In early September 2020, Tue Steen Müller and his team of distinguished colleagues once again consulted film people at the annual session of the Baltic Sea Docs Forum in Riga. “Film consultant” - this is how Tue describes himself. For 24 years now he has been the heart and soul of this forum where documentary filmmakers from different countries (their number and geographical locations have long since moved beyond the Baltic Sea area) meet, learn, and present their film projects to the broadcasters and representatives of other funding bodies.
Industry connoisseurs know that the Forum dates back to 1996 when, on the Danish island of Bornholm, the Danish Film Board editor/consultant took seriously the idea about a film festival coming from an enterprising Bornholm resident. Tue had looked across the sea and realized that the gray iron curtain that used to cover the horizon had been raised up for a few years already and a new and mysterious land had come into view on the other side. It was all exciting and previously not seen – either the land or its cinema.
It was our land and it was our cinema for which the door to Europe and the world was yet to open fully, and it was Tue, his colleagues, and other like-minded people who were the most eager door-openers.
For almost a quarter of a century, he has been teaching how to present film projects concisely and attractively to the so-called "decision-makers" (strange and hierarchical or even anachronistic as the term may sound). He introduces and brings together directors and producers, television programmers, financiers, and festival executives. He highlights the best in projects, notices and points out to the presenters the parts that are less than perfect, and encourages them to fix same. But what’s most important: he truly sees.
Tue Steen Müller: I think you should make a movie about Ivars !
Kristīne Briede: Me? How so?
Tue: Because in Bridges of Time there is not much about himself. And he is in very good shape now, he is very interesting, and there is good chemistry between the two of you.
Kristīne: He is very interesting.
Tue: And he has a great sense of humor as well. Yesterday I met him at the pitching event, and he showed me the small thing on the lapel of his jacket. I asked what it was. "It’s what I stole from the government," he said. In fact, it was the prize he had received! (Laughs) One of the most important prizes for a lifetime contribution! … There are many such stories about him.
Kristīne: How did he do at the pitching?
Tue: He did well. People liked what they saw (the presentation of Ivars Seleckis's new film project Land took place at the Baltic Sea Docs Forum). I'm not sure, however, that the film will be able to travel outside Latvia successfully … Well, and there was a representative from the German broadcaster Mitteldeutscher Rundfunkwhoalso took part in the event. The film is about the countryside of Latvia - there is countryside in Germany too, but… The idea of the film is very good. If what is said in the film is true, then it is very interesting - everyone used to ran away from the countryside to the cities, but now many people are beginning to return. The German television spokesman asked him if the film would be critical. To which Ivars answered: “No, I don't make critical films. I make films about life!” And smiled. That was a very, very important remark. And the trailer of the film was very good. The previous trailer was not so good, though…
Kristīne: How come?
Tue: Yes. We said: “You need to include excerpts from your previous films!” He doesn't want to do it, he doesn't want to look back, so to speak. Then we agreed with Gints  that we will try to convince him. We told him: “You come from the countryside yourself, you have lived there for the first ten years of your life. You have made several films in the countryside, you have recorded life there for over 40 years! And at the end of the new trailer he says a few very good sentences about the countryside. That was very good! I don't remember exactly, but the idea was that if something was not documented, it did not happen!
Kristīne: That's his favorite saying, he always says that! What else was remarkable about this year's pitch?
Tue: In general or only regarding the Latvian films?
Kristīne: In general. Including the beginning at the island of Bornholm. This was the 24th time this event took place, wasn't it?
Tue: Yes. There were some awards were given out yesterday. TV channel Current Time awarded 2000 USD to a Belarusian project which was interesting and, of course, if it can help to make a good film, it’s very nice. And then there were two other films from Ukraine. One by a young female director working with an experienced producer; it’s about her sister who’s decided to become a nun. The director tries to understand why her sister has made such a decision. They have been filming the lives of nuns in that monastery. It was very beautifully made, very personal. Another film from Ukraine is dealing with politics. They were commercializing it in the pitch, which is fine…There’s a Greta Tunberg kind of character in a small society – a young man is fighting against corruption. He wants to get onto the local municipal council, he is now on the candidate list, the elections will be held in October. And he might be chosen. He is one of many anti-corruption activists in Ukraine. They’ve got a new president, you know, Zelensky. His presidential program was based on the anti-corruption platform. Now he has sacked the head of the anti-corruption institution. And he doesn’t do anything, he’s already totally changed. So, this is a very timely film, they have been working on it for two or three years. They have followed this young man from when he was 16. The young director is from the same town. A very strong film made out of necessity in their society. So, the two female directors were standing out. Then there were other interesting projects – more on the emotional side.
