Cinema of Latvia


I learnt a new term on social media this year (or maybe it was last year, who knows?): the Overton Window. Wikipedia defines it as “range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” By extension, it also designates the gamut of utterances that defines the limits of a discourse at a given point in time. As we sit aghast here in India watching this window slide to the right of the political spectrum—to a point that inclusion of conservative and extreme-right figures on televised debates constitutes diversity of opinion—the pandemic appears to have redrawn the old battle lines of film discourse. Forget the fight for celluloid over digital cinematography and projection. The old fogeys of today are those that think the theatrical experience means something, while the median of the Overton Window consists in debating what makes for good OTT content.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to take sides on this debate. As it happens, 2021 was the year that I did not go to the cinemas at all, and truth be told, it wasn’t entirely due to the health crisis. A number of other projects kept me busy in these twelve months, including the release of the hardcover version of my first book, and as it is, I find it increasingly hard to get excited about this or the other production. Except for the end-year binge that made this list possible, I must say I hardly saw films in 2021 and that includes older ones. I regret not being able to watch West Side Story, which had a run of less than a week in my city and was elbowed out by another Disney tentpole released on the same day. Who would have thought that the Overton Window now ranges from Spielberg to Spiderman? Anyway, here are my favourite films from this cursed year.

 

1. France (Bruno Dumont, France)

What comprises the blight of modern life? The reverse shot, answers Bruno Dumont in his scorching new dramedy about celebrity news reporter France, played by a dazzling Léa Seydoux, who cannot help but make it about herself in every story she does. Fresh off two films on Joan of Arc, Dumont gets his hands dirty with the profane world of modern media. And yet, it’s a spiritual tale that he tells. The filmmaker often quotes Péguy about the need to “stand up where one is.” That is what France does after she is subject to one moral crisis after another in her professional and personal life: rattled by a minor accident that she causes, France begins to see things “as they are”, subtracting herself from the reverse shot, but this grasping at saintliness doesn’t last long. She returns to her profession, not necessarily wiser but more authentic, and in doing so, reaches a state that may be seen as one of grace. It isn’t a media satire that France is after, but something all-pervasive, the simultaneous genuineness and falsity of our emotions faced with harrowing images of the world. Dumont’s film is daring, tasteless, compelling, overblown, contradictory and superbly stylized. Familiar but uncanny, it is everything you don’t want it to be.

 

2. Dear Chantal (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico)

An apartment evermore waiting to be occupied, letters responding to inquiries not heard, a voice never embodied in the image: Pereda’s five-minute short is a haunting, haunted tribute to the late Chantal Akerman that is structured around absence and substitution. We hear Pereda replying to fictitious queries by the Belgian filmmaker about renting out his sister’s apartment in Mexico City, and we see his sister readying the apartment, moving out paintings or clearing foliage from the skylight. In the film’s robust organization, Pereda, his sister and Akerman become mediums, connecting links in each other’s (after)lives: Pereda, unseen, serving as a middleman between the apartment owner and the impossible future tenant; his sister, unheard, taking the place of Akerman who will never feature in Pereda’s film; and Akerman herself, unseen and unheard, bringing the siblings together in a non-existent real estate deal. In an act of respect and love, Dear Chantal creates a physical space for Akerman to continue to exist, even if not in flesh and blood, just as No Home Movie, Akerman’s final work before her suicide in 2015, grappled with the physical absence of her recently deceased mother. The film imagines an alternate reality that brings Pereda and Akerman together not in artistic collaboration, but in the banal transactions of everyday living.

 

3. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze, Georgia)

How would Lubitsch do it? Well, if the old master were a contemporary filmmaker, ‘it’ would probably resemble Koberidze’s off-kilter, disarming romantic comedy about two lovers-to-be who work at a shop around the corner without recognizing each other all summer. What Do We See is obviously designed to please, but there is never a sense that it panders to its audience. Like the best storytellers, Koberidze knows that pleasure can be deepened by deferring gratification, and to this end, his film takes surprising excursions away from its central story, restarting at will and relegating its lead couple to the margin as though reposing faith in destiny to bring them together. This vast negative space of the narrative clarifies the larger objective of the film, which is to integrate its characters into the landscape of the ancient town of Kutuisi, whose faces and places, ebbs and flows, become the central subject. Pinning down the fable-like story on the voiceover allows the director to employ a complex, highly unusual visual syntax—that nevertheless derives from classical Hollywood cinema—without disorienting the viewer. The film involves magic, but Koberidze demonstrates that a towel flying through the frame can be as enrapturing as the most outlandish fairy tales.

