Financial auditor makes his name on the big screen

  • 2012-06-13
  • Interview by Ilze Powell

From a suit-and-tie conservative start studying at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, to working in financial auditing at PricewaterhouseCoopers, this up-and-coming Latvian filmmaker stepped off the corporate fast-track to represent life, as he sees it, on the big screen. Soon after graduating from the Baltic Film School, his documentary film debut met with extended ticket sales in Latvia’s premiere cinema. Today, Riga’s own Dzintars Dreibergs is a young film-maker representing Latvia in an international film effort to express life in the 15 different Post-Soviet nations. The appropriately titled ‘15 Young by Young’ expects its Europe-wide release in September this year. The Baltic Times met with Dreibergs to delve deeper into what got him into film-making, and what it means to direct films in Riga.

From financial auditing to film sets. How did that happen?
I think above all I realized my heart was someplace else. One day that feeling of senselessness was too overwhelming. I found myself asking ‘why should I be checking other people’s accounting? What’s the point?’ And then one day, just for fun, I started shooting short films with my friend. He had a new H8 camera and we would just joke around with it. Until one day I stumbled into a conversation with a sort of well known theater director, Viesturs Meiksans, who asked me if I wanted to apply for some film studies as well. I figured why not, I could always apply and see what would happen. I think I realized I was on that train only after it had already developed a steady speed. It felt nice though. I was suddenly interested in things again.

What was it like after graduation, going from a guaranteed income to a somewhat uncertain future?
The hardest was the transition from that idea: I used to be a guy with a company car, and then one day I’m at the Theater Bar and can’t even afford a beer because all my resources go to making a student movie. I think at that time everything seemed shaky, and I didn’t feel like I knew how to make money at all in this world. The most important thing was to just stay open, and luckily one offer came, then another gig appeared and I was moving forward again. The funniest thing I remember was that even after graduation, I was still like ‘Ok, I can continue to make short funny films for my friends.’ It was kind of like nothing had changed in me. It was never like I could simply send my CV and say ‘I’d like to be considered for a full-time director’s position.’

Have you felt like giving it all up and going back to accounting and auditing?
Yeah, there have been times [laughs]. Part-time! One balance sheet a month. No, seriously, I think the biggest challenge is not having that nine-to-six idea in your life. Social guarantees. And what if I never win any big competitions or make it at all? But I know that it’s only because we, as humans, like to idealize what we can’t have. It’s never really what it looks like from the outside, anyway. Most of my ‘financial’ friends, anyway, work till eight and don’t feel all that stable at the end of the day. The bottom line is, are you happy doing it? Sometimes I feel nostalgic and compare the ‘what if’ to what I have now. But that quickly fades away. I follow my heart and that’s what matters.

With hindsight, can you say that one industry has bigger potential than the other?
Well, [grins for a moment] of course working in finance you’re always socially stable and with years it’s guaranteed that you make more and more money. Whereas as a film director you work for investors’ money and your pension is basically, well, a smile. I think it is realistically impossible to be a film director in Latvia and make a project that breaks out, even in Latvia alone. Cinema in Latvia is more important as a time capsule for culture and documentation of the present lifestyles and values, not financial profit.

Can you sell your films abroad?
A good question remains: if I make a film that could sell internationally, then what value does it have for Latvia?

What about other European countries selling their films internationally?
I think it’s quite bizarre that looking at the lists in the cinema, there were something like two French films last year. And even they were the simplest and funniest comedies that had made a big buzz in France beforehand. And even then we, here in Latvia, comparatively cared very little about them. Besides, we have to remember that in countries like France and Italy the market is rather big. I think the international projects are a very good prospect, though. They’re always worth fighting for, competing for. That’s the future for Europe.

Is that how you see your career?
Well, yes. Take the Polish film director Sergei Loznitsa’s film ‘In the fog,’ that just won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was shot in Latvia. I think it shows a great example of successful international cooperation between Europeans who can create something beautiful.

Why is it always the documentary film that makes a mention of Latvia?
Very simple. The budget. Documentaries are developing at high speed due to the fact that the technology has become accessible and affordable. So, if you’re very skilled and motivated then even a team of two-to-three people can create something very high-quality and interesting to watch.

Do film people in Latvia make enough to survive?
There are enough advertising gigs and video jobs to hold you over. The problem is that if you are an artist and you get too involved with all these relatively non-artistic things, it limits you in some ways. You become less artistic. Everyone must find their right balance and survive on it.

Are there any film directors that you simply admire?
Maybe not admire, but I certainly have some that I respect artistically. I especially like those who have succeeded in portraying life’s tragicomic side. Who can spot the little funny moments and know how to tell a story around them. Milos Forman, Wes Anderson and Danelia are definitely the top three.

What’s been the most heart-breaking moment in your director’s experience so far?
That moment of moments actually comes in every shooting. It’s the time when you are with a camera and there are teenagers trying to get laid, or girls chatting openly about their intimate lives or similar, and in a blink of an eye you understand that there is no ‘you’ in there anymore. They’ve started existing like you’re really not there. It’s a sublime privilege to be the invisible man in someone’s life. And they’re so totally open. And trusting you and the other characters. I can be in the middle of all that and see things I would otherwise never see if I worked in a different profession. At those moments I feel like I have wings and I could fly. It’s like ‘oh, yeah… I know why I love doing this.’

