The Baltic Film Festival plays in Sydney from the 15th to the 18th of October, with all films being screened at Dendy Newtown. We sat down with co-festival organiser Klara Bruvere to discuss the program and Baltic cinema more broadly.
I really like the comment your fellow co-ordinator Giorgia [Gakas] made in an online article that “Baltic films aren’t just late-night SBS”.1 There’s some level of pre-conceived notions and unknowing about the Baltic States that you have to work around in selling the festival. With that in mind, what would be the key aspects of the three Baltic film cultures [Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia] that you would want people to know about?
That’s such a difficult question! I suppose there is a lot of preconceived ideas that Baltic films are just festival films, and not for a mainstream audience, but they are. For instance, one of the films we’re showing, The Little Robbers, is a co-production with Austria. Latvia does heaps of co-productions. They’ve even done one with Hong Kong, and have won awards over there. I suppose one of the characteristics would be that they’re quite mainstream and accessible, and follow a lot of the generic tropes that a Western audience used to Hollywood films would understand and would find watchable.
Also, the film industries in the Baltic States have had such a long history of cinema traditions, and when film first started as a medium it was actually one of the hubs of creativity in Europe. For instance, Sergei Eisenstein was actually born in Riga, the capital of Latvia. They were kind of known in the area for being quite innovative and creative, but unfortunately, because of the Soviet Union, their development got stunted and they had to pick up again from where they left off in the 1940s, when they got independence back in 1991.
I went to the Scandinavian Film Festival opening and they said “we really wanted to create this festival because people don’t know enough about the Scandinavian film tradition, how rich that is, and the important people like Ingmar Bergman”. People don’t realise that the Baltic films and cinemas also have a really rich tradition and should be celebrated just as much, as a historically important area for understanding cinema history.
I like that point that it has a lot more in common with Hollywood films than people might expect. In the case of Little Robbers, [from] watching the trailer, it looked a bit like a comedy from the 90s, like Home Alone.
Yeah, definitely like Home Alone. And The Other Dream Team, the opening night film; even though it’s a documentary, it really does feel like you’re watching Cool Runnings. I suppose any cinema in the world wants to be like the best, and I suppose you could argue that Hollywood is seen as the best (in a sense) cinema to watch.
Obviously the film you’ve chosen have a good mix of genres, but also I’ve noticed they stretch back a few years, some being produced as far back as in 2009. Was that a conscious decision, to try and go back that particular span of time with the films you chose?
Yeah, definitely. The closing night film which we’re announcing [today] is called Motherland, which is from 1994. The director of the film is Kriv Stenders, the guy who did Red Dog and who also has Kill Me Three Times coming out, with Simon Pegg. Part of the attractiveness was that Kriv is a really well-known, acclaimed director, and I suppose we wanted to showcase his Australian-Latvian heritage, how well he’s done, and that he’s come from the background of the people who have been organising the festival. Motherland, even though it was made in 1994, is an absolutely beautiful film. It’s one of my favourite films I’ve ever seen, actually. It’s spectacular, visually. It’s a documentary, but it’s also quite dreamlike. It’s a really fantastic film to see. Even though it’s a film that speaks about his grandmother’s journey to Australia after World War II as migrants, and even though there’s Latvian folk music in the soundtrack, the film is incredibly Australian as well, aesthetically and visually and thematically. It’s filmed in Queensland, so the landscape shots are quintessentially Australian. It’s a really interesting film to put into the festival because, in a way, it’s so Latvian but it’s also so Australian. I wanted people to see the connections between the two places, even though they’re so far away and so different culturally. So yeah, there were definitely very specific reasons for including some of the older films in the festival.
I’m also intrigued by what you have planned for the screening of Farewell. You have the director on hand for a Q&A, and also playing his short film. Why did you get him onboard in this capacity?
It was one of the films that we were looking at. We obviously had a few films that we had to cull from the festival, because we just didn’t have the resources first time around to show all of them. We love the film but also, luckily enough, the director Tomas Donela actually teaches at AFTRS and lives in Australia now. Again, we thought it was a really nice connection that he is now part of the Australian cinema industry, in that he works at AFTRS and teaches our future cinema industry professionals. We thought it would just be really great to again have that connection between the two cultures, and have somebody who is a little bit well-known in the industry come and talk about the film, and how he created it. His son will also be there, who stars in the short film that we’ll be showing. It will be interesting to hear different things about the filming process, what it’s like to film in Lithuania compared to what it’s like to film in Australia; what’s different, what’s the same, those kinds of industry questions. But really, it’s a discussion that will be driven by the audience, so whatever they’re intrigued by, they can just ask!
