Laila Pakalniņa – director



Daira Āboliņa

A work in progress: Laila Pakalniņa’s film “Dawn” representing themes from the destroyed film by Sergey Eisenstein about son, father and betrayal.

Laila Pakalniņa is one of the best known Latvian film directors working in documentary and feature film genre. At the end of 1980s she began her film career after graduating from the University of Latvia and Moscow Film Institute VGIK. Pakalniņa gained her first international recognition already in mid 1990s when her documentary shorts “The Linen” (1991), “The Ferry” (1994), “The Mail” (1995) were included in the programme Certain Regard of Cannes Film Festival. The films demonstrated explicit style of auteur cinema interpreting the documentary setting and intensifying it with harsh, ascetic poeticism.

These films marked new features in Latvian poetic documentary film tradition by innovative use of natural sounds (sound editor Anrijs Krenbergs) and aesthetics of black and white photography (cinematographer Gints Bērziņš).

With her first feature film “The Shoe” (1998) Laila Pakalniņa returned to Cannes Film Festival in the programme Certain Regard. The film combines absurdities of 1950s daily life and political situations with references to the fairy-tale about Cinderella. During the subsequent years Laila Pakalniņa’s films were screened and received awards at international and national film festivals, “The Python (2003), “The Hostage” (2006), “Theodore” (2007), “Pizzas” (2012). Her films have also been nominated for European Film Award: “Dream Land” (2005, best documentary film), “Fire” (2008, best short feature). Laila Pakalniņa’s film retrospection was presented at Visions du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland (2013), the director conducted also a workshop and was a member of short film competition jury at the festival. Laila Pakalniņa has made over 30 films.

In 2014, Laila Pakalniņa began to work on a large-scale international co-production feature film “Dawn”. The shooting of this new film was done in August and September of 2014 in Latvia and Poland. The film will be a co-production of Latvia and Poland with an international crew: script and direction: Laila Pakalniņa, camera: Wojciech Staron (Poland), art direction: Jurģis Krāsons. Cast: Vilis Daudziņš, Antons Grauds, Andris Keišs, Liene Šmukste a. o.

The Soviet Union, part of which at the time was also Latvia, reached its ideological apogee in 1950s–1970s. The story of the film embraces a period from dawn to sunset in the dramatic destinies of Jānis, an exemplary child and a pioneer, and his father. In the world of real and imaginary values subjected to political dictatorship and manipulations adults and also children lost any milestones in their lives. In the name of a noble idea the boy betrays his father, a people’s enemy who does not support the ideas of the new life. But the father turns a gun to his own son… Story lines that can be identified already in Greek myths had found their expression in dramatic and later glorified examples during the soviet totalitarianism.

Laila Pakalniņa, by using long, internally rhythmical shots already on the film set can create an eerie, slightly surrealist and apocalyptic mood. The film will be black and white. At the filming set in August when crops are getting ripe and golden and tawny colours dominate, the upper hand is gained by the grey colour, except for the intensely read pioneer neckties and white shirts.

Signifiers of the soviet life-style will be stylized in the film, although realistic. Rapturously optimistic people and people lost in the new epoch are portrayed as a homogeneous crowd. Although this is a comparatively recent period in history of Latvia it was not easy for the art director of the film Jurģis Krāsons to find authentic objects of daily use to create the scenes from daily life of that time. People have not preserved glass milk bottles or the old rubber boots not to mention the pioneer red neckties and badges, for the needs of the film they had to be made specially. Yet for several generations they are still living memories while the world lives under a threat of a new totalitarianism…

Interview with Laila Pakalniņa

How did the idea to shift the father and son soviet time drama to Latvia came about?

While studying at Moscow Film Institute I read the script by Alexander Rzheshevsky “Bezshin Meadow” for the film by Sergei Eisenstein that was never made and already at that time I was certain it was worth filming. At the same time I understood it’s not for me since it is a Russian story and Russians themselves should make films about their country, be able laugh and cry about it. Besides at the time I was a convinced documentary film director and studied at the documentary film department. After my first Cannes Film Festival during dinner where we talked about all kinds of crazy film ideas I told the director Mike Leigh that I would like to make a film from Eisenstein’s film script and he thought it was a great idea. At the time I had some other films to make, I did not start working on this one but the idea about it still remained. While making the film “Pizzas” this idea came to me in completely transformed shape and I had quite a revelation – I don’t have to make a film about Russians in Russia. The setting could be Latvia or any other country that has experiences totalitarian regime. Like my film “The Shoe” that is based on the fairy-tale Cinderella, “Dawn” is based on the tale about the pioneer hero-traitor Pavlik Morozov although in the film the boy has a Latvian name Jānis. In my film I will have one quote as homage to Sergei Eisenstein. We will use camera angles and framing characteristic of propaganda films of the time, Eisenstein’s low angles combining those with contemporary film language that in those times was impossible also for the lack of the technology.

Have you got any traumatic emotional childhood experience from this time?

This story does not have a direct bond with me. Damage has been done not to one single person but to many, to all Latvian people, and several generations have a traumatic experience from that time. A human being cannot choose the time when to live. Yet I don’t want to look for an enemy because people often are themselves to blame for the choices they make. A system can’t work if people do not support it from within. The mechanism works if people do not resist it. The film is about the mechanism and its bolts. From the vantage point of historical truth there are no positive characters in the film. The ones who are against the system are not positive characters in my film either. They are weak people. Confused.

The main characters in your film will be played by professional Latvian actors…

Certainly. They will have their own temper and texture… There are many good actors in this film. From every film you learn something as a director. And even though this film will not be radically different from what I have done before, it will mark a trend in my future films and actors as very essential element of the film. We also had large-scale mass scenes where local population was involved. They wonderfully and enthusiastically lived up to their parts. It was very inspiring.

Are you ready to define the genre of your film?

Ironic tragedy or tragic irony. By no means a tragicomedy. There will be humour in the film. Although life is so dramatic there are very many funny things amidst it.