If you are a stranger in the Latvian capital of Riga, you might be up for a surprise: the eight-centuries-old German city is immaculately preserved and the number of catwalk-ready women per capita is stunning. The 18th Riga’s Arsenals, in spite of the constraints of relatively modest budget (about 400,000 euros), and situated off the popular tourist routes, manages to rise and shine.
How is that possible? Well, the festival is still impeccably managed by its co-founder and director Augustus Sukuts, who has a good grasp of showbiz, as well as original ideas on how to attract the crowds. In 2004 for the Arsenals closing ceremony, live sheep were brought on stage at Riga’s Festival Hall and were sheared on the spot.
This time around, the closing ceremony was almost just as extravagant: a truckload, apparently full of pitch black muck, was unloaded on stage and a winning melon was slowly fished out, cut in two and presented to a winner of an odd lottery. Filmmakers in competition are given a glass of milk each. After some pomp and ceremony, they drink it bottoms up and the one who finds director Augustus’ button inside goes home ten grand richer.
Yes, you read right, a half melon is a main prize of the festival, and the winner is chosen at random. Providing that you don’t swallow the button or suffocate –which, fortunately, so far has not occurred – the next morning the half melon is worth 10,000 dollars, courtesy of the Arsenals.
The concept of a “Grand Prix” is, in a somewhat anarchic manner, scorned by the festival, since the so-called magic crystal is always democratically given to each and every of the 15 entries in the competition, and this year was no exception. The directors of Writing on Earth, Wristcutters: A Love Story (shown elsewhere under a title Pizzeria Kamikaze), The Bothersome Man, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, Grain in Ear, Dreams, Battle in Heaven, Me and You and Everyone We Know, 13, Estamira, The Dark Horse, Madeinusa, Man Push Cart and Slumming all had something to put on their shelves.
Perhaps it was a good sign that the prize money, after all, stayed in the neighbourhood, as Estonian director Kaaren Kaer (who made the period comedy Men at Arms) was the one who got lucky. The Baltic jury chose Latvia’s very own Theodore by Laila Pakalnina. The FIPRESCI prize did not go much further, as it went to a bizarre Norwegian afterlife dystopia, The Bothersome Man, directed by Jens Lien as well as to the Latvian You am I, a sensual return-to-nature drama, which also picked several other local prizes.
The Latvian cinema, with budget of 1.5m euros annually (one third of which is spent by administration) definitely needs some encouragement. The state seems to be favouring theatre (subsidized by twice as much money as cinema) and is most concerned to preserve tradition of opera (four times as much). Indeed, the fact is that Richard Wagner himself conducted 15 operas in Riga between 1837 and 1839. A visit to the top-notch contemporary Latvian National Opera (opened in 1863) by your reporter proves that the investment does not go to waste.
If you think about Latvian cinema (as well as Arsenals), think small. It was as if the festival program was selected in manner of FIPRESCI guidlines, since a dozen odd films included in 2006 Arsenals were already favoured by various FIPRESCI juries. Unable to compete with festivals that boast ten times bigger budgets, Arsenals seem to choose films off the beaten track, which sometimes leaves the total of five cinemas (normally programmed with 94% of US films) in Riga empty.
Some screenings, on the other hand, were packed with curious young audience, as it was the case of the innovativelly directed Mexican film Battle in Heaven. Showing Russian silents accompanied by live orchestra, such as the movingly innocent melodrama The Dying Swan from 1917, is a nice touch as well as a crowd-pleaser, perhaps one of the very few concessions to 30% strong Russian population in Riga.
Indeed, judging by Riga’s opulent lifestyles, its inhabitants had everything to gain and nothing to lose by breaking loose from the Soviet Union. With Arsenals it is not the case: established in 1986, it cut an axe with premiering films by Iosselani, Sokurov, Balabanov, Ovcharov and other filmmakers whose work could not be seen elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The indipendence brought a challenge rather than a liberation. The festival barely survived in 1988, as the federal Soviet state cut its budget. After all the possibilities were exhausted, director Sukuts finally got a credit from an eccentric man in charge of one kolhoz (an agricultural cooperative) in Syberia.
As Maris Gailis, co-founder of the Arsenals became Latvia’s Prime Minister, the later fate of the Arsenals was secured. It seems that nothing about this festival is ordinary, except its name, picked up probably from Riga’s Arsenals Museum of Contemporary Art. A bi-annual event, Arsenals just celebrated its 20th birthday. May the milk flow and Riga International Film Forum live long enough to become and old-age pensioner.