KINO Raksti

The Topography of Our Opportunities: Different Kinds of Latvian Film Critics at Cannes

15.06.2022
The Topography of Our Opportunities: Different Kinds of Latvian Film Critics at Cannes
Drawing by Kārlis Vītols.

It is paradoxical that adding together correct facts has created a misleading impression of the real situation, and there is no easy solution to this.

At the end of May, the Riga International Film Festival (Riga IFF) published a comment regarding the fact that the influential British film industry publication Screen International listed film critic Anton Dolin’s country affiliation as Latvia in its daily Cannes Film Festival jury grid. In previous years, when Dolin has been part of the publication’s “jury of critics”, his country of origin has been listed as Russia, however he now lives in Riga and works for Meduza, a Russian opposition publication registered in Latvia.

The discussion resulting from this action has moved in a direction that bears only a distant relation to the comment by Riga IFF. The situation is in fact much more complex and demonstrates a wide range of issues and possible perspectives – from the hierarchy of cultural capitalism to processes of decolonisation.

To provide a background, the prominent Russian film critic Anton Dolin, who was the editor-in-chief of the magazine Isskustvo kino until he left Moscow, moved to Latvia in the first week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When Kino Raksti learned of this, we felt that it was important to support a venerated peer. The first thing we could do was to interview Dolin about the current situation in Russia, thus making him better known to the Latvian public outside the film industry bubble (the interview, promptly arranged by playwright Ivo Briedis, was one of the first interviews with Dolin in the Latvian public space and attracted a lot of interest from readers). We later also asked Dolin to review the Latvian feature film The Year Before the War (directed by Dāvis Sīmanis, reviewed by Anton Dolin - HERE.) The film is a historical phantasmagoria full of quotations and allusions to European culture and cinema, including Russian, which played in competition at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. We know that people from different cultural backgrounds can offer a different perspective and have regularly invited foreigners living in Latvia to reflect on Latvian cinema: we have, among others, published British journalist Mike Collier's impressions of Aivars Freimanis’s masterpiece Puika (1977), and Swiss-born publisher of comics magazine Kuš! Dāvids Šķilters’s reflections on Latvian animation. Latvia’s location at the crossroads between Russia, Scandinavia, and Western Europe stimulates us to make use of this opportunity for mutual enrichment and for soliciting the contribution of diverse perspectives. 

In fact, it is this same situation that also gave rise to the paradox of Screen International listing Latvia as Dolin’s country of origin at the Cannes Film Festival, but this has more complex implications that go beyond the hard facts (Dolin’s current place of residence or the country in which Meduza is registered). As the action moves into the international arena of the film industry, other power relations and other contexts begin to reveal themselves.

To be conscious of one’s place

The film industry as such is characterised by hierarchical patterns. The hierarchical structure of the film set is dominated by the director, while film distribution and its extension, film criticism (if it is seen narrowly as just one of the tools of film distribution), are dominated by countries with large film markets. This model of cultural capitalism is reflected even in the most mundane things: for example, the chances of any national film journalist or critic getting an interview with the actor or director of a certain film depend on whether the screening rights of that film have been sold for the region of the country in question. Latvia, and the Baltics as a whole, is such a small film market that in most cases when a major film has its world premiere, distributors have not even taken an interest in our region. Similarly, if a major film festival has accredited many critics, the opportunity to interview the biggest stars or the most in-demand directors is more likely to go to the writers that have hundreds of thousands of potential readers instead of those with just four hundred or one thousand. A critic from a big country has more opportunities not only to build a much larger readership, but also to build a more impressive CV by exploiting the hegemonic structures and privileges inherent in the industry.

At this point, we should point to the call by Czech film scholar Petr Szczepanik for a more precise distinction between the two size parameters. He calls for the word “small” to be used to describe countries according to their size and capabilities, while the word “periphery” should refer to the economic and cultural influence of a country. Denmark, for example, is a small country, but has a relatively prominent position in the international cinema landscape, while Poland, which is much larger in size, has a rather small impact on transnational movements and should therefore be considered a peripheral territory. [1]

Since the film industry is first and foremost a business in the context of large markets, as a peripheral country, the possibilities Latvia can offer its film critics is determined by the economic power of our market. Highly respected peers are invited to compile lists of top film critics for Screen International, which all belong to large film markets – the US, the UK, China, Germany, France. This is the first reason why it is at least surprising to see Latvia’s name in this esteemed company – it is an obvious and illogical dissonance between the real size of our market and the audiences that other peers are targeting. China, for example, was the largest cinema market in the world in 2021, followed by the US and India, with Russia ranking fourth. Meduza works for a Russian audience (which can be found anywhere in the world these days) and mainly in Russian, and each publication is prefaced by a statement that the material was produced by “foreign agents” – this is requirement from the authorities in Russia (but not in Latvia or anywhere else in the world). It is therefore clear that the designation of Meduza as a Latvian publication in this context should be seen more as a cover in a situation where the use of “Russia” would be unacceptable to many. Also, in this situation, Dolin’s desire to preserve his integrity, self-respect, and life by leaving Russia (which is humanely understandable) conflicts with the fact that he is a citizen of an aggressor state and that the colonial logic of exploitation of this country has also provided him with certain professional privileges. This is where private actions merge with an abstract concept – there are no easy solutions.

It could be argued that the major Hollywood studios took a stance by suspending screenings of their films in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 this year, but this prompts a question for Screen International: why was the decision made to include a critic working for a Russian audience in the selection this year? Perhaps, regardless of Screen International’s answer, we should bear in mind the historical fact that cinema has always been a weapon of political and cultural diplomacy.

The view from the outside

In any case, the hierarchical division of countries based on the capacity of their film markets is consistent with the imperial order. But the economic aspect is not the only reason why my peers from Riga IFF “raised their eyebrows at Cannes”, to quote their comment. Szczepanik points out that the problem is not only the size of a country: in the study of media industries, the market does not only include purely economic terms. Particularly in the case of small and peripheral markets, grounding the media in social and cultural contexts is particularly important, as it is seen as a means of nation-building endeavours here,[2] while shared national traumas and memories also play an important role in the process of nation-building. As Estonian postcolonial scholar Epp Annus points out, , the process of coloniality is not just a synchronic matrix of power, but a diachronic web characterised by the mirroring of the colonised and colonisers. Coloniality is always rooted in a broader historical period, and the Baltic countries are characterised by different colonial layers that run through the centuries going as far back as the 13th century. [3]

Therefore, although Meduza’s registration in Latvia and Dolin’s residence here are correct facts, replacing Russia with Latvia evokes unpleasant associations with the past when we experienced it all in reverse order, including in the field of cinema. That is to say, when Latvia was part of the USSR for fifty years, the Latvian film industry was integrated into the mechanisms of the Soviet film system. And although the Riga Film Studio produced works that are now gradually being recognised as worthy of the world cinema canon, Soviet film historiography mainly associates these works with Russian cinema (or does not mention works produced in the peripheral republics, except for Georgia and Kazakhstan). Latvian cinema thus remained somewhat invisible and it was only around the turn of the 21st century that books on Soviet film history published in Western countries gradually began to differentiate between the cinemas of the fifteen Soviet republics. In the handbook of Eastern European Cinema, published in 2012, editor Anikó Imre points out that the cinemas of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have so far received little attention in international film studies. [4] This is presumably not because they have not been studied, but because researchers have not had the time and/or opportunity to work out international protocols for dissemination and networking.

There are also hierarchical tendencies in the distribution of knowledge, one of which is undeniably related to language, a tool for both film criticism and film research: only texts written in major languages are easily accessible to readers from other nations. This situation must be seen through the prism of “epistemic violence”, which refers to the relations of inequality, subjugation, and power that are embedded in the very practices of knowledge and are now taken for granted.[5]

Over the years, we have been dealing not only with the practices of film historiography, but also with notions of Eastern European cinema developed by outsiders/westerners. Imre points out that this idea was already shaped by Western film festival curators during the Cold War years: the Eastern European auteur films that were selected for screening at festivals had deep roots in their national cultures. Thus, the hierarchy between Eastern and Western cinemas was already established at that time where Eastern Europe was always reduced to a national position (i.e., what the West associates with each country and its cinematic tradition), while Western cinema was allowed to show a cosmopolitan and universal approach in their films.[6]

(In this context, there is another troubling question: can a country whose cinema is not internationally known and influential have strong film criticism? In other words, if Latvia has not (yet) had its own Dogme 95 movement like the Danes, nor an equivalent to the Romanian New Wave, etc., does this have an effect on Latvian film criticism and if so, what? Bulgarian film critic Yoana Pavlova pointed out to me in a private correspondence that you can write a great review of a bad film; the quality of film criticism is rather determined by each country’s literary tradition, media freedom, and social etiquette. It is much more of a problem for such texts to find an audience in small peripheral countries, and it is also problematic for the intellectual and cultural/arts scene to encourage the production of such texts in the first place.)

Onward and upward!

Both when looking at the situation in Cannes from the perspective of cultural economics, and when assessing it in the context of the various traumas caused by colonial matrices of power, the basic question is and always remains the same one once posed by Indian-born literary scholar Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak: can the subjugated speak?[7] ] In a sense, both reviews of Latvian cinema and the study (and restoration) of Latvian cinema are decolonising projects, because they show the value of present and past films by situating them in the international cinematic landscape. These activities demonstrate our agency in shaping the discourse on our own cinema in our independent country. At the same time, however, as a mechanism for legitimatising these insights and studies, we must primarily draw on theoretical concepts approved by Western/foreign scholars and intellectuals, which I would urge not to condemn as alien, but rather see as resources that also help sharpen our thought processes. For example, I borrow the title of this editorial comment from Annus’s Soviet Postcolonial Studies. A View from the Western Borderlands. The “topography of our possibilities”[8] that she refers to includes the need to pursue a historiography of cinema using both our own criteria and those we have collected from around the world.

 The most emotional recent act of decolonising Latvian cinema was the screening of Rolands Kalniņš’s (1922-2022) feature film Four White Shirts (1967) at the Cannes Film Festival’s Cannes Classics program in May 2018. The director himself, who was 96 at the time, and the film’s cinematographer Miks Zvirbulis attended the screening at the Grand Auditorium Louis Lumière in person. The film was shelved until the end of the 1980s as something the Soviet regime disliked, but now, by applying aesthetic rather than ideological parameters to the film, we can include it in the historiography of world cinema. With this screening, a work that in spirit and aesthetics is not out of step with the French New Wave and other currents of 1960s Western European cinema finally found its place in an international context where it belonged already sixty years ago. (The film can be watched for free worldwide with English subtitles HERE.)

In 1998, Professor Inga Pērkone made the most significant contribution to the creation of new knowledge about Latvian cinema in the form of film criticism and research by establishing the bachelor’s degree programme Audiovisual Culture and Theory at the Latvian Academy of Culture (until then, young Latvian students could only study film criticism in Moscow at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography). It takes many years to gain knowledge and professional experience, and the proof that this programme was needed and has succeeded can be seen in the joint work of Latvian film scholars Latvian Cinema: New Times 1990-2020 published at the end of last year (of the nine authors, only the two scientific editors, Dita Rietuma and Inga Pērkone, have not been students of the program).

 What we will not decolonise

There is one phenomenon of our film history that we will not decolonise: Sergei Eisenstein. We will not be able to remake the Soviet/Russian director, who was born in Riga in 1898, lived here until the age of seventeen gaining many personality-defining impressions, and who later in life emphasised that he was “a boy from Riga”, into a Latvian director. Because, as has already been outlined in this article, it is not just ethnicity or biographical and bureaucratic facts that are decisive. Identity is a construction, it is a performative and situational practice, subject to both internal and external forces. It is useful to examine it from time to time and can (or should) be redefined if circumstances change or compel.


Elīna Reitere (PhD) is an independent film scholar and critic and the second editor-in-chief of the Latvian film magazine Kino Raksti. She has studied audiovisual culture, film, media and performance studies in Riga and Mainz and wrote her dissertation on narration in slow cinema (published in 2018). In 2019, she was nominated for the Normunds Naumanis' Annual Art Criticism award for her academic film reviews.

Atsauces:

1. Petr Szczepanik. Screen Industries in East-Central Europe. BFI, London, 2021, p.19. 
2. Petr Szczepanik Screen Industries in East-Central Europe. BFI, London, 2021, p. 20. 
3. Epp Annus Soviet Postcolonial Studies. A View from the Western Borderlands, Routledge, 2017, p. 142. 
4. Anikó Imre (ed.) “A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas” Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p.10. 
5. Claudia Brunner “Epistemische Gewalt”, Transkript Verlag, 2020, p.14. 
6. Anikó Imre “Postcolonial Media Studies in Postsocialist Europe”, boundry 2 41: 1, 2014, p.128. 
7. Gajatri Čakravorti-Spivaka. Vai pakļautie spēj runāt? Rīga, Mansards, 2014 
8. Epp Annus. Soviet Postcolonial Studies. A View from the Western Borderlands, Routledge, 2017 

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