FILM - Baltic film returns to world stage

  • 2008-01-09
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

MONOTONY: This award winning film produced by Juris Poskus tells the story of a young woman who grows bored with life.

Traditionally the final product was a reel of celluloid covered with emulsion. Now films more often appear in digital format, but the concept is still the same: light flickering on a screen, telling stories, conveying knowledge and stirring emotions. The film industry is typically a complex one, involving a spectrum of technical specialists and artists, to say nothing of financiers, distributors and cinema houses. This week's Industry Insider takes a look at the state of Baltic film, how it's rising from the doldrums of 1990s stagnation and starting to make its mark on the film-going world.

RIGA - With Hollywood and Bollywood sinking billions of dollars into ultra-high-budget films every year, it is hard to imagine any way the Baltic states could compete on the international scene. And for many years, they couldn't 's Baltic films were at best considered a joke, when they were considered at all.

Now, however, the Baltic film industry is starting to gain recognition on the world scene. Estonia and Latvia have both recently produced internationally acclaimed films, while Lithuania is finally starting to cash in on the massively lucrative industry.

It wasn't always such an uphill battle for Baltic filmmakers. In the 70s and 80s, the film industry was going strong with financial support from Soviet institutions and a massive Russian audience to appease.
After 1991, however, all that disappeared and the Baltic film industry came to a grinding halt. In Latvia, for example, the National Film Center reports that there were 12 full length feature films produced in 1980 's more than the total number of similar films produced between 1994 and 1999.

"The infrastructure of the film industry broke up during the collapse of the Soviet Union, as did almost all the branches of industry. Due to uncertain financial situation the number of films decreased dramatically 's in the newly founded state there were 'more important' areas to allot the financial resources to," The National Film Center of Latvia says on its Web site.

In the past year or two, however, the Baltic states have managed to turn the business around and have started to produce serious movies which are able to compete on a global level.

"Sugisball" (Autumn Ball), from Estonian director Veiko Ounpuu, has clearly been the greatest success story so far. It became the first Baltic film to win the Venice Horizons Award, the highest accolade given out at the prestigious Venice Film Festival.

Moreover, the movie helped prompt the Warsaw International Film Festival to host a special section highlighting Estonian films titled "Estonian Explosion," which aired four feature films, one documentary and a short animation.

"Little Estonia, where only a few feature films are made each year, has been represented at all of the most important film festivals in the world this year, such as Cannes and Venice. For this reason we selected new Estonian films for our program and called the focus 'Estonian Explosion,'" Warsaw festival director Stefan Laudyn told Rzeczpospolita z dnia, a local publication.

Estonia is not the only Baltic state to boast a cinematography success story in 2007. In June, Monotonija (Monotony), by Latvian director Juris Poskus, won the "perspectives" award at the Moscow film festival.
As full length feature films are just starting to emerge into the global spotlight, the Baltic film industry has also been focusing on animation as a way to provide high-quality films for a relatively low cost. Individually, each Baltic state produces far more animated films than full-length features, and in some cases the countries have even decided to pool their resources on a single project.

"Lotte from Gadgetville," another internationally acclaimed production, was a two-year animation project which came to fruition in 2006. The movie was produced by Rija, a film production and distribution company in Latvia, but directed by an Estonian team. The animation itself was split evenly between the two countries.
"[It is possible to] create original product that can fight against the almighty commercial machines of the U.S. or South Korea. To save one's identity and culture, we need to look for good animators, interesting designs and find good stories that are based in our own countries," Vilnis Kalnaelli, managing director of Rija Films, told the Fipresci federation of film critics.

Lithuania is taking a more pragmatic approach to the emerging film business. While the country produces fewer films of its own 's despite its larger size 's those films have been more focused on drawing funds from abroad to the country.

"We think that Lithuanian film companies are ready to compete with other applicants of [the European Audiovisual] Fund for financing their projects and to successfully realize large co-production and film distribution projects," Minister of Culture Jonas Jucas said in an April press release.

Lithuania has also had some success in drawing high-budget Western films to take advantage of the country's picturesque landscape and relatively inexpensive shooting costs. The most prominent example of this has been the recent film shoot of "Defiance," a high-budget upcoming film set in World War II and starring Daniel Craig.
Lithuania beat out other Eastern European locations such as Poland and Romania for the lucrative shoot, advertising costs of about 20 percent less than competitors.

"The reality of the labor market is such that it was less expensive (to film in Lithuania) than going to Canada," co-producer  Pieter Jan Brugge told The Associated Press.

Brugge also said that Hollywood could learn something from the Lithuanian experience.
"In Hollywood everything is more about the logistics 's how to get the coolest plane or the coolest car for a film, whereas here often you have to make things and the physical skills (of) people are extraordinary in some cases," he said. "Being here has restored my faith in filmmaking."

Market share of domestic films:
Estonia 's 9.17%
Latvia 's 5.7%
Lithuania 's 4.08%

Average ticket price (in euros):
Estonia 's 4.3
Latvia 's 3.54
Lithuania 's 3.04

Source: Baltic Films Media Kit