The Klassiki Companion: Baltic poetic documentary

The Klassiki Companion is our occasional beginners’ guide to the key filmmakers, movements, and concepts in the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we introduce the “poetic documentary” tradition of the Baltic states.

235,000,000 (dir. Uldis Brauns, 1967)

While their cultures are diverse, the three formerly Soviet Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – are linked by an often-painful shared twentieth-century history of occupation giving way to independence. Their cinematic histories are similarly intertwined, via a school of filmmaking that emerged within and in quiet subversion of that Soviet context: the so-called “Baltic poetic documentary” tradition.

Characterised by an austere faith in the image to speak for itself, and a profound connection to both the natural world and to the ordinary people of the Baltic region, this distinctive style of non-fiction filmmaking is the greatest export from these three small republics to the wider cinematic world, reflecting both national artistic credos and broader geopolitical trends. Although conceived under Soviet rule, poetic documentary continues to hold sway among both fiction and non-fiction filmmakers today, more than 30 years after independence returned to the region.

The style emerged in the post-Stalinist Thaw of the 1960s, which saw a relative relaxation of centralised decision making in the arts, allowing for this more allegorical and meditative form of visual storytelling to emerge. One of the driving forces behind this cinematic renaissance was the desire to revive the spirit of documentary filmmaking championed in the 1920s and ‘30s by the avant-garde documentarian and film theorist Dziga Vertov. Baltic filmmakers married Vertov’s enchantment with the world around him with a desire to circumvent the propaganda-centric leitmotifs of Soviet-era cinema, rejecting the ideological demand to view life through an idealised lens and instead focusing on the “ordinary”, forcing viewers to engage with the less-than-perfect but deeply human images of the USSR’s subjects on their own merit.

A Trip through Misty Meadows (dir. Henrikas Šablevičius, 1973)

Latvian origins

All three nations can lay claim to the origins of poetic documentary, and all three had their pioneers. But most accounts situate its starting point with a generation of filmmakers emerging from the Riga Film Studio in Latvia in the mid-1960s.

A key figure in this was Herz Frank, who would later go on to mentor Sergei Loznitsa, Sergei Dvortsevoy, and many others. He joined the Riga Film Studio in 1959, working on more than 80 films as photographer, editor, writer, and director. Intimate, authentic, minimal in expression, and often relying on images to compensate for words, Frank’s films were guided by their ambition to seek the artistic beauty that lay hidden beneath “reality”. In his own words: “Reality itself, without stage direction, hides within itself artistic beauty; moreover, it has a beauty of its own. Every time I film something I think: What is a poetic documentary film? If I see a stone, and the stone is still a stone from the beginning to the end, that’s information. If the stone becomes an extension of my feelings, then it’s an artistic film. It all depends on how and what we see.”

In 1961, Herz Frank teamed up with Uldis Brauns on the graduation short of director Ivars Kraulītis, titled The White Bells. The film went on to achieve canonical status in Latvian cinema, laying the foundation of what came to be known as the Riga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema – the moniker a forerunner of the broader regional movement to come.

“Reality itself, without stage direction, hides within itself artistic beauty; moreover, it has a beauty of its own”

Five years later, with Brauns as the director and Frank as screenwriter, the duo teamed up again for an ambitious documentary project aimed at creating a collective portrait of the Soviet Union to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Initially titled USSR – 1966, released in 1967 as 235,000,000 Faces, and known now simply as 235,000,000, the title referred to the nominal population of the USSR at the time. The task of telling the story of the people residing in one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse territories in the world, spread over 23 million square kilometres, and comprising fifteen Soviet republics posed an unprecedented challenge. Shot by four film crews working simultaneously for an entire year, the filming process was guided by a “Field Manual” crafted by Brauns and Frank. In an interview in 2004, Frank described the assignment, without exaggeration, as “a really cosmic project”.

The film drew inspiration from the works of visionaries such as Vertov and Edward Steichen, in trying to chronicle the everyday lives of individuals juxtaposed with consequential historic events. From hopeful and jubilant scenes of couples tying the knot, to gritty industrial vistas of chimneys bellowing smoke, to soldiers guarding cenotaphs, to costume-clad tribesmen galloping through clouds of dust against menacing terrains, to children playing in sand, to the launch of a spacecraft, to young men being drafted to the army, to the Congress of Soviet Statesmen in Moscow. The eschewal of voiceover and dialogue would prove a key formal tenet of the poetic documentary movement going forward. Raimonds Pauls’ soulful and intricate score creates a perfectly nuanced mood to match the onscreen kaleidoscope of faces and events.

