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ARSENALS Film Festival - 12 through 21 September 2008

Riga, Latvia is one of my favorite cities.  The Daugava River running through the center of the city before it reaches the Baltic Sea makes it a wonderful city to walk through.  Riga is a historians delight, full of architecture that reflects the diversity of cultures, from the 12th Century German conquest and art nouveau delights to 1991, when the country won independence from the former Soviet Union.  The architecture of the Soviet period is still interesting to give you a feel of how the city was when it was still part of the Soviet Block.

Sergei Eisenstein was born in Riga and his father, a famous architect, designed many of the beautiful art nouveau buildings.  The city reminds me very much of St. Petersburg.  It has the same beautiful yellow and rose hues of paint and when the sun light hits at the right angle the city glows – sort of like those evenings in San Francisco when the sunset hits the windows of the buildings and they glow golden.

I was very excited when Nik and I were invited to give a presentation on music and animation at ARSENALS Film Festival, taking place 12 through 21, September.  I had heard so many good things about the festival and it turned out to be a smorgasbord of tasty delights, film treats of all kinds from around the world and parties with outstanding catering.

Animated films are not presented as a separate competition category and no animation was presented in the International Competition, but the Baltic States Film Competition was enriched with seven Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian animated pieces.  I was delightfully surprised by director Roze Stiebra’s I Played, I Danced.  Several generations of Latvian children have watched her heart warming films with their strong musical influences.  Her new film, based on a play by Rainis, the Latvian Goethe, is the story of Tots, a musician who suffers the trials of the underworld to bring his beloved Lelde back to life.  In this film, Roze combines the tempo and editing style of music videos with classic animation techniques taking her work in yet another direction.

It was lovely to see Signe Baumane’s award winning Veterinarian on the big screen.  The touching story of a sad veterinarian who loses a patient, is based on events the she experienced when visiting her sister, a professional vet.

Ieva Miskinyte, whose 2006 Maestro was a big crowd pleaser at festivals, has used the aesthetics of black and white graphic art in her new film Bridge.  Hardi Volmer, a member of Estonia’s renowned Nukufilm Studios, creates films that often make me smile.  His new film Closing Session is no exception.  The story, told using stop motion plasticine, deals with the diverse world of religions and the vast range of differences and interpretations people give to them.

Although it was not contemporary animation film, The Bug Trainer is a new documentary about the animated films of Wladyslaw Starewicz. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip into the amazing world of  the great Russian pioneer of puppet animation.  The Bug Trainer explores Starewicz’s creative ideas and concepts of his work, along with opinions from film critics and other animation directors to help us understand why he is still considered one of the greatest creators of the animation world.  The 53 minute film was also in contention for the Best Baltic Film Award.

The Best Baltic Animation Award went to Little Bird’s Diary directed by Edmunds Jansons.  I have written about this delightful film before, since I had the pleasure of meeting Bruno As?uks, producer of the film, on my previous visit to Riga last year.  The film brings to life the beautifully drawn diaries of 80 year old Ir?na Pi??e depicting her life during World War II and her ironic view of events in the Soviet Union.  Bruno and Latvian writer Nora Ikstena heard an interview with Ms. Pi??e, and after meeting her and seeing her amazing diaries he conceived the idea of bringing her drawings to life.  I have been fortunate enough to see the actual diaries when I visited Bruno at his home and they are truly an amazingly beautiful record of an important period of history. The film also received a commendation from the INTERFILM Jury (composed of three members of the Lutheran Church).

Three pieces of animation were presented in the Panorama category.  Four new episodes of Signe Baumane’s Teat Beat of Sex (# 8, 9, 10, and 11) were screened as a group and are as entertaining as the first 7.  These short films of Signe examine sex from a woman’s point of view, covering such diverse topics as the size of a man’s “kirby”, panties – to wear or not to wear them, and kissing the prince who turns into a frog.

Black Ceiling, the Estonian animation/poetry project pairs the country’s top animators with 7 pieces of classic Estonian poetry.  There are currently 3 animation/poetry projects, from Holland, Belgium and Estonia, and each one is uniquely different is style and character.  I hope that animators from other countries will undertake projects like this, since animation is the perfect medium to bring poetry to life.

