An Englishman in Latvia

On film and animation

September 08, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 21
On film and animation
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On film and animation
Sep 08, 2023 Season 1 Episode 21
Alan Anstead

Latvia has a rich history in film and animation making. It is also re-emerging as a significant industry. Latvia is the choice location for many European and UK films.  I will take you on a tour of Latvia’s Cinevilla studio. We will explore the history of Latvian film and animation and discover a few fascinating characters. We will visit the Latvian Film Museum in Riga and talk to the Head of the Museum about the importance of film and animation in the cultural life of Latvia.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

Latvia has a rich history in film and animation making. It is also re-emerging as a significant industry. Latvia is the choice location for many European and UK films.  I will take you on a tour of Latvia’s Cinevilla studio. We will explore the history of Latvian film and animation and discover a few fascinating characters. We will visit the Latvian Film Museum in Riga and talk to the Head of the Museum about the importance of film and animation in the cultural life of Latvia.

Thanks for listening!

On film and animation

Latvia has a rich history in film and animation making. It is also re-emerging as a significant industry. Latvia is the choice location for many European and UK film, TV and streaming series because of skilled technicians, lower costs and Latvian government incentives to film there. I will take you on a tour of Latvia’s Cinevilla studio. We will explore the history of Latvian film and animation and discover a few fascinating characters. We will visit the Latvian Film Museum in Riga and talk to the Head of the Museum about the importance of film and animation in the cultural life of Latvia.

First character - the film director Sergei Eisenstein

The city of Riga has a perplexing situation about recognising two prominent figures: Sergei Eisenstein, a revolutionary film director, and his father, Mikhail Eisenstein, a well-known architect. Sergei, the genius behind groundbreaking films like ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and ‘October’, remains overshadowed by his father's architectural fame in Riga. Sergei was born into a privileged family in 1898 in Rīga. The Eisenstein family lived in an apartment on Valdemara street. Sergei’s childhood experiences in Riga greatly influenced his later work. His early traumas, including his relationship with his parents, found expression in his films. Sergei's childhood drawings capture the essence of turn-of-the-century Riga, a multi-cultural hub under the Russian Empire.

Although destined to follow in his father's footsteps as an architect, Sergei's path diverged due to World War I. He became involved in theatre and film, ultimately embracing the art of cinema. Sergei's innovative use of montage propelled him to cinematic prominence. His movies, including ‘Battleship Potemkin’, ‘October’, ‘Alexander Nevsky’ and ‘Ivan the Terrible’ showcased his unique perspective on power and revolution.

Sergei's artistic brilliance and affinity for depicting the machinery of power emerged early, evident in his debut film ‘The Strike’. His films successfully merged revolutionary ideals with pioneering montage techniques, earning him global recognition. Despite this, his clash with the Soviet authorities intensified over time due to his artistic non-conformity. Banned and destroyed projects, like ‘Old and New’ and ‘Bezhin Meadow’, marked a turbulent period in his life.

His sojourn in Hollywood didn't lead to compliance either. Sergei's artistic vision clashed with Hollywood norms. This phase also saw an incomplete Mexican project due to political interference. Back in the Soviet Union, his life remained precarious, with his work facing constant scrutiny. The monumental ‘Alexander Nevsky’ became a masterpiece, a testament to his resilience, while ‘Ivan the Terrible’ provoked intrigue and controversy.

Tragically, Sergei's life was cut short at fifty. His cinematic legacy included pioneering montage principles, iconic films, extensive theoretical works, and graphic art. He left a realm of boundless possibilities, encouraging enthusiasts to explore his genius in his works, writings, and drawings. Sergei Eisenstein, Riga-born, forever changed cinema with his revolutionary ideas and visionary storytelling, ensuring his impact endures through time.

I saw his film Battleship Potemkin while living in Moscow in the 1980s. I don’t recall anything except one scene that still haunts me. That is of the baby in a pushchair falling down the 200 Primorsky Steps in Odesa. I even went to Odesa in 1981 to see where that scene was shot. It was named Potemkin Steps then but reverted to its original name when Ukraine regained independence in 1991.

It was put to me that Sergei Eisenstein wasn’t really Latvian. Yes, born and raised in Riga. But his allegiances remained elsewhere. I’ll let you debate that one!

