Reflections on the film, and on ten years of changes in Latvian film history.
Saturday, September 11, 1999 at 6 p.m. at the beautiful old cinema in Riga. Hundreds of people are waiting for the screening of the documentary film by Ivars Seleckis, New Times at Crossroad Street. It was produced by the European Documentary Symposium, which is also the organization behind a meeting of documentarists from East and West which is to begin the following day. The meeting is my reason for being there together with 30 other documentary professionals. We are invited to the stage, people applaud politely, some speeches are made. But everyone is there for the film about people living on a side street in Riga.
Ten years earlier, the same street and its inhabitants were portrayed in Crossroad by the same film crew, including the script writer Talivaldis Margevics, the producer Leonids Berzins and the cameraman and director Ivars Seleckis, grand old man of Latvian documentary cinema. In New Times at Crossroad Street his concept is simple: he explores what happened to the people we loved and loathed ten years ago. At that time, they were living in Soviet-occupied Latvia. Now they are inhabitants of an independent country – has it become much closer to the Western world? That is why the audience is gathered in the cinema. They all remember the old film and there is nothing like following peoples’ lives in your own language.
Two hours later, they get up from their chairs and give the warmest applause I have experienced in years for a documentary. They laughed. They listened. They were moved by watching hard human conditions. They saw a Latvian film about Latvians and they liked it. They were looking in the mirror.
New Times at Crossroad Street is a documentary film with an appeal to a broad audience. It is a film about ordinary people, told in a slow pace with a lot of compassion for the characters. It is 80 minutes long and shot in 35mm, which makes it suitable first of all for the cinema, even if the theme is also the stuff of prime-time television. It is a popular, un-intellectual film that also has an international appeal.
I had followed the film from the day the idea was presented and pitched at the Baltic Sea Forum 1998 on the island of Bornholm in Denmark, so I was more than curious about the end result. As other veterans experienced, it was quite a nightmare for Seleckis to present his idea in 5 minutes, but the filmmaker did get the message across to some of the film funding representatives from the West. They invested.
The 1988 film was produced by Riga Film Studios. The national studios still exist, but their future is more than uncertain, and nobody is really employed there anymore, in the way that Seleckis and his team were at the time. So the two films are also part of Latvian film history; a history similar to that of most of the former Eastern bloc countries. The big studios are closing down and independent companies are being established. They have to fight to survive. There is a Latvian public television channel, but its commitment to documentaries is more than limited. The National Film Centre has increased its funding for documentaries. But the amount of money available is still very small compared to Western standards. That is why, in 1999, Seleckis badly needed the funding that he got from the Soros Documentary Film Fund, Jan Vrijman Film Fund and YLE2.
Unlike other Latvian filmmakers, Ivars Seleckis has never been a politically-involved artist. Politics is definitely present in the two Crossroad films, but only as a theme brought in indirectly through the characters. While his countryman Juris Podnieks made the controversial Is it Easy to be Young, and saw his cameraman Andris Slapins die in front of the camera, shot by Soviet soldiers in Riga in January 1991, Ivars Seleckis made films about his country’s history and culture. If I compare this with the situation of Danish filmmakers during the German occupation of World War Two, the picture is the same: some filmmakers fight with camera in hand, describing the current changes; other filmmakers make their contribution through descriptions of culture and history.
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