Festival History By Peter van Bueren

in 22nd Riga Arsenals

by Peter van Bueren

In many ways Riga’s “Arsenals” Festival is different from other festivals. It takes place in the beautiful capital of Latvia, the middle of the three Baltic countries. Riga has for centuries harbored other nations, having been occupied by Sweden, several times by Russia and, during the Second World War, for several years by Germany. The longest street is called Freedom Street, but in the past it was also called Lenin Street and even Hitler Street. No street bears the name of the city’s most famous son, Sergei Eisenstein, to whom a memorial plaque is dedicated somewhere on a wall, as well as a very small museum. His father was an architect who built a beautiful neighborhood in the center.

The festival was established in 1986 at the initiative of some filmmakers, among them Augusts Sukuts, from the start acting as festival director, who always welcomes foreign guests with his remark: “It’s September now, but I’m still Augusts’. In the first year the main program included a show of Russian films that, thanks to perestroika, were freed from the shelves and locked cabinets of the censor. Since then the festival has built a reputation through a program of films with high artistic quality, through a cinema-friendly atmosphere and sometimes strange and humorous events. It’s the only festival that is not opened by speeches. Once there was some music followed by the announcement: “And now the opening is closed.”

The closing ceremony is always a show with a lottery as highlight. Directors or representatives of the competition films are offered a glass of wine. In one of them, festival director Augusts Sukuts places a button of his jacket. The person who finds this button gets the award and the prize money, this year amounting to 20,000 dollars. The excursions are also famous, such as the three hour ride on an old train to the village of Keipenen, where the local people welcome the festival guests with folk dances, bean soup and drinks. The long ride to Keipenen is warmed by snacks and a lot of vodka. In Keipenen there is a post office, a small building, where the walls are papered with pages of a telephone book. In one room there is a telephone and a list of names and numbers. When, for instance, you ring a number with the name Eisenstein, you hear the voice of Eisenstein and some soundtracks from his films.

The biannual festival called “Forum” is not the only activity of “Arsenal”. Among other things, there are also festivals for fantasy and children films. Moreover, during the international festival the program is filled with special programs like Fathers and Sons, Modern Arcadia etc., as well as retrospectives and discussions. So Augusts Sukuts built his own cinematic circus with him as tamer and entertainer.

There have not been many changes over the years, but the world went on around the festival. For some years now there has been another international film festival in Riga, and at the end of the last century the neighbor Estonia established a Baltic competitor in Tallinn, where the annual “Black Nights” festival takes a lot of films which could or should have been at “Arsenals”. Augusts Sukuts didn’t want to change his formula, nor did he want to make the festival an annual event. In a way he thus blocked new developments. Another problem is the constant change of — mostly young and female — programmers. From the start, of course, it took time them to find their way in the festival world and develop knowledge and taste, but after some years many of them left, for a whole range of reasons, just at the moment when they had gained more expertise for the job. One of the comments you could hear behind the curtains was and is that new ideas or interesting young films are blocked by the selection committee, where a minority is opposed by an older and more conservative group that is less informed about recent cinematic developments.

But then, suddenly, in April this year, father Augusts sent around a letter in which he announced that he would stop. He sold his property, bought a small house near Valencia in Spain (without speaking a word of Spanish) and designated as his successor the producer and scriptwriter, and former culture journalist, Elvita Ruka. How Ms Ruka will change or modernize the house of Sukuts is not clear yet, because much of this year’s edition had already been prepared by Sukuts, who stays in the background as Honorary President. Elvita Ruka proved to be at least a charming hostess, who didn’t take her guests to Keipenen on an old train, but by plane to the former Russian maritime port of Leipaja, where the festival will have a kind of subsidiary branch; during the closing ceremony instead of Sukuts’s button in a glass of wine, she put a petal in a cup of coffee.

“Arsenals” was and is an important festival in the Baltic states, where the art of cinema has — and hopefully will have — priority. It is well organized and offers splendid hospitality to its guests. It is a festival to be cherished. And because the winner of the main prize is decided by a lottery, the FIPRESCI jury is the main jury for the International and Baltic Competition, next to a special Baltic jury and an ecumenical jury. The verdict of the FIPRESCI jury in Riga maybe counts more than at any other festival in the world. That is an important, honorable but also responsible task.