What is your most important role on the set?
I have to be the person who keeps the direction. Who can always point the actors, the operator toward the story. Especially in documentaries where it is crucial for all people to see one vision. I mean, if you see a moment of truth in front of you, but the operator at that moment is distracted by the way Mayflowers are playing in the sun… [a knowing smile]. The director must trust his team, but above all has to be capable of guiding them in the necessary direction.

Do you think Latvia makes a name internationally with its film success?
Sure. Just look at ‘15 Young by Young.’ It all started with one Latvian woman, Ilona Bicevska, who had the idea first, who worked hard for five years gathering people and ideas, believing at moments when all the others were ready to give up. I think it takes something like being able to dive breathlessly for a period of five years, but seeing its success, it’s definitely possible. And documentaries are the area where we are going toward that target. I think we are best as the middle element with our ideas and energy. And what we also have is a new freshness. We can do big things.

Who financed ‘15 Young by Young’?
First and foremost, Ilona Bicevska, with her undying enthusiasm [there’s so much admiration and respect in his voice as it drops an octave and suddenly becomes unusually serious].
To convince everyone that something is possible when all you have is one simple idea… it’s really something. Even when people smirked around, saying ‘it’s all interesting, of course, but highly undoable.’ But we did it. It’s so absolutely Latvia’s project. A very remarkable accomplishment. Then of course the industry’s big whales. The major television of all those fifteen countries who were the most difficult to convince that this project even fit their criteria. As the end result, the biggest success is the opportunity for those fifteen young directors to enter the European market and announce themselves on the big screen.

How were the fifteen directors selected?
The process was actually long and difficult. I think the hardest thing was knowing what’s going on in the industry nowadays. It was like we were all watching Russian cartoons twenty years ago, but who knows what the people are up to now. Who knew any film names in Kazakhstan, for example? It was a challenge.

With this project fifteen young directors are telling stories of their countries in a Post-Soviet period. Why did you choose to tell Mikrob’s story, as the representative of Latvia?
It took me a long time and over forty kids before I spotted him. My belief was that I had to find a person and see what his biggest agitations of that moment were. I saw that he came from a rather rough environment, with parents who haven’t really adapted to the Post-Soviet environment and nobody was really able to tell him off. He was kind of living his life alone. And it was darkish. But then I saw the spite inside, and how, regardless of all and because of this stubborn spite, he’s still able to drag himself forward and even find what he’s looking for. And I thought it was amazing to see this period of a young person’s life, when he realizes that he and he alone is the one who makes the choices. I think it’s the same with Latvia as a country. It’s time to acknowledge that there are no big advisers, no elders in politics who know it all. People are seeing now that we are a small nation and each of us makes up the nation. That we are responsible for our decisions. And the best is that we are so small that we can actually put the country in the order we would like. Like, we individually can make a difference. I thought this was the theme I wanted to show in my fifteen minutes.

When and where will the audience be able to see the film?
The film is making a wide premiere in September. So, the audience will be able to see it in major cinemas across European countries, also in the Forum Cinemas in Riga.

What about your documentary debut, ‘Padoties aizliegts’ (What makes a man)?
The greatest thing about ‘Padoties aizliegts’ was the fact that it was accepted in Forum Cinemas. Before, they’d never accepted a documentary. And just seeing that people do go… people really went and watched it and believed finally that something documental can also be interesting [there’s such happiness in his eyes remembering this]. Even more so, the show times were extended three times.

Can such a movie make a profit in the Latvian market?
No. Unfortunately. The numbers of people seeing it are still too low to pay for it.

Then who pays for Latvian filmmaker’s movies?
Sponsors, in large part. There are always some enthusiasts who invest big money and time and believe in seeing an idea on the screen. Then the ‘National Film Center of Latvia’ gives a significant contribution. They have that unique ability to see what’s out there, what people are making what projects, and make a tentative judgment on who might complete the finest work and distribute the money toward the highest potentials. In short, the state supports and makes it all happen.

What do you think is the best aspect about the film industry in Latvia?
I absolutely love making documentaries. I think in a country like Latvia, where everything is still growing and shaping, maybe stabilizing is a better word, they can convey these truly significant moments of life the best. That ability to see a person. Not to shoot something self-obsessively or for money or fame, but to be able to really observe a character. Not manipulating the hero but letting him or her tell a genuine story. For me cinema means ‘watching life.’ And sometimes that is exactly what people are missing in their busy problem-filled routines. They need to see a simple but true life in front of their eyes and realize that small things also matter.

What are you working on now?
More documentaries. I am planning to make a feature about policemen in Latvia, for example.
Seeing a person’s life, you can start understanding the person himself. It’s a long process until you can figure out another part of society. And, I think, once you see this you can comprehend what’s really going on around you. People stop thinking ‘Oh, I AM, and the rest are idiots.’ It becomes more like ‘Oh, the idiot’s got this problem and I can understand that.’ Consequently, you can see how the society works, how the country functions, what decisions we make and why. We are more aware of the values around us. And above all, the force behind Latvia as a country, that we sometimes tend to forget. So many bad things happening around, there’s a flood, a robbery, a terrorism attack and we stop seeing that somewhere in the background there are people who keep doing so much good. That is a reminder we need more of. And that is a story worth telling through a camera lens.