The Baltic region has established a remarkably strong documentary tradition, with filmmakers from the ‘60s onward having embraced a lyrically inclined cinema, trusting that there was a truthful essence to be found in images without a need for word-based storytelling. Latvian director Laila Pakalnina is among contemporary documentarians carrying that torch. In a career spanning more than thirty years, she has created shorts and features that capture the rhythms of nature’s linked ecosystems and the cycles of time in everyday lives with a delightful feel for the absurd and the way in which space is artificially circumscribed by borders and routines. We called her in Riga to talk about her work, and the state of documentary in these turbulent times.
Has Covid impacted your filmmaking much? Are you working on anything now?
I’m working, yes. In general, in times of Covid in Latvia, even shooting fiction films was allowed, and if you didn’t want to shoot a film particularly about the pandemic, it actually had more impact on documentary. Because fiction had a testing policy and sanitary rules, so teams were able to create a bubble, and their own life. But in documentary, you can’t go into people’s houses and so on. We are shooting a film called Scarecrows about people who work in an airport and are responsible for the number of birds and animals, which are limited due to flight security. We have four characters we are following. In each of their shifts there is usually one person driving a car around the airport looking. Due to pandemic restrictions on how many people are permitted we had to leave the sound guy at home. Later, the image itself says nothing about Covid, so probably we will have to explain in ten years how it was so difficult.
Animals feature prominently as important beings in many of your films. Do you regard humans as too arrogant in this idea that we're at the apex of nature?
Yes, it is like this. I make both fiction and documentary and I like to have animals in both, because when they appear, what they do is always a surprise. At the same time, the more you watch them, you understand that there are rules in their lives which they follow, and if you know them, you can meet the same animal, or birds, in the same place at that certain time of day.
Your films are quite observational. Do you plan much, or is it this quality of surprise that interests you most?
We plan before shooting how we will make the compositions, but not what will appear in them. Sometimes we can predict something. We had a film about a postwoman in the ‘90s called The Mail, and of course we knew where she would go on her delivery round, and could predict she would come through our composition. But who else would come, we didn’t know.
Would you say that you’re a patient filmmaker, in the sense of waiting for a long time to capture activity? I’m thinking of films such as Dream Land (2004), in which so much is happening in this whole living ecosystem of the garbage dump, that’s not immediately apparent to the casual eye.
After Dream Land I said I was well-prepared to film human beings, because we needed patience. You can’t stage things with animals and birds, you just need to wait. It took two years, as it could happen that during a shooting day there was nothing happening, so you just needed to come back and collect, collect, collect material. I used the same method later with Spoon. Film itself is not just a collection of photographs. It needs movement. This could come from humans or animals, but could also be the wind, for example, or water.
Spoon (2019), which follows the global industrial chain of labour that goes into making an easily disposed-of piece of plastic cutlery, starts with the quotation: “Everything here connects to everything else.” Rewatching it now, as different parts of the world are on fire or flooding due to the climate emergency, it took on new resonance. Do you feel more urgency than ever to highlight the far-reaching consequences of our systems of living?
When I make films I don’t think about the main theme. I am interested in film itself. Sometimes there are bad films in which the story is important, but I would prefer there to be a very strong message told in a good film. Concerning all of these environmental problems, we are human beings. And we are responsible for things happening around us. It’s not like my interest or hobby, it can’t be, it must become our everyday life, our everyday thought, what will happen — not just politicians, but everyone. Just a few generations and it is all over? It is very serious.
You make both fiction and non-fiction. Do you get something from each form you don’t from the other?
It’s a perfect balance for me, because I never have this feeling in documentaries that I want to stage something. For that I have fiction films. That’s why in documentaries I so much like to film real life; just what life gives you.
I’ve noticed documentary really becoming more respected as an art form in recent years, and gaining wider appeal — would you agree? Has this impacted your work?
