Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Report: Baltic Sea Docs 2023

BALTIC SEA DOCS: Modern Times Review looks back at the panels, screenings, and presentations that made up the 2023 Baltic Sea Forum for Documentaries.

On the 10th of September, the annual Baltic Sea Docs programme concluded its 27th edition. As part of its broader programme, the Industry-focused Baltic Sea Forum for Documentaries took place from 3 – 8 September and featured several days of screenings, talks, panel discussions and, of course, its flagship pitching session. Modern Times Review was happy to partner with the renowned Baltic-focused forum organised by the National Film Centre of Latvia, as we were introduced to several promising new projects from the region and received a re-introduction to a handful of projects we have encountered over the months, including August’s B2B Doc Documentary Industry Days. Prior to kick-off, we spoke with Project Manager Zane Balčus, who highlighted the region’s cinematic strengths and consistent programme diversity with «a great variety of styles allows us to reflect on the current state of documentary.»

Before diving into the forum selections, 2023 Baltic Sea Docs hosted a handful of festival-staple film screenings; several included in-person Q&As with their respected directors. Modern Times Review has featured each of these films prominently over the months, including Erik Gandini’s After Work, Vlad Petri’s Between Revolutions, and Alisa Kovalenko’s We Will Not Fade Away. Without the director present, Theo Montoya’s Anhell69 and Botond Püsök’s Too Close screened, ultimately providing three Romanian productions and co-productions included in the featured films.

Read Also: Utopias of Community, an interview with Erik Gandini by Truls Lie

On 6 September, the programme’s panel discussion and workshop, «Ce Media Workshop on Documentary Approach in Fiction Films,» took place. The conversation, moderated by Head of Berlinale Forum’s Barbara Wurm, included her keynote and two case studies on the subject. The two case studies featured were the recent Latvian production January (dir. Viestur Kairish), whose producers Inese Boka-Grūbe and Gints Grūbe represented the film and the late post-production stage German project The Projectionist (dir. Orkhan Aghazadeh), represented by producer Carl-Ludwig Rettinger. For the keynote introduction, Wurm laid the groundwork for the topic by including several recent films that have utilised the documentary or realism-based approach in their fictional narratives. To her credit, the films represented various themes and countries and were not purely rooted in «art cinema.» They ranged from the archival footage use of the Chinese film Art College 1994 (dir. Liu Jian, 2023) to the filmography of Romanian auteur Radu Jude. Also mentioned were the 2018 Berlinale Golden Bear winner Touch Me Not (dir. Adina Pintilie), the meta profile on the police mindset A Cop Movie (dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios), and Harmony Korine’s highly polarising infrared camera-only 2023 Venice-premiere Aggro Dr1ft (a film, interestingly enough, created for superstar hip-hop artist Travis Scott’s latest release, Utopia, which also includes contributions from Gaspar Noé, Nicolas Winding Refn, Harmony Korine, and Kahlil Joseph). You can still view the entire workshop – HERE

When we spoke with Balčus on the thematic threads that appear in the Baltic Sea Docs pitches, she said, «we constantly see the political tensions there are in the region.» With that in mind, the projects presented on 7 and 8 September did not disappoint. The overall event was moderated by documentary industry staples Mikael Opstrup and Tue Steen Müller. The two also joined a tutoring pool that was rounded up by directors Emma Davie, Salome Jashi, and Alisa Kovalenko, producer Uldis Cekulis, and editor Phil Jandaly. Tutoring sessions took place at the picturesque seaside town of Liepupe, Latvia. Overall, 24 films were pitched, four of which were in the post-production stage-focused «Coming Soon» section. As with all such events, films were presented to an array of decision makers, representing the likes of Current Time TV, Cat&Docs, BBC, Taskovski Films, Eodocs, and more.

Natalia Arshavskaya and Zane Balčus at Baltic Sea Docs 2023
Natalia Arshavskaya (w. Zane Balčus) presents Current Time TV awards; PC: Agnese Zeltiņa

Of the 24 projects, Modern Times Review had the good fortune to engage with four at the aforementioned B2B Doc session. The four films were Dmytro Hreshko’s Divia (Ukraine), Joanna Roj and Sandro Wysocki’s The First Swallow (Georgia), Oksana Syhareva’s Up in the Air (Ukraine, Czech, Lithuania), and (2022 B2B Doc project) Rusudan Gaprindashvili’s How to Talk to Lydia? (Germany/Moldova).