The second characters - the animators Roze Stiebra and Ansis Bērziņš

These two pioneers established Latvia's cutout and drawn animation tradition. They believed that animation transforms static images into life. Their filmmaking process involved a team of patient individuals who meticulously drew, phased, coloured, cut, glued, and shot frames, subsequently infusing the images with vitality through music and text.

Their approach to animation revolved around portraying the beauty and boundlessness of the world, creating wonders where none were seen before. Roze Stiebra was inspired by a performance of ‘Princess Gundega and King Brusubārda’ at age 10, which ignited her passion for the arts. She enrolled in the Leningrad State Institute of Theatre, Music, and Film, focusing on puppet animation. Ansis Bērziņš, on the other hand, began as a photography and film enthusiast before venturing into animation. His introduction to the craft came through Roze Stiebra, and their collaboration sparked a lifelong partnership.

Their first film, ‘Rainy Day’, was made of cardboard, fabric and application paper. The team averaged two animated short films a year, establishing the tradition of a leading genre – musical films based on a poem or song.

Maija Brence and Dzintra Aulmane, animators with distinct styles, joined their team in 1973. The addition of animators led to more refined and nuanced cutout animation. They transitioned to drawn animation, resulting in graceful movements, transformations, and fleeting images that enriched their films. 1983 the first hand-drawn film, ‘The Pocket’, was made. In the late 1980s, the group moved to the Rīga Kinostudija film studio, where they formed a separate animation studio, Dauka, which has since become legendary and iconic in Latvian animation. The animation studio Dauka, symbolised by a black and yellow logo portraying a person heading towards the horizon, embodies the creative partnership of Roze Stiebra and Ansis Bērziņš.

Collaboration was a cornerstone of their work, with Roze and Ansis working with renowned and emerging artists, composers and animators. Their films intertwine cultural heritage with modernity, drawing from Latvian literary classics, contemporary authors and folk songs. This approach ensured their films resonated with local audiences, connecting cultural roots with a modern expression.

Despite facing challenges and changes in the animation landscape, their dedication to portraying childhood as a multifaceted experience endured. Their films, including musicals, drawn animation, and feature-length productions, captivated children and adults. Roze and Ansis created films that offered poignant and beautiful narratives, inviting viewers to explore layers of meaning and reflect on the joys and complexities of childhood.

Their legacy extends beyond their years at Dauka, inspiring a new generation of Latvian animators and filmmakers. Although the studio closed in 2010, their collaborative and innovative approach to animation has left an indelible mark on Latvian animation and cinema. Fifty years after the release of their first animated film, Rainy Day, the Latvian Filmmakers Union said in 2020, “The contribution of Roze Stiebra and Ansis Bērziņš to the introduction of animation and the education of future generations of artists and the sharing of knowledge is invaluable. Since the experience of Dauka, Latvian two-dimensional animation has developed, improved and achieved real attention and appreciation in the world.”

So, what is the state of the Latvian film industry now? 

An article from Variety magazine neatly brings us up to date.

"Around thirty years ago, Viesturs Kairiss began his journey to become a filmmaker in Latvia, recognising that his path would be challenging. In those times, aspiring Latvian directors had to study film in Moscow or St. Petersburg. After Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union, Kairiss was among the first graduates of the newly established film studies program at the Latvian Academy of Culture. His film ‘Leaving by the Way’ (2001) marked a passionate journey for a group of filmmakers working in an industry still in its infancy.

Fast forward to today, Latvia, along with Lithuania and Estonia, is in the spotlight at the European Film Market 2023, reflecting the significant progress it has made in the global cinema landscape. Latvia's screen industry is flourishing with a growing number of films and TV series produced and attracting ambitious international projects. A pivotal moment in this growth was a decade ago when Latvia launched its cash rebate program, offering up to 30% on qualifying local expenditures, transforming the production landscape and making Latvia an attractive destination for filmmaking.

The historical drama ‘Sisi’, a German series, found its way to Latvia, benefiting from the country's cash rebate program. This production showcased Latvia's capabilities and boosted its capacity to host large international projects. Cinevilla Studio, boasting the region's most extensive open-air backlot and built sets for various historical periods, has become a major draw for international productions. Riga Film Studio, with the most significant sound stage in the Baltics, also adds to the country's appeal. Production costs in Latvia are about 25% cheaper than in neighbouring Germany, making it competitive with Central European hubs like Budapest and Prague.

