The Chronicles of Melanie: The dear deported
- Viesturs Kairish’s new feature tells the story of Soviet deportations using bleak but beautiful black-and-white photography
Renowned Latvian opera, theatre and film director Viesturs Kairish presented his first feature film after a ten-year break, The Chronicles of Melanie [+see also:
film profile], in the Black Nights Film Festival’s Main Competition.
On 15 June 1941, Melanie (Sabine Timoteo), her husband and her son are taken from their beds early in the morning, packed onto trains and sent east. Melanie is under the false belief that their destination is a small Latvian border town, but the trains end up going to Siberia as part of the historical Soviet mass deportation that moved tens of thousands of people, broke up families and destroyed traditions. Upon their arrival, the horrible weather conditions, food shortages, hard labour and, worst of all, constant humiliation create a situation where it seems, at times, almost impossible to survive. Once pardoned after Stalin’s death in 1953, Melanie returns to Latvia, only to find that under the new regime, her process of redemption is still not over.
The Baltic countries seem to be going through a process of exorcism of these events. The Lithuanian deportation drama The Excursionist (2013) was more action-based, and Estonia’s In the Crosswind [+see also:
interview: Martti Helde
interview: Martti Helde
film profile] (2014) by Martti Helde told the story in a more artistic manner, unfolding through freeze-frame-like scenes. On top of that, the short animation Body Memory by Ülo Pikkov from Estonia gained huge festival attention by addressing the same topic in a silent animation format.
Similarly to Helde’s film, The Chronicles of Melanie uses black-and-white photography (for which Gints Berzins won the Best Cinematographer Award at Tallinn). It is not hard to see a regional sub-genre forming here, with its own visual and storytelling tropes (not to mention clichés) in place – white tulle curtains flowing in the wind to symbolise the good old days and a classical-music soundtrack to emphasise the hardships. Kairish’s film can also be a bit one-note, with him giving Melanie hardly any time to catch her breath before another problem arises. It is doom and gloom all the way through. However, the value of the film lies elsewhere, namely in the educational purpose it serves for both foreign audiences and younger generations back home. Developments in Europe today make it pretty evident how easily some historical events are forgotten or disregarded. In the Baltic context, it is therefore preferable to re-tell the story of the deportations, rather than not to tell it at all. The Chronicles of Melanie might not be a match for the visually gripping and technically innovative In the Crosswind, but the Latvians should have the right to tell the story, too, in their own manner. Memory is a tricky thing, and one purpose of cinema is undoubtedly to serve as a chronicle that would help us to define, understand and construct the future through reflecting on past events.
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