little Fairytales / Pasaciņas. The characters’ animation is mainly done by students and graduates of the Art Academy of Latvia.

A scene from the Locomotive Productions studio. Stiebra bends over an open folder and hands the scene to the animator.
“The eyes, see, are like this. According to the action, Selēna is pottering about with Nabašnīks; they fill up on berries. And now he becomes kind of blissful.”
“He gets high.”
“Yeah, they get high on berries. And she comes up, takes the sword out of his hands and throws it away. And he’s like, ‘Ahh…’”
“The negative impact of drugs on a person’s life.”
“No, they’re berries. They’re not necessarily narcotic. We don’t know. There’s just this moment, when he’s almost reached the Sun’s daughter. He’s up there, on the mountain. But suddenly there are these temptations. The moment you’re already at the door and preparing to open it, someone always appears with a tempting offer – ‘listen, take this!’ And that’s the minute he falls, instead of climbing higher. It’s a very grave moment.”

The film is produced by Roberts Vinovskis, one of the most experienced Latvian film producers on the international arena. The film’s composer is Juris Kaukulis, who is a member of the popular Latvian alternative folk rock band Dzelzs Vilks. This will be his debut for creating music for an animation film. The premiere of The Sun Rides Up Into the Sky is planned for Latvian Independence Day – November 18, 2018.


MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH MARRIAGE / Mans Laulību projekts
Director Signe Baumane
Studio Locomotive Productions, Sturgis Warner, The Marriage Project LLC
National premiere – 2019

Signe Baumane is a New York-based Latvian director and artist. Her film’s main theme is the nakedness of human beings – both psychological disclosure and vulnerability as well as physical nakedness and sex. In her explorations of this theme, Baumane has developed a consistent style in her feature-length films about the female body and mind, which are told through a personal prism. Her award-winning autobiographic film Rocks in My Pockets / Akmeņi manās kabatās (2014) used the backdrop of Latvian history to explore depression in the women in her family. In her new film she addresses the topic of relationships, enhancing the story with the dystopic fairytale elements of her imagination.

For this film Baumane uses her original production technique, which combines two-dimensional drawings with papier-mâché backgrounds. It tells the story of how the Sirens teach a young woman to aspire to the Ideal Marriage. However, the concept of the Ideal Marriage is completely crushed when the woman’s Biology, with its hormones and neurons, starts influencing her behaviour and emotions, thereby jarring the foundations of the marriage. The film is a co-production between Locomotive Productions (Latvia) and Sturgis Warner and Baumane’s partner company The Marriage Project LLC (USA).

By early 2018 the film’s characters have already gotten their voices. Biology is dubbed by the gifted actor Guna Zariņa, who has played several other strong women, including Medea and Spīdola (a character in the Latvian epic poem Lāčplēsis). The Sirens’ songs are performed by the trio Limonāde. Other characters will be dubbed by renowned Latvian theatre actors, and singer Linda Leen will perform the film’s finale.


LOTTE AND THE LOST DRAGONS / Lote un pazudušie pūķi
Directors Janno Põldma and Heiki Ernits
Studio Rija Films
National premiere – 2019

The stories about Lotte from Gadgetville, created by Estonian directors Janno Põldma and Heiki Ernits, are known not only in Latvia and Estonia. The films have in fact been screened in approximately 50 countries around the world. The dog-like main character has become a recognisable brand for a variety of products, and even a theme park dedicated to Lotte was opened in Estonia in 2014.

Currently work is ongoing on the third feature-length film about Lotte’s adventures (a co-production of Estonia’s Eesti Joonisfilm and Latvia’s Rija Films). Põldma and Andris Akmentiņš wrote the screenplay, and Renārs Kaupers, the front-man of the widely popular Latvian band Brainstorm, composed the music. Background artist Laima Puntule and sound engineer Andris Barons complete the Latvian contingent on this production’s creative team.

In this new film, all of the attention in Lotte’s family is on her little sister, Roosi. Meanwhile, two scientists visit Gadgetville. They are collectors of folk songs and want to find the oldest mythological song on Earth, which is about the legend of the fire-breathing dragons. Will these ancient songs ever be heard again?


