Documentary captures youth in Soviet Latvia

A group of Latvian punks is among people studied in Juris Podnieks’ 1986 documentary.

The body of work by Juris Podnieks lends itself to superlatives that often sound too good to be true. His accidental death in 1990 at the age of 42 deprived Latvian film of an incredible talent who would have been entering the prime of his career. Podnieks’ skill and talent combined to make a filmmaker who would be considered great not only in the context of Latvian film, but by any global cinematic standard. This is made even more extraordinary given where and when he made his films. Working under Soviet rule as a documentarian, a genre that demands clarity and truth under a government that provided neither, he managed to make singular films that withstand the test of time.

Perhaps no other film exemplifies this better than Vai viegli būt jaunam? (Is it Easy to be Young?). Released in 1986, the film played to packed houses across the Soviet Union and to critical accolades in the West.

The film opens with rock concert footage spliced with coverage of the trial of several youths who were charged with the vandalism of a train at the conclusion of that concert. Podnieks contrasted the exuberance and implied rebel spirit of the concert with shots of the accused standing uncomfortably before those who would judge them. There is no question how this trial will turn out. It’s a forgone conclusion. They don’t stand a chance before these authoritarian figures who deliver the “facts” without passion or emotion and with an unwavering conviction of their “right” and “righteousness.” The accused don’t even attempt to defend themselves, not as an admission of guilt, but with a hopeless resignation to their fate. The only one of them to even attempt to raise a defense is eventually sentenced to several years of hard labor.

And so starts the exploration of whether it is easy to be young. Podnieks presented a variety of subjects in various settings providing us with a wide cross-section of youths from various walks of life and divergent destinations. He created a snapshot of time which not only captured the difficulties of growing up, but also of the Soviet Union as it was beginning to unravel under its own banality, hypocrisy and utter disregard for humanity.

We meet an eager Krishna who seems to be rebelling against what he perceives as a corrupt society, but who does so by replacing one form of blind allegiance with another. Down with Lenin! Up with Hari!

We meet a young punk who is exceptionally articulate, intelligent and informed, but for all of that can’t see beyond his own fatalistic nihilism. There’s a young girl who failed in her suicide attempt being browbeaten by those who are supposed to cure her and a first-time filmmaker who isn’t sure of what he wants to say but knows that he needs to say something. All of them will seem familiar to those of us who can remember entering adulthood regardless of where and when we did so.

But perhaps the most poignant moment in the film is the before-and-after interviews with young conscripts who were sent to Afghanistan. The contrasts are as shocking as those of the most cynical and broken combat veterans as seen in any documentary about war and its consequences. Watching a young veteran walking through a city filled with people on whose behalf he had believed to be fighting and in defense of a system and ideals that he no longer can share is as powerful of an image as I’ve seen on film.

Podnieks’ greatest strength was in getting these individuals to reveal so much. We get the feeling as if we are sitting in on a late night conversation between friends where they let down their guard and reveal their true selves and feelings. Even more extraordinary is that Podnieks got them to do so in a time and a place where public introspection of this kind often had severe consequences.

The film’s greatest strength is in showing what it means to “grow up,” and answering the title question with: It never is, nor should it ever be.


Vai viegli būt jaunam?

Juris Podnieks, director

Rīgas kinostudija,  1986

Notes: In Latvian. Documentary, color, 80 minutes. Screenplay: Ābrams Kleckins; director of photography: Kalvis Zalcmanis; music: Mārtiņš Brauns.

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