New Baltic cinema - taking the first steps on unknown ground

  • 2002-01-10
  • Julie Vinten
RIGA - It's no secret that Baltic cinema doesn't sell well outside the Baltics. Today, Baltic feature films are virtually unknown to the average cinema enthusiast and the sums earned on these films at releases in foreign countries is almost nothing.

In Soviet times, however, five to 10 feature films were made on a yearly basis in each of the Baltic states. But back then filmmakers were kept on a short leash and the party machinery made sure the topics they chose to work with didn't stray far from propaganda issues for the Soviet regime.

On the other hand, unlike filmmakers in the rest of the world, they never had to worry about the financial aspects of their projects - for them, the money kept rolling in from Moscow.

When the Baltic countries regained independence, artistic censorship all but disappeared - as did the subsidies. No money was included for filmmaking in any public or private budgets, which left few Baltic filmmakers the opportunity to make films at all. The result was a five-year gap in Baltic cinematic history.

Guntis Trekteris, the managing producer of Latvia's Kaupo Filma, said, "Only now is the new generation of filmmakers making their first movies - taking their first steps." He believes there are some strong young directors in all three Baltic countries, but because of the five-year break in the industry many film traditions were lost.

"It's quite hard for these new directors and producers, because they are starting in an empty place," he said.

Riina Sildos is the managing director of the Estonian Film Foundation, founded in 1997. This is now the main financial institution for film projects in Estonia.

"As the Baltic states entered into the global economy the cultural field became secondary. What this really meant at the time was that the national culture was actually opposed - in financial terms - to success in these areas," she said.

It's possible one reason for the Baltic states' limited financial success internationally is that other countries just don't understand Baltic films.

Too local?

In all three Baltic countries a recurring subject in films has been relationships among family members or between lovers with the action set in small postwar countryside villages. Two of many such films are "Strange Passions" (1983) by Latvian director Janis Streics, and "Eternal Light" (1988) by Lithuanian director Algimantas Puipa. The Lithuanian film has a melancholy and bitter atmosphere as it portrays the relationships between four people in a postwar Lithuanian village.

Guntis Trekteris thinks that some Baltic manuscripts can be too local-minded, filled with local jokes and references that would mean little to foreign audiences. His advice to aspiring Baltic filmmakers is to be cautious when using inside references and instead make simpler films that focus on human stories.

He points out that young filmmakers should attend festivals around the world and see films from other nations. They can then compare those films with their own and learn to find stories and themes that work outside the Baltics.

Elina Cerpa graduated as a film director from the Latvian Cultural Academy last year. She believes that films are changing but that the subjects for them are still a bit behind the times. "For example, we are only now moving toward depicting the life of a gay person, but in other countries this subject is already old," she explained.

She also considers the lack of knowledge foreign viewers have of Baltic history a problem and feels that's why they find it hard to understand Baltic films.

But even though film making in the Baltic states has not proven to be profitable, Baltic films and documentaries have done surprisingly well over the years at international film festivals. Under the direction of Una Celma, the Latvian documentary "Egg Lady" (2000) - about a woman who has broken eggs for a Latvian baking company for the past 20 years - won honors in Sweden, Spain, Germany, Estonia and Latvia. The Estonian film "Georgica" (1998) directed by Sulev Keedus won an award at the Stockholm Film Festival.

Lithuanian director Audrius Stonys won the Felix at the European Film Academy Awards with his documentary from 1992, "The Land of Blind Men." He said, "The human soul is the same no matter where you are in the world. Things like loneliness and feeling like you're not understood are universal - things all of us can relate to."

Still, these successes don't change the fact that Baltic films are sold for cinema distribution to foreign countries only in minuscule numbers or that the money earned from them is minimal.

Riina Sildos comments, "Big international success remains dependent on big international budgets. We simply aren't there yet."

She considers it to be a question of time, resources and credibility before any serious headway is made, and points out that many people still don't even know where Estonia is located on a map.

About 40,000 euros ($35,500) were spent in Estonia in 2001 on film distribution in the rest of the world. Sildos believes it would only be possible to extend that budget at the expense of production budgets.

Cinema business

The year 2000 was a good year for Latvian feature films. Of the two films released - "Dangerous Summer" (directed by Aigars Grauba) and "The Mystery of the Old Parish House" (directed by Janis Streics) - both were on the top 10 film list, earning 7 percent of the total admissions. But still, the films most people see are those from Hollywood. So why doesn't Baltic cinema go with the flow and make commercial films?

"To make entertaining blockbusters takes an industry rich in experience we just don't have," says Trekteris. He doesn't see anyone who could make such a film in the Baltics at the moment, but says it's possible to concentrate on films that have the potential for unlimited success - such as genre and children's entertainment movies.

Audrius Stonys feels that less emphasis should be placed on the fact that Baltic films don't sell. The way he sees it, Baltic filmmakers have an artistic freedom Western cinema lacks.

"We have the privilege not to think about money. There are better ways to earn money than from film, instead of gaining funding in exchange for the freedom of expression. Cinema is not a business."

To Cerpa the subject is also quite clear, "I don't want to make movies for a huge audience - I'm not going to make 'The Mummy III'," she said.

Every year approximately 5 million euros go from state budgets into the Baltic film industry, which is almost completely dependent on those subsidies. This may seem like a lot of money but not when compared to sums spent in other parts of the world for film. In the future it will be necessary to gain attention from private financiers and local companies for financial support. It is also essential to make films in coproduction with other countries.

"I think Lithuania cinema is almost dead. If nothing changes - if Lithuania does not join European cultural programs - then we'll lose our cinema and our cinema professionals because they will leave Lithuania or change professions," says Neringa Kaukauskaite, a Lithuanian film critic.

Realizing the importance of international coproduction, the Estonian Ministry of Culture gave 159,744 euros in 2000 to encourage this. Another step was taken in February 2001 when a cooperation agreement between Baltic Films and Scandinavian Films was signed.

With films coming from Latvia in coproduction with Germany like "The Shoe" (1998) directed by Laila Pakalnina and "The Heart of the Bear" (2001) directed by Arvo Iho in coproduction with Estonia, Russia, the Czech Republic and Germany, the process is already full speed ahead.

Home alone

Not many feature films are made in the Baltic countries. In Lithuania only one domestic feature film was released between 1998 and 2000. In 1999 three feature films were released in Latvia, but only around 8,000 people went to see them at Latvian cinemas. In 2000 not a single feature film was made in Estonia, which resulted in Estonian domestic movies taking less than 1 percent of all cinema admissions that year.

Sildos believes that the missing success of Baltic films in their native countries in recent years has been due to a lack of awareness of local films, but she thinks that ways to change this will be found.

"Success was never dependent on commercial intentions - or on a lack of them. Rather it depends on how we reach the viewer," she said.

Baltic movies have a long way to go before they make it big in the rest of the world if they aren't even making it in their own countries. The aim should be to try to produce more films and get Baltic audiences to go and see them before attempting to enchant people around the globe.