Under the Soviet Union, the Baltic countries were known for the excellence of their documentary films. In particular, they were renowned for a particular style, “poetic documentary”, which blossomed from the 1960s onwards. Although its main practitioners, who included Robertas Verba and Henrikas Šablevičius in Lithuania, Uldis Brauns and Ivars Seleckis in Latvia, and Mark Soosaar and Andres Sööt in Estonia, were not formally linked, their films nevertheless shared certain characteristics: often haunting and elegiac, and tending to lack an explicit narrative. Not directly political, they nonetheless subtly and repeatedly pushed at the boundaries of what was possible and accepted in the Soviet Union, not least by simply showing scenes and characters that did not fit with the view of life prescribed by the authorities.
A recently released film, Bridges of Time, directed by Audrius Stonys and Kristīne Briede, contemporary documentary-makers from Lithuania and Latvia respectively, aims to bring the story of Baltic documentary to new audiences. Combining archive footage from the directors’ films with contemporary interviews and scenes of the places and people featured in the present day, Bridges of Time is a beautiful film, a meditation on time as much as a record of a powerful and often overlooked aspect of the Baltic countries’ experience of Soviet occupation and Communism. As it was described by Martin Horyna when it was shown at the Karlovy Vary film festival: “the result is a consummate poetic treatment of the ontology of documentary creation. Or a cinematic poem about cinema poets.” Deep Baltic’s Will Mawhood spoke to Kristīne Briede about the film and the history of poetic documentary in the Baltic states.
The film is on the subject of makers of “poetic documentaries” from the Baltic states, and yet is itself very much a poetic documentary – woven together from evocative fragments from the work of the artists highlighted, contemporary interviews, and present-day footage of the places and people portrayed in their films. In preference to telling a story in a structured way, the periods and locations covered are blended together, and the audience is left to fill in a lot of the contextual and background information themselves. Was this intentionally a homage to their way of working – or was this just the method of presenting them that seemed most appropriate?
It was our intention to pay homage to the work of the masters of poetic cinema. We wanted to highlight their style, try to walk in their shoes and speak the visual language they spoke in. If that would be possible, we thought, when we started…
Times have changed and audiences often read films differently from how they used to in the past. The tempo, and the rhythm of both telling and of perception has changed, but if you manage to catch that wave of calm painting with images, it works.
From the other side it was a way to bring together so many different directors, all of them with different styles, so cinematic poetry was the key we used in making a homage to their work.
Are there any common features that can be identified between the work of the film-makers featured? To what extent did what was going on in the Baltic states differ from the rest of the Soviet Union?
In the cinematic art they created they avoided so-called actualities but chose instead to speak about the timeless things that matter always – independently of what regime is ruling or which year it is on the calendar. The big questions: time, love, birth, death, the soul – these were their themes.
As there were obstacles that did not allow them to explore the “horizon”, they went up – to the “vertical”. And they combined facts with images. Herz Frank in his fantastic 1975 book The Map of Ptolemy explains it as pulsating: fact-image-fact-image – while keeping the focus on Man and adding philosophical thoughts.
Baltic filmmakers were also unique in the quality of their visual art: often using widescreen, beautiful images, images that talk, not so much text, and seldom with a voice-over. And if there was text or a voice-over then it wouldn’t be narrating or commenting on the things we are seeing on the screen, but rather poetic lines that bring out the essence of the characters and events.
Poetic cinema was, of course, not invented by the Baltic filmmakers. Dziga Vertov was the pioneer, and he did it in the ’20s. But if was still very different. Baltic documentary filmmakers did not do politics. They were no dissidents either. They made films (using Soviet state money) that could not easily be censored, as there was no political context to them – at least not in a way that you could put a finger on.
The Latvian documentary-maker Aivars Freimanis, one of those featured in the film, died early last year – and most of those featured are now in their seventies or older. To what extent do you feel that their work is being carried on by a younger generation of documentary-makers in the Baltic states?
Baltic poetic documentaries still have a huge influence on artists and filmmakers working today. You can always recognise Baltic films at a festival or cinema by their poetic qualities.
There’s a very pronounced preoccupation with time and change – the title of the film makes this explicit, but most of the film-makers featured spend time musing about the subject (such as Estonian film-maker Mark Soosaar’s observation that “there is nothing eternal. Only the changeability is eternal”). Why do you think this is an obsession for documentary-makers, and perhaps for documentary-makers from this part of the world in particular?
Documentary is a time machine. It has the ability to preserve time – people who have died live in the images. People who are old now are young in the films. But there is this gentle sadness or nostalgia with all of this – it will all change, die and be born again and the new waves will never stop coming.
The world presented is very much a male one – there is one woman included among the list of directors featured in the credits (Laima Žurgina), but she isn’t highlighted in the film itself. Was it particularly difficult for women to break into this world?
