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.
What a period, these ten years of Latvian (film) history. And what losses – not only Slapins, but also Podnieks himself, who died in a diving accident in July 1992. 3 weeks earlier, on Bornholm, Podnieks had told me that he did not know in which direction his film work should go after his ‘perestroika’ film successes (among others Hello, Do You Hear Us? made for Channel Four).
I don´t think that Seleckis has ever doubted what themes he would work on. He has always wanted to be with the so-called ordinary people: in their surroundings, enjoying their culture and everyday way of living. Seleckis has made films on farmers, fishermen and craftspeople. And he loves his country and its beauty. Anecdotes, myths and legends are his material.
There is in fact nothing special about the people living in Crossroad Street. And the strength of the two films is that they have a respectful distance to the characters. How their life is, what they believe in, what their problems are, and whether things have changed since Latvia’s independence – all those issues are covered through pictures and through a very sympathetic commentary by Talivaldis Margevics, who also wrote the first film and who himself has a house on the street.
Are the times changing? Not really. Peter and Olga are old people who have a calm and nice life in the street. They still do a lot of kissing, even if Olga gets disillusioned from time to time. The end of her life is getting closer, she says. The street now includes residents who are extremely rich; there is also a successful artist, and a casino owner, who are new. In the house on the corner lives a Mafioso (who is not in the film).
With their different disabilities, Osis and Toliks are doing exactly as badly as they used to. Aldis and Daiga are making their living, still reflecting on the background of the tough time they had growing up.
These four people are the main characters. Let us stay with them for a while. And let us start with Osis, who is in the first film right from the beginning. He is with his mother, Osiene, who is very old and takes care of him. Osis has a mental handicap and the mother is not the most warm-hearted person of this world. She used to be a servant for a Jewish family, but since the Germans killed them, she has been going to the market selling a little bit of this and a little of that. She has her house, and when we return to the street ten years later, when Osiene is no longer alive, Osis lives alone in the house on a small pension. He grows some potatoes on his land, but it is a wonder how he survives. The last scene of the new film is Independence Day in Latvia, November 18th. People are celebrating, fireworks are colouring the sky, and Osis is in his house having his lonely meal: some pasta that he shares with his cat.
Toliks has a similar destiny. He is almost in constant pain. He also lives with his mother, who did not really teach him Latvian, as they recently returned from Siberia, the destination of hundreds of thousands of Soviet families. Toliks makes boxes from morning till night, he fights for life and there is an almost Chekhovian melancholy about this character, who has not been given a better life after Latvian independence.
Daiga has a better life. This pretty blond woman has a baby in the first film. The father of the child is not present but her brother helps her. Daiga lives in a house that once was her grandfather’s, but as the grandfather was a famous Latvian author and thus a persona non grata for the Soviet authorities, she cannot claim the property and has to move from the house. As we return to the street ten years later, Daiga is back. Her son is 10 years old, they are celebrating his birthday, and Daiga has a boyfriend. She works in a bank nearby, and she really protects the property that has been given back to her after independence.
Neighbours fight all over the world, and Crossroad Street is no exception. In the first film, Aldis and his father have problems with their tombstone business, because the neighbours complain that they make too much noise. In the second film, Daiga cuts off Aldis’ water supply! Like in a comedy, we follow the entrepreneur Aldis, who is a religious man as well (and wealthy, many say), and his efforts to solve the water problem. Aldis is a man of God who wants to spread the message to the people. His ambition and commitment bring him success. In the end he also gets a newspaper published with his religious propaganda.
Opinions differ. In this case I think it depends where you come from, West or East. At the symposium the day after the opening night of New Times at Crossroad Street, several Eastern academics suggested that the film was a depressing analysis of a post-socialist reality, where some people profit and some stay on the bottom. Of course you can read the film like that. But you can also watch it as a universal epic on human life, as can be seen in a street where people live and fight for survival as they do everywhere. That is why I believe New Times at Crossroad Street will travel all over the world. The two films together constitute a unique humanistic document on life at the end of this century.