Reflections of Time: Baltic Poetic Documentary 

Reflections of Time: Baltic Poetic Documentary


“Baltic poetic documentary cinema created an independent world, free from soviet ideology, lie and propaganda. It was a declaration of inner freedom. The black-and-white world of poetic documentary films was full of colours. Sadness was full of joy. And joy was touched by deep existential sadness. These films reminded us about the very core of cinema – to film and to enjoy the beauty of the leaves moving in the wind.” Audrius Stonys

The Baltic Poetic Documentary program at Karlovy Vary offers a rare occasion to see key documentaries from each Baltic republic (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) in the context of films made in the other two countries. It brings together several generations of filmmakers who have challenged the existing documentary tradition of their time and have created films of lasting influence.

The 1960s saw the start of a narrative and esthetic shift in Baltic documentary film. In the atmosphere of Khrushchev’s Thaw in the Soviet Union, a new generation of filmmakers made their way into film studios in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. The first postwar national documentary professionals were among them – graduates of the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography and the Leningrad State Institute of Theater, Music, and Cinematography, as well as those coming from other backgrounds. Their films presented a contrasting view to the prevailing trend in documentaries, and this renaissance of Baltic documentary filmmaking corresponded to an overall change in documentary cinema around the world. They shared a certain sensibility towards the narrative and the choice of topics, relying much more on the image itself, exploring the possibilities of the widescreen format, of editing, unusual combinations of sound and image, the manipulation of time and space, even of staging. They took inspiration from documentary legends like Dziga Vertov but also from contemporary currents. The concept of the author and the presence of a movement would soon be felt, and it left a lasting imprint on further filmmaking approaches in the respective countries.

The earliest work included in the program is not a true documentary, but the Latvian short White Bell (1961, dir. Ivars Kraulītis) gradually made its way into the canon of Latvian documentary cinema. The style of the film corresponds to other works that began appearing at the same time. Soon they were grouped under the appellation “Riga style” (although the Riga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema is used more often today). The style reflected the discreet observation of daily life, a lack of voiceover commentary, or the commentary was written with a more personal or humorous tone, the metaphoric use of imagery, and more time allocated to the filmmaking process. This last factor, time, allowed filmmakers to familiarize themselves to a greater extent with the people portrayed and with the specific locations these films shared. Riga style found its expression in many forms: in the study of everyday fishing village life in The Coast (1963, dir. Aivars Freimanis, one of the key names at the time); in large-scale film covering the lives of people and important events in the Soviet Union, such as 235 000 000 (1967, dir. Uldis Brauns, an early pioneer of the new film style); in an intimate portrait of a small boy watching puppet theater in a film comprising one ten-minute take, Ten Minutes Older (1978, dir. Herz Frank), and in more recent works with the same attention to mundane details, for example, the trilogy The Linen, The Ferry, and The Mail (1991-95, dir. Laila Pakalniņa).

Poetics are also an element of Lithuanian cinema, and the foremost Lithuanian documentary director, Robertas Verba, is considered the founder of the Lithuanian “poetic documentary.” Here the genre went in a different direction than cinema movements inspired by the observational mode (such as cinéma vérité and direct cinema). Lithuanian filmmakers gave priority to the auteur approach and “non-documentary” techniques, such as staging, non-diegetic sound, structured film narrative – the motions which made documentary cinema an art form rather than a representative reflection of reality. The old inhabitants of rural Lithuania are immortalized in Verba’s most highly regarded films, including The Old Man and the Land (1965) and The Dreams of Centenarians (1969). Focusing on elderly people, who tended to be overlooked by the Soviet documentary, he shifted his plot locations from traditionally preferred urban and industrial spaces to rural surroundings. In his films, an archaic Lithuanian worldview comes to the fore: the patriarchal dynamic and the eternal cycle of life and death. Melancholy and nostalgia towards time-honored values can also be felt in Henrikas Šablevičius’s films. In A Trip Through Misty Meadows (1973) Šablevičius takes viewers on a journey through traditional Lithuanian territory that is still idyllic but is slowly being destroyed by enforced Soviet modernization. Moreover, Šablevičius chose to make films about eccentric Lithuanians who were also considered alien to Soviet reality, just like Verba’s elderly people. He was interested in what was hidden under the official portraits of these eccentric protagonists, for example in the film Apolinaras (1973). Dubbed the “break generation,” a new group of filmmakers continued the auteur “poetic” approach to documentary. In In Memory of a Day Gone By (1990, dir. Šarūnas Bartas), The Earth of the Blind (1992), and Antigravitation (1995, both dir. Audrius Stonys), the filmmakers adapted the poetic mannerisms of the older generation of directors but also brought a new perspective that incorporated the changes they had experienced (the collapse of the Soviet Union, the crisis of identity).