In the ’60s in the Soviet Union there were very few women filmmakers. We did not feature any because there is no place for gender issues in our movie; we wanted to bring out filmmakers who were pioneers of the Baltic New Wave, as we call it – the masters of poetic documentary. And they happened to be men. That is why we did not feature, for example, the very famous Estonian director of the time Valeria Anderson, as while she made quality movies, they could be placed more in the propaganda section. They represented something else, not poetic documentary.
We did film Laima Žurgina, but the episodes with her did not fit in the movie, so we edited them out.
There were women in the film industry, but it was a relatively small group – especially those working on documentaries. Even for women, it was possible to break out if the desire really existed, but in reality some fifteen years after the war there were not so many women doing it.
How much did the documentaries featured in Bridges of Time build on pre-war traditions existing in the Baltic states, and how much were they products – even if rebellious ones – of the Soviet system?
The poetic documentary is a product of the Soviet system. The Soviet system forced the filmmakers to find a way out. They did not want to lie, and they could not tell the truth, but they wanted to make films, so they created films that were built on symbols, metaphors and images. Films that required thinking from the audience in order to be understood. Films that were built using several layers. Without obstacles restricting freedom of expression, poetic cinema would not have been born. It is a feature seen in other countries with totalitarian regimes as well – like Iran, for example. They make beautiful films.
Your collaborator on this project, Lithuanian director Audrius Stonys has commented when talking about this film that “Baltic poetic documentary cinema created an independent world, free from Soviet ideology, lies and propaganda. It was a declaration of inner freedom”. To what extent were the film-makers able to keep Soviet ideological priorities and biases out of the work they produced? Can these still be detected to an extent?
Filmmakers could avoid Soviet ideology using the same methods they used in their films.
In order to make the films they wanted, their scripts and proposals needed to be approved by the leadership. There was also a so-called “artistic council” at the studios with a special person – a KGB officer, or as they were called a “politruk” – who took part in decision-making and supervised the process and results. They were the ones who would decide to accept or not accept the idea of the film and it was important that the script or idea presentation should be within the guidelines of “Soviet film-making”. You should note that in the Soviet Union cinema was neither entertainment nor industry. It was a propaganda instrument. A very powerful tool. That is why there were huge film studios built in every republic, and that is why the state paid for film production. So, in order to get one’s film in production one should follow the guidelines set by the Communist Party.
But it was often the case that in the script all the necessary features were included, but they did not appear in the films or did not appear to the same extent as promised.
So, Robertas Verba wanted to make a film about old people in Lithuania. In order to get the studio interested he claimed that the film would be about people who were born in the same year as Lenin – as it was the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth that year. There is nothing about Lenin in the film, but using this argument, he got the studio to produce the film. That was simply a double game. And when the film [The Dreams of the Centenarians] was ready, there was no problem, because the film was about people who was in born the same year as Lenin – wasn’t it?
And the same goes for the others. If needed they presented their ideas with “that Communist touch” and made fun of it between themselves, but it was never in the films. But could anybody say that the films were not about Soviet people? Uldis Brauns even filmed the 25th Congress of the Communist Party in Moscow [in 235,000,000] but what was important was how he filmed it. He filmed the doors closing in front of the camera. He filmed those monster-like Politburo members gathering on the stage without any comment, and you can just watch it and tremble inside from the sight (understanding that this is the crowd ruling the country). They needed to play this double game. And that is where the poetry or the Aesopian language came out and bloomed.
Ten Minutes Older by Herz Frank had a script where it was explained that the film would explain to Soviet children how to distinguish between right and wrong, as was stated in the Constitution of the Soviet Union, and that a fairy tale was a good way of teaching them that. That is why such a film was necessary for Soviet audiences…
Aivars Freimanis was a master of drawing attention away from the essentials. On one occasion he wrote a letter to the leadership of the studio telling them that some things were not possible to film as stated in the script and asked permission to film a blossoming cherry tree instead of an apple tree as the apple trees had already finished blossoming. And also asked if they could replace things like that on other occasions if such a situation occurred. Yes, said the boss and praised Freimanis at meetings in front of other filmmakers as a very thoughtful and obedient director who was trying his best to follow the script, but was sharp enough to find solutions on set if necessary.
What kind of struggles did the film-makers highlighted face in trying to get their documentaries filmed and produced?
Some films were shelved, some (rather a lot) were re-edited, or as they say “shortened” by the censors. Sometimes for reasons that it would not be possible to understand today. It could be one phrase, like in the Freimanis film Father, which ends with the sentence “and in the middle of nowhere, somewhere deep in the Latvian woods, there sits a man, reading a newspaper and thinking…”, or because of kolkhoz youngsters having mud fights dressed in working clothes and not in white shirts as in the propaganda newsreels…
With regards to Father, the whole film was put on the shelf – that means it was never shown after being finished. Because the film is about a former Red artilleryman – a soldier, who is living a simple man’s life in the woods – no sign of any heroic actions, no medals hanging up, no story telling about heroic battles. He chops wood, takes care of his chickens, goes to the sauna with his family and friends who come to visit etc. And at the end “he is sitting and thinking”.
