Viestur Kairis: “We lived under the Damocles sword of Putinism”

Viestur Kairis: “We lived under the Damocles sword of Putinism”

Viestur Kajrish:

Logo of the festival. Courtesy photo   Viestur Kairis: «We lived under the Damocles sword of Putinism»

Tribeca Film Award Awarded to Film from Latvia

Latvian film “January” was one of the winners of the Tribeca International Film Festival ending on Sunday, June 19th. It won the main award in the World Feature Film Competition.

The coming-of-age story of a film-obsessed young man is placed in the dramatic context of Latvia's independence in 1991, when the former Soviet empire was crumbling. The film was presented to the American audience by its director Viestur Kairis.

Another coming-of-age drama was named the best in the American competitive gaming section. Good Girl Jane is an original project by playwright and director Sarah Elisabeth Mintz. The young actress Rain Spencer, who played in this film, received the award for best acting work. Teen Jane leaves a private school, fights with her divorced parents, and hangs out in a fringe crowd where she falls under the influence of a charismatic “bad guy”.

Viestur Kajrish:

& #171;Good girl Jane». Courtesy photo

Laura Chekovey's The Cave of Adullam, produced by Laurence Fishburne, won Best Documentary. Katrina Babies has received a new special award for Best Nature Film as New Orleans grown-ups look back on the events of August 2005, when the city was nearly flooded by the largest hurricane in US history.

Viestur Kajris:

«Children of Katrina». Courtesy photo

Michelle Garza Cervera has been honored with the Nora Ephron Award for Mexican-Peruvian horror film Frame of Bones (Huesera). She was also named Best New Feature Film Director.

Best Cinematography was awarded to We Might as Well Be Dead, filmed in Germany by Russian immigrant Natalia Sinelnikova .

Viestur Kajrish:

«Cave of Adullam». Courtesy photo

The total cash added to the Tribeca prizes was $165,000. In total, more than six hundred premieres and other events took place within the framework of the festival. Among the memorable events of the festival, one can mention the retro premiere of The Godfather with the participation of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Francis Ford Coppola's legendary film is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Viestur Kairiss, winner of one of the main Tribeca 2022 awards, is a well-known Latvian film, theater and opera director. He was born in Riga in 1971. After graduating from the Latvian Academy of Culture, he became a stage director at the New Riga Theatre. His opera performances have received international acclaim. He directed several documentaries and seven feature films.

Viestur Kairis answered the questions of the correspondent of the Voice of America Russian Service on the Zoom service.

Oleg Sulkin: Apparently, your film is autobiographical. I mean, it's almost impossible to come up with such details.

Viestur Kairis: Yes you are right. It was a very important moment for Latvia, one of the few we can be proud of as a nation. In general, we are quite passive people. If we are occupied, we say: well, yes, but what to do? But then, in 1991, people took to the streets, showed an iron will to get away from the Soviet Union, to forget about it. I was then 19 years old, and like many friends and acquaintances, I had a cinephilic, hormonal craving for freedom. I remember how the Soviet Union collapsed, I remember with what greed we watched VHS videotapes, all world film classics, and with translation into Russian. Everything came from the Union. To learn to be a director, you had to go to Moscow, to VGIK. The English-speaking world was unfamiliar to us. For example, I studied at a German school. Everything boiled then. We discussed the films of Wenders, Fassbinder, Bergman. That memorable January week, when barricades were built in the streets of Riga, was still very intense in terms of sexuality. Pairs collapsed, new ones were created. The energy was kind of crazy. This I felt very deeply and remembered well.

OS:In addition to your protagonist, there is another main character in the film – a movie camera. Through her lens, we see the turbulent events of 1991, whether it be a game narrative or archival chronicle. How did you combine both, how did you mount it?

VK: This is a very important aspect. I remember looking for my first 8mm shot. But, alas, I did not find it. I had to recreate everything. In general, the 8 mm camera is so cool, it gives such an incredible sense of time. I have to say that that period of Latvian history is pretty well captured on film. A lot of video material, a lot of documentaries. In Latvia, many of these shots are known by heart. We decided to shoot on Betakam. Many skeptics have told us that video is no match for film. Now this video is, well, a work of art.