Kristīne: What are the current trends in documentaries, in your opinion? When you see all those projects – can you feel the pulse? Where are we heading?
Tue: I think this year, at least at the Baltic Sea Docs, there were many love stories connected with something in society. Difficult to say, but
I think these Corona times are making filmmakers wanting to do something emotional, first-person films -- what the situation is, how it influences our lives. The Belarusian is, of course, political. As Antra Cilinska  said: Well, if Juris Podnieks was alive, he would be in Belarus now.
There are such filmmakers, of course, and they still do something. But I think the personal films are sticking out – it has something to do with the technical side of filmmaking as well – it is allowing us to come closer, to make things on a smaller scale. And yet I would say that at this Baltic Sea Docs were also journalistic things, investigative journalism. Which is not really my cup of tea …
Kristīne: What is your cup of tea?
Tue: (Laughs). My cup of tea is personal films, poetic films. Films that surprise the audience. Please surprise us! Make something which is, of course, emotionally touching you, but also surprising in terms of storytelling, of narrative. I think that’s important.
Kristīne: So, can you still be surprised?
Kristīne: You have spent your life in the world of documentaries since 1975, as far as I know. You know that world from A to Z…
Tue: Yes, yes, but we should allow the filmmakers, the film artists to surprise us. I was very happy that we were discussing a statement by the Estonian director Marko Raat. He is going to make a film on a small, remote island in Estonia. The film is called Underling in Bird Kingdom. And this island has a story. There are only five people living there permanently and in summertime tourists come. He has many possibilities in making this film. He is going to shoot for four or five years and he is going to go there again and again. He is going to follow an Estonian author who is also a biologist and who has moved to this island. You see him very briefly in the clip. And then we had kind of arranged what my final question to him would be --also because the people on the panel were asking the kind of questions: Is this going to be a film about the author? Is it going to be a nature film about birds and horses? Is it going to be a documentary essay – philosophic? Is it going to be about tourists hunting -- because tourists are coming to shoot there?
And he said: I don’t know.
I love that!
We should respect the filmmaker saying: I don’t know. I love that sentence! I mean, let us leave the space for “I don’t know” – it is part of the documentary. If you already have the conclusion about the film why the hell should you make it?
Kristīne: Especially a documentary. But it has to be a really self-sufficient person who can say that. If your name is not Werner Herzog then it’s difficult to say: I don’t know.
Kristīne: Everybody claims to have the answers. Or they must have them.
Tue: Yes, and I was a little nasty yesterday towards the representative from Swedish television who was also there. There was another project Nina Gets Married, with a Polish director whose mother is a Jehovah witness. She has fallen in love with a man who is not a Jehovah witness. Of course, this is difficult, but they marry. And then the Swedish guy Lars – a nice man - asks the son, the director: Will the marriage last?
Tue: I mean, he wanted to know how the film would end! I couldn’t help it and said: What a stupid question! Something like that comes out of many television people who are not keen on or knowledgeable about films, they do not understand film language. They want the conclusion.
Kristīne: I remember some years ago you had a brilliant episode with the lady from the French ARTE channel who was one the so-called “decision makers”. She always said: this is not interesting for us, neither that is and why do you imagine that French audience would be interested in a film about Lithuanian girls serving in the army? And then you said…
Tue: Unfortunately, the representative from ARTE had not really understood her role in the event. She said she had a slot for films only about France or Germany.
Kristīne: Then why come to the Baltic Sea forum?
Tue: And why call it “The European Culture Channel”? This is something we have to discuss and resolve. I don’t know what the procedure was like this year, but we have to get the interested people here, because we know there are people with different views working in ARTE too, not only those who are not interested.
Kristīne: Tue, do you know what the results of the forum pitchings in recent years have been? People are presenting their projects, they get a response, but are there also some tangible results? Do you have some kind of an overview?
