|The best Latvian director from Estonia |
Mārtiņš Slišāns, Film Critic
|The Baltic Way|
Once upon a time we were united, and, hand in hand, we formed a 600 km long human chain which was called the Baltic Way. Every heart had just the one thought: independence! That was on 23 August, 1989. Possibly this protest action against the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – which ushered in half a century of Soviet occupation of lands “the other side of the Visla river” – was one of the most impressive political events of the 20th century. Speaking in physically unquantifiable terms, it had enormous spiritual power.
Estonia’s Peeter Simm was one of the few film directors to make a documentary about the event. His film “The Baltic Way” can be considered a rare historic document, because it laconically records the organisers of the event and its evolution, Popular Front leaders in Estonia and Lithuania, and comments by the participants. Interestingly, the least amount of filmed material is from Latvia. The leaders of that time are also noticeably missing.
Still from Peeter Simm's film 'Good Hands'. 2001
|Who is “Comrade Simm”?|
Although one of the priorities in the immediate post-independence era was to erect a high border fence between neighbouring countries, now, when more than 20 years have passed, Peeter Simm has been a two-time winner of the Best Director of a Feature Film category in Latvia’s Lielais Kristaps cinema industry awards. And quite possibly his path across the landscape of cinema cooperation between the Baltic states best characterises both us and our neighbours.
In the humorous manner typical of him the director often signs his name as Comrade Simm, employing though the German Genosse or the Russian tovarisch for ‘comrade’. He can afford to do this, as he is highly conscious of his national identity, as demonstrated by a number of films about Estonian history of the last century, and about post-World War II Estonian partisans as well. At the same time, he does not deny that he grew up and was educated in the USSR. The reference to “Comrade Simm” harks back the Soviet era and World War II in Estonia’s history which Simm experienced profoundly in his childhood, because he was born in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death.
Simm began his life in cinema in 1976, graduating with distinction (cum laude) from the directors’ course at the prestigious All Union State Cinematography Institute (VGIK). Since then, Simm has directed 12 feature films and 11 documentaries, and has also worked as a theatre director.
As you sow...
Simm’s development into an unorthodox and original director did not happen by chance, rather it is the product of extensive experience. In 1978, soon after he began his career, an attempt was made to clip the young director’s wings when his second film Stereo was banned. It was only screened for the general public in 1990.
His next feature film ‘As you sow...’ (original title: ‘Ideal Landscape’, 1980) had a happier fate. From today’s perspective, it seems surprising that this deeply ironic commentary on the Soviet system with references to the national partisans in the Baltics was not only screened, but even won an award at the prestigious All Union Film Festival. Furthermore, the film has not remained a Soviet-era relic. ‘As you sow...’ came in third in a 2002 survey of Estonian film critics on the top ten Estonian films of all time.
Simm was able to turn a seemingly politically correct story about the failed attempts of a young battler to deal with the spring sowing on a boggy collective farm during the post-war period into a slightly surreal fairytale. The plan must be fulfilled, but the locals just sit around, saying: “When we can sit on the ground with a bare bottom without getting cold, then we will sow.” While the screenplay appears to impose on the film the canon of socialist realism, the director turns it into something uniquely avantgarde through his particular manner of filming and character interpretation, more reminiscent of the personages in an operetta. It may be that because of the famous “verbosity” of Estonians directors have learnt to work very expressively with images; where in most Latvian films you would find static dialogue, the message of ‘As you sow...’ requires no words to get across, because the image says everything. The result is a film whose mood and unusual visual qualities differ greatly from the mainstream cinema of its time.
It’s even more interesting that the film got beyond the Iron Curtain and won the special jury prize at the Sanremo Film Festival in Italy. This foreign award marked the start of Simm’s journey beyond tiny Estonia.
Still from Peeter Simm's film 'As you sow... (Ideal Landscape)'. 1980
|Arabella and roller coasters|
The director’s subsequent professional path has also been unusual. Simm’s next feature film was ‘Arabella, Pirate’s Daughter’ (1982); the subject matter is summed up in its title. The film proved to be a box-office hit, attracting 9.2 million viewers in the former USSR (if it had been released in the USA, it would have grossed USD 70 million at current ticket prices). Meanwhile Simm’s 1989 film ‘The Man Who Never Was’ participated in Cannes. You can still count on the fingers of one hand the number of directors from our part of the world who have taken part in Cannes. ‘Roller Coaster’, an unprecedented coproduction for the Baltic countries co-financed by France, Hungary and Estonia, was released in 1994. And the film is in Estonian, no less.