Stylistically versatile Estonian documentary cinema in the 1960s also developed with the arrival of a new generation of filmmakers. Rural life and, even more extensively, city surfaces were at the forefront of their films, including variations on the city symphony genre of the early 20th century. Valeria Anderson-Käsper, Andres Sööt, Ülo Tambek, Hans Roosipuu and, later, Lennart Meri and Mark Soosaar began to establish the country’s strong documentary tradition. Experimentation with hidden cameras, sound effects, playful or thoughtful off-screen commentary, the combination of real life and imaginary situations and people (i.e. 511 Best Photographs of Mars, 1968, dir. Andres Sööt), and the anthropological observations of the inhabitants are just a few characteristics that can be attributed to the Estonian documentaries in focus at this year’s festival. Some films challenged the existing Soviet system – such as Ülo Tambek’s Peasants (1969) which, in consequence, was shelved for two decades (similar examples can be found in all three countries) – or involved an unusual approach to an important national event (once again, in all three countries), for example, a summer solstice celebration entirely devoid of pagan romanticism in Sööt’s Midsummer Day (1978).

We invite you to explore this rich tradition as represented by the core of Baltic documentary cinema.

Zane Balčus

Lina Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė

  • Antigravitation Antigravitace / Antigravitacija
    Directed by: Audrius Stonys
    Lithuania, 1995, 20 min

    Audrius Stonys’ Antigravitation is a continuation of the new poetic cinema of the “break generation.” Silence is a common feature in all the documentaries of this school. Symbolically, it represents the silence of freedom in the wake of the uproar of independence rallies.

  • Apolinaras Apolinaras / Apolinaras
    Directed by: Henrikas Šablevičius
    Lithuania, 1973, 10 min

    When Henrikas Šablevičius started filming Lithuanian “oddballs” he invented a bizarre new genre of documentary biopic. Characteristic of these portraits is a sense of mocking irony directed not at their subjects but at the “Soviet hero” genre. The subject of this film is Apolinaras, a kindhearted policeman who even outwardly looks very unlike the ideological “guardian of morals.”

  • The Beginning Začátek / Sākums
    Directed by: Uldis Brauns
    Latvia, 1961, 10 min

    The Beginning is the first instalment of Brauns’s trilogy dedicated to large-scale construction development in Latvia. It captures the building process of a hydroelectric station on the country’s largest river. Observation of the builders, drivers, and engineers at work highlights the human aspect of construction work.

  • The Coast Pobřeží / Krasts
    Directed by: Aivars Freimanis
    Latvia, 1963, 20 min

    The film was shot in a fishing village on the west coast of Latvia, the then western border of the Soviet Union. To make this short film, the filmmakers spent the whole summer living and working in the village, which resulted in a picture that offers a personal take on its characters and demonstrates a true interest in the individual in his natural surroundings – an unusual trait at that time.

  • The Dreams of the Centenarians Sny stoletých / Šimtamečių godos
    Directed by: Robertas Verba
    Lithuania, 1969, 17 min

    Ironically, The Dreams of the Centenarians was submitted as a feature for the centenary of Lenin’s birth. It was the simplest way to secure authorization to film old Lithuanian people (some of whom were actually a hundred years old). The filmmaker also satisfied the Soviet censors’ requirement to focus on working-class people.

  • Earth of the Blind Země nevidomých / Neregių žemė
    Directed by: Audrius Stonys
    Lithuania, 1992, 25 min

    Audrius Stonys, another “break generation” filmmaker, debuted with Earth of the Blind, which came to serve as the generation’s manifesto. Stonys was a disciple of documentary filmmaker Henrikas Šablevičius, and the latter’s influence is present in Earth of the Blind, a picture that weaves the new generation’s silent aesthetics and novel characters into the old visual poetics.

  • El Dorado Eldorádo / Eldoraado
    Directed by: Ülo Tambek
    Estonia, 1971, 22 min

    Different eras and geographical locations have their own dreamscapes. Here, however, the mythical El Dorado is a mining site. Tambek does not simply document miners’ lives, but creates an image of a secluded universe far away from social norms, one that engenders a unified space between reality and dream.

  • The Ferry Přívoz / Prāmis
    Directed by: Laila Pakalniņa
    Latvia, 1994, 16 min

    In the wake of Latvian independence, we see brief moments from the daily lives of people living in two different countries: the ferry on the Daugava river connects villagers across the newly established Latvia-Belarus border. A meditative portrait of a place at the end of the world, far from the hubbub of the nationalism that was characteristic of the early nineties.

  • In Memory of a Day Gone By Na památku uplynulého dne / Praėjusios dienos atminimui
    Directed by: Šarūnas Bartas
    Lithuania, 1990, 40 min

    Šarūnas Bartas’s documentary In Memory of the Day Gone By is one of the first works by the “break generation” of Lithuanian filmmakers who debuted in the 1990s. Marginalized members of society and people with disabilities, unseen in earlier documentaries, came to be principle characters in the new generation’s works, while settings shifted from romanticized countrysides to soiled cities.

  • The Linen Prádlo / Veļa
    Directed by: Laila Pakalniņa
    Latvia, 1991, 11 min

    The first part of a trilogy, the film follows a delivery van driver who brings linen to a children’s hospital. As a backdrop to the deliveries, the movie presents small details of the hospital’s daily routine that are filled with emotional power. The film introduces a style Pakalniņa would continue in her later work.