Ukraine continued to feature prominently across the remaining projects, with several films coming from the country. Olexandr Tkachenko’s Another Man’s Diary follows the wartime experience of soldier, pacifist vegetarian cinematographer Dmytro Dokunov; Oleksiy Radynski’s War in Chornobyl shares first-hand accounts of survivors of the Russian occupation of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone; Dmytro Tiazhlov’s Eros and Thanatos follows two of the country’s most unconventional Ukrainian musicians against the backdrop of revolution, pandemia and war; Eva Dzhyshyashvili’s Archive. Box#64 asks the question: can knowledge alone prevent future tragedies, or is more needed to avert them? Of these films, several of the forum winners emerged – Eros and Thanatos receiving the Current Time TV Award, Archive. Box#64, the IDFA Spotlight Award, and War in Chornobyl, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights Award.

Further award winners were Giedrė Beinoriūtė’s Sacrum and Profanum in Pievenai (Lithuania), which took home the BB Post House Award. The film raises questions about the relationship between the sacred and the mundane in the life of modern man by witnessing the preparations of a small western Lithuanian village awaiting the resurrection of Christ. From Lithuania, director Mindaugas Survila was handed one of a trio of Baltic Sea Docs Awards for her film Yalla Yalla. Estonia director Mihkel Oksmann and Sweden’s Marina-Evelina Cracana also received the award for In the Winds of the Icefields and Vanessa, respectively.

Totem Birgit Rosenberg
Totem, a film by Birgit Rosenberg

But besides the ultimate award recipients, several films held a personal appeal, primarily for their diverse areas of focus and thematic threads. For example, If Everyone Just Leaves Sweden (dir. Karin Wegsjö, Nazira Abzalova). For an American writer like me, the concept of gun violence in Europe is framed within a much different air of emergency, and I rarely see European films or discussions on the topic. We deal with it daily, ultimately becoming numb to its prevalence. (in writing this piece, within seconds, I recall at least five friends and peers who have been victims of gun violence. With some more time, that number would undoubtedly result in the double digits). In If Everyone Leaves, the topic is tackled from the Swedish perspective – a country with a high per capita gun violence rate. I find this fascinating as a local snapshot of Sweden’s changing landscape and as a broader warning should the entire continent continue to follow an American-led world order. Aside from the (perceived) economic opportunity, mass violence is an undeniable byproduct of the country’s unfettered approach to capitalism. If Europe feels it is immune, it is not.

I also appreciate the prevalence of eccentricity across the forum selections. And by excentricity, I use the term in an unequivocally positive way. This excentricity frequently manifests into artistry, which in turn becomes a powerful tool of political change across several films. Such examples would be Eros and Thanatos and In the Winds of Icefields. Another one of these films is Elizabete Gricmane and Ramune Rakauskaite’s Artworks in Agony, which follows a Latvian bohemian rock’n’roll musician who ultimately became an iconic symbol of the alternative music scene and independence. Then there was the Polish film House of Ants (dir. Katarzyna Kultys) and Finland’s The Misfit, both turning their gaze on young people who already find the limits of conventional society stifling, seeking alternative interests despite the challenges imposed, whether in the home or out in the world.

When Harmattan Blows Edyta Wroblewska
When Harmattan Blows, a film by Edyta Wroblewska

Overall, it is evident why Baltic Sea Docs is the region’s foremost incubator of documentary talent. Its selections were diverse, tutors knowledgeable, and Riga-setting accessible. For my first time, I felt this palpably, with filmmakers and producers echoing the sentiment, many of whom have participated on several occasions. Edyta Wroblewska, whose film When Harmattan Blows (Poland) screened as part of the «Coming Soon» selections, told me, «We applied for the second time because our previous work with tutors allowed us to see the strengths of the project and to identify the aspects that still needed to be improved. The feedback after the pitching was excellent.» Additionally, Birgit Rosenberg, whose film Totem (Estonia) follows the Russian-speaking inhabitants on the Estonian border area as they gather to protect a Soviet monument tank, as well as everything it symbolises, describes the forum as a «very professional yet intimate pitching forum, where one really has time to connect and talk to people.». We will continue to see these and all the films in the coming months and years at our favourite and most respected festivals and screening venues, I have no doubt.

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Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He is Communications Manager and Industry Editor of MTR.

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