 

4. Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)

The title says it all. Loznitsa’s new documentary represents a modulation of style for the filmmaker. Where his found footage work so far dropped the viewer into specific historical events in medias res, without much preparation, Babi Yar. Context offers a broader picture. With the help of archival material, but also uncharacteristic intertitles, the film details the events leading up to, and following, the Babi Yar Massacre of September 1941, where over 33,000 Jews were killed over two days in the eponymous ravine in Kiev. We see Ukrainian citizens welcoming the occupying Nazi forces with enthusiasm and collaborating in the persecution of their Jewish compatriots. In an illustration of the failure of archival, the massacre itself isn’t represented except in photographs of its aftermath. Loznitsa’s shocking film is a rousing J’accuse! directed at his nation, at the willingness of its citizens in enabling genocide, at the amnesia that allowed for the valley to be turned into an industrial dumping ground. Loznitsa’s newfound desire to contextualize his material should be construed less as a loss of faith in images to speak ‘for themselves’ than as a critical acknowledgement of their power to deceive. After all, the Red Army is welcomed with comparable pomp after they liberate Kiev, this formal continuity with the reception of the Nazis concealing a crisis of content.

 

5. Bellum – The Daemon of War (David Herdies, Georg Götmark, Sweden/Denmark)

The spectre of Harun Farocki hovers over Herdies and Götmark’s excellent documentary about war, technology and the production of images. A meditation on Western attitudes to armed conflict, Bellum unfolds as an anthology of three human interest stories: a Swedish engineer involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target, a war veteran in Nevada suffering from PTSD and having trouble reintegrating into civilian life, a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. Well-meaning though these individuals might be, their lives and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of the vet, but the photographer’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. The engineer’s efforts to bypass the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in armed conflict. Bellum cogently points out the ways in which technology—of training, of intervention—increasingly eliminates human fallibility from the equation of war, for as Colonel Kurtz put it, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

 

6. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, USA)

I don’t know if Bruno Dumont and Paul Schrader saw each other’s films this year, but I’m certain they would both have much to say to one another. If First Reformed (2017) was the subtext, The Card Counter is the text, a film that is all surface. Where the earlier work stood out in the authenticity of its character and milieu, the new film aspires to an artificiality worthy of the casinos and bars it mostly unfolds in. Schrader tells the same Catholic story he has always been telling, that of God’s Lonely Man who is mired in mud but has his eyes on the skies. Oscar Isaac portrays William Tell, convict turned cardsharp who tries to save a younger man from self-destruction, but faced with divine indifference, decides to play God himself. Formally, Schrader doesn’t deviate from the Bresson-Ozu-Dreyer axis of the previous film—what Schrader rightly or otherwise called the Transcendental Style—and this reserve produces a productive friction between the film’s style and noir setting of the story. In that, The Card Counter is highly reminiscent of American Gigolo (1980), which is to say that, despite the references to Abu Ghraib, it is a work completely out of joint with the present. It is incredible this film even exists.

 

7. The Year Before the War (Dāvis Sīmanis, Latvia)

Even if we are done with the 20th century, suggests Sīmanis’ singular, absurd period comedy, the 20th century isn’t yet done with us. When Hans, an opportunistic doorman at a Riga hotel, is falsely implicated in a bombing, he flees the Latvian capital to shuttle from one European city to another. The Europe of 1913 that Hans traverses is less a real geography than an abstract zone of competing political currents. War is around the corner, and there are several groups trying to influence the course of history. Zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation.” All through, Hans fights hard to follow his own moral compass, flee subjecthood and retain his individuality. A historical picaresque, Sīmanis’ film is interested in the singularity of this particular juncture in Western history—a point at which fin de siècle optimism about technology and human rationality came crashing against the reality of trench warfare—where countless isms sought to impose their own vision on the world. It would seem that Sīmanis views Latvia of the early 20th century as something of an ideological waystation, an unstable intellectual field where free radicals like Hans couldn’t help but be neutralized. And that vision isn’t without contemporary resonance.

