RIGA - At 10 p.m. on May 20, amid the lively museum night celebrations, Culture Minister Helen Demakova cut the ribbon of the Riga Film Museum's new home on Peitavas Street in the Old Town. She made her speech standing next to Ilze Holmberg, the National Film Centre's managing director, in front of a projector screen that was running a series of doll animation films, one of which showed a poor man disappearing inside a body cast.
Only in Latvia.
It was a hefty excited crowd that night, walking in and out of the few small, under-decorated rooms. There were some old cameras on display, some from the '60s some from the '30s, and pictures of Latvian films from the last 15 years. But for the most part, people stood around a flat screen television and another larger screen in a mini-theater, watching Latvian movies.
"We will have all Latvian films of the last 15 years here," says Holmberg. They're working on getting the stuff from the Soviet-era, much of which is deteriorating in film vaults in Moscow.
In Latvia today, you can go to any video store and pick up all the new American films you want. Latvian films age a little more quickly. To see them, you go to a museum. The first incarnation of the Riga Film Museum opened in 1991, "part of the excitement of the time," says Holmberg. The gentleman who opened it "wanted to preserve" something that was about to be lost. In the years since, after it was taken over by the government, it was more or less left to rot. "Everything was collecting dust." And so the decision was made to have the museum join the National Film Centre, whose offices are on the upper floor.
If the museum seems a little embryonic at the moment, it may be a reflection on the state of the Latvian film industry.
It makes two feature films a year, along with an assortment of animated shorts and documentaries, says Holmberg. Less than 2 million lats total is spent each year on Latvian films, hardly enough to make a single Hollywood movie.
There's an office on the upper floors that contains every Latvian film made in the last 15 years, but most of it is on VHS. Right now, they're trying to convert them all to DVD, all with Russian and English subtitles. Downstairs, the museum will have a cafe (not yet, that costs money as well), as well as a series of rolling exhibitions. Eventually, they hope to have one wall dedicated to Sergei Eisenstein, the Riga-born filmmaker who gave us propagandistic classics like "Potemkin" (1925) and later the anti-Stalinist screed "Ivan the Terrible Part II."
On May 25, the museum will host its first lecture, about film utopias, held in conjunction with two special showings at Kino Riga over the previous weekend of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) and Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville" (1965).
On limited state funds, Holmberg seems to have taken on quite a burden. Still from the captivated crowd on May 20, one senses she may not have to do too much to impress her audience. With only one Latvian film currently showing at Forum Cinemas, people seem a little hungry for a taste of their own country on the screen next to "Mission: Impossible III" and "The Da Vinci Code."
Riga Film Museum
Peitavas St. 10/2
More info: +371 735 8878