Several dimensions of Latvian cinema

Latvian cinema is currently experiencing an active period of creativity. In fact, this is the most intense period of work in recent Latvian cinema history. Since independence was restored in the early 1990s, filmmaking in Latvia has gradually picked up speed, and the approaching centennial celebrations in 2018 have provided additional motivation for the film industry. At over 9 million euros, funding for the sector in 2017 is the highest since restoration of independence.

In anticipation of the special programme planned for Latvia’s centennial, the film sector has received additional funding (7.5 million euros over the course of several years), which allows it to significantly increase the number of films being made. Sixteen full-length films are currently in the works for the centennial: six feature films, two full-length animated films and eight documentaries (most of them docudramas, combining elements of feature films and archival material). In addition, half of them are directed by women, talented artists with unique outlooks on the realities of Latvia’s past and present.

The first films made in honour of Latvia’s centennial will come out already in the autumn of 2017, with the others following throughout 2018. They will hopefully confirm the potential of the Latvian cinema sector, both at home and with international audiences. To that end, several of the centennial programme films are intended to be international co-productions. For example, Madara Dišlere’s feature film Paradise ’89 is a co-production with Germany.

The goal of film institutions everywhere is to support the production of films. But these institutions are also interested in helping each film to become an event not only in its country of origin but also internationally. Several recent Latvian films have managed to participate in national cultural processes and draw impressive crowds to local theatres as well as gain recognition abroad. For example, Viesturs Kairišs’ historical drama The Chronicles of Melanie was one of the leading box office hits in Latvia in 2016, taking fourth place after three big-budget animated Hollywood films, which are traditionally the most-watched films in Latvia. Kairišs’ work convincingly defied notions that only entertainment films, films in which the viewers can “lose themselves”, can become hits. Melanie is a dramatic and shocking story of survival – its main hero, Melānija Vanaga, was deported to Siberia by the Soviet regime in 1941, where she lived in harsh, inhumane conditions for sixteen years.

With its black-and-white, refined visual style and Swiss actress Sabine Timoteo’s portrayal of the main character, The Chronicles of Melanie has restored an important part of Latvia’s historical memory. The director used an artistic approach to tell about one of the 20th century’s many tragedies. Based on real events, the film avoids naturalism to create an aesthetically distanced message. The work’s dramatic strength is concentrated in Timoteo’s superb ability to express emotion through her body as well as cinematographer Gints Bērziņš’ skill in capturing that emotion on film. Melanie is a co-production with the Czech Republic and Finland and thereby also a marker of the international dimension of Latvian cinema.

The historical dimension is also manifested in the newest films by two other Latvian directors. Laila Pakalniņa’s Dawn is a visually ambitious work that contemplates motifs from Bezhin Meadow (1937), a film by Riga-born cinema master Sergei Eisenstein that was suppressed by censors and believed to have been destroyed, and moves the location of those motifs to Latvia. A Latvia-Poland-Estonia co-production, Dawn was included on the European Film Academy’s selection list in 2016 and received many international awards.

The historical themes, the directors’ distinct styles and the fruitful work with world-class European actors that characterise both Melanie and Dawn are also evident in Dāvis Sīmanis’ film Exiled, in which the main role is played by the outstanding German actor Ulrich Matthes. The action in Exiled takes place in a hospital during the First World War, and the film testifies to the strength and tradition of European art cinema, or arthouse cinema, in Latvia.

Even though well-known European actors (such as Matthes and Timoteo, and Wiktor Zborowski in Dawn) have played in several recent Latvian films, Latvian actors have also proved that they can break into the European elite. For example, Mellow Mud, which features the young Latvian actress Elīna Vaska, won the Crystal Bear at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, and in 2017 Vaska returns to Berlin as a rising star in the European Shooting Star programme.

Latvia is also represented in the animated film section of the Berlin Film Festival with the film Singing Hugo and his Incredible Adventures, made by director Reinis Kalnaellis and the Rija studio. This achievement confirms the creative potential of Latvian animation traditions.

Several Latvian cinema achievements are linked with the Generation section of the Berlin Film Festival. In addition to animation films, feature films by young Latvian directors have also been presented in it, such as Renārs Vimba’s Mellow Mud (Crystal Bear, 2016) and Jānis Nords’ Mother, I Love You (Grand Prix, 2013).

Documentary films are likewise a Latvian tradition. The annual international Baltic Sea Docs forum in Riga is organised by the National Film Centre of Latvia and enters its third decade this year. And in recent years the internationally known director Vitaly Mansky has also made films in Latvia and with financial support from Latvia (Under the Sun [2015], Close Relations [2016]).

As in many European countries, one of the goals of the Latvian cinema industry is to attract  filmmakers from abroad by offering cash rebate schemes. For more information about locations and filming in Latvia, visit www.filmlatvia.lv.

Financial support for filming groups from abroad is offered by the Riga City Council’s Riga Film Fund (since 2010) and the National Film Centre of Latvia (since 2013). Both financial schemes can be combined, thereby totalling a 25% cash rebate. During the period in which the funds have been in operation, twenty-five international productions from ten countries have received co-financing. Last year, director Sergei Loznitsa made his newest film, A Gentle Creature, in Latvia; it was produced by Marianne Slot (Slot Machine, France).

Latvia is also open to co-productions – for example, support was granted for Peter Greenaway’s film The Eisenstein Handshakes, the director’s second film dedicated to Sergei Eisenstein, and Latvia will join this project as a minority co-producer. And this, too, is proof of the country’s dynamic and modern cinema industry, which is able to work in a variety of genres and directions, both on a local and international dimension.

Dita Rietuma, director of the National Film Centre of Latvia