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GOCRITIC!

GoCritic! Feature: No action, no heroes – Laila Pakalnina

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- Marija Jeremić explores the work of the Latvian filmmaker whose films were part of the KVIFF special section Reflections of Time: Baltic Poetic Documentary

GoCritic! Feature: No action, no heroes – Laila Pakalnina
Director Laila Pakalnina (© KVIFF)

"A film is a film," Latvian filmmaker Laila Pakalnina tells me at the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF). What distinguishes film from literature and the visual arts, she says, is its particular language. "I do not like the expression 'a film tells a story' because we are not making films for those who do not read books."

For Pakalnina, a film must not be — and perhaps can never be — an illustration of plot. So what is a film? "Great, old inventors like Lumière or Eisenstein created the language of film. I think sometimes we do not use even half of what they invented."

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When talking about her film The Bus (2004), Pakalnina describes her work: "No action, no heroes." In the film, passengers on a bus cross three borders in one night: Estonian-Latvian, Latvian-Lithuanian and Lithuanian-Russian. The simple act of riding the bus places the passengers in a sort of time and space capsule. The camera steadily watches them. The bus that takes them to the border is much more real than the border itself. The Bus is almost a thought experiment on the border of being a contradiction in itself. 

No action, no heroes. The words should not be taken literally: as Pakalnina herself admits, "Of course, you can make a hero out of nothing. Even a door could be a hero, although not in the conventional way of understanding film."

Most of her films do have something that resembles a protagonist. For example, 33 Animals of Santa Claus (2011) is somewhere past the point of being a portrait or a story; it is barely even a commentary. The film is a visual extension of the fact that a Latvian woman living in a Soviet-era apartment block has 33 pets whom she pampers, feeds and talks to during the film. The slow pace of the film changes dramatically when another sequence is introduced, in which the woman suddenly dresses up as Santa Claus and gives candy to the children at the playground near her building. 33 Animals of Santa Claus is a film about the idiosyncratic nature of love that may seem eccentric to an outsider. This is why the film tries to present the woman’s love of animals as well as her habit of dressing up from her own perspective. 

When I ask Pakalnina how she achieves humour in her films, which is of a subtle and almost gentle quality in 33 Animals, she simply answers: "By waiting." At this point she almost quotes Dostoevsky, claiming that life, even on a downward spiral, is inherently funny. This is especially true of Pakalnina’s 30-minute homage to the absurdity of Latvian optimism, Snow Crazy (2012), which is about ski resorts in a mountainless country. In the film, men set up a large snow-making machine and we watch children and adults alike enjoy skiing on the fake snow. We also see some creative ways of bypassing the fact that there are no mountains in Latvia — ski-jumping by means of being dragged by a motorcycle until you reach an improvised jumping point. There is a sort of optimism present here, albeit it springs from the absurd. Under the surface of this satirical documentary is a delicate homage to a hope that has no boundaries. 

"Someone asked me what the funniest situations are for me and I said people falling."In her non-fiction short Teodors (2006), we are presented with a situation a shade darker than something that might come from Jacques Tati: namely, a beer enthusiast dies. Pakalnina depicts it by focusing the camera on a cork pressed in the ground and then slowly rising the camera to a bird’s eye view. There is a subtle contradiction in this scene. The soul of the protagonist Teodors seems to pass away to heaven but at the same time his redeeming quality is his love of alcohol. The film carefully balances between nihilism and religious optimism.

Her older films The Linen (1991), The Ferry (1994) and The Mail (1995) screened at this year’s KVIFF as part of the section Reflections of Time: Baltic Poetic Documentary. Pakalnina reacts: "I never make my films intentionally poetic. I would not describe my films as poetic films." She does, however, acknowledge that the dramaturgy of her films, and not their visual quality, does somewhat resemble a poetic structure. The 25-minute observational documentary Hello, Horse! (2017) consists only of still shots of rural landscapes with utility poles cutting the composition into halves. Sometimes a horse appears, or a car passes, but that is mostly it. As viewers we are free to interpret the dividing utility poles as a reference to nature and technology having a binary relationship. By doing so, we are re-affirming the idea that her work is poetic: every act or non-act in the film carries its weight and has a deeper meaning. The surface is less important, as is the case with poetry. 

The question of how she establishes a specific yet calming atmosphere in her documentary work remains. Pakalnina’s philosophy is that atmosphere is always present but that pure realism is not just impossible but unnecessary as well, especially if we want to precisely depict a certain situation. She continues to explain that we need framing, and that we need a director to do that. Pakalnina then points out something that has always fascinated her, this time in relation to sound:"Sound is a very strange thing," she says, "because in its original form it is usually not able to convey the original atmosphere and the original message."She then applies the same formula to framing: "If you would put ten different directors in this room we are sitting in, you would get ten different views, ten different shots." And, by extension, ten different rooms.

*Marija Jeremić's participation in GoCritic! is co-financed by Film Centre Serbia

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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