An Examination of the Past and Present at the Boston Baltic Film Festival

November 15, 2019 | By Alexandra Kuenning

The second annual Boston Baltic Film Festival took place from Oct. 18-20 in Emerson College’s Bright Family Screening Room at the Paramount Center. The vast majority of attendees were first or second-generation Baltic-Americans — it was not uncommon to hear strands of Lithuanian, Latvian, or Estonian floating around the room before a film. Over the course of the weekend, eight films were shown, ranging from dramatized histories to documentaries to modern rom-coms. 

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Still from The Mover (2018)

In the Lithuanian film Back to the Dreamland, one of two documentaries screened, director Ramunė Rakauskaitė uses archival footage and interviews to tell the story of the Lithuanian refugees who were given an opportunity to return to the Soviet-occupied country in the 1960s and 70s. While many films have been made about the forced deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia following the Soviet occupation, there was not much known about those who fled in the opposite direction. In a discussion following the film, Rakauskaitė explained that she wanted to emphasize that for these refugees, it was “the same history of broken families, of broken illusions.”


Coming in at 57 minutes, a relatively short feature, and for those unversed in Soviet politics, the lack of background provided may create some confusion. However, the film’s strength comes from Rakauskaitė’s ability to balance the many emotions of the interviewees as they reminisce about returning home all those years ago. She traverses between humorous tales, such as when an interviewee recounts the time he had five KGB operatives tailing him, causing him to bump into one of them “accidentally,” and those of poignant grief, including when an interviewee and her mother returned to their village in secret to visit her grandmother’s grave. Rakauskaitė allows each emotion to sink in but does not allow any one emotion to become overwhelming. 


Another film that focuses on emotion was The Mover, directed by Dāvis Sīmanis Jr., Latvia’s nomination for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming Academy Awards. Based on a true story, The Mover provides a gripping account of Žanis Lipke (Artūrs Skrastiņš), a blue-collar worker who was honored as one of the “righteous among the nations” for his covert operation to save local Jews from Nazi persecution during the Holocaust. By choosing to only focus on one year of the war — the film is set from the summer of 1941, when the Nazis occupied Latvia, to the spring of 1942 — Sīmanis creates a film that, through its slow pace, allows the audience to reflect on the horrific events that occurred and the family dynamics that led Lipke to take action. It is not an easy task to balance the delicate emotions brought forth by the film, especially when filming scenes of mass murder. In a panel after the screening, Sīmanis noted that “when you make a film, you need to be emotionally there, but you also have to find a way to deal with [the emotions].”

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Still from And All Their Men (2019)

In addition to the films, there was also a Meet The Baltic Filmmakers panel discussion, where directors and producers were able to discuss their work in greater detail and comment on the state of the Baltic film industry. Each of the filmmakers came into the industry for different reasons, from having relatives in the industry to finding film to be the best way to express certain thoughts without falling afoul of USSR censorship. 


The inspiration for their films also varied. For Latvian Olafs Okonovs, director of the family-friendly movie Mystery of the Old Garden, his responsibility was to change the tonality found in stories of Latvia’s “sad past” and instead focus on building up positive emotions in viewers, particularly children. For Sīmanis, telling tragic stories was necessary in order to allow future generations to remember and relate to such events. Finally, in a more flippant remark, Lithuanian Donatas Ulvydas, who directed And All Their Men, explained that the market was saturated with American films and that he decided it was time to fight them by making better films. 


During the second half of the conversation, the group moved away from their own specific films and instead examined the Baltic film industry at large. In the 1970s and 80s, Latvia’s capital, Riga, was home to a major film studio that produced up to 10 motion pictures a year. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, so too did the film industry. What exists today had to be built from scratch, causing most of the filmmakers to label the film industry as being in its teenage years. While young, the industry has gained a lot of traction within the international film circuit — Baltic films have an unusually high presence at the Shanghai International Film Festival. What many of the filmmakers were concerned about, however, was how to balance popularity within the country of origin with that of international acclaim. As Sīmanis noted, “festivals are the only way to distribute films coming from the Baltic states,” leading him to always be “happy when [he sees his] films on pirated sites because it’s a form of distribution in some way.”


While the Baltic film industry may be young, it is likely to continue to create critically acclaimed films, judging by the films shown in Boston and the passion expressed by the filmmakers present. For those who were unable to attend, The Mover will be shown again in Boston in November during the Boston Jewish Film Festival.