Viestur Kairis:

Directed by Viestur Kairis. Courtesy photo

We hardly found the Betakam cells, and one of them belonged to Juris Podnieks. Actually, we show the evolution of the image style, because then the types of video cameras were changing rapidly.

OS: The protagonist's girlfriend leaves him for Podnieks. She leaves to work as an assistant, but the two seem to be having an affair. Does this story have any basis?

VK: Some former assistants of Podnieks will probably kill me (laughs). This story can be understood in different ways. I have never met Podnieks. But I know that he took care of young girls who were good enough for him to be children. Of course, I am quoting Podnieks' film “Is It Easy to Be Young?” a little. This, of course, is a fantasy, but all the characters, all their conversations are real, taken from life. A collective image of the time.

OS: Why did you focus on the events of January 1991?

VK: Then there were two culminating events that Podnieks and his cameramen captured on film. First, the assault on the television center tower in Vilnius, and then the events in Riga, when two cameramen from the film crew of Podnieks were killed. My hero watches the collapse of his world. He loses his girlfriend and goes to the village to attend his aunt's funeral.

O.S.: The hero's decision to enlist in the Soviet army may not seem very logical.
< br /> VK: Why? This is the peak of his romantic self-destruction. The hero loses everything. Movie goodbye, girl goodbye, everything goodbye.

O.S.: Your film is shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in the very dramatic context of the war in Ukraine. Everything about Russia and the suppression of freedom and democracy in the former Soviet Union is invariably projected onto these tragic events. How do you perceive this context? What is the message of the film, has it changed?

VK: For me, as a director, what happened on February 24 did not change the world. We have all recently lived under the Damocles sword of Putinism. This work was logical. My last films dealt with the theme of war. We see that for Putin the second world war continues. It is impossible not to feel how Russia is trying with a soft hand to buy everything from us. For me it is of particular importance that the world premiere took place in America. The US position on Ukraine is very important. The Anglo-Saxon world is decisively on the side of Ukraine, both in words and deeds. What can not be said about France, Germany and Hungary. I am outraged by their position. They, you see, are concerned that Putin save face. My co-producers from Poland and Lithuania share my opinion. A new Europe emerged – the Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic. We are no longer the simpletons we used to be. Letting Putin win in Ukraine will end the world.

Viestur Kairis:

«January». Courtesy photo

О.С.: As a reaction to Russia's aggression, the practice of “abolishing Russian culture” is spreading around the world. Russian films and performances are being boycotted, cultural exchanges are being stopped. At the same time, restrictive measures also apply to Russian classics. How do you feel about this?

VK: “Cancellation culture” is foreign to me. That's not mine. There are two things here. First, we must understand what modern Russian culture is. Are these people who are given a lot of money for creativity, but they have to pay with loyalty to the authorities? System perverted at its core. It is important that such directors as Zvyagintsev, Sokurov, Kantemir Balagov are not on their side. True art must be honest. Art outside of politics? This is nonsense. When theaters allow the letter Z to be placed on the facade, and frenzied actors perform at Putin's concerts and rallies, is this Russian art?

OS: Will they put on a film or play?

Viestur Kajris:

«January». Courtesy photo

VK: There is no question. Many of my colleagues are Russians of Latvian origin. I am the artistic director of the Dailes Theatre. Director from Russia Timofey Kulyabin staged the play with John Malkovich and Ingeborga Dapkunaite. He was able to do this after he renounced Putin's Russia and emigrated. If he had not done this, then his work in our theater would have been problematic. There is no question about language and culture. There is a question about the position in relation to the fascist regime in Moscow. Actress Chulpan Khamatova, who now works in Riga, promises to learn Latvian by the end of summer. But language is not the issue either. We speak Russian, but we could speak English. I watch podcasts about the war in Ukraine every day, with many of the reviewers speaking Russian, and it doesn't matter to me. Vitaly Mansky, he also lives in Riga, told me a lot about how cultural figures are bought in Putin's Russia, how much money is spent on bribing creators. Many people are confused, disoriented. Painful question. It will be possible to put an end to it only after the denazification of Russia.

OS: How was the premiere in New York?

V. K.: Great! It feels like a lot of cinephiles have come. Understanding and feeling audience.