It’s ‘Roller Coaster’ that brings into relief the pluses and minuses of international circulation and the peculiar situation a director finds himself in when he has no direct say over a film whose identity aligns with the identity of his nationality and life experience. In ‘Roller Coaster’ we see a man who was born in an unidentified cattle wagon which had stopped at a station one night and was encircled by barbed wire. Many years later he is in prison somewhere in Central Asia, where they are panning for gold. Surprisingly, the man is released before his term is served; in addition he is given a suitcase full of money and vague instructions to spend it. The film almost rises above the limitations of geographical and national boundaries, because the director has created an allegory about the baggage in our lives and what would happen if a person suddenly gained total freedom.
Looking at Simm’s post-independence work, you get the overriding feeling that the only important aspect of geography is the geography of human relationships. And this saves him from losing his authorial identity when working “across borders”. Here it must be mentioned that he has also produced some classic “Euro-pudding” work (we will discuss the origin of this recipe a little later).
The film ‘Fed Up!’ (2005) is a story about an Estonian cello player who is bored with playing at banquets and receptions in Germany, and hooks up with a truck driver heading for Estonia. Along the way they are followed by a hearse, whose driver was hired only to deliver a young lad with money stolen from a bank to Leipzig railway station, but in the end they all wind up in Tallinn. The film is a German-Estonian co-production in the German language. The director’s achievement is a pleasant surprise, because ‘Fed Up!’ is a quality work with witty dialogue and winning contrasts between various life situations. The film showcases the director’s typical filming style, wherein distance from a specific place and time is created by an indepth study of the human collisions of the on-screen heroes. This is the second important factor in Simm’s ability to overcome the gap between different mentalities.
Still from Peeter Simm's film 'Georg'. 2007
Simm began working in Latvia after Gatis Upmalis, a producer at the F.O.R.M.A. film studio, offered him the chance to make one of the novellas in the feature ‘Three Stories About...’ (1999), which grew out of the idea to combine the talents of directors from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to create one interesting co-production. In a way, the result symbolised the fate of pan-Baltic efforts for achieving cooperation in cinema up to the present day: Lithuanian participation (meaning co-financing) fell away, while the Estonians ended up making two of the three novellas. Peeter Simm received his first Lielais Kristaps for best direction of a feature film.
‘Good Hands’ (2001) with Rēzija Kalniņa in the lead role continued this cooperation. The film is the story of an attractive Latvian thief (Rēzija Kalniņa), who starts to feel the heat after her latest (mis)deeds and decides to lie low for a while in a quiet Estonian town, which turns out to be not so quiet after all. Those familiar with the director’s creative output will recognise some classic Simm elements on the screen: a bridge over a fast-flowing stream; swimmers braving the cold water; a beautiful but solitary girl; gentle, even shy seeking for love; competition between two friends for the girl’s affection and red-coloured visual accents.
In Latvia the film received three Lielais Kristaps awards. This time with a full-length feature film, Simm once again showed his professionalism by beating his Latvian colleagues a second time to pick up the Best Director award. The film also won a Kristaps for best screen-play and another for Rēzija Kalniņa as best actress. In addition ‘Good Hands’ received the Manfred Salzberg Award at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as other international plaudits. It earned particular attention from Russian critics, who gave it both the Grand Prix and the ‘Critics’ Award’ at the Baltic and CIS film festival in Anapa on the Black Sea.
Now Simm has his third chance to become the best director in Latvia, as he is working on a new feature film project called ‘The Lonely Island’, filmed in the Latvian language and set in Riga. This is his most ambitious work done here to date. Riga and its visual imagery are the basis for an ensemble drama in which five seemingly unrelated stories intertwine. The screenplay is based on well-known cinema concepts such as ‘Babel’ (2006) and ‘Crash’ (2004). In order to realise a project of such scale during this time of economic crisis, it is planned to attract funding from Estonia, Germany and even a highly untraditional co-operation partner like Belarus, where the director’s previous work is highly regarded. And another of Peeter Simm’s film odysseys has begun...
Across the borders with head held high
This brings us to a question that is fundamental not only for pan-Baltic co-production in the field of cinema, but also for the brotherly ties of European Union cinema which are so encouraged in EU audiovisual policy. However, whether cooperation between the three Baltic nations, whose mentalities are so different in spite of their geographical proximity, is possible or even necessary is a question that has not yet been answered or even properly asked. Theoretically the answer is “yes”, but when it comes to action, then all too often everyone looks to their own backyard, especially when a bit empty – as it is right now.
