RIGA - Riga's cultural calendar is crammed from the beginning to the end of the year with a whole range of seat-filling, applause-garnering, perfume-scented events, but nothing quite compares to the Arsenals film festival.
Held every two years, it's an eight-day orgy of film that leaves thousands of cinemagoers walking around the streets of Riga in a joyful state of delirium.
I remember going to see dozens of movies at the last festival, and it was thrilling to see the look of wonder in people's eyes as they came out of the cinema after seeing Julio Medem's "Sex and Lucia," or the look of utter confusion as they staggered out of Jean-Luc Godard's "Eulogy to Love." People don't just go to Arsenals to watch films 's they go to see the world in a new light.
The program this time round is as eclectic as ever. There are some 20 Baltic productions being screened, including "Python," "Somnambulance" and the wonderfully bizarre Latvian documentary "But the Hour is Near," which follows the lives of two young evangelical entrepreneurs as they simultaneously try to spread the word and scrape a living together.
There are several good documentaries being shown, most notably Julio Medem's "The Basque Ball," which explores the political complexities of his native Basque region. Many will also doubtless want to see Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" after the surprise success of his more recent "Fahrenheit 9/11."
An absolute must-see is Japanese director Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi." The veteran director just goes from strength to strength, and this wonderfully vibrant film is a pure joy to watch and a master class in filmmaking.
Emir Kusturica has never quite reached the same heights of his "Underground" but he still remains a highly significant European director. "Life is a Miracle" hardly covers new territory for him, but it is nonetheless well worth watching.
Hector Babenco's "Carandiru" is a powerful, deeply affecting film about a real-life police massacre that occurred in Brazil's largest prison about 10 years ago. But Babenco is no stranger to Brazilian squalor 's he directed the almost unwatchably disturbing "Pixote" in the 1980s.
No one speaks the language of film more eloquently, or intelligently, than Jean-Luc Godard and it's wonderful to see him back with "Our Music." Godard the pensioner is still more radical in his concept of film than just about any one else working behind a camera, and no one can combine text and image as profoundly as he does. Loosely set around a literary convention in Sarajevo, "Our Music" is, like so much of Godard's work, devastatingly beautiful.
There are some wonderful films and documentaries about music as well, such as Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People," Paul Justman's "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" and Wim Wender's "The Soul of a Man."
I particularly enjoyed "Live Forever," a documentary about the so-called Britpop scene that emerged out of the U.K. in the 1990s. It's fascinating to see how inarticulate those who actually made it happen are. But Oasis' Liam and Noel Gallagher are something else. See "Live Forever" if only for the wonderful scene in which Noel explains that his blood is "fundamentally purer" than Blur's Damon Albarn because he's worked on a building site before.
As ever, Arsenals has a theme and this year it's Georgian cinema. A whole range of classic Georgian films by directors such as Mikhail Kobahidze and Irakli Kvirikadze is being shown in a special program entitled "In Vino Veritas."
The recent Baltic Pearl film festival showed that Rigans really do want to see good films. The films sold out hours ahead of time, and the same thing will doubtless happen with Arsenals. There is so much more to film than the dream factory of Hollywood, and I sincerely hope that the Coca-Cola Plaza, which has radically altered the whole cinema scene in Riga, will perhaps learn a lesson from the popularity of Arsenals and start screening a few more decent films from now on. Without a calculator to hand, I'd guess that if you combined the budget of every movie showing at Arsenals, it would add up to approximately one Hollywood blockbuster. Now there's a sickening thought.
Arsenals Film Festival
Sept. 18 's Sept. 26
For full program details visit www.arsenals.lv