Of Children Facing Abandonment Wounds

in 38th Warsaw International Film Festival

by Malik Berkati

Latvian filmmaker Linda Olte wins two awards for social drama “Māsas” (Sisters)

One of the interesting aspects of film festivals is to capture, through their selections, the zeitgeist that inspires the filmmakers. In the case of the choices of the Odessa Film Festival, which could not take place this year for obvious reasons, but screened its selection at the Warsaw festival, war and its consequences on collective and individual life were, of course, the main focus. In the other sections, societal subjects, and particularly those concerning the family and children, emerged, through portraits at the confluence of the intimate and the political-social. Among the approaches, the desire for parenthood, the maladjustment to becoming a parent and/or adoption came up in several productions. Among them, Māsas (Sisters), by Latvian filmmaker, screenwriter, and editor Linda Olte, which won two awards, the International Film Critics Award and the Best Film Award in the Competition 1-2 (first and second feature).

Anastasija (Emma Skirmante) and Diana (Gerda Aljēna) are two sisters living in a Latvian orphanage. When they learn that an American family is willing to adopt them, Diana, the youngest, looks forward to starting a new life with a traditional family, while 13-year-old Anastasija is reluctant to leave her home and country, still hoping that their mother Alla (Iveta Pole) will come back to care for them. The two girls also have an older sister, Jūlija (Katrina Kreslina), who already has a baby just a few months old and lives in public housing. The deleterious signs of social reproduction can be read immediately in this line of women from the foster care system, as biological mother Alla herself spent her childhood in an orphanage.

Linda Olte, also the film’s screenwriter, takes us along in the wake of her main protagonist, Anastasija, in her frantic search for identity, which, for this teenager already stricken by life, is not just a matter of finding her own personality but of renewing the filial link that holds her to the marker of her ancestry. It is moreover this exercise – drawing the family tree – given by her teacher that will accelerate the quest of the young girl, the only one in her class to have no branch to hold on to.

The director’s tour de force is to depict a picture as accurate and complex as reality, where little can be described in terms of black or white, life experiences being rather on the broad palette of the chromatic grey. The writing of the characters is of great finesse and intelligence, multidimensional, leaving little room for ease and caricature – even the typical American family that ticks all the boxes of the quasi-missionary WASP, as we imagine them, conceals in their behaviour the flaws proper to their worldview. The mother, the central character of the film, in the sense that she is the missing element around which all the lives of her daughters revolve, is not likeable. She is self-centred, irresponsible, and unstable. And yet, she is not hateful. She is overwhelmed but can show sincere moments of affection, or, as through the red thread of the presence of dogs that runs through the film, show attention for those who are stray.
The Latvian filmmaker does not judge her characters; she puts herself on their level, without necessarily leading us to understand them. She takes us out of the mental space of rational judgement and plunges us into that of familiar sensations, echoes of everyday life, allowing us to perceive the situations in which the characters find themselves. The same goes for the employees of the orphanage who do what they can, with the means they have, which is obviously never enough to give the children the attention and emotional security they need. Through the story of these siblings, it is brought to light the destiny of thousands of children emerging from this system.

Often, we forget that cinema is mostly a point of view. Linda Olte places her camera (held by Aleksandrs Grebņevs) with an accuracy that gives each of her images a point of view equal to the story she is telling. The first sequence is very nervous, almost epileptic, when Anastasija frees some dogs from the kennel and rides her skateboard with one of them. When the situation becomes more static, the camera becomes calmer as well. The visuals follow the narrative movement with harmony, producing a current that allows the viewer to flow with the story. For a first film, Olte shows great mastery in directing and especially directing the acting of the children and teenagers – which is typically a challenge – but who deliver intense performances.

Anastasija is assigned to a place where a collective “we” wants to confine her to a predestination. This “we” as well as both her mother and older sister attempt to convince her that adoption is a “miracle” and that this “gift” is her only way out of the system. However, this plan which they would like her to believe is fashioned for her, contains, intrinsically, the same narrow life path of both her mother, sister, and those before her, in another form that allows society to clear itself of responsibility while feeling that it has given her a chance. In the logic of symbolic break-in, it is a question for the young girl, whom one wants to bring into line, to widen the field of the possible in order to find her place, to unceasingly fight against the structures which do not welcome, against the prejudices, the violence – also including the psychological.

The dominating feeling throughout is that we hope Anastasija can escape this determinism-prison and the inherent struggles that come with it. We neither want her to stay in this home, in this permanent in-between situation, nor do we want to leave her with this American family that tries to force her to fit into yet another mould. Sisters delivers reality in a beautiful cinematographic setting, with an open ending… This is a conquest, and we only hope for one outcome: that Anastasija manages to make her way in life and voluntarily join society. 

Malik Berkati
Edited by Amber Wilkinson