 

8. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany)

Maria Speth’s expansive documentary about a batch of preteen students, mostly of an immigrant background, in a public school in Stadtallendorf, Hessen, is a classroom film that achieves something special. Remaining with the children for almost its entire four-hour runtime allows it to individuate them, to look at them as independent beings with their own skills, desires and prejudices, just as their charismatic teacher-guide-philosopher Dieter Bachmann adopts a different approach to each of his pupils. For Bachmann, it would seem, whatever the students accomplish academically during the year is of secondary importance. He knows that he is dealing with a group with an inchoate sense of self: first as pre-adolescents, then as new immigrants. Consequently, he spends a great deal of effort in giving them a sense of community, creating a space where they can be themselves. At the same time, the classroom is a social laboratory where new ideas are introduced and the children brought to interrogate received opinion, all under Bachmann’s paternal authority. Speth insists on the particularity of these individuals and there is no sense that our star teacher is indicative of the schooling system in Germany at large. Bachmann is an exception, and in his exceptionalism lies a promise, a glimpse of how things could be.

 

9. Out of Sync (Juanjo Giménez, Spain)

It’s an ingenious, wholly cinematic premise: estranged from family and friends, a sound engineer spends her nights at her film studio until she starts to experience a lag between what she sees and what she hears. Juanjo Giménez’s absorbing psychological thriller riffs on this setup, weaving its implications into a coherent character study of a young woman out of sync with her life. The result contains some very amusing set pieces constructed around the delay between sound and image, but also one of the most sublime romantic scenes of all time, one that begins with rude abandonment and ends at a silent movie show. Marta Nieto is brilliant as the unnamed protagonist who withdraws into a shell and then reconnects with herself and the world. She brings a fierce independence to the character that nuances its vulnerability. Its claustrophobic premise notwithstanding, Out of Sync feels like a very open work, integrated gracefully with the urban landscape of beautiful Barcelona. Watching the film in 2021, when so much of real-world interaction has been rendered into digital images and sounds, using Bluetooth speakers with their own latency to boot, is an uncanny experience.

 

10. Shared Resources (Jordan Lord, USA)

Ambitious to a fault, American artist Jordan Lord’s new work is nearly unwatchable. Yet it bends the documentary form like few films this year. Shared Resources is a home movie made over a considerable period of time, presented in scrambled chronology. We learn that Lord’s father was a debt collector fired by his bank, that his health is deteriorating due to diabetes, that the family lost most of its possessions in the Hurricane Katrina and that they had to declare bankruptcy shortly after Lord’s acceptance into Columbia University. All this material is, however, offered not directly but with a voiceover by Lord and his parents describing the footage we see, as though intended for the visually challenged, and two sets of subtitles, colour-coded for diegetic and non-diegetic speech, seemingly oriented towards the hearing disabled. In having his parents comment on images from rather difficult episodes in their lives, the filmmaker gives them a power over what is represented. Through all this, Lord initiates an exploration of debt in all its forms and shapes: paternal debt towards children, filial debt towards parents, the debt of a documentary filmmaker towards their subjects, one’s debt to their own body, the fuzzy line between love and indebtedness. This is an American film with an Asian sensibility.

 

Special Mention: From Where They Stood (Christophe Cognet, France/Germany)

Favourite Films of

2020 • 2019 • 2015 • 2014 • 2013 • 2012 • 2011 • 2010 • 2009

“Like in a wrong man thriller by Hitchcock, Hans disowns the name at first, but eventually slips into the role, getting admitted to a mental asylum, serving as a shill at Lenin’s demonstration, and even carrying out acts of violence in Peter’s stead. Over the course of these events, zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation”: the recruitment of the individual as a subject of a Grand Narrative.

All through, Peter fights hard to follow his own moral compass, to flee subjecthood, and to retain his individuality. As the Great War ends, however, he finds himself a hero and in the upper echelons of the Soviet state, dispatching dissidents to gulags with a wave of the hand. So, in line with his friend’s counsel, Hans does indeed become the flag-bearer for a cause, ‘turning into’ Peter wholeheartedly, but he is not necessarily any better than the man who bowed down to a bigot at the entrance of a hotel. In the scheme of The Year Before the War, it’s those who believe in an ideal that are capable of much greater violence than apolitical opportunists.”

 

(Full article at Ultra Dogme)