Laila Pakalnina Interview: "Films Should Be Made Either Correctly or Daringly"

in 13rd Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Dita Rietuma

The Python by Latvian film director Laila Pakalnina was presented in the competition of the Cottbus film festival. And now when the prize has been awarded to the film The Stroll by A.Utschitel it is possible to unveil some secrets – the Latvian film was one which lost in the last round of the final voting. It means – unofficially it was the second favourite for the FIPRESCI jury in Cottbus.

The story is imaginary but based on real events. An incident has occurred at an average post-Soviet school in Latvia. Somebody has defecated in the attic. The tyrant of the school, the Headmistress, starts to investigate the event. Nobody is allowed to leave the school before the culprit is found. The real uproar begins when the Photographer’s python disappears somewhere in the school. The absurd drama portrays two snakes – the real one and the Headmistress – co-existing in one school…

Since her debut in filmmaking in 1988, Laila Pakalnina has made 16 films, and “The Python” is her second feature film. She studied film directing at the Moscow State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). Laila Pakalnina first appeared in international circles in 1996 when two of her short documentaries “The Ferry” and “The Mail” were chosen for the official screening of the Cannes International Film Festival Un Certain Regard and received the FIPRESCI award. After her debut in feature films with “The Shoe” that was also screened in the Cannes International Film Festival in 1998, the newspaper “Le Monde” wrote: “At the Cannes International Film Festival the bright talent of a Latvian film director was noticed – her documentary shorts. The small laconic treasures revealed the skill of the director – the perfect sense of composition and space and unique ability to intertwine what we see on the screen with what we hear. It was serious, funny, elegant – all the world’s hardships and lightness at the same time.” “The Shoe” was a return to the Soviet Union in the 1950’s when Latvia was part of it. The film revealed Pakalnina’s sophisticated images, neo-realistic charm, reconstructive documentary approach and irony. In 2001 Pakalnina’s 10 minute short “Papa Gena” was part of Latvia’s exposition at the 49th Biennale di Venezia. Later the film went on to be screened at different international film festivals and received a prize at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival. “The Python” is the first feature film by Laila Pakalnina in which the action takes place today and is her first film in colour. It is yet another collaboration with director of photography Gints Berzinš, former fellow-student who has shot most of her films.

Why have you chosen to call your film an absurd drama?

L.P.: “The Python” is my second feature therefore I can assure you that I constantly run into problems in trying to identify the genre of my films. We (when I say we, I mean myself and cinematographer Gints Berzinš) are essentially taking an ironical look at life. At least we feel that way when we make our films. That does not mean, however, that we make people laugh. “The Python” is not a comedy, however convenient it would have been commercially to attach this genre to the film. We tried to create “The Python” to be serious and dramatic. As serious and dramatic as life itself.

The environment where “The Python” takes place is a school. It seems you don’t have particularly good memories of school as an institution?

L.P.: Quite the opposite. I actually cried when I finished school because I did not want to leave. I had excellent marks and as a result could take quite a few liberties. The school probably found it problematic to deal with me, however, I never had any problems with the school, maybe just with the system.

What would you say to the people who try to see a model of totalitarian society in “The Python”?

L.P.: That they can interpret the film that way.

This is your first feature in which the action takes place today and this is your first colour film. Why did you choose to work with contemporary problems and in colour? How would you summarise this experience?

L.P.: For me a true film is black and white, not colour. Therefore colour was a challenge for us. We used colour film because the people with whom we made our first feature “The Shoe” said – you can make your first film black and white if you like, but the next one has to be in colour. It seems we took these words very seriously. I don’t think there is much difference between today and not today. If you are shooting in a contemporary environment, you select the reality you want and you adapt the existing situation for your own needs. However, in films where the action takes place in the past, the environment is created. I enjoy both of these challenges. Experience? Some very practical things, sometimes even elementary lessons which help me decide what I am going to do or not do in my future films.

The long shots, compositionally perfect frame compositions, travelling of the camera, diving into textures and moods – this principle has come from your documentaries. What is more interesting for you as a director – making a documentary and capturing fragments of reality or creating your own film with the director’s reality in a feature?

L.P.: A film is a film. I don’t differentiate that way. Besides both genres are closely linked to my attitude towards reality, as well as to who I am. The only difference is that I find it very creative to write feature film scripts. I write down the film I gradually begin to see. However, I hate the few cases when because of some formal reasons I have to write scripts for documentaries. They have nothing to do with what the talented writer – life – will offer us at the moment when we switch on the camera.

Although “The Python” differs from your documentaries, it does not quite correspond to the general views on classic narration and plot constructing models.

L.P.: I know how scripts are supposed be written, but that has nothing to do with how I want to do it. If someone thinks that the plot is the main element of the film, that’s fine with me. If I shared this view, I would be writing books. The movement, composition, texture, sound are just as important, and maybe even more important than the story. The scripts of “The Shoe” and “The Python” could be very good tools for film schools to show students how not to write scripts. I think scriptwriting is similar to editing. You should learn the rules to avoid glaring gaffes, but then you can break them. Films should be made either properly or daringly.

Almost all your films have been made together with cinematographer Gints Berzinš. How would you explain why your creative collaboration has lasted for such a long time?

L.P.: We have the same ideas about filmmaking.