A section of the filmmaking crew behind Uldis Brauns’ and Herz Frank’s epic documentary 235,000,000 (1967)

Lithuanian landscapes

Around the same time that Brauns and Frank were redefining the rules of documentary filmmaking in Latvia, Lithuanian Robertas Verba made his directorial debut short, The Old Man and the Land. According to film critic Živilė Pipinytė, “This film was the ‘ice-breaker’ that broke through […] Soviet ideology to form the peculiar stylistics of Lithuanian documentary film.” The film’s protagonist is Anupras, an upbeat Lithuanian villager, whose antiquated worldview, shaped by his national identity, is at odds with the idealised image of life projected by the Soviet propagandists. As film critic Laimonas Tapinas points out, “it rarely happens that the first film is successful […] and it is even more unusual a phenomenon that the first film changes trends in cinematography. The Old Man and the Land had exactly that kind of influence.”

Verba shared with his Latvian counterparts a desire to reinvigorate cinema by drawing on the deep reserves of emotion and experience represented by ordinary citizens. In 1969, he travelled around Lithuania with a movie camera, interviewing 100-year-old men and women. The result was Dreams of the Centenarians, Verba’s most renowned work. Verba employs the camera as an impassive witness to its subjects, most of whom were born during the 1860s and 1870s, as they relive bittersweet moments from their lives, the film serving as a meditation on the ephemeral nature of human life as it oscillates between old and new, past, and present, hope and despair, war and peace. Film critic Ruta Oginskaite sums up the camaraderie between Verba and his subjects that defined his cinematic philosophy: “The old country huts with orchards and gardens, the old people, who seem to be living there eternally, and vividly speaking their dialects… It seemed that what we see on the screen is exactly what we call Lithuania. Whenever I find myself in the countryside, I still feel as if I walked into a film by Verba. And those films – they are more like chunks of life rather than cinema.”

“It seemed that what we see on the screen is exactly what we call Lithuania. Whenever I find myself in the countryside, I still feel as if I walked into a film by Verba. And those films – they are more like chunks of life rather than cinema”

The other true giant of Lithuanian poetic documentary is Henrikas Šablevičius, whose footprints are all over contemporary Lithuanian cinema and who has become a model of poetic humanism for directors as diverse as Audrius Stonys Arūnas Matelis, Inesa Kurklietytė, and Vytautas V. Landsbergis. Šablevičius is also credited with establishing the Department of Film and Television as part of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Vilnius in 1993 – the first and only centre of film studies in Lithuania.

Graduating from the LTSR Drama Theatre Studio in 1951, Šablevičius worked as an actor, assistant director, and film director at various stages of his career. In 1968, he made Reflections for Lithuanian television – a philosophically and metaphorically nuanced short, regarded as his greatest work in the poetic cinema mould. In its symbolic and oblique visual language, the film invites viewers to mediate upon the subtle meaning behind the montage. Originally titled Poetic Fantasy, Reflections did not escape the scrutiny of Soviet censorship and was “shelved” for nearly twenty years: a neat encapsulation of the often-antagonistic relationship between the authorities and a filmmaking school that was at least in part a reaction against their edicts. Šablevičius himself stated that: “Poetic documentary cinema was partly an expression of the spirit of the Lithuanian nation, its character, and at the same time it was a certain armour against lies, pseudo-socialism and other untruths…”

Šablevičius worked mainly in short films and television, both formats which were easier to make without the intrusive bureaucratic oversight afforded to features. His 1973 short, A Trip Across Misty Meadows is as good an example as any of his approach. A nostalgic meditation on the old, free, and idyllic Lithuania and its forgotten traditions, in keeping with his intention to “trust” the image, Šablevičius had originally planned to make a film with no dialogues but was compelled to add a voiceover. Despite the hurdles, the film remained true to Šablevičius’s artistic vision, acting as a durable bridge to the old (Lithuania) which the architects of new (the Soviet Union) simply could not tear down.

Dreams of the Centenarians (dir. Robertas Verba, 1969)

Estonia: the cinema of independence

Coming to the style a little later than the other Baltic states, Estonia nonetheless produced its own share of poetic documentary luminaries, among them Andres Sööt and Mark Soosaar. The northernmost of the Baltics is distinguished in this regard by the fact that perhaps its greatest documentary film was produced right at the end of the Soviet era, rather than in the heydays of the ‘60s and ‘70s, providing a neat cap on the history of Soviet Baltic cinema.

In 1988, Sööt, a veteran of Soviet television and newsreels with more than 70 films under his belt, shot Year of the Dragon, a collage documentary chronicling the Estonian independence movement in the aftermath of Gorbachev’s initiation of perestroika in 1986. The “Singing Revolution” – as the pan-Baltic independence movement was labelled by Estonian artist Heinz Valk – was a four-year struggle initiated in 1987 when crowds burst into spontaneous singing demonstrations at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. In August 1991, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania finally regained sovereignty.