Yes, you are right. If we look at A-class festival programmes, there are more and more documentaries which are screened in main competitions together with fiction films. I know that is a very difficult situation for juries, because it’s not so easy to compare them. But I think it’s a very positive movement for audiences and filmmakers that documentary and fiction are finally being put on the same level. Because they are all films. They use the same language. But from another point of view, I still feel this pressure, that as soon as you make a documentary you are required to make it cheap. It’s as if fiction films are the queens and kings of this cinema country, and documentaries are lower-class. But if you make a fiction film in a regular shooting period, it’s usually more or less thirty days, whereas for documentaries sometimes it's years, and if we consider budgets, it’s not even comparable.
What about the situation for funding in Latvia? And the potential for co-productions?
It is again not so easy for documentaries, if we talk about small crews, because for a real co-production you need to share talent, and have talent from the different countries involved. If a cinematographer and sound is all I need, it’s not always so easy. Of course, as soon as you try to do something globally, like for Spoon, it is easier to make a co-production, but there are important, locally made but globally important themes, where you just can’t do it.
You have often worked with the same people, for example cinematographer Gints Bērziņš. How collaborative would you say your way of working is?
I mostly work with the same sound director, and two or three cinematographers. Of course I also see something, but I want to choose a cinematographer who can make better compositions than me. It’s a real collaboration together, and I as the director am responsible for this work. I don’t work in a way that tells people to just come to set and shoot. I want to work with people who take my idea on as their own.
You studied in Moscow at famed school VGIK, then returned. For young people wanting to study film in Latvia, what is the situation now — is there good institutional support?
Back then, there was only one film school in Moscow for the whole Soviet Union. There was a school where you could learn about television, in St Petersburg, but there was only one actual film school, and competition was just unbelievable, because there were only ten places in the department of direction. Imagine that, for fifteen republics and this huge Russia. So it was a real selection. Right now, if you want, in all democratic countries, you can study, as it’s a market. If you have money, you pay, and you study film. Which way is better? I don’t know, but maybe the best is something in between. Because when you face very big competition as an eighteen-year-old, if you are not accepted into the school, maybe they are making a mistake. But it’s also not so good if it is so easy to apply and study, because afterwards we have a world full of young film directors who are not making films.
A number of your earlier films, such as The Ferry (1994) and The Bus (2005), are concerned with geopolitical space, and borders in the everyday. These days tension is rising with Russia. Is there more you would like to explore in terms of Latvia’s position with its neighbours and the EU?
I don’t know what will happen in a few years. My next projects are not connected to borders, but we are a small country, and of course in whichever direction you go, a border is close. So the border situations are very interesting. And not only with Russia. For example, we have a town which is divided by a border, one half of which is in Estonia, and the other half in Latvia, and it’s a very interesting place; it’s already a film. Hello, Horse! (2017) was shot almost on the eastern border of Latvia, a strange corner of the country where we are not so far from the Russian border and not far from the Belarussian one, on the border of the European Union. I was searching for locations for a fiction film and we were driving on this road. It seemed nothing special, but I understood that I wanted to return to shoot a documentary at different places on this road, to see what would happen. We returned to the same compositions to see how time changes them. It was not just about Winter, or Spring as seasons, when we can wear T-shirts, or we have to wear jackets. Seasons are time.
Do you watch a lot of cinema these days, and are you finding inspiration there?
I like to watch a lot of films and that’s why I agree sometimes to go to festivals to work in juries, because it’s a good way to see what is going on now. But I also like to read books, because I think books train your imagination more, your fantasy. Films are already done, they are images, but books consist of words, and the images are born in you. I read all the time. I can say one book which I was very impacted by was The Tin Drum by Günther Grass. It was a long time ago when I read it. But every day new books are coming, and it’s interesting.
Even before the pandemic, online viewing platforms were becoming a huge thing. What is your feeling about them, and showing your work there?
I kind of like this online thing, because when you want to find something, and especially a documentary film, either new or old, you will not find it when you want to find it in a cinema. But it is possible online, as it’s essentially a library, when a friend recommends something, to just google and see what platform you can see it on. But I am still making films which are meant for the big screen. I like being in the cinema, and that people watch films there. I hope that those two possibilities to watch films will co-exist forever, and that online will not eat up cinemas.
The interview is part of series of talks with European documentary filmmakers marking 20 years of the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague.
Cover photo © Just a Moment