You mentioned there that being your first festival out, you had limited resources and had to cull certain films. I was also interested to hear you discuss in your SBS Radio interview the unique challenges of the Baltic film industries, with their transition from the state-run practices to more capitalist ones. Has that affected your ability to program the festival in the way you like?
I do think so. There’s definitely problems in getting the films, because over there they’re still trying to figure out the best kind of distribution methods. We were quite lucky in the sense that Vanishing Waves – the sci-fi erotica film that we’re showing, which is amazing as well – actually has a distribution company here in Australia. That was the easiest film to get, because we were in the same time zone and the distribution company knew how Australians understand business, whereas in the Baltic States, there’s a different understanding of how business is done, which is really quite fascinating. There’s a different way of approaching business relations and meeting deadlines and those kinds of things. You can still notice the Soviet-era influences. It’s definitely affected it, because they still haven’t figured out the distribution system. They have the national film centre distributing films. At the same time, they can’t accept if a film is going to make money for the director, but frequently the directors are so busy just trying to make films that they don’t worry about distribution, so it’s frequently hard to get hold of them, and then in the end the directors say “no, just get the film from the national film centre.” Sometimes it can be a bit of a wild goose chase. But we got them in the end!
There was one film that we really wanted to show, but unfortunately it was being screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, and obviously then we weren’t able to screen it at ours because it was before theirs, and they sign all sorts of contracts stating that you can’t show them anywhere before [theirs]. So unfortunately, bigger festivals were an impact as well.
Your inaugural festival is one of thirty-seven recognised cultural film festivals that make Sydney officially acknowledged by UNESCO as a City of Film, one of the only two cities in the world to get that honour. How does it feel to be entering that environment, with so many other diverse cultural film festivals around the same time?
I think we were particularly lucky this year, because this year Metro Screen launched the website Film Festivals Australia and there’s also another independent business projects. These are platforms that have acknowledged the fact that there are so many cultural festivals in Sydney. How do we all negotiate this space? We’ve been in conversation with the other festivals about these two platforms, from March this year, maybe even earlier.
It’s actually been a really supportive environment, and there’s been for instance a lot of cross-promotion. The Audi German Film Festival had a film that was co-produced with Lithuania, so we sent out messages to the community with that film. We’ve got two [cross-promoted] films, Regilaul (the Estonian documentary) and Little Robbers. Regilaul is directed by a German and Little Robbers is co-produced with Austria, so the Goethe Insitute is doing some cross-promotion for us through that. Even the big guys, the Sydney Film Festival, have the “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” policy, where when their festival was on they said “if you could do a shout-out for us that’d be great, and we will let people know about your festival as well”. Then there’s the Windows on Europe festival; we’ve been in discussion with their organisation.
It hasn’t felt competitive, which has been really nice, and I think everybody who runs a festival and is part of the production of a festival is really committed to helping that culture grow. They all acknowledge this great status that UNESCO has given us, and they want to keep cultivating that and make it the kind of place where we can all work together. There’s little things, like the platforms offering us timetables with all the festival dates, so we can maybe not have the same festival dates, or just have one day lap over or something like that. At first it was quite intimidating, but then when I got involved more and more, it was quite a positive experience.
After this first year, what would you hope to do next with this festival?
Hopefully, if all goes to plan, we would love to be able to tour it. Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide maybe? We’ve had requests from people in Perth. It depends on logistically where we can afford to take it to. It would be great to next year maybe get some international guests along. We tried this year, but unfortunately, as we were the first year, we didn’t have the funds to do that.
Actually, the Baltic States – and this is one characteristic I should have mentioned – have a really strong animation industry; one of the best of the world, which has been recognised by the Oscars. It’s a really well-known animation hub for cinema in the world. What we really wanted to do this year, but just couldn’t, was actually get one of the animators out to Australia and run a few workshops before the festival in animation – to children, adults, whoever is interested – to share that culture but also get a bit more recognition for our festival. That’s one thing that we will look into trying to do next year.
It all sounds like a great initiative to embed the Australian and Baltic cultures together, so all the best with it.