Tue: I think there are results, but probably not many. Some. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it takes a long time. The other day I was talking with Guntis Trekteris, the producer of the docu-animation My Favourite War. He said: the film is finished, but only few days ago I finally got a contract from ARTE. It took years for signing the contract. ARTE is big, of course, there is a lot of bureaucracy. The results are few. Of course, it has nothing to do with the forum as such, but it’s the way it works with funding from broadcasters nowadays. It’s going down. It’s not like it used to be. A good example is the film Egg Lady (2000) by Una Celma. Have you seen it?
Kristīne: Yes, but some time ago.
Tue: It was pitched at the first Bornholm forum. It was a huge success. I mean, a film like that would never ever be financed today. You see a woman sitting and breaking eggs and so on. Nothing else happening, but it’s very well made and it’s interesting and shot on 35 mm. BBC went in, IDFA gave a special award and the Finns and the Swedes who were there in Bornholm all gave money.
Kristīne: When was that?
Tue: 24 years ago when we started. Today it would never happen.
It illustrates the change in broadcasters’ thinking. They are taking very few risks now, they don’t have slots for such films. They are going much more in the journalistic direction. That is, of course, a pity. That is why filmmakers from this region are more depending on different funds.
At that time in Bornholm it was Jan Vrijman Fund, now it is called Bertha Fund. They have good money they can give to filmmakers – maybe not from Latvia or Lithuania, but from Ukraine and Georgia…They want to support the regions where there is very little money in place – Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova – countries outside the EU, because those inside EU, like Latvia, can be supported from the Media Program and get 25 000 EUR for development without a very detailed accounting. That’s very good of course.
Kristīne: Shortly before the election in Belarus I was in the countryside on holiday with two friends. We caught ourselves doing something unusual for us, namely, our conversation was unfolding at the level of “first world countries”– that is how one of the friends formulated it. I mean, we were talking about wine we like and about hunting for chanterelles and boat trips. Occasionally we tried to switch to something more “normal”, like art or the wild Covid-cases raging in India or great floods, or that Lukashenko will “design” the elections again etc., but then somehow we came back to that “first world” again. And I had to think about what has happened with us over these last 30 years? I remember how documentary making was about burning for things, how everything came from the bottom of one’s heart. When we were working with partners from Scandinavia, say, from Sweden, we were thinking: they will never fully understand us and they will never leave their dinner table even if nearby there is a country on fire. And now we are just sitting and talking about wine and it seems we are on that other side now. Can you see it in our films? The shifted focus? Is it now time to make films about love?
Tue: Make films about love, but also connect them with what is happening in the world. I mean, every time we come here we look at Riga. Take a peak out of the window – materialism. Nice cafés, places where you can go and have breakfast. It was not like that when we came here in the 1990s. When we went to pick films for the Bornholm festival - my friend Andreas and I, and Sonja – we were living in a hostel. Now that hostel is a Radisson, another hostel is a Marriott. I remember Uldis  first office – the coffee machine was in the toilet. There is lot of wealth now. Although if you walk around the city you can still see a mixture of beautiful buildings -- and wonderful wooden houses – as well as many empty buildings that are falling apart. There are still many contrasts both in Riga and in the countryside.
Kristīne: But our films… have they become more boring as a result of this? When you started to come here, you said our films were different, they represented a new world for you.
Tue: Of course …
My professional life changed totally when I first saw all those fantastic films from the Baltics – and also Russia.
I was getting more and more interested in the Baltic documentary cinema. I came here every year to pick films for Bornholm, later also Leipzig, attended symposiums. This has been a great passion for me.
Kristīne: Have we lost something from that time? I mean, now we are getting the same advisers and consultants on how to improve the scripts as everybody else…
Tue: You have tried to adapt to international ways of telling stories. Of course.
Kristīne: Is that a good thing?
Tue: Yes and no. Because if you didn’t do that we in other countries would not see your films. There is something there – if you want the films to travel you have to adapt in some way. A good example is Audrius (Stonys) from Lithuania. The first films he made were 10 minutes long. If he made a ten-minute film today, where could it be shown? You have to adapt in some way. Or take Arunas (Matelis) who made these enigmatic, mysterious films like 10 Minutes Before the Flight of Icarus (1990). This film was made before the big change. Water is pouring down the streets of Vilnius – there are a lot of metaphors there. Now he made a film about the Giro d’Italia cycling competition. You can still see his personal handwriting, so to speak, but has receded. He has adapted to the market. So, something is lost, but you must adapt while keeping your own style.
