Dāvis Sīmanis – director

Currently working on: THE YEAR BEFORE THE WAR

From Behind the Listening Post

Ilze Auzāne

Currently he’s working on his first fiction feature, “My Peaceful Place of Exile”, where the action takes place by the shores of the Kurzeme region at the end of WW1. “During the autumn of existence,” adds the director, whose previous films (documentaries) have gained recognition both in Latvia and abroad. His extravagant mockumentary, “Escaping Riga”, dedicated to two Riga-born geniuses, Sergei Eisenstein and Isaiah Berlin, premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). In the upcoming film the lead is played by well-known German actor Ulrich Mathess, who was nominated for an EFA award for his performance in “The Ninth Day” (2004). “Pick up the pace!” the actor has been prodding Sīmanis as he is impatiently awaiting the film’s arrival on the big screen.

An Existential Boundary

“Suddenly, Ulrich hears a chilling cry of pain. He heads in that direction. The boy’s leg is caught in a metal trap,” – the story is about a rational doctor’s (the actor’s namesake and the director’s alter ego) encounter with a strange, irrational world, and the reclaiming of humanity through the rescue of an abandoned boy. The director is focusing on a very long historical period that is close to his heart – beginning in 1789 with the French Revolution, and ending with WWI in 1914. In a previous interview Sīmanis revealed that a quiet dream of his is a rural estate where the likes of the 19th century European aristocracy could spend a few weeks in the summer. “I hope it will come together some day, but at any rate, the foundations have been laid – literally,” explains the director, who is fascinated with that time period. “I see a metaphor, in the parallels between the pre-war years and modern day. Then, as now, there is marked escalation in violence that can be discerned even in the smallest details; we don’t want to die, and yet we’re heading that way. Total oblivion and self-destruction – madness on all levels of society.” He thinks that films can remind people of past events so that they can apply those to themselves. Experiencing this kind of fictional destruction onscreen can become an existential boundary for the viewer, who can then cross it and achieve clarity on the present. “The same way the death of a loved one becomes a concentrated force in our lives,” Dāvis Sīmanis makes the comparison, identifying a chance to avoid the surrounding lunacy through enlightenment.

Film Set as a Playground

Dāvis Sīmanis Jr. has known film sets since childhood – his father was the distinguished Latvian cinematographer, Dāvis Sīmanis. From age 17 he gained practical experience in the various stages of film production “It’s very important for a budding filmmaker to go through this kind of initiation process,” Dāvis believes. His film directing debut was a documentary dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the restoration of the Latvian National Opera house, “Version. LNO” (2006), which received the Latvian National Film Award, Lielais Kristaps. The film was followed by several other documentaries – “The Draughtsman”, “Sounds under the Sun” (with Gints Grūbe), “Valkyrie Limited”, and “Chronicle of the Last Temple” about the building of the Latvian National Library. “It was historically pre-determined,” he says of his choice of profession. His 2014 mockcumentary “Escaping Riga is a “true and notice-worthy” story about two exceptional 20th century personalities: film director Sergei Eisenstein and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, both Riga-born and both displaced by WWI, landing in Russia and the UK respectively. “I compare myself to Isaiah Berlin. He always stood aside and observed. There was both piety, and also fear in that,” Sīmanis points out. Sergei Eisenstein’s greatest fear however, was that someone would take away his ability to make films; the manifestation of this fact in real life led to his physical demise.

Creativity through Fear

Dāvis Sīmanis admits that he is afraid of imprecision and mistakes. “It causes me to shift to positions from which I can observe – then in due course I can operate very precisely,” is how the director explains his method of working. He consciously hovers on the periphery in order to avoid mistakes and to observe from the sidelines. To take a step back from life, which goes on regardless – humans love, battle and do things, and a moment’s passion can lead to regret. “If there are so many changing variables, then mistakes are inescapable over the course of life,” stresses Dāvis. And just as Isaiah Berlin, he observes and comes to rational conclusions that he then basis his work on. “It is creativity based on fear,” spells out the director. That is precisely why working with Lithuanian editor Danielius Kokanauskis (on “My Peaceful Place of Exile” – a Latvian-Lithuanian co-production) was a kind of challenge. “It was hard to get used to the situation because up until now I had edited my films with my colleague Andra Doršs, using the parity principle,” reveals Dāvis Sīmanis, and that’s why entrusting this task to one person created apprehension. “Fighting is not my favourite sport,” states the director. In his free time he actively partakes in skiing and badminton, which he believes is very choreographic. “The same as editing,” – he sees a analogy in volleying the birdie over a net with filmmaking – “conditions are constantly changing and new situations arise that require an analysis before the next volley, which requires more than just being in good shape.”

In the Margins

Dāvis Sīmanis teaches film history at the Latvian Academy of Culture in Riga and at Aalto University in Helsinki. “I’m fascinated by the students’ naivety, untamed creativity and freedom, because I perceive everything very rationally,” says the director, who got his Master’s Degree in History and Philosophy from the University of Latvia, and is preparing to defend his doctoral thesis. That the students aren’t afraid of expressing themselves through a stream of consciousness makes him green with envy. Sīmanis believes that it’s important for young authors to read the interviews and theoretical essays of experienced directors. Among his influences he lists the legendary French director Robert Bresson, and the master of the metaphor and poetic genius Pier Paolo Pasolini, who came into film as a writer and is a testament to the claim that good directors have also been great thinkers. “Discourse is important to me,” Dāvis cites as another reason he likes teaching – an attempt to formulate and articulate a thought becomes a way to grasp it. “It’s a way to remain interested in yourself, as you often say the unexpected, even the unsuitable.” He considers writing down these thoughts, lest they remain in the notebook’s margins. If spontaneity and unpredictability are preconditions for a lecture, then during filmmaking he avoids this scenario. “It’s not for me, though many directors do the opposite – they work without a script and create in front of the camera.” Dāvis Sīmanis likes to be prepared.