Here’s the thing. Imagine living in a society where self-expression is strictly censored. When you go to the cinema, in the images and stories you see, people are most valued as cogs in the state machine. Imagine also that you’re a documentary film-maker, passionate about revealing the lived experience of people in their day to day lives to ‘wake you up emotionally’.
This was the creative challenge facing the 1960/70s generation of documentary film-makers living under Soviet censorship in the Baltic States. Poetic cinema was chosen by them to bypass the censorship, going beyond politics to ask more universal questions. As one of the veteran filmmakers explained, their ‘main research was Man… we studied them with all the resources available to us’.
Acclaimed co-directors Audrius Stonys and Kristīne Briede’s original idea was encompassed in the working title ‘Baltic New Wave’. Soon into the project though, they decided to focus less on the lives of the documentary film makers and more on how they dreamed – raising questions about life, love and the soul. In Bridges of Time, Stonys and Briede skilfully integrate archive documentary film with contemporary scenes as a poetic homage to this ‘less remembered generation’.
Amongst the early images of the film is a close up of woman’s face, she’s lying down, breathing heavily and her hand is being held. An eclipse of the sun is shown accompanied by the commentary ‘As god created man, heaven is an ideal…We film the earth but remember that heaven is above us.’
A monochrome documentary clip then shows a sky filled with hundreds of descending parachutes, followed by a close-up shot of tangled parachutes on the ground. Then a cut to a cluttered apartment, an old film maker – Uldid Brauns – is searching through cardboard boxes. He talks to the camera until he locates a map and uses a magnifying glass to trace the outline of a journey. Next, further monochrome images of children in swimsuits running down a large sand dune to an expanse of beach to the sea, they laugh and dance the twist. A shot of Helicopters sweep across the sea as if observing this scene.
Threads of gentle humour appear throughout this documentary essay. The camera pans across a meadow to veteran film-maker Ivar Seleckis standing outside a barn. He’s advising a shot of the open barn door, followed by him entering the barn. However, in setting up the initial shot, the barn door refuses to stay open. ‘Destiny,’ Seleckis jokes, ‘has decided otherwise’. In another sequence from the 1970s, Dreams of Centenarians, one woman cajoles her friend, ‘Drink this and you’ll live for another hundred years’. The friend demurs, because ‘life has become boring.’
The view of these veteran film-makers was always that each generation must answer the questions about life and love anew. A clip from another 70s documentary illustrates this – a farmer says, ‘when a man becomes as small as a mouse, he’s dead’. When questioned by the film-maker, Mark Goosat, the farmer remains firm in his conviction. Reflecting on his career, sitting in his apartment, Goosat concludes to the camera, ‘it’s not possible to create films for future generations because we don’t know how they’ll think.’
In the Q&A, Stonys and Briede thought the ‘Baltic New Wave’ was as much about Baltic identity as it was indicative of the first post-war generation who were able to consider their lives as more than a struggle for survival. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, filmmaking became free ‘but lost several layers of the poetic’. In world cinema now, unsurprisingly, Iran has become famous for its poetic cinema, produced under a political system that curtails people’s freedom.
Bridges of Time was a film that charmed and delivered its message with a warm heart. New East Cinema and the Barbican Centre are to be commended for bringing this to an English-speaking audience.
This film was shown as part of Latvia 100 and in collaboration with the Latvian Embassy in the UK.
About New East Cinema see: www.neweastcinema.com