When we came here in the beginning to pick films for Bornholm, most of the films were about the Soviet time. Like Andris Rozenbergs’s film about the people who were sent to Siberia because they were reading French literature (A Punishment for a Dream, 1994). Shocking!
All the films were connected to the Soviet period. And at the certain point we were saying to the filmmakers who came to Bornholm: it would be nice if you could make some films about your life now, what is happening in Latvia now and so on. It came slowly and then again at a certain point all these Soviet horror stories changed for… I said then: I am fed up with all these Latvian song festivals with people with flowers in their hair who are singing and singing, all these national awakening motifs that you had. I mean, there were so many films about that!
Kristīne: But it is so natural! First – films about Soviet horror times and then…
Tue: Then – patriotism! Of course. I understand that.
Kristīne: Were there really so many films of people with flowers in their hair? (laughs)
Tue: Very many. All those song festivals. And then we thought it would be interesting to see films about how people live. What are young people thinking? And it came more or less… but still if we jump to today… for example, Uldis Cekulis – he thinks it’s more interesting to go to North Korea rather than film something that’s happening here.
Kristīne: This is what I want to know – are we making films about our lives or are we reaching out?
Tue: You are reaching out.
Kristīne: Danes are doing the same, aren’t they?
Kristīne: Because nothing is happening here anymore? (laughs)
Tue: When I was working as a film consultant in Danish Film Board/Film Institute, ninety percent of the projects that were submitted were about filmmakers wanting to go to other countries. And I said to many filmmakers: Why don’t you make something in Denmark? “It’s so boring,” they would say. I think you are in the same position now.
Kristīne: That’s what I am trying to catch – what is the current nerve? The other day, I was watching a very good Danish film at the Baltic Sea Docs program, Love Child – about Iranians. And I had to think about where is a Danish Love Child? Maybe there is not one out there. There are so many very good feature films about the contemporary Danish society, but I don’t remember a documentary. No, my mistake, there was an excellent one about the editor-in-chief of Ekstra Bladet who was trying to save it from bankruptcy. Maybe I just haven’t seen…
Tue: Why not make films about Danish families? Where is the curiosity, asking questions?
Kristīne: But you did not lose curiosity during all those years –?
Tue: No, no, just the opposite. When you get older and get into the role of a grandparent, you get more interested in children… and old people. The other day when I was sitting here and having breakfast I saw so many kids coming with flowers – it was the First of September, the first day of school. So many stories around this!
Kristīne: Have you never wanted to make films yourself?
Tue: No, no. Not really. When I finished the education as a librarian and started to work, I was arranging film screenings in libraries. Libraries were very active at that time. After three years as librarian I was invited to work at the Danish Film Board and there I tried everything for 20 years as film consultant. I was dealing with festivals, I was showing films, I was writing about films. So, that’s where my curiosity went. And with the films that I and the Film Board supported, I have been sitting in editing rooms and helping people. I said all the time: I am not an editor, but I don’t understand this or that, and this is good and this is not good. My education came from being with the filmmakers who are making artistic documentaries in the Danish tradition. And I have my heroes, both Danish and international. Several of them are from here!
Kristīne: Can you disclose who they are?
Tue: I am so happy that I came to see Uldis Brauns . That was a real highlight. He was already old then, but his whole appearance… His films reflect this – he is such a warm and gentle person, and a curious one too. If you talk about surprises … his cut of a woman who is opening her eyes (in 235 000 000, 1968) is fantastic! Only a true master can do that. The other one is Herz Frank  – he is an intellectual. And in the context of these two I don’t quite know where to place Ivars Seleckis – maybe in the middle? He has sensibility, but he is also reflecting. Podnieks, yes. I am very curious what kind of film they will make about him (project Podnieks about Podnieks by Anna Viduleja was pitched at BSD 2020). And my look at films has been very much influenced by those ten years of Bornholm – people coming and showing their films. Not only Baltic countries, but also Polish cinema -- Marcel Łoziński and his son Pawel Łoziński, for example. That is another style, but it is so good and so personal.
