CD-ROM reminds us of Podnieks’ greatness

Juris Podnieks was one of Latvia’s best-known and most successful filmmakers. His accidental death in 1992 was a tremendous loss to Latvian film. Podnieks’ unique combination of talent, determination, skill, courage and incredible ability to motivate others to exceed their limits allowed him to create films that transcended their subject matter. His films are comparable to similar works by such notable documentary filmmakers as Errol Morris and Ken Burns.

In celebration of what would have been his 50th birthday the Latvian film forum Arsenāls put together a CD-ROM in his honor titled Juris Podnieks: The 20th Century As Seen by the Latvian Filmmaker. It is a must-have for all those with an interest in Latvian film and Latvian and Soviet history.

Podnieks and his crew were on the front lines as Latvia and many others nations emerged from the yoke of Soviet occupation. His films captured the tenor of the times and the courage and determination of a people who would not be denied. Is It Easy to be Young? played to packed movie houses all across the Soviet Union and won numerous international awards. It captured the alienation of youth and the banalities of the Soviet Union at a time when to even raise the specter of such issues still carried a great deal of risk. Homeland captured the unraveling of the Soviet Union in vivid detail while chronicling the "singing revolution" in the resurgent Baltic republics. Homeland. Postscript chronicled the nightmarish crackdown by Soviet authorities. Two of his closest friends and collaborators, cameramen Gvīdo Zvaigzne and Andris Slapiņš, were killed in Rīga during filming by OMON troops.

The CD-ROM is full of details about Podnieks the filmmaker and the person, as well as general Latvian history. However, the true standouts are the bits and pieces from Podnieks’ various films. It is impossible to watch them without being affected, both by their strength of vision, and powerful message, and by feeling a profound sense of loss at the death of the man who made them. His death at the age of 42, an age when filmmakers enter their best and most productive years, is still being felt across the Latvian film industry.

You can’t help but be affected by footage of a young man, in Is It Easy to be Young? breaking down in a court room, while a passive monotone voice reads the judgment of the court that sentences him to three years in prison for getting carried away during a rock concert. In We, a series of documentaries on the Soviet Union made by Podnieks for England’s Channel 4, the audience gets a glimpse of the incredible courage that it took to stand up to the Soviets.

In what was either an intentional or unintentional homage to the Odessa steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin and is eerily similar to a similar event that took place in Tianamen Square years later, a woman runs into the frame and tries to stop armed soldiers from getting down an outdoor staircase to break up a protest in Armenia. In Homeland. PostScript you watch with horror the footage of both Zvaigzne and Slapiņš getting shot as Slapiņš, despite being mortally wounded, exclaims, "Keep filming!"

The only flaws of the CD-ROM are that the text, most likely written by a non-native English speaker, seems stilted and ackward at spots, and that there isn’t more footage of Podnieks’ works. It’s ironic in a way. Podnieks was known for almost never using narration in his films. He allowed the subjects to speak for themselves. It’s a shame that we couldn’t have more of his films on this CD-ROM, and in the future, to do his speaking for him.


Juris Podnieks: The 20th Century As Seen by the Latvian Filmmaker

Augusts Sukuts et al.

Rīga:  International Centre for Cinema Arsenāls,  2000

Notes: Minimum requirements are a Windows 95 Pentium-based computer computer at 166 MHz, 32 MB of RAM, 2X CD-ROM, 256-color monitor with 800×600 resolution, sound card, QuickTime 3.0.

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