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The Baltic film industry: a rapid shift from being a marginal phenomenon

  • 2017-08-30
  • Michael Mustillo

The Baltic States film industry continues growing into a dynamic, creative, artistic ambitious market that is witnessing and experiencing a growth in production volume, and further extending its international reach in production. The industry’s renaissance is foremost reflected in the numbers. In the case of Lithuania, for several consecutive years, there has been a discussion surrounding the growing audience of Lithuanian films in proportion to all productions screened in the country. The audience for Lithuanian films reached a staggering high 23 per cent in 2014 of market share, compared with 2.88 per cent in 2012, while in 2016 the figure was 19.5 per cent. In Estonia, the figure for Estonian films was 10.54  per cent (2016), and in Latvia, Latvian films hold a 7.38 per cent (2016) of market share.

Annual state support, which is vital for the Baltic Film Industry, in 2017, was especially high in Estonia - 12,056,27 Euros (which includes the Estonian Republic’s 100 Years film production support) was allocated by the state to bolster production. This is followed by Latvia -10,689,372 Euros (which also includes the Latvian Republic‘s 100 Years film production support), and of which ‘‘funding for the sector in 2017 is the highest since the restoration of independence,’’ Dita Rietuma, Director of the National Film Centre of Latvia has stated. The Lithuanian Film Centre allocated 4,619,000 Euros to support the Lithuanian film industry. 

Liana Ruokyte-Jonsson, former Head of the Department of Film Promotion, Information and Heritage of the Lithuanian Film Centre (LFC), and the current Lithuanian Minister of Culture has noted to The Baltic Times that there is no doubt that in the case of Lithuania, the Lithuanian film industry has enjoyed a renaissance over the last decade. Lithuanian Film has set the task to become and remain recognizable and visible.

 “We have been looking for unconventional and memorable ways to present ourselves (and the Lithuanian film industry). Of course, there is also the necessity to produce quality content. Our filmmakers have pulled themselves together. Their productions have been selected for leading international film festivals’ programs, and they have also been nominated for European film awards,” Liana Ruokyte-Jonsson has stated. 

In particular, Lithuania can be distinguished from the Baltic States for the interest of its audience in national productions. 

“The popularity of national films in Lithuania has reached 20.17 per cent as opposed to 4.73 per cent in Estonia, and 5.78 per cent in Latvia – although production in all three countries is very similar. Lithuania has been producing more commercial films, but growing interest in commercial productions also increases the popularity of art house films. During the past few years, Lithuanian viewers have returned to film theatres to watch national features, as well as documentaries and animation films. This is an important shift in the Lithuanian film industry – the demand has emerged, and with it, the goal to reach a wider audience in Lithuania and other countries,’’ Liana Ruokyte-Jonsson underlined.

The Baltic film industry has rapidly shifted from being a marginal phenomenon, due to the support and interest shown by noted international festivals, such as the Cannes Film Festival, where films like Sharunas Bartas’ (one of the most prominent Lithuanian internationally acclaimed film directors from the late 20th century) internationally recognised film Peace to Us in Our Dreams was premiered. It was at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015 that the Baltic film institutions decided to sign a mutual cooperation agreement, which aimed at boosting co-productions between the three Baltic countries.

The three Baltic States currently utilise  Baltic Films, as its co-operation platform with the goal of  promoting films from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Baltic Films represents the three countries at major film festivals and markets. Recent cooperation was seen at the beginning of August at the annual Locarno Festival in Switzerland (a festival founded in 1946 and one of the longest-running film festivals in the world, which follows the Cannes and Berlin Festivals, with one of the biggest film festival and industry attendances) where Baltic Cinema highlighted films from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Baltic Cinema developed from a partnership between the Lithuanian Film Centre, Estonian Film Institute, and the Latvian Film Centre, with the Locarno Festival’s First Look featuring six Baltic films in post-production. 

“Cooperation with the international Locarno Festival is very important to us. Exclusive attention to the cinema of Lithuania and the Baltic States is a strong impetus and provides new opportunities for filmmakers. The projects presented in the First Look program were ready to reach a wider international audience. We were pleased to contribute to the implementation of these ambitions and believe in their success,” said Rolandas Kvietkauskas, Lithuanian Film Centre’s Director. 

