Documentary shows Rīga in the raw

Rīga pēc desmit gadiem

Līga (far right) with her family in Rīga. (Photo by Jānis Eglītis, Kaupo Filma)

Television shows and films about Latvia are rarely seen elsewhere in the world, and those that do make it onto the screen often make the locals cringe. In recent years, the only depictions of this small country seem to have been dubious exposes about prostitution and alleged ethnic troubles.

However, a documentary that recently premiered in Rīga is an interesting change from all that. Made with Western money and local talent, Rīga pēc desmit gadiem (Rīga After Ten Years) is one of the most honest and insightful films this reviewer has seen about the Latvian capital.

The premise is simple: During the winter of 2001, a camera crew followed four young people ages 21 to 28. We are given glimpses into their everyday lives. It may sound like a reality show, but this one achieves a lot more depth than is usually the case with that genre.

Karīna, a lawyer, is grieving over her boyfriend who committed suicide. Līga, a promising opera singer, is pondering whether to leave Latvia to join her lover in Spain. Aivars, a police academy cadet, is already flirting with the temptations of power and corruption. And Romāns, a butcher in Rīga’s central market and the oldest of the four, seems to be making the best of his life despite a childhood spent in various institutions and a grueling workload as an adult.

The film is rescued from mere voyeurism by the obvious trust that the production team has won from the subjects. And while the main focus is on the individuals, as the title suggests a lot is also said about Rīga a decade after independence.

Not all of it is pretty. While these young people seem to be making the best of things, they are beset by money and relationship difficulties, and it is made clear that other members of their generation are falling victim to drugs and alcohol. The troubled atmosphere is reflected in the footage of Rīga itself. A few shots of churches and cobblestones are outweighed by darkened, smoggy streets and tiny apartments. But somehow Rīga still comes across as a place of energy and tough optimism.

The film was financed by French TV channel ARTE. It was screened in October in France, Switzerland and Germany as part of a series about young people in five European cities (the others are Istanbul, Rekyavik, Belgrade and Bilbao.) An important part of the deal was that locals have artistic control over the films, and in Latvia this opportunity was handed to Arta Biseniece of Rīga-based Kaupo Filma.

Biseniece said that all of the action in the films is spontaneous and no one was specially auditioned for the parts. She wanted a policeman, a singer, a worker from the central markets, and Karīna, who is a personal friend of hers. The only other candidates were a young Russian man at the markets, who turned down an offer to take part, and a Russian DJ, who was to have been a fifth subject until the production team decided that he had nothing interesting to say.

In fact, Biseniece said her goal was to focus on ordinary people.

"For some reason Latvians are always making films about artists," she said with a laugh. "They get a musician and film him on a roof playing a saxophone."

The director said she developed a lot of affection for her subjects, even for Aivars the policeman, whom she respects for being honest about his views on the world.

And she firmly defended the images of Rīga shown in the film.

"The film was made in winter, which is always less picturesque than summer, but more importantly, everyday life is not a holiday," she said. "Rīga is not just the Old Town, most of us live in Purvciems or Ziepniekalns (Soviet-era housing estates), we go to work through muddy tunnels and come home exhausted after dark."

Just 31 herself, Biseniece said she can completely relate to her quartet. She suggested that they are an intermediate generation which still has memories of Communism but is young enough to adjust to the new realities.

Oddly, she said that she had not been at all influenced by an earlier documentary about young Latvians made by Juris Podnieks in the late 1980s, whose title posed the question, Is It Easy to be Young?

However, as that film implied about youth under glasnost, so this one suggests that the answer today is still a resounding no.

Rīga pēc desmit gadiem won the award for best documentary in the Lielais Kristaps film festival Nov. 16, the Latvian equivalent of the Oscars. No plans have been announced to distribute the film outside of Europe, and video copies aren’t available yet either. However, when it does come on screen, this film should be seen by anyone who wants to look into the very heart of the city.


Rīga pēc desmit gadiem

Arta Biseniece, director

Kaupo Filma,  2001

Notes: In Latvian. Documentary, color.

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