Pioneers of Baltic poetic documentary reflect on a revolutionary wave of cinema that in an era of Soviet occupation took a stand for inner freedom.

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: August 14, 2018

Bridges of Time

(Laika tilti)

Kristine BriedeAudrius Stonys

Arūnas MatelisUldis Cekulis

Lithuania / Latvia / Estonia

This year the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are celebrating 100 years of statehood, not with standing a period of Soviet domination from which they restored their independence in the ‘90s in part of a revolutionary wave that brought about the end of communist rule in the region. Realising it could not be a better time to pay tribute to the Baltic poetic documentary tradition, which arose in part as an act of defiance to the material realities of political oppression and the lies of cinema as state propaganda, Latvian director Kristine Briede made Bridges of Time.

Metaphysical reflection

The film forms a record of the pioneers of the world-renowned tradition who developed, from the ‘60s onward, a lyrical and spiritually inclined cinema. A cinema that trusts in images to access an essence of truth beyond words, and that gently restores the dignity of human beings by its validation of inner freedom and personal transcendence. Briede initially approached Audrius Stonys, a Lithuanian director foremost in the tradition today, to be interviewed, and he came on board instead as co-director. While he stays entirely behind the camera, his notion of cinema as a contemplative «fight against time» and as a medium to reveal wonder reverberates through the philosophical musings and evocative cinematography of a film with no desire to over-explain or to bend its subjects into the framework of a linear story. Despite its emphasis on metaphysical reflection rather than easily digestible facts, Bridges of Time is indispensable as a comprehensive overview of these under-seen Baltic masters.

Stonys’ teacher Henrikas Sablevicius is no longer alive, but in archival footage he talks about changes wrought by the flux of time – a rumination that is at the very heart of the tradition, only naturally given the existential fears of these tiny nations buffeted so often by the whims of aggressive neighbours. In this, his influence on Stonys’ views is obvious, as he says that «what seems unshakeable, majestic and never-ceasing gradually changes.» His generation making films in Lithuania in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which included Robertas Verba, presented marginal eccentrics living in a countryside being lost to Soviet modernisation; portraits reflecting nature and individuals eager to mentally reject and overcome the stranglehold of ideology and the enforced erosion through occupation of local ways. Sablevicius’s A Trip Through Misty Meadows is one of his most famous, and was made as a farewell to the Siaurukas, a slow, narrow-gauge train, as its rhythms of life became obsolete. At one point Bridges of Time glides over massive Soviet-style prefab apartment blocks, their hulk seeming to eclipse the natural landscapes these filmmakers had, with palpable affection, shot.

The Baltic pioneers

Mark Soosaar

Interviews with other key Baltic pioneers are punctuated with a wealth of clips from their work. Unlabelled with their titles, they all flow together as elements of something larger; of both the camaraderie between these like-minded creators, and as a holistic part of the universe they contain, as the film shifts seamlessly backward and forward in time. Latvia is explored through the work of Uldis Brauns, Aivars Freimanis, Ivars Seleckis and Herz Frank, the last of whom died in Jerusalem, which Briede and Stonys visit on a kind of pilgrimage that under scores the mystical bent of their approach to reading the world around them. An excerpt from Frank’s Ten Minutes Older (1978) epitomises the sense of poetic documentary as a conduit of a sense of wonder, focusing as it does not on a puppet theatre play itself but the face of a small boy watching it.

«These directors’ distrust of dialogueleaves us often instead to read people’s faces, singular and in endless variation.»

These directors’ distrust of dialogue, in part symptomatic of their disillusionment with state propaganda, leaves us often instead to read people’s faces, singular and in endless variation. Andres Sööt’s 511 Best Photographs of Mars(1968) hones in on the visages of people in a Tallinn cafe in the ‘60s who don’t know they’re being watched; an ode to irreducible individuality in a tradition that holdsno belief in the Soviet idea of the model citizen, but rather affection for battered, everyday souls.

Mark Soosaar, who anthropologically captured customs on an Estonian island in Woman from Kihnu(1973), also muses on cinema and time, saying all film is a reflection of its moment, and that it’s not possible to make art for future generations as «we don’t know how fast they’ll think.» Still, there is a sense of Bridges of Time as a record for those to come, capturing the voices and creative legacy of those pioneers left on Earth while they are still alive to speak of it;of their reminiscences of contemporaries now departed, even as a more capitalistic mindset of swift-cycling renewal overtakes their nations. Bridges of Timeponders what is at risk of being lost today, as western consumerism,which flooded in with the fall of the Soviet Union and grows with membership in the European Union, seeks to remould new generations in its own image.

Modern Times Review