Defending the new Latvian cinema

  • 2004-12-09
  • By Julie Vinten
RIGA - It's the talk of the town, and for good reason. "Rigas Sargi" ("Defenders of Riga"), which started shooting this fall and is due for release in movie theaters at the end of 2005, is without doubt the most large-scale and arguably the most ambitious domestic film project Latvia has ever seen. And with a budget of 2 million euros, "Defenders of Riga" is by some way the most expensive film ever to be made in Latvia.

The film is a historical drama that revolves around November 11, 1919, an enormously significant date for Latvians. Shortly after the end of WWI, Latvia declared itself an independent republic, but the German army lingered behind in the country and kept control of Riga. On November 11, 1919, however, some 11,000 Latvians, made up of soldiers and volunteers, fought against the 50,000-strong German army. They managed to retake the city and eventually defeat the Germans in a final battle which was the last step to full Latvian independence.

More than 100 people from Latvia, Russia, Germany and Belarus are involved in making the film, which is being co-produced by Russia and Estonia and has received financial backing from local and foreign film institutes and programs.

On a large 8.5-hectare open-air set on a rural piece of land outside Riga, parts of Riga's Old Town and Riga's Pardaugava district have been recreated from scratch to resemble the look of these places at that time. The film's cast boasts some of Latvia's best-known and most-respected actors and will also use some ambitious visual effects. For the film's battle scenes some 200 extras will be transformed into an army of 50,000 with the help of computer technology.

Without question, this is a huge project by Latvian standards, but the question is whether people will actually go and see "Rigas Sargi" in any significant numbers. Many Latvians find domestically made films a little too boring and slow to actually shell out and sit through them.

"I have to disagree with that a bit," says Aigars Grauba (pictured left), the director of "Defenders of Riga." "More people went to see "Baiga Vasara" ("Dangerous Summer," Grauba's first feature) than "Gladiator."

Though "Dangerous Summer" was an exception to the rule, Grauba believes that no one can or should decide what kind of films should be made in Latvia, no matter how many people go to see them.

"One story isn't better than another. The audience has the right to choose what films and stories they like, and the director has that right to choose what films he wants to make."

Still, Grauba believes that the audience makes or breaks films by buying tickets, and that is the best way of knowing if the film has hit its mark. For the past two years, Estonian films were, rather surprisingly, the biggest box office draw in Estonia. "Defenders of Riga" could well have a similar impact in Latvia since the project has the ingredients to be more of a crowd pleaser than most other home-produced films.

Many Latvian films deal with historical events in an attempt to enshrine Latvian culture in celluloid. Heroism and patriotism are frequent themes in domestic cinema going back for decades. But why do so few Latvian features deal with everyday, contemporary life? Grauba believes that although his film takes place some time ago, it deals with issues that are relevant today.

"We need to have our heroes and preserve our legends," Grauba explains. "But I don't, with this film, want to talk about some general heroism and patriotism - that we are all very patriotic. Each person makes his individual and personal decisions to be active or passive, to care or not to care, to run or stand his ground, and everyone has to make such decisions every day in his life. It's here and now."

Given the film's large budget, you might think that the filmmakers would feel some pressure for it to succeed. But Grauba doesn't seem especially worried, despite the fact that if "Defenders of Riga" flops, potential investors will probably be deterred from investing in the already half penniless Latvian film industry, and especially in such large-scale projects.

"As long as we are capable and want to make films, there will be large-scale films in Latvia," he says. He also believes that people shouldn't focus on how much, or rather, how little money there is in the Latvian film industry.

"What is important is that the film industry is actually starting to work, and we can now begin to say that [the Latvian film industry] is gradually becoming a real industry."

Grauba goes on to quote something the manager of the Danish Film Institute said when he visited Riga: People have to allow themselves to make mistakes otherwise they can't develop. Not that he is necessarily talking about his own project. "I, of course, believe that "Defenders of Riga" will be great," he says with a wry smile.