«There is a saying: truly happy are those who don’t have to make choices,» says Ilze Burkovska-Jacobsen at the beginning of her animated documentary My Favorite War. Burkovska-Jacobsen grew up in Latvia, a former Soviet country, where, like many other authoritarian and totalitarian states, citizens had only a limited ability to choose. The autobiographical documentary portrays sweet, absurd, and even nightmarish episodes of Ilze’s growing-up in the self-proclaimed «happiest country in the world» – the Soviet Union. The film is an artistically interesting personal testimony and a witty portrait of a bygone era. It also helps to understand some of the current sociopolitical processes and usages of propaganda today.
The heroes of yesterday
Once Ilze was a proud leader of the Soviet youth organization «Pioneers». Now she is a self-reflective film director, who critically re-evaluates the dominant narratives in society. «The last military base in Latvia was shut down in 1995. This is when the Second World War ended for me.» On the screen, we see the toppling of a monument to Russian revolutionary and political leader Vladimir Lenin. In the Baltic states, communist monuments were removed shortly after gaining independence in 1991. In the ex-Soviet country Ukraine, thousands of Lenin’s statues were demolished in the 90s and many others were destroyed during the Euromaidan (2013–2014). The demolition of communist monuments even has its own name – Leninfall. However, in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and many other former Soviet republics, communist monuments are still standing. In Moscow’s Red Square, visitors can even visit the preserved body of the dead Lenin, who still sleeps in his Mausoleum.
The contrasting attitudes towards the Russian revolutionary are closely linked to different interpretations of the past. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, thousands of Latvians had their suitcases packed – so that they could escape immediately if war broke out in the Baltics. The fear was real, and it is still present in society. Similarly to Ukraine, Latvia has a huge Russian-speaking minority – over 30% of the population.
A child’s perspective
The strength of the tastefully animated film is in the unique child’s perspective. The story is full of youthful curiosity, idealized relationships with family members, and distress about the militarized environment. Animated images are mixed with filmed episodes depicting Ilze revisiting her childhood places and the director’s conversations with her lifelong friend Ilga.
The child protagonist loves both her father, a respected member of the communist party, and her grandfather, an enemy of the Soviet state, who, along with thousands of other Latvians, was deported to Siberia during the Stalinist regime. While her father was focusing on making a career, her grandfather was not allowed to exhibit his paintings and secretly listened to Western radio broadcasts. Contradictory political agendas are common in ex-Soviet families. Vitaly Mansky’s personal documentary Close Relations (2016) also investigates his extended relatives in Ukraine after the Maidan revolution. One part of the family supports Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while others are on the Western side.
There are many absurd yet true anecdotes about the Soviet era told in Latvia. My Favorite War depicts the long lines in grocery stores. People are patiently waiting to get butter. A Soviet teacher explains to her young pupils that there is a lack of butter because it is stored in a gigantic fridge – so in case of war breaking out, everybody would get enough of it.
The story is full of youthful curiosity, idealized relationships with family members, and distress about the militarized environment.
Bones in the sandbox
Although funny and sincere, the film is reminiscent of a horror story. The overall mood is quite dark and the child protagonist is exposed to constantly lurking danger – the militarized environment is all over the place, there are rumors about a possible World War III, and Ilze even discovers the remains of a German soldier in a sandbox near her home. Visually, her fear is illustrated by classically recognizable images of the Black Death and skeletons. The main hero says: «I imagined that we would be attacked by Americans. The Americans would speak German. The enemy always spoke German.» Interestingly enough, the anti-German sentiment was played out by Russian propaganda also during the Crimean annexation in 2014. Pro-western Ukrainians were often labeled as fascists. Also, to this day, Russian national pride is largely culturally constructed on winning World War II and celebrated en masse on the Victory Day on the 9th of May.
The main protagonist’s coming of age coincides with the fall of the wall. The former Pioneer leader rebels against obligatory military training for girls and supports Latvia’s independence. Ilze’s story has a happy ending. However, her comments about choices leave some questions open. In order to make a good choice, it is necessary to re-evaluate history all over again. There is always much more than one dimension, one leading narrative, and one story to tell.