· Reviews ·

5 Baltic Documentaries

These 5 movies give a sense of the individual, subjective, non-commercial approach common in Baltic films.

Now & at the Hour of Our Death (2004)

The filmmaker Vytautas V. Landsbergis makes a personal journey into the religious and spiritual beliefs of different people in Lithuania looking for an answer to one single question – what happens after death? Because he first saw someone dying at the age of 5 it became his obsession to try and solve this mystery. The main focus seems to be on Landsbergis’ journey – as he is the seeker for the truth –and the camera just happens to be there at hand. His approach to filmmaking is highly personal to the extent that some of his questions are clearly leading the people being interviewed.

Many of the interviews are conducted with people of questionable mental health in the poorest social strata. These people include individuals of religious background, and people of high spiritual orientation.  One woman claims to have gained the ability to speak German and English after returning from a coma, while another sees the souls of 9/11 victims at a rural church in Lithuania. In both cases spiritual ideas as well as the idea of an afterlife seem to give relief for those who suffer economically or have in other respects been unsuccessful in their interests.

Such spiritual ideas express a calm and submissive worldview and rely on the assumption that one is unable to change anything. One should repent one’s sins and put an emphasis on personal contemplation – submission to religion will reveal eternal laws and truths.

The movie manages to create a certain mood that if put into words would be something like a feeling of serenity – ‘there is no hurry, there is still time’.  Life is a personal journey towards light, harmony and joy. Maybe there is no border between this world and the next?

Perhaps the greatest merit of this film is that it shows of people handle the expectation of dying, and how many are interested in losing their fear of dying trough spiritual practices.

The greatest downfall is the film’s technical quality where no real attention is given to trying to make the film look like a film. It remains a highly personal account.

If I would make this film I would have great difficulty with the opinions expressed about death. For me death is something we’re trying to prevent.

Released: 2004, Lithuania, Length:  54 min, Director: Vytautas V. Landsbergis. Reviewed: October 23, 2007.

Dear Juliet (2003)

In the ancient city of Verona, Italy tourists visit the wall of Juliet from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to leave letters of love and touch her breast and take a photograph.

Tourists stand in a line to touch the famous statue. Even without thinking they are part of that queue and do just as others do just for the simple reason that they do it.

In a traditional Herz Frank fashion the film is wide open for interpretation and discussion. From a philosophical viewpoint one could see that queue as a symbol of our contemporary society (or really of any society from any time in world history) where it is very easy to be part of the system without giving much thought to why exactly one does what he or she does.

On the other hand some people might not see the film in that way at all. After all most of what we see is in a film is created inside our own heads. Some people may go to a theatre to see a Herz Frank movie simply because it is good way to sit in the dark for a length of time.

Be that as it may one can say with some degree of certainty that for everyone the film conveys a sense of place. The shaky camerawork which at first may be disturbing soon starts to resemble the shaky handheld camera of the everyman tourist focusing his lens on anything that catches his attention. It is that singular focus familiar from other Herz Frank’s movies to these small moments of personal discovery that make this film interesting.

My only critique is that perhaps this time Frank has chosen a length of time that is too long.

Released: 2003, Latvia, Length:  24 min, Director: Herz Frank. Reviewed: November 5, 2007.

Is It Easy To Be Young? (1986)

In the final years of the Soviet era a group of Latvian youths participates in vandalism and other rebellious activities after leaving a rock concert on a train. They explain their experiences and motivations in a series of interviews with the filmmaker Juris Podnieks.

When watching ‘Is it Easy to be Young?’ it strikes one immediately with how much honesty and simplicity the interviewees explain their hopes and fears. Almost in the same sentence they discuss the threats of nuclear contamination, the horrors of the Afghan war, the future of their own lives and the society at large. Much of it is emotionally engaging, especially the descriptions of Latvian daily life, the streets and the parties’ young people take part in, and then the scenes of the court and conviction – they all give a thorough insight into the lives of the rebellious Latvian youth.

Although the film merits recognition for the humanity and heroism of the filmmakers, and for its place in the revival of the national pride of Latvia (by some accounts it was seen by almost 30 million people only in the Soviet Union), it remains overly poetic and emotional to give an accurate account of what it was like to live under Soviet rule. In particular the film is flawed in its approach to select individual members of the society chosen by their youthful rebellious attitudes. It therefore fails to generalize the experiences of the passive collaborators widespread at large.

The film could be improved by concentrating on a wider variety of youth contrasting the collaborators and conformists with the rebels of the system. One might then even contemplate excluding the scenes in the court altogether. For those who are more unfamiliar with the Soviet system such a dispassionate look on the duties and freedoms of young people would have given a more precise portrayal of the soviet environment. This however would have been at the expense of the emotional side of the story which was told very well in the original version.

