In its one hundred years of existence, calculated according to the premiere of the first Latvian national feature film, Latvian cinema has experienced and lived through two or even three completely different film industry models, leaving its mark on cinema history in each of them. Latvian film professionals have worked within a small environment where they can rely on funding and viewers only from their own country, and they have also operated within a large empire in which they successfully competed for the sympathy of millions of viewers throughout the former Soviet Union.
To a certain extent, Latvian national cinema was born “in the name of an idea” and from the dreams of a few enterprising enthusiasts.
As in many other countries in the early 1920s, the earliest Latvian feature films were produced by cinema owners or professionals in related industries. There was no state support system for cinema, but the filmmakers nevertheless treated the birth of this new art form in a nationally responsible way, namely, the first feature films in Latvia were not made merely for their revenue potential but featured patriotically oriented stories about the birth of the new state, its history and its struggle for freedom. Unfortunately, only small excerpts or individual scenes – or simply mention of them in the press of the day – remain of Latvia’s first feature films. However, several Latvian feature films made in the 1930s have survived to the present day, and they confirm the talent and ability of the enthusiasts of this new medium to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to create respectable works of art. Viewers also appreciated their cinematographic efforts; Latvian cinema was popular with audiences, and cinemas were well attended.
The invasion of the Soviet army and the Second World War in effect destroyed the Latvian film industry, with most active local filmmakers fleeing to exile in the West at the end of the war. As an example, the employees of the Rīgas Filma studio left with all of their filming equipment and a clear intention to continue working in their new country of residence.
An opinion was circulated during the first years of the post-war Soviet occupation that there were no film professionals in Latvia, and therefore the other “fraternal republics” needed to lend a hand. Thus the first feature films in Latvia of the 1940s were made by guest directors from Russian film studios.
It was not until 1955 that two feature films were made which the press ventured to call “the first national films”.
But in the early 1960s, the local film industry was still only gradually gaining momentum, initially releasing no more than two feature films a year.
The first young filmmakers to have been educated at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow began returning to Latvia in the late 1950s, and their impatient zeal to begin working happened to coincide with the financial stabilisation of the Riga Film Studio as well as the relatively freer creative atmosphere that the early 1960s brought to the Soviet Union (in the form of the Khrushchev Thaw) and all of Europe. In 1966, the Riga Film Studio began producing four or five feature films a year, adapting classic literature for the screen but also making movies for children and paying inescapable ideological homage to “the happy life of the Soviet people”. Latvian feature films were already by this time being screened at theatres throughout the Soviet Union, with viewer numbers in the millions.
The 1970s and 80s were the most prolific and stable period for the Riga Film Studio, with an average of seven feature films made every year and a staff of approximately ten to twelve film directors and a corresponding number of other film professionals. During this time, the studio employed about 800 people, and the production cycle of a single feature film usually did not exceed one year. The Soviet economy revolved around the concept of “socialist emulation”, or “socialist competition”, in which enterprises working in the same field were compared according to a variety of production indicators. In such a comparison of almost twenty Soviet film studios, the Riga Film Studio held a position in the top three for more than a decade. Latvian crime films and dramas were especially popular in the Soviet Union, but the biggest stir was caused by the captivating and melodramatic television serial The Long Road in the Dunes (1981, seven episodes).
However, comparisons between Latvian and global cinema could not be made during the Soviet period, because the ideological Iron Curtain that separated the USSR from the rest of the world allowed neither films nor filmmakers to travel freely.
Due to ideology, there were also many restrictions on creative expression “at home” – while formally censorship did not exist, various written and unwritten laws about what was allowed or not, as well as self-censorship and “collective discussions”, suppressed the most talented and exciting ambitions.
With the changes in the political climate throughout the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Latvian filmmakers also gained new vigour, began addressing previously silenced themes and allowed themselves more freedom in terms of style as well as national pathos. But by the early 1990s, when Latvia regained its independence, the film industry’s system of financing and distribution had changed dramatically; the means to make films were no longer ensured by the revenues from their distribution, because the Soviet Union had collapsed along with all the mechanisms of its centralised economy.
In the mid-1990s, the new Latvian state could only rely on its own efforts, and filmmaking was far from a priority at this time of major reform and transformation. It took until the beginning of the 21st century to establish the film financing, production and distribution system to correspond to the capabilities and needs of a small country, to establish and expand international contacts and successes, and for Latvian cinema to earn its local “market share” and prestige in the eyes of viewers at home. Latvian contemporary cinema is now creating a new cultural legacy that will in time stand proudly and equally next to the Latvian classics presented in this selection.
Kristīne Matīsa, Film Historian