Ivars Seleckis

Kristīne Matīsa

Film director and cinematographer Ivars Seleckis is the oldest documentary filmmaker in Latvia who is still actively working – the premiere of his latest film was just three weeks before his 80th birthday. His filmography is like a bridge connecting the modern day with the legendary past of the Latvian documentary tradition, and Seleckis is one of most prolific creators of that tradition. His film “Crossroad Street” received an EFA award for best documentary.

Ivars Seleckis began his career the same way many film people do – from the ‘bottom’. Though he had university education, he spent months lugging ‘boxes’ and the heavy film camera around the Riga Film Studio until he was allowed to switch it on. The first scenes he shot that appeared on film were in 1960 – in the documentary, “My Riga” – a film that became the first timid step away from the official propaganda and towards a more humanly intimate poetics.

A few years later, Ivars Seleckis and some like-minded artists began to shape history, although they didn’t yet know it. In the beginning of the 1960s, destiny brought several young, talented and passionate filmmakers together at the Riga Film Studio. Their thinking was fresh and contemporary, and they wanted to test the artistic possibilities of film language rather than routinely produce ideologically sanctioned work. Cinematographer Ivars Seleckis began to work with director Aivars Freimanis, and together they broke through the prevailing view. In 1963, with their film “Ceļamaize (Food for the Road), they won an ideological ‘battle’ with the Soviet functionaries on the right for documentary film to portray untouched reality. In 1965, this team was entrusted with an extremely significant assignment – a feature documentary about Latvia in its anniversary year. Together with the screenwriters – poet Imants Ziedonis and filmmaker Herz Frank – they created a conceptually capacious system of images that made it possible to ‘grasp the ungraspable’. The film, “The Report of the Year”, garnered the highest possible official accolade – a Latvian SSR State Prize – and the recognition from audiences and critics propelled it to the top of Latvian documentary film history.

Daring Publicist

By the end of the 1960s cinematographer Ivars Seleckis was ready for directing, and his debut film “Girls from Valmiera” (1970), with its social journalism traits, brought a new, modern edge to documentary film. It was unusual for that time for a Latvian documentary to pose daring and unflattering questions. The seemingly simple topic of ‘industry’ – a big factory in a small town – turned out to be hiding various social conflicts. The factory workforce of some 2,000 women was ruining the town’s demographic balance thus creating personal and societal problems.

Ivars Seleckis’ social-mindedness reached a high-point in 1978 when he and a new team of compatriots – screenwriter Tālivaldis Margēvičs and publicist Andrejs Dripe – made the feature documentary, “A Woman Who is Waited For?. It was an unexpectedly critical and analytical view on the stereotypes associated with a woman’s role in Soviet society – including exaggerated ideas of gender equality and career above family life. The filmmakers even had the audacity to include the so-called ‘women of easy virtue’ and seasoned alcoholics in order to reflect a broader spectrum.

“A Woman Who is Waited For?” became the first documentary to receive the newly-established national film award, Lielais Kristaps, and caused an uproar in society. Five years later the same team made “Wanted: a Man…”, which similarly explored a man’s role in society.

Farmers, Fishermen, City-dwellers

At the beginning of the 1970s Seleckis began to develop his key subject – the lives of the simple folk in Latvia. He had worked as a cinematographer in fishing villages in the 1960s, and on farms with the film “Apcirkņi” (Silos, 1973), and he became intrigued with the micro-universe of the ‘little person’. Even from a bird’s-eye view, as in the film “The Widening of the World” (1980) and “Latvia from a Bird’s Eye View” (1985), Seleckis saw each individual’s lifeline as documentary-worthy.

It’s then fitting that Seleckis reached his pinnacle in the 1980s with a film whose main joint character was the inhabitants of a small suburban street in Riga. In “Crossroad Street” (1988) the filmmakers turned their focus on an 800 metre-long street comprised of a singular societal micro-model – with rich and poor, weak and strong, the clever and the not-so-clever. Though Ivars Seleckis would never call a fool a fool, because he loves his characters no matter what. The great empathy that emanated from the screen brought accolades from audiences, critics and festival juries. “Crossroad Street” won three significant international film awards – the EFA award and the awards named after documentary film legends, Joris Ivens and Robert Flaherty.

A Film Affair – Trilogy

Although Ivars Seleckis’ filmography contains portrait-films about famous people (composer Raimonds Pauls, politician Eduard Shevardnadze, opera singer Elīna Garanča), the ‘film affair’ of his life is about a completely different type of person. The world of “Crossroad Street” intrigued the director so much that he followed up with two more films – “New Times at Crossroad Street” (1999) and “Capitalism at Crossroad Street” (2013). The story evolves into a large-scale epic with all the traits of a proper family saga: within this micro-world the characters change over time – some come to the forefront, some retreat, new generations arrive – the plotlines cross and meander, marking not only individual destinies but also society’s path through various political systems and economic order. Moreover, the viewer feels the flow of time on a much more personal level because the events in the trilogy are human-scale. Just like at a family reunion, it’s interesting to discover what each of the relatives has been up to. However the three films can also be regarded as separate works of art, as the authors don’t overdo references to the previous films.

A Unique Tandem

In the 1990s, the film industry in Latvia was almost defunct, leaving film people confused within the new economic conditions that saw a new state unable to finance a film industry of the same might and size as in the Soviet years. During this time, Ivars Seleckis was almost the only director who was able to obtain enough financing to make a feature per year. He had a name and connections, but he also had the energy, initiative and most importantly, ideas, sometimes even audacious ones. For example, together with poet Imants Ziedonis and sculptor Oļegs Skarainis, they cast a crocodile out of concrete that was then horse-drawn through Latvia to a small village, the birthplace of Arvīds Blūmentāls – an Australian of Latvian descent who was the prototype for Crocodile Dundee.

For Seleckis the crocodile was of course a pretence to film “Crocodile’s Move” (1995), in order to observe how the people of the Kurzeme region lived their lives. On all of Ivars Seleckis’ journeys, with or without crocodiles (he has counted 800 kilometres of film shot over a 54-year career), he was accompanied by his life’s partner, the talented film editor Maija Selecka. Often sequestered behind an editing table, pouring over the material with an expert eye and emphatic heart, she helped create those very real and effective films. The couple, a unique tandem within Latvian film, celebrated a joint career anniversary ironically dubbed ‘100 years in documentary film’. It’s fitting that they chose December 28, 1961 as their marriage date – 66 years to the day the Lumière brothers held their legendary film screening in Paris. Closing in on the 119th anniversary of that Lumière date, Ivars and Maija Seleckis received a Latvian National Film Festival award for lifetime achievement in film, undoubtedly affirming the truth that film is a collective art.