It was a competitive showcase highlighting movies in post-production. The selected works in progress selected by the festival included: 

El Padre Medico (by Vytautas Puidokas, produced by Paulius Juoceris, a coproduction between Lithuania and Brazil). Seltsimees laps - The Little Comrade (Moonika Siimets, produced by Riina Sildos – Estonia). The Mover (by Davis Simanis Jr., produced by Gints Grube, a Latvia/Luxembourg coproduction). Paradize 89 (by Madara Dislere, produced by Aija Berzina & Alise Gelze, a Latvia/Germany coproduction). Portugal (by Lauri Lagle, produced by Tiina Savi & Ivo Felt – Estonia. Stasis (by Mantas Kvedaravicius, produced by Uljana Kim, a Lithuania/France/Ukraine co-production). 

The 2017 Locarno Festival First Look jury represented by Cannes Critics’ Week artistic director Charles Tesson, Venice Days’ deputy director Sylvain Auzou and Jenn Murphy, the AFI Fest’s senior programmer, made awards to the following Estonian and Lithuanian films: Portugal, the debut film feature of renowned Estonian playwright Lauri Lagle, received 65,000 Euros of prize money for post-production services. The films delivery is scheduled for February 2018. The Festival’s press release noted that  Portugal was awarded first prize for its “originality and look at contemporary life in Estonia.” Other awards went to the Estonian film The Little Comrade (a family drama set in 1950s Stalinist Estonia)  by Moonika Siimets,  who also presented her first feature film). Siimets film received the Le Film Francais Award, comprising advertising placements; and El Padre Medico (Vytautas Puidokas, Lithuania, Brazil) which was awarded two prizes –the Baltic View online platform and the Kaiju- Cinema Diffusion awards, which will provide aid for the film’s international promotion. 

The Locarno Industry Days is the perfect place to give the right visibility to the Baltic States to highlight their cinema, Nadia Dresti, Deputy Artistic Director and Head of International, noted.

‘‘We are sure that the selected Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian producers will profit from the Locarno experience. Nobody can be sure, especially these days, to sell a film, but we can assure that the films were seen by buyers, festival programmers and other professionals in town, as well as by a high profile jury,” said Dresti. 

The Lithuanian film EL Padre Medico is a documentary, which follows the life of  Alexander Ferdinand Bendoraitis, a great but somewhat mysterious Lithuanian doctor, missionary, and philanthropist, who at the start of the 1960s settled in Latin America’s Amazon jungle, where he established a boat-clinic network, the Amazon’s first jungle radio, and the region’s most modern hospital.

Speaking to The Baltic Times, El Padre Medico’s film producer Paulius Jouceris  stated: ‘‘The best prize we received was the feedback! There is huge work ahead of us to bring the full potential of the footage onto the international screen, but we were promised help, so fingers crossed.”

‘‘The most important promise of assistance we received was from Venice Days' Deputy Director Sylvain Auzou. He saw the potential in the footage and liked it, however, his feedback was that we need professional consultancy from an established documentary filmmaker who could help us to structure the project. The theme is really complex and the story is hard, but has great potential,” said Jouceris. 

‘‘He promised to connect us with some professional consultants so we can continue working on our film. Other help we received is also important, but at this stage we are concentrating on how to finish up the project and reach its full potential. Without  professional help for first time directors and producers, it might become mission impossible, but when you feel that you have a strong backup everything is possible.”

Certainly, this year‘s Locarno Festival allowed the international film industry and the festival attendees to take in the Baltic States film ambitions, and extend its international reach in production. This was witnessed in Locarno where four of the six showcased Baltic States films were international coproductions of the highest quality. Latvia, which in 2018 celebrates its film centenary, currently has produced 16 new films to showcase in international markets, with Lithuania enjoying a market share of 23 per cent. 

The Baltic film industry’s most pressing challenge is however related to international distribution of the films produced in the region. As the American entertainment trade magazine and website Variety noted of the Baltic film industry: producers of all six movies, from some of the Baltic States’ highest-profile companies, hit Locarno looking for sales agents. Securing them is of course one of the objectives of the Locarno Festival‘s First Look.