Kristīne: So, it has been ten years in Bornholm and 14 years here in Riga?
Tue: Well, we had some small detours at the beginning of the Baltic Forum for democratic reasons, so to speak. There was an event in Estonia organized by Riho , there was one in Vilnius organized by Rasa Miskinyte. And then we came here and the Film Center took over. The three Baltic film institutions came together and decided that it was better to organize everything in one place and it was Riga. The Estonians have their Black Nights festival with a strong DocPoint now…
Kristīne: Have you ever participated in Riga documentary symposiums that used to be organized before?
Kristīne: Would you talk about your experience there? If such a symposium happened now what questions would be important to discuss there?
Tue: Those you just mentioned…
Kristīne: About how we have lost the nerve?
In which way the industry is influenced by the market? Have we lost something in storytelling? Have we lost a poetic documentary? Those kind of things and then showing films, discussing films, inviting people who would come and show their films, giving lectures…
I remember Abram Kleckin  holding a 45-minute-long very tough critique of a film there on the spot. At a certain point we said – hey, can he also say something? I mean, the director was there. Can he not defend and explain his work? Then he understood that he was too tough.
Kristīne: The current wave of tolerance and political correctness in the world – does that influence the documentary? We are removing chapters from books and in American films all kinds of minorities must be represented. Same thing in Germany. I met a German intellectual who said that he hates Woody Allen’s films because they are not natural - there are no black people in them and queers are also not very visible. The new Oscar regulation also says that only those productions that have all the minorities and less protected groups represented both on and off the screen will be eligible for nominations. Does this not make the films more boring?
Tue: For me the campaign films, if we are talking about those, can be very boring when they are being pitched. But they are being supported, of course. Some of the American funds, e.g., in the Sundance Institute they are looking to support films with an agenda. “We made this film because Black Lives Matter…” It is much easier for them if it’s politically correct. That makes it difficult for more poetic films which do not have such ideas behind them… Like that Estonian guy who wants to film on the island. It will be financed but only because he is a good film director and it is the job of the Estonian Film Institute to support such a project. I would say it is the responsibility of the film institutes of different countries to support the art, the artistic projects and not the campaigns. But it also happens because in this country… For instance, the film that Gints wants to produce about Rail Baltica. If it was in Denmark I am sure the Danish Film Institute would say no, this is not for us, go to television, because it is a television film. Not the case here, because television doesn’t have money for it. Therefore, the Film Institute is giving money for this project. Which is a little surprising to me, because it is not a creative documentary. And this is, I think, a problem.
Kristīne: Which is the most recent documentary that has made a real impression on you?
Tue: I will put it in another way – the film I’m really looking forward to see – up till now I’ve only seen the trailer – is a film by Viktor Kossakovsky.
Kristīne: You mean Gunda!
Tue: Talk about surprise -- he is a man that surprises you constantly!
Kristīne: Is he one of the “Bornholm people”?
Kristīne: Have you “raised” him?
Tue: Not at all. But in Bornholm we showed his film Wednesday 07.19.61 (1999). It was not one of his best and I criticized it. And when we were showing his other film – the one about the iceberg – what is it called?
Kristīne: Aquarella (2018).
Tue: Yes, we were showing it in Barcelona and I was moderating his masterclass and he remembered me and said: this man criticized my Wednesday on the island on Bornholm and I still remember it. With a smile, of course. He is the man who says: I have to come up with something that is better than what I made before. When I met him last time, he said: yes, yes, Aquarella is good, but the next one is better. He is a star, absolutely a star.
Kristīne: Few years ago you received an important award – the state award “For
Merits to Lithuania”. Can you tell me about it?
Tue: Well, it was master-minded by Audrius, Arunas, and Giedre B, the Lithuaninan filmmakers, because they thought I was helping them since Bornholm, you know, promoting them. They thought I should have a medal for that. It was, of course, fantastic that they pushed it through the system. It was on the day of Independence, many people got awards. People who had done something -- saved someone from drowning etc. They started with giving a medal to a man who was the head of NATO in the region. Then I came second and shook the hand of Dalia Gribauskaite. The third one was Simon Peres, but he was not there…
Kristīne: And what was your achievement called?