  • The Mail Pošta / Pasts
    Directed by: Laila Pakalniņa
    Latvia, 1995, 20 min

    The film is a study of mail delivery and receipt: a letter carrier goes about her regular mail delivery route early in the morning. We observe various locations and people, and witness different peculiarities. The camera is often motionless, allowing the action to unfold within a static frame.

  • Midsummer Day Svatojánské svátky / Jaanipäev
    Directed by: Andres Sööt
    Estonia, 1978, 20 min

    Daring, honest, and provocative, Sööt’s camera exposes a traditional midsummer night’s celebration in a Brezhnev era urban setting, when drinking had become a problematic issue. Songs from pagan romantic rituals are almost the only link between the old traditions and contemporary reality.

  • The Old Man and the Land Stařec a země / Senis ir žemė
    Directed by: Robertas Verba
    Lithuania, 1965, 20 min

    The Old Man and the Land is considered one of the iconic early features of Lithuanian poetic documentary cinema. Documentaries and newsreels of the time were expected to show country folk rejoicing in their improving Soviet existence. The hero of Verba’s film is different. Verba created a unique profile of a genuine man from an old Lithuanian (as opposed to Soviet) village.

  • Peasants Rolníci / Talupojad
    Directed by: Ülo Tambek
    Estonia, 1968, 18 min

    This recently restored documentary bears witness to both the Soviet production system and censorship. The view of life on a collective farm depicted here seemed too bleak for the officials involved, and the film was not screened for two decades. What we see is an honest observation of country life presented in a wonderful visual form.

  • Pikk Street Ulice Pikk / Pikk tänav
    Directed by: Hans Roosipuu
    Estonia, 1966, 10 min

    Pikk Street is one of the most important thoroughfares of Tallinn’s Old Town. The picture playfully combines hidden camera footage with more observational images, employing shots from unusual angles; these are accompanied by specific sounds and interesting musical themes. The result is a true cinematic adventure.

  • Ten Minutes Older O deset minut starší / Vecāks par 10 minūtēm
    Directed by: Herz Frank
    Latvia, 1978, 10 min

    Ten Minutes Older is an unusual film – it is shot in just one take lasting exactly ten minutes. The camera observes children watching a puppet theatre play. We don’t see the spectacle, just the emotional impact it has on one little boy. His face becomes the mirror of his soul.

  • A Trip Through Misty Meadows Trať přes mlžné louky / Kelionė ūkų lankomis
    Directed by: Henrikas Šablevičius
    Lithuania, 1973, 11 min

    Henrikas Šablevičius made this film as a farewell to the siaurukas, a slow, narrow-gauge train recalling the idyllic times of independent Lithuania. A Trip Through Misty Meadows remains a shining example of the Lithuanian poetic documentary thanks to its unique cinematic language and visual allegories conveying a deep connection to the past, something that architects of the “new life” struggled to erase.

  • We Were at Our Own Field Byli jsme na vlastním poli / Pabuvam savam lauki
    Directed by: Henrikas Šablevičius
    Lithuania, 1988, 20 min

    Glastnost and Lithuania’s eventual independence from the USSR open up the possibility of examining previously banned subjects: death, postwar resistance and – as in We Were at Our Own Field – the damage done by the Soviet occupation and the simple longing for home.

  • White Bell Bílé zvonky / Baltie zvani
    Directed by: Ivars Kraulītis
    Latvia, 1961, 24 min

    An early example of Riga-style film of the 1960s. Urban life in Riga as seen through the eyes of a little girl (Ilze Zariņa) who is looking for white bell flowers. This short drama, which draws on the city symphony genre, presents a picture of city life from the early morning hours to the peak of the day.

  • Woman from Kihnu Ženy z ostrova Kihnu / Kihnu naine
    Directed by: Mark Soosaar
    Estonia, 1974, 49 min

    Kihnu is a small island in the Gulf of Riga. Soosaar looks at the islanders from the point of view of an explorer, just like his filmmaking hero Robert Flaherty once did. Their traditional lifestyle unfolds in front of his camera: customary songs and rituals, and heartfelt images of people’s daily lives.

  • 235 000 000 235 000 000 / 235 000 000
    Directed by: Uldis Brauns
    Latvia, 1967, 106 min

    The most ambitious work of the 1960s, 235 000 000 was made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. The film was made without any off-screen commentary, allowing images to speak for themselves to musical accompaniment. The resulting work is an emotional and visually attractive portrait of timeless moments in human life.

  • 511 Best Photographs of Mars 511 nejlepších fotografií Marsu / 511 paremat fotot Marsist
    Directed by: Andres Sööt
    Estonia, 1968, 15 min

    The simple act of going to a café acquires new meaning in Sööt’s classic work. The film creates entertaining, contrasting views of Tallinn’s social life, employing a hidden camera, music from Handel and The Beatles, poetry as off-screen commentary, and the latest discoveries about Mars.


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