APPLE PIE’S LULLABY / Ābolrauša šūpuļdziesma
Director Reinis Kalnaellis
Studio Rija Films
National premiere – 2019

Reinis Kalnaellis’ Apple Pie’s Lullaby is created in cooperation with Paul Thiltges Distributions (Luxembourg). The pastel colours used throughout are produced in a combination of digital and colour pencil techniques. The film contains both excitement and calming sincerity, along with a bit of slapstick humour for the youngest viewers. Audiences will recognise some of the film’s heroes from Kalnaellis’ debut short film When Apples Roll / Kad āboli ripo (2009), which was first screened at the Berlinale and has since then been shown in more than 100 festivals around the world.

This feature-length film tells the story of the little penguin girl Telma, who is worried that her upcoming fifth birthday might not be able to find her. But everything is possible in the dreamy world conjured by artist Andrejs Prigičevs: secrets are written on coconut shells, and snail shells become fabulous ships. In the studio, too, the production team members have all fallen in love with the characters in the film – one with the snail shell-cruise ship, another with the flying parachute-whale, yet another with the fiery pair of zebras. Kalnaellis comments: “At the age of five one starts to be aware of upcoming birthdays. But, as in other matters, a child’s explanations can differ a lot from what is happening in reality. But everybody has to live and experience these things for himself. I agree with the view that lack of fantasy is humanity’s biggest problem.”

This film is currently in active development, with part of the work being carried out in Luxembourg. The finished film will be available to audiences in 2019.


MY FAVORITE WAR / Mans mīļākais karš
Director Ilze Burkovska-Jacobsen
Studios Ego Media and Tritone
National premiere – 2019

The animated documentary My Favorite War carries an anti-war message intended for a global audience. In it, director Ilze Burkovska-Jacobsen, who was born in Latvia and lives in Norway, remembers her Soviet-era childhood, where the previous and next war were always part of the ideology and even of people’s daily lives. The film is being made in the Tritone studio in Riga and is based on drawings by Norwegian artist Svein Nyhus. Ego Media and producer Guntis Trekteris are responsible for the production and international cooperation.

“I first had the impulse to make this film ten years ago,” explains Burkovska-Jacobsen. “My mother had just died, and I was packing up books from her immense library. By chance I opened a page from a book published in 1986. It told about the Courland Pocket and cows falling out of a hit German cargo plane. I imagined this sight and decided to make a film about it. And right then and there I also decided that it had to be an animation film – THIS had to be drawn. Of course, there are no archive photographs of the last months of the war showing what the civilians experienced on this occasion.

Neither are there any photographs of the shocking event that I and my 1200 fellow pupils witnessed in Saldus in that same year of 1986, when we saw through our school’s windows how a burial ground for German soldiers was dug up by an excavator. For seven years we had walked across that field from our apartment blocks to school, and we had no idea that there were graves under it. And then one sunny day in May the heavy machinery arrives and starts digging, and the skeletons are flying all over the place. I remember a hand flying up really high because the excavator had somehow thrown the soil up in the air. I had the feeling that death was waving at me with its delicate finger bones.

My personal experiences during the Cold War underpin the story line for this film. A person grows up and starts looking for the truth – for example, why did the Soviet regime feel so threatened by those graves that it needed to destroy them? What was the regime hiding, and what was it lying about? During the Cold War the Soviet regime used the Second World War as an ideological weapon with which to frighten its citizens. When I started school, I was 100% convinced that a third world war was inevitable and that the Americans would attack us because they hate us for having the most just state in the world. Also, I was convinced that these Americans would speak German, because all around us there were films about the Second World War in which the enemy was evil and spoke German…”

By combining hand-drawn animation with documentary archive materials the film creates a visually rich world of memories in which facts entwine with the fantasies created in a child’s mind. This complex and costly project is in its fifth year of production. The premiere is planned for 2019.

Ieva Viese-Vigula

February 13, 2018