Tue: For my support of Lithuanian cinema.
Kristīne: Which was really there. You opened doors for them.
Tue: This all began with Henrikas Sablevicius . A fantastic person. He was there when we came to Vilnius to pick films. Henrikas was organizing everything. We were taken to the film studio, he put us in a big cinema and came with tea because it was bloody cold in the cinema and the filmmakers were waiting outside. They had come with their 35 mm reels to show us. And we said to him: we cannot give an answer immediately, but when we came out they were looking at us and wondering what we would say. Then we went to Henrikas’s apartment – a small two-room apartment. His wife had made a lot of finger foods and there was that amazing drink that he introduced to me – 999, and then we decided about the films.
Kristīne: He was with you in the decision process?
Tue: No, he did not interfere. We said: we would like to have Stonys, Matelis, Landsbergis, Sauļus Beržinis who made many films about Jewish history in Lithuania and more…
Kristīne: And then that delegation came to Bornholm for the first time?
Tue: Yes. When the films had been selected they were invited to come, and Henrikas was the head of the delegation and he organized everything. They were living in those little holiday houses on Bornholm. There was a Latvian house, a Lithuanian house, and an Estonian house, and the best parties were always at the Lithuanian house.
Kristīne: You speak so warmly about him, you said he was your friend…
Tue: Absolutely, he was my friend. He was very warm person, actually. And when I was in Vilnius we went to visit his grave with Audrius. Apparently, his children had not been there for a long time and the grave was in not very nice shape, so Audrius took care of it. It was very nice.
Kristīne: Did you have such an organizing person in Latvia?
Tue: It was Andrejs Apsītis . He too was a very good friend. Of course, Ivars.
I remember once in the beginning Ivars was going to pitch his project in Bornholm. He had a trailer prepared on a VHS cassette and he was very nervous and tried to stuff it into a player. Something went wrong and all that pile of cassettes and player fell down. And everybody who was there felt pity for him and said: we will support you anyway… And then my wife and I came to Latvia and Ivars was meeting for us with a car. We thought he had hired a driver, but it turned out it was Romualds Pipars – also a filmmaker. They took us on a sightseeing trip to the Latvian countryside, they showed us around and introduced us to everything. Ivars had a “diplomat” –a Soviet attaché case for documents. I could not understand why he was carrying it around the countryside. At a certain point he put it up on the car roof and opened it – there were five bottles of champagne lying nicely side by side – he said it was perfect for storage. Later, in connection with The Crossroad Street, the scriptwriter Tālivaldis Margēvičs and his family organized a big reception at his house. So they knew how to party! Now it is Uldis Cekulis who is taking over. I was very touched by the birthday party that was organized for me. Even two. One was organized by the Baltic Sea Docs team – it was a total surprise to me. The other one was by Uldis at his house. It was wonderful. We were siting on a roof terrace, and Uldis had invited friends from different corners of the world on Zoom so that we could toast together.
Kristīne: But this is not the end, right? You will continue to come…
Tue: Yes, I think so.
Kristīne: What else are you busy with now? Are you selecting films for the Barcelona festival?
Tue: Yes, and for Belgrade [The most fantastic documentary film festival called Magnificient 7 is happening there. The program includes only seven films. They are not competing for any prizes, but all are of the highest quality and seven evenings in a row the huge cinema hall with 1000 seats is filled with an audience (that, of course, in the pre-Covid times) because the people know and love cinema and have huge expectations from this festival. The festival has been organized for 16 years already by the true cinephiles, the festival directors Svetlana and Zoran Popovich, but the seven magnificent films have been selected by the three of them - Svetlana, Zoran, and Tue. – Author’s note]
Mickael Ostrup is doing a fantastic job for the Baltic Forum. I am so happy that he has taken over the practical side. This has turned out to be something that I am very bad at. Basically, I am not so interested in the pitching any longer. I am doing it here because I really love it here. But otherwise – in Docs Barcelona, for instance, I was doing it for many, many years, but now I am selecting films for the festival, I am the head of programing. It is much more fun.
P.S. Tue Steen Müller shares his vast expierence on documentaries by writing a blog: http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/