Review: D Is for Division
by Tristan Priimägi
- Davis Simanis’ documentary, which had its Nordic premiere at Reykjavik, explores the relationship between Latvia and Russia, placing the border between the two countries centre stage
Acclaimed Latvian director Davis Simanis, who is better known for documentaries but made a captivating fiction feature called Exiled [+see also:
film profile] a couple of years ago, sets himself up as the main character in D Is for Division, a contemplative journey through his homeland of Latvia and its chequered past relationship with its big bully of a neighbour, Russia. The movie had its Nordic premiere at the recent Reykjavik International Film Festival. In a move reminiscent of Nick Broomfield’s approach, Simanis gives an online “director’s comment” about his inhibitions, doubts and designs. He sets the scene for the beginning of the Soviet occupation by using a grisly photo of the dead body of someone killed on the border, and elaborates on the concept of the border from there, contemplating its real nature.
Simanis loosely relies on two protagonists: Ansis Bērziņš, a folklorist who has been forced to flee into exile in Russia as the only pro-Latvian political refugee in Latvia; and Beness Aijo, a political activist of Ugandan-Russian descent, who is also known as “Black Lenin” and who sees the possible “liberation of Latvia” as the next logical step in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
Bērziņš and Aijo are certainly charismatic characters, but the real protagonist is the border itself – a strong gravitational force that pulls in memories and attracts a strange sort of Russian propagandist activity as well as peculiarly otherworldly, almost religious, rituals praising the “Great War”.
“Memories are not reliable. Sometimes memories can be like a schematic map that is adjusted according to the desired perception,” Simanis concludes, hinting subtly at his own task – to make sure that the past doesn’t get reinterpreted to the point where it becomes something else entirely. After all, the words “liberation” and “occupation” are still deliberately mixed up on a regular basis.
D Is for Division uses a loosely assembled narrative and dreamlike (or nightmarish, if you prefer) interludes based around montage and layered sound mixing to invoke a feeling of truly letting go of linear time. Simanis’ tone and topic bring to mind Sergei Loznitsa’s grotesque spectacles critical of Russia, but Simanis is less acerbic and catches himself saying, with regret, that he won’t be shaping history – merely observing it. Give him a couple more films with the same depth and insight visible here, and we might not be so sure any more.
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