Shot in black and white and invoking the newsreel format he had long worked in, Sööt’s film transports the viewer into the heart of the action. In Chinese astrology, 1988 was indeed the titular year of the dragon, and the director establishes a parallel between Estonia’s dauntless drive for self-determination and the dragon sign, which symbolises ambition and daring.

the overarching humanity of the spectacle combined with their universal theme makes a deeper spiritual connection with viewers, one that does not rely solely on words to decipher their meaning

Spanning over 7 months, Year of the Dragon presents a chronological tableau of events unfolding between 23 April 1988 (St. George’s Day or Jüripäev) and November 16, 1988 when the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR declared independence (promptly annulled by Moscow). Despite covering a relatively short period, Sööt’s manages to capture the intrigue, the anxiety and the cautious optimism surrounding the key moments that were, in hindsight, incremental steps towards raising the collective consciousness of the nation. As the film progresses, the blue, black, and white Estonian tricolour, previously banned, becomes increasingly visible. We see montages of the first-ever performances of Alo Mattiisen’s “Five Patriotic Songs” in Tallin City Square, which grew into the All-Night Sing-Alongs in the coming days. Crowds march silently, carrying banners with the visages of political prisoners. The film closes with an emotional climax, featuring the “Song of Estonia” (Eestimaa Laul) gathering of September 11, 1988, and Heinz Valk proudly declaring: “One day, no matter what, we will win!”

Those not familiar with the political and cultural contexts may find it challenging to engage with Sööt’s in medias res style at first, but the overarching humanity of the spectacle combined with their universal theme makes a deeper spiritual connection with viewers, one that does not rely solely on words to decipher their meaning. As Sööt himself once wrote: “[like] a single construction stone, a single frame is a document of its time; but a house constructed of these stones has the face of its builder.”

Year of the Dragon (dir. Andres Sööt, 1988)

Post-Soviet cinema: beyond poetry?

Conceived at least in part in reaction against the strictures of the Soviet studio system, poetic documentary in the era of independence necessarily occupies a different niche. Who are the current torchbearers of Baltic poetic cinema? Does the tradition have a future, or is it a phenomenon of the past?

“Today’s Baltic cinema is different,” says Lithuanian documentarian Audrius Stonys, one of its most celebrated contemporary practitioners, “but it still has a touch of poetry.” If this is indeed the case, then Stonys is one of those most responsible for keeping the flame lit. (Indeed, in 2018, Stonys and Latvian filmmaker Kristīne Briede co-directed Bridges of Time, a documentary tribute to the Baltic non-fiction tradition that has informed his own practice.) The quintessentially poetic documentary themes of space and time, the symbiotic co-existence between humans and nature, and the limits of human endurance are recurring themes in Stonys’s long career. In his 1995 short Antigravitation, an old woman climbs a dizzyingly steep ladder onto a church rooftop in midwinter. His 1998 short Flying Over the Blue Field was filmed at a sanatorium where men and women are seen partaking in strange, self-healing rituals, as they plunge into bubble, mud, and mineral water baths, and are “reborn”. His 2011 documentary Ramin follows a 75-year-old Georgian ex-wrestler, now fighting extreme loneliness, as he journeys to a remote village in search of his long-lost love. Perhaps the clearest formulation of Stonys’ worldview comes in his award-winning 2016 feature The Woman and the Glacier, which captures the life and work of Aušra Revutaite, a Lithuanian glaciologist who has lived for more than 30 years in a research outpost at the foot of the Tuyuk-Su glacier in Kazakhstan. This portrait of willful solitude and the rhythms of the natural world allows silence to speak for itself, and reveals the paradoxical fragility of the mighty landscapes of the Tian Shen mountains.

“We’re more connected now unlike the Soviet era when we had to invent their own original ways of engaging with cinema. Having said that, in our genes, we have this poetic understanding of the world which we cannot escape...”

Lithuania would seem to have a strong claim to the throne of post-Soviet poetry. Stonys’ compatriot Arūnas Matelis is another keeping the flag flying high. A fellow disciple of Henrikas Šablevičius, his first feature-length documentary, Before Flying Back to Earth (2005), was described by critics in familiar terms: “a poetic, unsentimental Lithuanian documentary about the resilience of (the) human spirit.” Then there is the married filmmaking couple Julia and Rimantas Gruodis; the burgeoning women’s documentary school represented by Inesa Kurklietytė and Janina Lapinskaitė; and the searching films of Mindaugas Survila, whose 2011 feature The Field of Magic explores the lives of a community living on a rubbish tip with artistic and humanist warmth. Tragically, one of Lithuania’s most promising 21st-century filmmakers has already been taken from us: Mantas Kvedaravičius, killed by Russian forces while filming the follow-up to his hypnotic, now almost unbearably sad 2015 title Mariupolis.

Stonys himself is unsure as to the valency of the “poetic documentary” label in the 21st century. “We’re more connected now unlike the Soviet era when the three Baltic nations were isolated from the rest of the world and had to invent their own original ways of engaging with cinema,” he has noted. “Having said that, in our genes, we have this poetic understanding of the world which we cannot escape…” For Stonys, the movement was a response to what he calls the Soviet Union’s “Empire of Lies… [when the USSR collapsed] we inherited total mistrust of words… words were used for lying.” While the political exigencies are no longer as urgent, the faith placed by Stonys and his contemporaries in the image to speak for itself remains a vital reminder of non-fiction film’s enduring power.

Explore our collection of classic and contemporary film from the Baltic states here.