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Sun, sand and starvation for celebrity castaways

  • 2002-10-17
  • Philip Birzulis
The Baltics are no exception to the global fascination with reality TV, and a local version of the genre has Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians glued to their screens, as Philip Birzulis reports.

Perhaps many ideas seem crazy before experience proves them to be winners. Prior to the worldwide craze for reality programs such as "Survivor" over the past few years, who would have believed that keeping ordinary people under the glare of cameras for weeks on end could entertain millions? And who would have thought that the subjects of these experiments would be tripping over themselves to jump into the media goldfish bowl?

As with many fads, the Baltics are no exception to this international trend. But unlike survival shows from other places, the version in this region pits nations as well as individuals against each other.

Tropical torments

With reference to another famous castaway, the program screening on Sunday nights on the TV3 network in all three countries is called "The Robinsons." Now in its third season, it involves sending five people from each of the Baltics countries to an island in Malaysia for six weeks. Of course, this is no pleasure trip - contact with the outside world is forbidden and the participants are only given enough food for subsistence, all while being filmed. There are contests leading to votes on who has to depart the island, until only one winner remains. He or she walks away with a relatively modest cash prize worth 12,000 euros.

Filming for this year's series finished in August, and the Baltic Robinsons are home again. While they are barred from spoiling the twists and turns of the game running weekly on TV - and of course revealing who won - a few of them shared some of their experiences with The Baltic Times.

Kristine Koladina from Riga said she loved to lie on the beach in Latvia, and thought that it would be fun and challenging to do it in a tropical climate.

"It's a type of social experiment, and I wanted to see how I would change," she said. "I know now that I can go without washing for a month, with difficulty but I can do it," she said. "Not having enough food was more important."

Fortunately, the physical trials were not compounded by social tension. Koladina said that all of the participants were "mature, made compromises."

She admitted that there may be a few more storms back home now that her face is so widely known. Koladina said she felt that the TV production had cast her as an "iron lady," and strangers might think this is how she really is. But anyway, she said, any publicity is good. Still, she has no big show business ambitions, content to continue her job as a secretary and accountant.

Rimas Valeikis from Lithuania earns his living as a cartoonist at the local daily Respublika. He went on the show to try something different - and was bitten by a snake on camera. Luckily it was only a small, non-venomous python, he pointed out.

Valeikis' assessment of island life were similar to Koladina's.

"You expect trouble because the show is searching for social conflict, but maybe the biggest problem was that I like to eat a lot," he said.

But while he doesn't regret the experience, he said there were other things to do in life and would't be making another appearance.

Similarly, Koladina said she might try another reality show if the format and location were different. But she has no desire to undergo the same thing another time.

"I wouldn't want the same pain again. It's like getting a small child to the dentist - easy the first time but much harder the second," she said.

Home viewing

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also supply separate camera crews for the event, since each audience wants the main focus of the broadcasts to be on its own compatriots.

The program is so popular in Latvia that some bars put up big screens to let their customers watch. Dainis Klava from the Vides Film Studio in Riga who has directed the last two Latvian versions, thinks it fills a void for many.

"When something is lacking in people's private lives, they look for satisfaction elsewhere," he said.

Over 400 applications were received by people wanting to get to the island. Klava said that the criteria was finding strong people, but openness and communication skills that play well on TV were also important.

By contrast, this year's Estonian contingent included a gay man and a person hoping to use the experience to recover from alcoholism.

"We wanted different kinds of people," explained Raivo Maripuu, the director of the Estonian version.

Maripuu said that escapism was the main reason for the show's popularity in Estonia.

"The main thing is that people can see other Estonians in a tropical land, and the viewers can feel, 'I can be in Malaysia too,'" he said.

The contestants live with their own nationals until the final rounds, when the remaining hopefuls are brought together to outwit each other. So does living on an island under dicey conditions make cultures react differently?

Most of those surveyed for this article said that differences did appear. But Valeikis said that the competitors got along reasonably well, conversing in a mixture of English and Russia. And he claimed that the things which unite are stronger .

"Sure, the stereotype is that the Estonians are calm and slow, but really they're the same as us," he said.