On paper, taking into account the prohibitive costs associated with this sector, co-production is a means by which a country can gain more films for a relatively small investment. A quite detailed system of “national participation” has been developed, to prevent funds being lost to projects in which local cinema has no interest. But in practice, a situation could arise where the brilliant debut of a promising foreign director, which would allow Latvia to become an official player in the big European field, might be refused funding due to “non-national” characteristics.
In Europe at present regional cooperation is developing very rapidly. The Baltic countries could also be regional players, but only as a combined force. Each region wants its technical and/or creative presence to be proportionally highly visible on screens, in credits and ultimately on the books of the local tax collectors. But in order to make such a film, artists often have to turn their backs on organically developed film stories. What you then get are so-called “Euro-puddings”, films for which the paperwork is in order, but which leave audiences unmoved. There are also successful, high quality films made in this way, but on the whole most of the celluloid products made with the blessing of EU co-financing are mediocre.
Let’s beat Uruguay
Although size is not an indicator of quality, nevertheless sometimes bare figures can say a lot. In this case they unmistakeably highlight the state of our field of activity. Last year Latvia was represented by one film at the Berlin film fair (let us not confuse this with the festival programme, which has nothing to do with the principles of proportionality). We were able to be proud of the fact that we were at the same level as Vietnam, Mozambique and Bangladesh. We were over-taken by Uruguay, Lithuania and Malaysia with two films each, while Estonia was a long way ahead with six. This year our contribution of feature films at the Berlin fair is a big round zero. (Thankfully Latvia has talented animation film-makers who regularly find a place in the festival’s children’s and youth section, otherwise we would have to conclude that our presence on the European cinema map is just as marginal as our ability / desire / skill in influencing EU policy in Brussels.) Lithuania is still conspicuously absent from joint Baltic co-production projects. For example, Gatis Upmalis, producer of the film ‘The Lonely Island’, had already twice previously (and unsuccessfully) attempted to find partners for the co-production of his family film ‘The Small Bandits’ (Latvia–Austria, 2009), quite an ambitious project on a Latvian scale.
Still from Peeter Simm's film 'Fed Up!'. 2005
|The Scandinavian trend|
What are the prospects for cooperation in the field of cinema between the Baltic countries? In order to generalise, we can refer again to “Comrade Simm”. His achievements include both the aforementioned two works with Latvia’s participation (cooperation in the Baltic cinema space – ‘Good Hands’ and ‘Three Stories About...’), and the “Euro-pudding” example cited (‘Fed Up!’), but his latest work offers us a glimpse of the prospects for our further cinematic development.
Simm made ‘Georg’ (2007), a film about the mega-popular Soviet-era singer Georg Ots as an Estonian–Russian–Finnish co-production. This classically shot biographical film is both an account of an interesting life story and an affirmation of the director’s professional mastery of this particular genre. Although Latvia was not part of the co-production, Simm gave two important roles to Latvians: Renārs Kaupers, lead singer of the pop group ‘Brainstorm’, and actor and theatre director Regnārs Vaivars. Why? Because the director saw how well both men suited the film’s vision.
This is getting close to a Scandinavian kind of cooperation model, where one country invests in another country’s film without a direct national interest. And here we enter a completely different playing field, where common interests should have precedence and support is given to what is the most capable, rather than compulsorily to what is local. This would be a way to forge cooperation with the Lithuanian directors represented at Cannes, who have never sought cooperation with Latvia. Thus we would find opportunities to work with the new Estonian directors who have made it to Venice and other major festival competitions, prompting the European cinema industry journal ‘Screen International’ to ask whether a “new wave” is coming from Estonia. However, only by overcoming external and internal contradictions can pan-Baltic cooperation transcend the merely nominal in offering already finished film products in European markets. This is an opportunity to create a base for directors of the future. But that is the subject of another, very wide-ranging discussion.
Back to the director
But what does all of this have to do with director Peeter Simm? It only goes to show how this machinery can help or hinder even an internationally experienced artist, just as it indirectly affects every film-maker who wants to peer over the borders of even neighbouring countries.
Every ambitious feature film project within a territory as small as the Baltic countries is witness to its times. In the near future we will see how Simm’s new project ‘The Lonely Island’ develops. The screen-play has received positive reviews in Estonia, and the time has now come to see if cooperation will eventuate, because right now the moment has come for both Estonia and Latvia to pledge their financial support to get the film made.
/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/