Boston Baltic Film Festival foregrounds countries' break from Soviet rule
Wartime backdrops and the lingering influence of Soviet occupation loom large in contemporary cinema from the Baltic countries. That’s the case for the 11 films from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia showing in this year’s Boston Baltic Film Festival, too. Held in person at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Center from Feb. 25-27 and online from Feb. 28-March 13, festival selections reflect the region’s struggle for autonomy over the last century or so.
The film festival began in 2018 as part of Boston’s centennial celebration of Baltic independence. As the Massachusetts and Rhode Island honorary consul for Estonia and a self-described lover of film, Anne-Reet Annunziata recalls suggesting the weekend include film. After three years of planning then pulling off a success, she says the committee figured, “Well, let’s do it again.” They held a second, freestanding film showcase in 2019. The pandemic necessitated a pause and the festival resumed in 2021 with a smaller, all-virtual program.
In addition to in-person screenings, many filmmakers in attendance, and a reception this year, highlights include a chance to see Latvia’s Academy Award submission for Best International Feature and its most-watched film since independence, “Blizzard of Souls (Dveselu putenis).” Based on the Soviet-banned Aleksandrs Grīns novel of the same name, the story centers on a Latvian teen soldier who comes of age fighting a flurry of oppressors during World War I. For those unfamiliar with the history, the specifics of who’s fighting who may remain opaque, but the bottom-line conveys that the horror of combat strikes those far too young.
Over email, director Dzintars Dreibergs wrote that he thinks it’s important for Western countries to see “Blizzard of Souls” to realize what small nations have endured to secure their freedom. “Nowadays, when the word ‘freedom’ is used so freely, it is crazy to realize what people went through just 100 years ago,” he writes. Dreibergs shot the film chronologically. It took eight years to finish. As a result, the main character, Arturs (a convincing Oto Brantevics, plucked from more than 1,200 who auditioned), subtly ages on both sides of the camera.
When reflecting on the film’s reception at home and abroad, Dreibergs doesn’t bring up the current tensions around Ukraine. (I do.) But he responds that events there give this film “double obligation” to remind Western nations that war always starts unexpectedly. He will have his first chance to view his film with an audience in the United States at this festival.
Another film highlight includes a key scene that takes place off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. In the documentary “The Jump (Šuolis),” assembled with archival footage and reenanctment, a Lithuanian sailor attempts to find asylum in the United States by leaping aboard a U.S. Coast Guard vessel in 1970. When U.S. authorities return Simas Kudirka to his Soviet ship, subsequent public outcry came from the likes of Walter Cronkite and President Nixon. The unexpected twists to Kudirka’s story made this a must-see documentary in 2021. The context of this festival sheds new light on the tenuous constraints Baltic people have faced when negotiating freedom.
A different, perhaps more universal search for freedom lies at the heart of “Jelgava '94,” a poetic coming of age story about a good boy turned sour by heavy metal. Like “Blizzard,” this also started as a book. In this case a semi-autobiographical novel by Jānis Joņevs that walk’s the knife’s edge of youth just as Latvia broke free from Soviet rule. While the bullying and head-banging came as no surprise, the need to buy bootleg American music deep in a forest at the end of a train line stood out as distinctively post-Soviet. (It also struck a personal chord. As a teen, I traveled to the Soviet Union with pantyhose and dubbed cassette tapes which I traded for pins of Lenin.) The film takes the unique tack of having the adult version of the protagonist stand nearby, not as a protector, thank goodness, but as a witness to the absurdity.
Annunziata says that the festival has the twofold charge to serve the Baltic people now living around Boston as well as engage new audiences with Baltic culture. She acknowledges that film preferences for those groups can differ. Of those who lived through political turmoil, she says, “Everybody’s family has somebody who went to Siberia. Somebody died…” Movies with a preponderance of sturm und drang can play an important role in keeping the history alive while also helping people evolve past it. But she also sees levity that she thinks American audiences will appreciate in titles like “The Sign Painter (Piļsāta pi upis),” where a Latvian young man must keep painting over buildings, depending on the regime. Based on a true story, “Firebird (Tulilind)” takes up a queer romance during an era of strict taboo; Estonian director Peeter Rebane is a Harvard graduate. In the case of “The Bog (Soo),” which just premiered in Estonia (the audience included the Estonia president, according to Annunziata), the festival committee made suggestions to improve the English subtitling. The over-the-top period drama turns the Oskar Luts novel into a class-crossed love story that pulses with humor. The ominous threat of the swamp, a common setting for Estonian folk tales, adds to the tension.
It makes sense to Aija Dreimane, who took on the role of film committee chair with Annunziata’s prompting, that Baltic movies remain concerned with the region’s fight for independence. “We’re still dealing with that trauma and still trying to bring awareness to the world about what happened behind that curtain,” she says. She grew up in Latvia and moved to the U.S. in 2007. In that time, she has noticed that fewer and fewer Americans confuse the Baltics with the Balkans. “We really were off the map for 50 years,” she says.
Over the last five years, anyway, the Boston Baltic Film Festival has helped put Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on Bostonians’ map.