Some of the scenes that remain most unconvincing occur in the interview with a young man who claims to believe in Krishna. Many of his aspirations toward the meaning of life and spiritual fulfillment that are shared by almost all of his peers may be incomprehensible for the modern secular or non-spiritual viewer. His desire for traditional family values and his rebellious attitudes towards protecting these values do little to give eloquence to an otherwise unclear and imprecise interview.  An interesting point that the interview does raise is the following:  although in some respects it is often thought that young people don’t have any clear values, this part of the film strongly asserts that they do.

More than anything the success of ‘Is it Easy to be Young?’ would perhaps be attributed to the emotional honesty of its characters may have extensive appeal to large numbers of viewers. It has the ability to portray Latvian youth with compassion and humanity. Although already viewed by tens of millions of people in the Soviet Union, this is perhaps why it achieved even greater fame when released internationally. It showed that in the unknown Soviet world the young people had similar problems when growing up and becoming adults as everywhere else.

Nonetheless, under the same title one could create an entirely different film concentrating on the ideas of self-preservation and individualism. This approach was already characterized by one character of the original movies that saw the world as an opportunity. He said: “Man must have money”.

Original title: "Vai viegli but jaunam?". Released: 1986, Latvia (Soviet Union). Length: 82 min. Director: Juris Podnieks. Reviewed: December 3, 2007.

Papa Gena (2001)

Someone stops people in an urban area to listen to Mozart’s The Magic Flute for one minute. Many interesting reactions follow.

As the film lacks narration or dialogue all of the viewer’s attention is focused on that one particular character that appears on each scene.

One may find symbolism in the fact that people have to listen to music trough earphones. Or one can just disregard it as a practicality. In any case it does generate a contrast between the streets that most of the time only has the music of noisy cars driving by.

The documentary has the function of anthropological or ethnographical shorthand to the Latvian society. When stopped most of the Latvians just stand around and do not display any physical excitement after having listened to the music. This in itself is already a commentary on the nature of the Latvian people and explains in some ways why the background their standing against is so bleak.  And then they just leave after a while.

Released: 2001, Latvia, Length:  10 min, Director: Laila Pakalnina. Reviewed: December 10, 2007.


Laila Pakalnina has directed 19 films:

1.       Kilnieks (2006) aka Koer, lennuk ja laulupidu (Estonia)

2.       Udens (2006) aka The Water (International: English title)

3.       Teodors (2006)

4.       Leiputrija (2004) aka Dream Land (International: English title)

5.       Buss (2004)

6.       Visions of Europe (2004) (segment "It'll Be Fine")

7.       Pitons (2003) aka The Python (International: English title)

8.       Martins (2002)

9.       Mostieties! (2001)

10. Papa Gena (2001)

11.   Tusya (2000)

12.   Kurpe (1998) aka The Shoe (International: English title)

13.   Ozols (1997)

14.   Pasts (1996)

15.   Pramis (1996) aka The Ferry (International: English title)

16.   Baznica (1993)

17.   Anna Ziemassvetki (1992)

18.   Doms (1991)

19.   Vela (1991)

Diary (2003)

Image from Oksana Buraja's another doc, "Lisa, Go Home".

An observational social documentary gives glimpse into the lifestyle of lower working class people living in a large Soviet era housing project. A woman finds the diary of her grandmother written 96 years before and it is striking how little has changed.

Throughout the film I had a feeling that like in the first scene all the housing projects were eventually going to be destroyed. Even though this was never shown that feeling haunted the whole movie especially when the people were looking out of the window – what was outside, we never saw.

But one day we see out of the window and there is a balloon flying in the distance. And then another one. The contrast with the lives seen in the next scene is stark.

It is a house that is almost derelict with broken people beaten by the system and their own inability to help themselves inside. When the radio stops working they do nothing. The man stops dancing and so does the woman.

The woman keeps reading out aloud from her mother’s diary but the text is unintelligible Lithuanian or Russian so some viewers don’t understand. But what she’s reading is the life of her grandmother.

In the end they say. Go away. I don’t love you anymore. Did you love me – no.

Then there is black and white footage of old times, babies, soviets. And there are the contemporary houses in the mist. Man is still looking out from the balcony. The couple is looking out of the window as if waiting for the destruction of their house which will never happen.  Man didn’t leave. Everything remained the same.

They never did anything.

Released: 2003, Lithuania, Length: 24 min, Director: Oksana Buraja. Reviewed: September 30, 2007.

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