Les États généraux du film documentaire 2012 Doc History: The Baltic Countries

Doc History: The Baltic Countries


Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia: three countries in the North-East of Europe sharing a recent turbulent history. Three countries whose documentary production is regularly noted for its quality in festivals and on television. Three countries which undoubtedly deserve being considered separately for each one has its own history and culture.
We could have focused on one of these three countries or tripled the length of our programme... Each one deserves close attention and yet we have chosen to group them together. It is not only their common destiny which led us to take this decision but also evident parallels that can be drawn through the evolution of documentary film in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The Baltic countries have been historically influenced by many sources (Swedish, Danish, Prussian, Russian...) and diverse movements have forged their popular cultural identities. We can evoke the prosperity of the Hanseatic League in the middle ages, the knightly battles and religious struggles, then the marked influence of Greater Lithuania — an empire which, from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. This period was followed by Russian domination, leaving in Estonia and Latvia a lot of space, both politically and geographically, for Germano-Baltic large landholders. Lithuania recovered its independence only after the First World War, at which time Estonia and Latvia became independent for the first time until the Second War and Soviet occupation. This turbulent history, marked by the brief period of independence in the twentieth century, had repercussions on artistic expression and this is visible in documentary film where we find strong relationships between humanity and nature and, especially in Lithuania, a profound attachment to the land, to the country's cultural identity and heritage.
Cinema made its way to the Baltic countries as early as 1896, but it was after 1910 that local cinematographers became noticed. In Estonia, Johannes Pääsuke began filming in 1912. He was interested in the daily and social life or the heritage of his country while others were interested in the bigwigs, royalty and other decorated figures... In Latvia, more precisely in the region of Riga, we know of course Sergueï Eisenstein, but let us not forget his cameraman, Eduard Tissé, who shot numerous newsreels in the years ten.
During the period of independence, film production became more substantial with the creation of the first studios and the production of series of newsreels, following the model established by the German Kulturfilm, whose aim was mass education. In Estonia, several cameramen attracted attention in the thirties with poetic and ethnographic documentaries: Talwe (1933) by H. Viikmann, Ruhno (1931) by Theodor Luts or Konstantin Märska who in particular directed for Estonia Film a documentary on the Island of Osmus (Vaateid Osmussaarelt, 1937), with N. Envald and T. Meristu.
The Molotov/Ribbentrop pact between Germany and Russia and the Second World War changed the destiny of the three countries. Until the beginning of the nineties, Soviet occupation muzzled the artistic expression which had begun to take shape in the thirties. Film production in the forties and fifties was dominated by censorship and Soviet propaganda. In spite of this, certain films and directors stand out, but it is especially in the sixties during a limited political thaw that documentary came into its own in the three countries.
Influenced by young filmmakers including some who had been trained at the famous VGIK film school in Moscow, a much more aesthetic and journalistic style — thanks to television — became evident in films produced mainly in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. In Estonia, Andres Sööt, Peep Puks and Jüri Müür made films marked by atmospheric and carefully crafted photography. They focused on aspects of ordinary daily life and proposed implied analyses of a society whose development was constantly restrained: whether the subject be the apathy permeating an urban population (511 parimat fotot Marsist, 1968 ; Jaanipäev, 1978) or the situation in the countryside ignored by the authorities (Kolm talve, 1973; Koduküla, 1969). But it was above all the approach, the tone, the aesthetic quality that marked a real change in Estonian documentary.
In Lithuania, the country's cultural traditions and heritage (with, for example, Laikas eina per miestą, 1966, by Almantas Griškevičius) made up a large proportion of film subjects, notably emphasising that Lithuanian cultural identity was not Soviet. And we notice a similar critical tendency in films from the seventies and eighties with the hilarious Mums nebaisūs jokie priešai (1978) by Edmundas Zubavičius, on preparing for nuclear attack or Randas (1985) by Rimtautas Šilinis on the locking up of young delinquents, or again a barely veiled critique of the system of psychiatric health in Sala (1990). From the point of view of aesthetics, it is above all Robertas Verba (Senis ir žemė, 1965; Paskutinė vienkiemio vasara, 1971) who warrants attention. In his work, we find once again a strong attachment to the land and through it, an implied criticism of the changes imposed on Lithuanian society.
In Latvia, the "school of poetic documentary" is already well known. Not really a school but truly a current continuing today and of which Uldis Brauns (Sākums, 1961; Strādnieks, 1963) can be considered one of the informal founders. A graduate of VGIK, influenced by the work of Dziga Vertov, Brauns laid the foundations for a remarkable flowering of Latvian documentary. Some names destined to become well known were already involved in the film Baltie zvani (1961); Brauns of course, but also Herz Frank and Ivars Kraulītis. Herz Frank become one of the leading figures of Latvian documentary due to his humanism and his singular approach to his subjects. Whether in the poetic Par desmit minūtēm vecāks (1978) or Augstaka tiesa (1987) he has moved spectators well beyond the borders of the Baltic countries.
We should also mention Juris Podnieks, an emblematic witness — who died much too young — of the changes in Baltic societies (Vai vegli būt jaunam?, 1986) from the end of Soviet occupation to recovered freedom — notably with the re-establishment of song festivals, an event recorded with great emotion in Krustceļš (1991). During the shooting of the follow-up to this film, Podnieks lost two of his comrades, Andris Slapins and Gvido Zvaigzne, killed by snipers during the attempted Soviet army coup in January 1991.
This too short and partial overview of documentary film in the Baltic countries aims to show the heritage behind current production. We only have to think of filmmakers like Šarūnas Bartas, Arūnas Matelis, Audrius Stonys or Laila Pakalnina, who for several years now have been present and honoured in international festivals to observe that they are carrying on movements developed since the sixties in Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian documentary.

Kees Bakker

The CNC Heritage department is collaborating this year again with the États généraux du film documentaire. This partnership with the documentary services at Bois d'Arcy is based on the projection of the film Sur la Baltique.

We wish to thank for their precious collaboration the following film archives and institutions: Estonian Film Archives, Latvian National Film Centre and the Latvian National Archives of Audiovisual Documents, the Central State Archives of Lithuania.


Guests : Presentation and debates by Kees Bakker. In the presence of Zanda Dūdiņa (under reserve).