This thinking part was very tricky in the Soviet Union, because people were not encouraged to think. They should do and act as the party says, they should not be individuals, they should march in one happy rhythm towards Communism and a bright future. But here, a man is sitting and thinking… Very suspicious and may be seen as having a double meaning. So, I was told that this phrase was the reason for the film being shelved, but it might be, of course, also that it was too natural and too unusual a portrayal of a former soldier….
How aware were the film-makers on the whole about developments in the world of film going on outside the Soviet bloc? To what extent were influences from outside the Soviet Union able to permeate and affect these documentary-makers?
Those filmmakers who studied at GIK [the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography], the film institute in Moscow, got quite a good overview what was happening outside the Soviet bloc. The Soviets used to copy foreign films that were shown at festivals either in the Soviet Union or in other countries of the Eastern bloc. Those stolen copies found their way both to the Kremlin – the Soviet bureaucrats had developed a special love of cinema – and further on to GIK where teachers showed them to students in order to teach the profession. Many films were available “under the table”.
For example, the initial impulse for Uldis Brauns’ style in 235,000,000 came from the world-famous exhibition “The Family of Man” curated by Edward Steichen, which was exhibited in Moscow at the end of the ‘50s. Others, such as Aivars Freimanis for example, did not experience this influence; he was a real home-grown autodidact.
I thought there was a little joke in some of the contemporary scenes included, in which the techniques of the documentary-makers are turned back on them, including footage which they seem to have thought would not be used: Ivars Seleckis explaining how he should be filmed, and fretting that “I start to look like a book-keeper” because he is holding a folder, Aivars Freimanis complaining that he finds it embarrassing to be asked to look into the camera without speaking. Did those you interviewed find it odd being the subject of a documentary themselves?
All the protagonists are film-makers and directors so, of course, it was odd for them to be the subjects of the film. But we just invited them to join us in visiting the places and sometimes the characters of their films and filmed what happened there. Seleckis was obviously the “most actorly” of all of them, but even he sometimes forgot about his role of not being a director and was just natural, being one.
In the Soviet Union documentary films were often screened in cinemas as a prelude to the main feature – giving them a much wider audience than most of them would have today. Is this a sense in which the system may have inadvertently made work easier for documentary-makers?
In the Soviet Union before cinema screenings a ten-minute long “chronicle” was shown. That would be like a newsreel today, mostly telling about what has happened at this or that kolkhoz, how much had been produced by this or that factory, about Party congresses etc. Positive news, let us say, was given, mostly in a propagandistic style – like TV news in the Russian Federation today. It was the daily bread for many documentary filmmakers
– cameramen, directors. They bettered their skills on those newsreels and it was how they earned their salaries as assignments for feature documentaries were not so easy to get.
Many ideas of the stories that later became documentaries were seen by filmmakers while they were making the newsreels. These art documentaries were not shown before the main film screening in cinemas.
How useful in conveying the reality of day-to-day Soviet life do you think these films were? Or should we see them primarily as works of art?
The reality is in all the documentaries. It is just a matter of choice: which side of reality you choose to explore and show. In any case, these films played a huge role in keeping common sense in our nations. They helped audiences to learn to see – as Herz Frank puts it in this context, not only to watch, but to see. To see and think and read between the lines. To resist the propaganda lies. To look at what is under the surface. To not forget human values. Not through actions, but through seeing and understanding.
For example, Lithuanian films – the reality they depict is very real: an old man, his wife, his sons, farmers’ life, but you do not see there any Soviet flags waving, do not hear quotations from Lenin or Khrushchev. This reality was shot in the Lithuanian countryside in the ’60s, but it could have been shot there a hundred years before as well. Or the Estonian film Ruhnu [about the small island of the same name, directed by Andres Sööt]. Was it filmed in the Soviet Union? Really? It could have been shot anywhere in the world and under any regime. And it is reality.
The film begins and ends with the words of the Latvia-born film-maker Herz Frank, who ended his life in Israel – possibly the most famous of all Baltic documentary-makers, especially for his film Ten Minutes Older. Was there a reason you decided to bookend the film with his thoughts specifically?
We all the time had Herz Frank in mind as the red line connecting the filmmakers and bringing out the essence of their work. Frank was equally brilliant both at film-making and at expressing himself in words. Others are more masters of film-making only, they are not speakers, but Frank is a master of words as well. And he is otherworldly and has left very inspiring books. And he really knows how to connect Heaven and Earth.
All images credit Bridges of Time unless otherwise specified. Used with permission
© Deep Baltic 2019. All rights reserved.
Like what Deep Baltic does? Please consider making a monthly donation – help support our writers and in-depth coverage of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Find out more at our Patreon page.