Latvia's rich architectural diversity, stemming from its history under various rulers, is reflected in the wide range of productions it hosts. The BBC's ‘War and Peace’ and the Berlin prize-winning WWII drama ‘Natural Light’ are examples of projects filmed in Latvia. The industry's strength lies in its ability to share stories with a global audience. Many Latvian films have made it to top-tier festivals in recent years, indicating the country's growing influence.

The cash rebate program and co-production financing have raised the bar for Latvian filmmakers. This support has enabled collaborations like ‘Wanderers’, a co-production involving Lithuania, Latvia, France, and Serbia, demonstrating effective partnerships between Baltic neighbours and other European countries.

The transformation of Latvia's film industry is remarkable, considering its journey from being controlled by larger neighbours to becoming an independent player on the international stage. The early struggles of not knowing how to produce European films have given way to a thriving industry that continues to expand. The spotlight on Latvia at the European Film Market underscores its progress and potential as a cinematic powerhouse."

I visited Cinevilla. You can, too. It is 15 km south of Tukums, signposted off the road between Tukums and Jelgava. You will need a vehicle to get there - it is a 160 ha site in the middle of nowhere!

Cinevilla is a film studio and technically a backlot. This area is for shooting outdoor scenes for films, television and streaming series with permanent exterior buildings or the space for temporary set construction. Cinevilla has various sets on the backlot, which can be modified or dressed to resemble different periods. Backlot sets are sometimes shells - with a facade, a roof and maybe two or three walls: no rear or interior. To get to the upper stories, the actor must climb a ladder. Some sets are complete buildings. Cinevilla has both types. It has some solid building pavilions, street scenes for Paris, Rome and Cologne, and medieval and Viking sets. There is a very scary church - the fake blood still inside may upset some people, Second World War sets, a Russian train and a tram. You can walk around all of these and gain an insight into filmmaking. Each set has a QR code which will lead you to a video clip from a film that used that particular set.

In the film industry, backlots are in decline. Audiences want to see actors in authentic locations, so films are often shot on location. The increased and cheaper use of CGI and green screens has meant that many films are entirely shot indoors and made by computer to look like outdoor locations. However, since being established in 2004 for the outdoor shooting of the film ‘Defenders of Riga”, Cinevilla is doing well. Recently, the site for shooting the German historical series Sisi has been used by many Latvian and foreign film producers. Even the BBC has shot historical drama scenes there. Reduced costs over backlots in the Czech Republic and Hungary, let alone studios in the UK, France and Germany, plus Latvian government financial incentives to film in Latvia, together with skilled studio staff, production crews and cheap ‘extras’ actors, have put Latvia on the European map for film making. 

I visited the Riga Film Museum. It regularly curates exhibitions displaying different aspects of cinema, directors, actors, and film history. Like the characters we spoke about earlier in this episode, who have all had exhibitions dedicated to them. The museum was founded in 1988 and is located in an 18th-century building on 10 Peitavas Street in the old town of Riga.

The idea to establish a Film Museum in Riga came from a cinema forum in 1986, which obtained permission from the Soviet Union cinema organisation. Following Latvia’s independence, the museum was first part of the National Film Centre of Latvia until 2010, when it was handed over to the Latvian Academy of Culture. It has been in various locations, from the rooms of ”Riga Video Centre”, the ”Latvian State Archive of Audiovisual Documents”, the ”Riga Film Studio” and the former ”Museum of Illegal Press” before it moved to its present location. It is well worth a visit if you are interested in film and animation. The entrance is from Maza Peitavas Street, a small alleyway.

I spoke to the Head of the Riga Film Museum, Agnese Logina, to learn more about Latvian film and animation.

Me: During the Soviet Russian occupation, when I believe that the fields of film and animation were more centralised in Moscow and St Petersburg, how was Latvia able to become and develop a very vibrant film and animation industry?

Agnese: Film was a very important tool in the Soviet Union, and it was a very important tool in Soviet politics. So when the Soviet Union was built, they already included a lot of film-related activities within the Union, and it was really an integral part of the Soviet Union and Soviet politics. I guess it's mostly because cinema is one of the art forms that is most easily used for propaganda purposes, and it can reach a large audience. We have to keep in mind how the Soviet Union operated with cinema. It was also a centralised decision to have film studios in each capital - local film studios all around the Union. So there was a film studio, a big film studio in Rīga, in Vilnius in Tallinn. What is interesting about Rīga is that Rīga Film Studio was larger than Vilnius or Tallinn. It was a very large film studio. It was not as large as St. Petersburg and Moscow, which were the biggest film studios in the Soviet Union, but it was like a second level. In Rīga, there were a lot of films made every year. I think at some point, they were making up to five to eight feature films per year. It means that it was basically a factory. There were hundreds of people working there. In the early 1960s, Rīga Film Studio became like this centralised building, and I think, if I'm mistaken, in 1961, they finished building this big film studio building in Šmerla, which is still there to this day. The Rīga Film Studio building had all the film professionals under one roof, so once you get everybody under the same roof, that's when the film studio really starts picking up speed, and that's when it becomes really a factory, and that is the mid-1960s. We have to keep in mind that animation history in Latvia was developing in two different places at the same time. One is Rīga Film Studio, where the pioneer of puppet animation was working - Arnolds Burovs and his team were physically in Riga Film Studio, but there was a studio in Ansis Bērziņš, where they worked physically in television. They were in a whole other place, and they worked with hand-drawn animation. Creative people gravitate towards each other. They had their places where they would meet; they had their cafes, their bars, their places. They were in contact, I think, a lot. The physical place of Rīga Film Studio, I think, played a very important role. So, the 1960s/ late 1950s were the time when the first after-war Latvian artist generation became active. And with them, we get a whole new fresh breath of air. Also, the 1960s was the time when politically the Soviet Union tried to become more up-to-date. The centre and periphery. But in the periphery, which was Latvia at the time, everything was much more strict. I do not think that somebody like Tarkovsky would have been able to work in Latvia. I think he was allowed only in the centre to work there. What I'm trying to say is that what a lot of these creators and film directors and film professionals were saying is that during their studies in Moscow or St. Petersburg, they were watching a lot of foreign cinema as well, which changed their mindset. Films that were not available here but were only available in Moscow, for example. A lot of them got some important impulses during their studies in Moscow or St. Petersburg. They came back and started working here and tried to implement that. 

Me: It’s a very interesting history of film and animation and a complex history in Latvia. Independence regained, some difficult times perhaps in film and animation industry in the first years, but it seems to be really recovering. How would you say what the present state of film and animation is in Latvia? 

Agnese: I think it's very good, all things considered, it's very good because in the 1990s it was a very difficult period on many levels. One of them was in cinema because, as I said, Rīga Film Studio was massive; it was a factory, it was really like film making factory and in the 1990s when we regained independence, it was not clear what to do with all this infrastructure. So, unfortunately, some of the decisions that were made, in my opinion, were not right, like The Rīga Film Studio became privatised. I think the decision to do that was made in 1995. It became a private company in 1997. Decisions made in the 1990s that, in hindsight, do not seem to be the right decisions. Of course, there was a drop in cinema production in general. And there were years when there were no feature films made, for example. But that, again, is a question of finance. I would say that the Latvian film industry has become more stable over the last 10-15 years. 2010, the parliament passed a film law, which I think, on some level, helped to create some basic rules for how this field can operate. Thanks to very good lobbying from the National Film Centre, they were able to also get some extra funding for the Latvian film industry. Around 2018, so starting from 2016 to 2019, I think the Latvian Centre Film Programme was a very big thing. So, to celebrate 100 years of Latvian independence, 16 films in total were made. Film companies didn't have enough people to work on their films. So a lot of new professionals came into this industry and started working and got their first experiences and were very quickly thrown into this field, and they had to learn. Which means that currently, there are way more film professionals than there were some 10 years ago. That also helped to increase faith in Latvian cinema from the audience's point of view. Up until 10-15 years ago, because of very limited funding, the Latvian film scene was more about indie films and indie productions and not so much about films that are accessible to a general audience, the general public. So, for a lot of people a different experience from the first decades of cinema. it’s very experimental and they have very bad memories about it because they got to watch film and they don't understand anything that's happening because it's very experimental. Something that is like mainstream cinema started developing only over the last 10 years, and that I think is a very important development because that increases the faith within the Latvian audience that is something that is worth paying money for and this is something that that they should pay attention to and the centenary program really helped with that because it was mostly very accessible. Also, in 2019  ‘Blizzard of Souls’ came out which, which is the biggest film since the independence period - well, definitely the most expensive film over the last 30 years. It became very popular because it's based on a very popular novel. Then unfortunately Covid happened that created a massive blow for the film industry. The good thing that came is that we got two very good TV shows, I would say. That is something that is also now being seen as and being perceived as a more interesting direction in which to develop. But we still need to get those people back into film theatres because there's no future for cinema outside of film theatres. That is one of the things that I really believe in. 