I found the film Devil’s Fuji, at 32 minutes, to be far too long and tedious.  This story of a Latvian Devil who occupies Japan’s Mt. Fuji felt more like an annoying animated music video with a loud and jarring sound track.

Arsenals is really several festivals inside one fabulous big film event. Along with the usual competition and panorama screenings of new films, the festival also celebrates silent film and music.  The 1923 Hollywood extravaganza Salome, starring the exotic Alla Nazimova opened the festival.  Screened at the new hall of the Latvian National Opera, the film was accompanied by live music performed by the Latvian National Opera Orchestra.  The official reception which followed was full of delicious food and drink in a 1930’s atmosphere.

The first Norwegian film made in 1926, The Bridal Party in Hardanger was presented at an open air screening.  Four other silent films, including Guy Maddin’s 2000 homage to silent cinema The Heart of the World, were shown throughout the 10 days of the festival.

The evening Panorama programs covered every style and subject, from the just released Penelope Cruz - Ben Kingsley film Elegy to Mike Lee’s critically acclaimed Happy-Go-Lucky.  I saw Elegy at the Flanders International Film Festival and was totally amazed by Dennis Hopper’s performance as Ben Kingsley best friend.  I haven’t seen Hopper give a performance this strong in a long time, and if I hadn’t known it was him I would never have guessed it.

I was very glad that I had the opportunity to see the poignant About Water: People and Yellow Cans.  This visually stunning film focuses on the power of water or the lack of it in 3 developing countries.  The land and everything on it is crumbling into the Indian Ocean in Bangladesh.  The people have devised a system of building houses that are easily dismantled and rapidly moved further inland.  Juxtaposed with this is a story of villagers in a Kenyan slum lining up to collect water in yellow cans.  The image of a ship cemetery in the middle of a Kazakhstan steppe, near the shrinking Aral Sea, still haunts me.  Austrian director Udo Maurer gives us much to ponder about one of our most necessary natural resources.  The screening was followed by a reception where water from different parts of the world was served.

That same evening, I Love, You Love, the opening film of the Slovenian Films of the 1980’s series was screened followed by a lovely reception.   One of my favorite and unique screenings was listed in the catalog as Pay In Kind where the audience paid for their admission with gifts from their garden.  The viewers were treated to the 1982 Slovakian film She Kept Crying for the Moon, the story of a single woman raising her illegitimate daughter in the macho society of Eastern Slovakia.  Meanwhile, Latvian chief M?rt R?ti?š i?š prepared a special ARSENALS soup with the garden gifts.  It was shared by all after the screening.

Along with all of the film programs there were numerous seminars and special presentations.  Nik and I presented a program tracing the history of animation through music.  Nik also played his saxophone at a festival gathering at the hotel and presented a more formal concert at a local club “I Love You” in the Old Town.  Several of our Riga friends who were not attending the festival came to the club to see us, so it was a lively mix of good music and conversation in a relaxed atmosphere.

I was delighted to attend the opening of the Cinema Made by Jews in Latvia exhibition at the Latvian Jewish Society.  This beautifully presented exhibit featured broadsides, programs, and photographs of a bygone era and gave a vivid picture of the Jewish contribution to early Latvian cinema.  Of course, the opening included a lovely reception with food and drink.

The opening of the Baltic Film presentations was the 1913 silent feature A Tragedy of a Jewish Student.   The film, the earliest known to be made in Latvia, shows such historic sites as street cars passing the Orthodox Cathedral, the University and the little bridge by the Opera House.

Hardi Volmer, Nancy, M?ris Gailis and Aka Sultan

The catalog was full of many intriguing films but unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to see very many of them because the festival planned so many wonderful special events for their guests.  On the first of two excursions we traveled by bus to Easter Island on the North Sea Coast.  This man made stone island, linked to the land by a narrow strip of land, was built during the Soviet era to be home to a sea water pumping station for a nearby fish farm.  M?ris Gailis, former Prime Minister of Latvia, and his architect wife Zaiga master-minded the transformation of the crumbling pumping station into an environmentally friendly show case house.  The only thing that I really miss from San Francisco is the ocean, and it was such a pleasure to walk along a beach on the Baltic Sea. Our host took us on a walk to see a wedge of swans that live near his home.  Our beach stroll was followed by delicious food and drink upon our return to the house.

