Baltic Documentary Films

in 17th Riga International Film Forum Arsenals

by Dimitar Kabaivanov

Documentary film is to a large degree a functional art that usually either stands in opposition, or justifies the regime (social, political, economic) of the time of its creation. The same essentially could be said of Baltic documentaries, especially referring to those shown at the festival. The changes in recent years (in all post-socialist countries) directly effected this genre – in order to exist, it had to adapt swiftly to the circumstances of the new political and social situation in these countries.

The passing of the revolutionary wave at the beginning of the 90’s and the deceleration into the crisis of everyday life, forced documentary filmmakers to interpret an extremely atomized, disunited, fragmented reality, in which multiple autonomous “worlds” exist (very often closed to one another), where the particular expresses the general in a utterly distinctive, roundabout, often deformed way.

All this occurs in a very wide amplitude of possibilities, that responds to the new and different requirements of social demand (the market). Naturally this has a reflection in the aesthetic model and structure of documentary film. On the one side, there continue to be created films, that fill a gap in the “white spaces” – they are of a frankly enlightening type, and have the ambition to suggest to the public (in an easy to understand form) facts and messages, that had been kept silent by the former authorities. This forces them to compete with publicists in other media. This was most characteristic of the Lithuanian documentary films in the festival (in the informational part of the program) – they seemed to be wholly turning back to the past.

On the other hand, some of today’s filmmakers strive to develop Baltic documentary film in a different direction, trying to create exploratory films, that discover or even “anticipate” changes in the spiritual balance of the individual (especially the young) and national communities in the current pivotal period (the accession into the European union). Here we must note such films, as the Estonian Congratulations, A Living Force and Miina – A day in my Life; the Latvian But the Hour is Near and The Marshland, and the Lithuanian Diary. The contemporary change in accents and shifts of meaning are most ostensibly felt in those documentaries that try to scrutinize today’s life from different viewpoints.

One thing in common to all Baltic producers is that they all make movies that paint a portrait of the life of the smallest kinds of communities or of the individual person. Its theme is “survival” whether it surveys some spheres of social life or is claustrophobically closed in the microclimate of the experience of a single human being. Today human life has no value and every raw material can be given a convertible price. The only thing that doesn’t enter into the accounts, is the price of human knowledge and labor. Abandoned by all, passing from stress to stress, today’s person in the Baltic states is infinitely and dramatically “free”. There are no universally valid moral norms and no values that cannot be overstepped. The single individual is forced to forge his own survival strategy, to preserve himself and his loved ones from anonymity and internal erosion.

I would like to note in this context the superb Latvian film Moskatchka. I haven’t seen for a long time such a clean film style with minimalist means (a static observing camera, natural sound with no spoken text). The genuine life of this Godforsaken district of Riga is simply exhibited to the viewer. And at the same time, a non-intrusive philosophical generalisation is made. At the end, my favourite documentary (I allow myself to name it because the FIPRESCI jury considered only fiction features was Choose Order (Estonia). Here we discover a dignified documentary that does not succumb to the powers-that-be, does not make sycophantic portraits, does not excuse the constant slips and political gaffes. Provocative, eccentric, nervous in some moments, but very vigorous (using the style of Esto TV reporting), it attacks the senses and in this way provides room for thought.

Where is the political life in Estonia going, squeezed in the iron grip of Res Publica that is pushing the country towards intolerance and xenophobia in the name of fictional slogans of Pan-European ideas and values? And between all this The Bus (a co-production of the three countries + Finland) which is travelling from the Baltics to Europe (Kaliningrad) and it looks as if everybody is hurrying towards…

Dimitar Kabaivanov