Documentary cinema and animation, are film genres that we're able to develop more in Latvia because you don't need a lot of money to make a documentary that's way cheaper than a feature film. Also, another very important aspect that maybe sometimes gets overlooked is that Latvians are introverted and they like to work alone. You can't really work alone on a feature film; that's not quite possible. But with animation, there are sometimes very fascinating stories about how somebody makes a film on their own. One of my favourite stories is about Gints Zilbalodis and his film ‘Away’, which is absolutely amazing. It's a very lovely and extremely touching and emotional story about a boy who survives a plane crash and has to travel around the island where he is now alone, battling all kinds of demons and monsters that are in his way. And Gints Zilbalodis made this film alone for four years while living with his parents. Now he's working with some other people, but the result is, I think, amazing. It's a very lovely thing to do, let's say it like that. And ‘Away’ is really an amazing work and everybody should watch it. 

Me: It’s a very rich history you've talked about. A bit complex, but very rich. And here we are in the Film Museum, and I see that there's a big school group who are visiting. How does the Film Museum enlighten and inform the younger generation about Latvia's film and animation sector? 

Agnese: Talking to school children about Latvian film history is one of the priorities we have set for ourselves. We don't talk enough about film history in the Latvian school system, and that is a big problem I find. So we, as the Film Museum, made a very conscious decision a while ago that we're going to focus on school children. Because we're a very small museum and we have limited resources, we, of course, have to choose our priorities. So we chose that we're going to create content for school children so they can come here and learn more about Latvian film history and Latvian cinema in relation to what they're learning in school. We also have some workshops that we offer to school children, for example, animation workshops. And we actually had a very beautiful exhibition a few years ago about Roze Stiebra and Ansis Bērziņš. It was very beautiful. We experienced that animation, especially this type of animation, is very interesting for both grown-ups and kids and all kinds of generations. And it was really touching to see how grandparents are coming with their grandchildren. Basically, these live animation film classics mean something to all of these generations. For grandparents, it's something that they grew up with, and grandchildren enjoy it because it's still very powerful, and these are still amazing works of art. So that was very nice. It was just really nice to see that power of art.

Listening to this wonderful account of Latvia’s film sector reminded me of my time in Latvia in the 1990s. The cinemas in Riga were packed. I went to see the British comedy ‘The Full Monty’. It had subtitles in Latvian and Russian. The problem was that the subtitles came on screen before the actors spoke, and the audience laughed loudly. I missed all the jokes in the film. I tried three times to watch it - all to packed audiences at the cinema - and the result was the same each time. 

In conclusion, Latvia has a vibrant film industry. It is both culturally important to the country and an industry growth sector. It also has a fascinatingly rich history. I will say something that not everyone will agree with. Please take it as a foreigner’s observation. The Russian-Soviet occupation was, of course, wrong. The phrase ‘a leopard cannot change its spots’ is in my mind thinking about Russia’s present attempt to conquer. But not every aspect of life during those times was bad. Film and animation flourished. Yes, it was heavily censored. But creators found their way around the propagandists. Latvian films and animation were very popular across the Soviet bloc. I hope that in Latvia’s future, more emphasis will be given to the great Latvian creators who worked during those times. They are a part of Latvia’s history.

Whether you are a cinema buff or an occasional watcher on TV, online or at the cinema, film is a wonderful educational and pleasure pursuit. Do put Cinevilla and the Riga Film Museum on your list of places in Latvia to visit and experience. Many Latvian films are now on YouTube with subtitles in English. Enjoy them!

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