By The fireplace in the living room of former Prime Minister M?ris Gailis

The next morning a group of us took an early morning flight to Liepaja, the Southernmost Latvian costal city. After a bus tour of local sites and a visit to a Navy cruiser, we were taken to Karaosta.  This former closed secret military town is slowly becoming a place for artists and a tourist destination.    On the coast a short distance from the city, we toured some artillery bunkers and I was struck by the similarity to the coastal fortifications that I used to climb on the cliffs right outside of San Francisco.

In 1994 the Soviet army left Karaosta and most of the block houses were stripped of anything that could be carried away leaving skeleton houses and piles of rubble.  The town appears to be a landscape of ruins except for the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church built during the reign of Tsar Alexander III which has been painstakingly restored to its former glory.

For our last stop, we were taken to Karaostas Cietums, the only prison in Europe open to the public.  Built in Tsarist times, it has housed a wide range of prisoners, from those convicted for military breach of discipline, to Stalin’s enemies.  Now it is a bed and breakfast where you can spend the night on a prison bunk or iron bed.  We were all locked in cells and then “marched” under orders of strict silence to the dining hall where we were fed a prison meal and given our ration of vodka to keep us warm on our flight back to Riga.  I wish we would have been given more information about the history of the prison and  I found it very strange that people who still have vivid memories of the horrors of the Soviet era would want to spend the night there, much less see the entire experience treated as a bit of a joke.

Our Commandant at Karaostas Cietums

On the last day of the festival, Nik and I paid a visit to our friend Vilnis Kalnaellis’ Riga Film Studio.  Vilnis, producer of such films as Tripletts of Belleville and Signe Baumane’s moving Veterinarian has a beautiful, state of the art studio.  Nik was particularly envious of the music production facilities.  We had the opportunity to watch When Apples Roll, a film by Reinis Kalnaellis, Vilnis’ son.  The film, which is in post production, is a delightful hand drawn tale about a cat that lives in a wardrobe with her best friend, a mouse.  I look forward to seeing the final version at festivals this spring.

Vilnis and Reinis Kalnaellis

The festival staff loves surprises, and after sitting through so many traditional awards ceremonies I had no idea what fun awaited us.  The winner in each category was called up to the stage to receive their award and then seated under a beauty salon style hair dryer.  The main prize of 20,000.00 US dollars was awarded in a lottery to emphasize that all of the Competition winners in each category are equally good and deserving to receive the top honor.  This was no normal lottery however.  A representative of each film chose a cup of coffee from a table.  In one cup the festival president had hidden a flower petal.  On signal everyone started to drink their coffee.  The lucky petal was in the cup of a Latvian boy, representing American director Ramin Bahrani and his film Chop Shop.

Following the award presentations, Sergei Ovcharov’s   film The Orchard, based on Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard was screened.  I found the vaudeville style treatment of the original story to be very trite and totally out of keeping with the feeling of the original play.  The film did, however, contribute the theme for the closing ceremony with its rose petal rain and the cherry blossom in the cup.  The Latvian Society House, site of the closing night party, featured a beautiful spread of food and drink.  It was high end catering – lots of salmon, shrimp and baby lobster tails and sweets, sweets, sweets which Nik loved. The band performed lively traditional music.  The highlight for me was the traditional Latvian dances which festival staff and guests performed into the wee hours of the night.

I am delighted that Nik and I had the opportunity to attend the 19th International Film Festival ARSENALS.  Film makers should not hesitate to submit their films to this wonderful festival.  The theatres and projection are of the highest quality and the festival staff went out of their way to ensure that guests were treated royally.  We had a most wonderful time and I certainly hope that we will be invited back again.   You can contact the festival at:  Visit their web site at: