Juris Kursietis – director

True to Reality

Kristīne Giluce

Director Juris Kursietis enters into the fiction film genre convincingly — his emotionally-charged debut drama, “Modris, is a true European-scale tour de force, powerfully capturing both the vulnerability and the responsibility of raising a child, and the cracks in communication in society.

Juris Kursietis surprises with pointed and skilful use of film language in conveying the title-character’s poignant story. Seventeen year-old Modris (who turns 18 in the film), lives with his mother – single and tired from life’s adversities, she can no longer find common language with her gambling-obsessed teenager. Modris, in turn, misunderstood at home and in school, longs to find his father and loses himself in slot machines. Addiction-fuelled, he hawks his mother’s heater in the dead of winter. This is an irreversible breaking point in the chain of complicated relationships and unanswered questions in Kursietis’ film – his mother, wanting to teach her son a lesson, cold-bloodedly hands him over to the police for theft.

Immortalized by Oscar-nominated Polish cinematographer Bogumil Godfrejow (for Slawomir Fabicki’s “A Man Thing, 2001), the swaying camera, as a silent follower, realistically captures the youth’s steps and countless missteps. The feeling of harsh reality and daily existence is enhanced by the architectural monotony and grey drabness of the Soviet-era housing division setting. No need for a rich imagination to understand that many a ‘modris’ – a young man whose coming-of-age is merely a legal issue for those around him, instead of a fragile and responsible process requiring support and education – can be found in most cities. It’s true though that the prototype for Juris Kursietis’ title-character was a local youth whose fate was relayed to the director by a lawyer-friend who has never been able to reconcile his guilt for not doing enough to help the accused escape his troubles with the law.

Devastating Silence

 In remaining faithful to the film’s trends towards realism, Juris Kursietis entrusted non-professional actors to play the immature youths in the film, while the parental and guardian roles went to highly-experienced, theatre-based professionals such as Rēzija Kalniņa and Vilis Daudziņš. Kristers Pikša, who plays Modris, is a discovery in the truest sense of the word: Kursietis found his title-character during a public casting call from among a thousand applicants, aged 16 to 21. A culinary student off-screen, Pikša, blessed with expressive facial features, organically merges with the character he plays, silently, resignedly and impulsively getting into one mess after another. The debuting actor’s ability to play his character so consistently using expression alone is highly surprising, especially given the fact that Kursietis only revealed one episode of the script at a time to the inexperienced actor during filming. Yet, the director’s thoughtful approach towards the actors is wonderfully apparent in his work with the professionals as well. For example, he wasn’t afraid to expose an edge in Latvian theatre actress Rēzija Kalniņa, a seasoned veteran synonymous with diva-like figures, transforming her into a prematurely-aged and worn-out single mother, beaten down by life’s hardships. Trying to distance herself from old wounds, she snaps at her son, who longs for his father’s presence (and advice?), using a purposefully fear-inducing phrase: “You’ll end in jail, just like your father!” It sometimes seems that Kursietis has intentionally condemned the film’s characters to a type of Cold War – the silence invading the boy’s life like an avalanche. Silence and apathy ‘torture’ Modris with each step, which is especially apparent in his dealings with the authorities, who all seem more interested in almost religiously fulfilling their roles without even attempting to ‘come down’ a notch to the errant teen’s level. The boy has been branded by his (mis)deeds and he is deemed a lost case by the pedants. The sketches in his notebooks, the stencils and potential visual arts talent that appears from time to time in the story, is relegated to being a hobby of little worth or interest to anyone. It is, however, much less damaging than the addiction to slot machines.

New Generation

 The film’s script, developed in Polish film-master Andrzej Wajda’s Ekran Masterclass, is an homage of sorts to one of the ‘pioneers’ of the French New Wave – François Truffaut’s “Les 400 coups” (The 400 Blows, 1959). Like Truffaut, Kursietis film also tells the tale of a neglected son, balancing on the boundary of delicate realism and cinematographic sensitivity without falling into simplified triviality or inflated drama. Similarly to the New Wave trends, Kursietis’ coming-of-age story is equally an individual drama and a conclusion on the present state of society. If the nouvelle vague directors represented the ‘new’ within a gradually fading colonial France and a rebellion against the dictates of the existing (de Gaulle) regime, then Kursietis is in his way portraying an ‘incomplete’ family – an almost generationally characteristic phenomenon. Of course the situation in the film is a kind of ‘extreme’, though at the same time it is close and understandable, in spite of the lack of connection to a specific geographic locale. The director, in describing the attracting of partners for the co-production (between Latvia, Greece and Germany), stressed that the most important element was to present it as a film with a universal story, and “Modris” most definitely fits into this category. Film critic Peter Debruge, writing about the film for Variety after its premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival, concurs, stating that the story could take place in any middle-American town.

A Crisis Diagnosis

 Juris Kursietis’ film is an unexpectedly strong achievement for a debut and one that has the potential to create a powerful experience for the audience. It is sensitive and nuanced, and in borrowing from documentary film, also a non-judgemental view on the characters. Every action has its motivations, and Kursietis lays them out delicately and without unnecessary didactics, neatly pointing out how fragile and susceptible to outside impulses is the rearing and coming-of-age process. The most poignant, undoubtedly, is the awareness the film raises of how much surrounding parties (ourselves included) can influence this process, and yes, also spoil it. Through a combination of maximally realistic visuals and the style of storytelling, the director has turned the viewing of Modris into a paradoxical allegory on the communication crisis in society – we see what is happening, but because of our haste or indifference, we remain silent and uninvolved. The director of “Modris” is quietly bringing to our awareness the consequences and gravity of this carelessness – we are unable to influence anything in the film, even if we wanted to. We can only succumb to the jolt that will remain present long after the viewing. Juris Kursietis ends his film with an indicative shot of the reflection of Modris’ face, very much like the last shot of “Les 400 coups” (The 400 Blows) – a close-up of Antoine Doinel’s confusion, as if portending his unclear future. What’s in store for Modris?

 

Modris (2014), dir. Juris Kursietis /Latvia, Greece, Germany

“The film is about simple things — about our interrelation with each other as well as with authorities. It shows how parents and law-court employs its’ power. Modris tells a story about injustice and at the same time it shows that we could have been able to make a difference…”

Ir 236, Ieva Puķe

“I made this film for we can take a look in the mirror. I don’t know how many people will see “Modris but I am sure that every one of them will reflect on their routine and habits — how they conduct themselves at home, with their close ones…”

Ir 236, Ieva Puķe