Paulius Juoceris was asked about the importance of the role of sales agents for  El Padre Medico: ‘‘At this point, when you have spent four years making the film, I believe that everything will come together at the right time, if we produce a quality film. To be honest, my biggest wish at Locarno was to get people intrigued, to double check - do people also think that there is potential in our work in progress and so on. So thinking of sales didn’t fully occupy us. Now we need people with experience, we need support from film professionals, we need to finish up the film and we need to feel proud that we have produced a good and honest film. After four years, it’s not business anymore. It’s really personal. If we can get that. I believe the sales will come eventually. However, I invited sales agents to our screenings and we are in contact with some of them, and we will see where that leads.”

‘‘Maybe I am a bit too honest, but the reality is that we don’t have much experience in this "business". We are doing this project because we really wanted to do this film. We are still not finished and there’s much that needs to be done. It’s a constant struggle and for young film- makers who are making their first feature film (it’s also a learning process of trial and error, and making mistakes constantly) - so support is everything. So I don't know much about sales,” said Jouceris. 

But the growth of the Baltic film industry and as noted in the case of the Lithuanian film industry  by Ruokyte-Jonsson, has been mostly prompted by state support, with the possibility to obtain funding from businesses through special tax exemption. 

In Lithuania, a production company can receive up to 20 per cent of the budget when filming in Lithuania and the local sponsor is motivated by the opportunity to reduce the local corporate income tax.  While in Estonia, in 2016 the Estonian Film Institute commenced a programme that aims to encourage better cooperation between local and foreign film producers to shoot films in Estonia. With the amount of aid calculated as a percentage of the costs done in Estonia (up to 30 per cent and paid out retrospectively after all expenses are audited). There are also at present two case rebate schemes operating in Latvia. Riga Film Fund  offers a base rebate of 20 per cent for international shoots and official co-productions that work with Latvian companies. The rebate increases to 25 per cent for stories actually set in Riga, or where the city itself is in some way a major part of the narrative.  The fund also offers a rebate of up to 10 per cent for films shooting outside Riga, but using services of Riga-based companies. Another is by the National Film Centre of Latvia, which also offers international film production co-financing of up to 25 per cent.

The international success of Baltic films is evident in international successes of the films produced in the region, like the Estonian film Tangerines  by Zaza Urushadze, which was awarded Best Foreign-Language Film at the Academy Awards,  and nominated for a Golden Globe Award  for Best Foreign Language Film, and The Fencer which made the Golden Globe foreign-language shortlist. A pivotal breakthrough within Lithuanian commercial filmmaking and its industry came with the 2011 adventure film, Tadas Blinda: The Beginning, which is based on Lithuanian outlaw and fabled woodland folk hero, Tadas Blinda. The most expensive independent film produced in Lithuanian cinema’s history, it demonstrated that the country’s film industry is not lacking in talent. Since its release, a number of internationally acclaimed Lithuanian films have also emerged, namely: The Summer of Sangaile (by Alante Kavaite), The Gambler (by Ignas Jonynas), The Excursionist (by Audrius Juzenas), Master and Tatyana (by Giedre Zickyte), and Noisemaker (by Karolis Kaupinis). 

In Latvia recent international co-productions has seen films such as Sergey Loznitsa’s Cannes competition entry In the Fog and The Berlin Files by Ryoo Seung-wan. The local industry produces just a handful of films a year, but has a strong track record, for example: Mother, I Love You  from Latvian director Janis Nords, which took a Crystal Bear for Best Children's Film at the Berlin International Film Festival, Hedgehogs and the City, and Mellow Mud which won the Crystal Bear at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, are some of the internationally acknowledged works of the Latvian cinema. ‘‘Latvia is also open to co-productions,‘‘  Dita Rietuma, Director of the National Film Centre of Latvia has stated. For example, support was granted for Peter Greenaway’s film The Eisenstein Handshakes, the director’s second film dedicated to Sergei Eisenstein, with Latvia having joined the project as a co-producer. A Latvia-Poland-Estonia co-production, Dawn was included on the European Film Academy’s selection list in 2016 and received many international awards.’’

And what more evidence is needed as to the Baltic States dynamic and modern cinema industry, as it demonstrates to an international film industry and audiences that it is  able to work in a variety of genres and directions, both on a local and international dimension to produce high quality films.