A Truly Independent Festival

in 17th Riga International Film Forum Arsenals

by Thomas Rothschild

The International Film Forum Arsenals in Riga takes place every two years. This year’s edition was the tenth so far. A reason to believe in a success story. The festival’s name obviously pays reverence to an internationally well estimated Berlin institution. Founded in 1986 after the coming to power of Gorbachov, it lives on after the end of the Soviet Union in independent Latvia. Independent is also the best word for the festival itself. It doesn’t care about the dominant position of US-films on the international market and instead focuses its interest on film art in the narrowest sense of the word. During its first years it concentrated mainly on avant-garde. Meanwhile Arsenals presents a cross section through international productions that otherwise have little chance of reaching the Latvian audience.

The political changes have also changed the function of the festival. In the Soviet Union the avant-garde was received as an encoded formulation of resistance against the centralised and dogmatic regulation of arts. Meanwhile the principle of «anything goes» has diminished the social importance of the arts as in the capitalist countries in general. That obviously is the price to pay for more or less democratic conditions. But of course anyone in Latvia is glad to pay that price.

And after all: the advantage of Arsenals has been preserved. It is the advantage it shares with other smaller festivals, the advantage of the absence of commercial interests. Certainly film-makers would like to sell their films and find distributors. Riga is not the place, alas, to do so. Instead this is a meeting point for young and not quite so young people who consider cinema an adventure. The festival up to now has – along with its director Augusts Sukuts – an anarchic character that reminds one a bit of Czechoslovakia in the Sixties, of a playful approach to the art of cinema, even to transforming the surroundings to a kind of happening. Take the closing ceremony as an example where sheep and a buffet of onions played a part.

Along with the international competition called «Forum» and an extra Baltic competition, along with several other sections of films of different origins and different genres, including features and documentaries, there was a special section of Georgian films this year to honour the 70th birthday of Otar Iosseliani. A name that can be interpreted as programmatic for Arsenals.

Thomas Rothschild