Documentary filmmaker Dzintra Geka, director of films such as Sibīrijas bērni (The Children of Siberia – 2001), Gvido Zvaigzne (about the cameraman killed in the 1991 Barricades confrontations in Riga – 2011), Maršruts: Ķekava-Omskas apgabals 1949 (about the deportations of 1949) has made many films regarding Soviet terror and its destructive effect in Latvia, particularly on children. Geka has most recently turned to the theme of the children of exiles – those that fled Latvia during World War II and spent time in Displaced Persons camps. That film, entitled Dieva putniņi (God’s Lost Sparrows) with a running time of approximately 90 minutes, was released in 2015 by the National Film Centre of Latvia and is now available on DVD.
Most of the refugees from Latvia ended up in DP camps in Germany. The Latvians would call themselves dīpīši (a play on the letters D and P) or “Dieva putniņi” (Little Birds of God). The film traces the experiences of many of those who lived through these times – fleeing Latvia, life in the DP camps, then further onwards in their new adopted homes. The most fascinating aspect of the film are the stories about life in the DP camps – how sizable Latvian communities formed and how they kept cultural traditions (singing, dancing, theater) alive, and how culture even thrived, even in these difficult conditions. Also fascinating are the stories about how ordinary Germans were thrown out of their houses to give the refugees a place to stay – as a result, the Germans considered these DPs “Deutschen parasiten” (Germany’s parasites).
The film is mainly a collection of recollections by those who experienced the war in Latvia and fled as the Soviet Army advanced. There is no narration, and the stories are interspersed with documentary footage of the destruction of Latvia during the war.
The film includes dozens of testimonials from exiled Latvians from all over the world, including former Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and leader of the Čikāgas piecīši group Alberts Legzdiņš (the film follows him in Germany as he attempts to locate his old school).
One of the most compelling storytellers in the film is Andrejs Vētra, the son of Latvian opera singer Mariss Vētra. Gregarious and expressive, Vētra’s stories are engrossing and, at times, tragic. Mariss Vētra (real name Morics Blumbergs), was married to a woman of Jewish ancestry and her mother was forced to live in the Riga ghetto during the German occupation (where she was later shot). Andrejs Vētra also provides one of the most memorable moments in the film when he thanks the filmmakers for not correcting his Latvian and then, in no uncertain terms, expresses what he thinks about those who constantly correct his language (a feeling that is likely shared by many Latvians whose language has become weaker due to a lack of practice). One of the most touching moments in the film is a visit to Mariss Vētra’s grave, where Andrejs and the film crew begin to sing the Latvian folk song “Pūt, vējiņi”, which then cuts to a Song Festival performance of the same song by thousands of singers.
Though the film is mainly about the experiences of Latvian exiles in the DP camps, it does not end there. Geka also films some of the storytellers about their experiences in their new homes, and how that has affected them and the differences between them and Latvians that stayed in Latvia after World War II. It covers many of the difficulties of exiled life (including raising children in a Latvian style) and attempts to return to and reintegrate in Latvia after a long period of being away. For example, one of the commentators mentions the “insularity” of the American Latvian community and how he found it difficult to engage with them – “you are either engaged or not … I felt that I had become an American.” Jānis Kukainis, director of PBLA (World Federation of Free Latvians) comments “I am an American because I think like an American … Americans think we can do everything and do it faster, but Latvians often only think about why you can’t do something” and also comments on the loneliness of diaspora Latvians who return to Latvia and find it difficult to make friends.
Dzintra Geka has now focused on the lives of children in Siberia (Sibīrijas bērni), exile children (Dieva putniņi), and intends to continue this documentary project with a film about children growing up in Soviet Latvia.
Still, the lack of narration does mean that the film, at times, loses a bit of context. Besides one brief title page describing the situation at the end of the war, there is little further description of the historical situation (besides the individual experiences) – someone who has little knowledge of World War II and the displacement that follows may find the film a challenge to follow at times – as it is a collection of reminiscences there is only the vaguest of narratives. Also, the storytellers are never identified (only at the end of the film are they listed). Though this is clearly the filmmaker’s choice – the focus should be on the story and the events, not on the person – this is a disservice to the interview subjects. Also, the historical footage is not identified, so one is never quite sure where the film is from and what exactly it is showing.
Dzintra Geka is married to Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, and his music provides the soundtrack for the film. Vasks often has themes of war and destruction in his compositions, particularly in his choir music. His choir work “Zīles ziņa” is often quoted in the film and the ominous choir singing provides an appropriate backdrop for some of the horror stories that are told. For whatever reason, the credits only list Vasks as the music composer – that is, the individual works and performers are not identified, unfortunately.
The DVD is PAL Region 0 and should play on almost all DVD players worldwide. Be advised that the English language version of the film – God’s Lost Sparrows – has been released separately (the Latvian version of the film does not have English subtitles, so if English subtitles are essential, you will need to pick up the English version). The English subtitles are provided by Latvian American journalist Kārlis Streips.
Dzintra Geka’s Dieva putniņi, besides being one of the most important Latvian documentaries, is also an absorbing, thought provoking, and often heartbreaking living history of World War II era Latvian refugees. At times touching, at times harrowing, the film simply lets its subjects speak for themselves and tell their own stories, providing for an engrossing and captivating experience. An oft overlooked aspect of the Latvian experience, Dieva putniņi brings to light one of the most important chapters of Latvian history in the words and experiences of those who lived through these dark times.
For further information, please visit the Children of Siberia Fund page.
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