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SHEFFIELD DOC FEST 2019

Review: My Father the Spy

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- This compelling documentary by Gints Grube and Jaak Kilmi takes a look at the secret life of a Cold War double agent as his daughter sets out on a journey into the past

Review: My Father the Spy

My Father the Spy [+see also:
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, written and directed by Latvian filmmaker Gints Grube (Sounds Under the Sun) and his Estonian colleague Jaak Kilmi (Disco and Atomic War [+see also:
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trailer
film profile
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), tells the story of Ieva Lesinska, whose life was turned upside down after she was dragged into the whirlwind of the Cold War by her double-agent father. The documentary, which was world-premiered at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest on 8 June, follows Ieva on a journey through her memories and through physical places from the past as she tries to untangle the secrets surrounding her father. We first meet Ieva in modern-day Riga, where she and Jaak Kilmi go through some of her old photos.

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“How do you remember yourself? Were you a happy person?” Kilmi asks. The answer is negative. And there seems to be a heavy cloud still hanging above her – a life stranger than fiction has clearly left its mark.

In 1978, Ieva was a university student in Latvia when her father, Imants, a Soviet translator working at the UN, invited her to visit him in New York. After a month in the USA, he presented his daughter with a tough decision. He was defecting, forcing Ieva to choose between telling the Soviet embassy and denouncing her father as a traitor, or staying with him but being cut off from her life in Latvia.

She decided to stay with Imants, leaving her devastated mother behind the Iron Curtain. Although her life from that moment on was intertwined with her father's, they never became close, and he always remained mysterious.

Grube and Kilmi apply different storytelling techniques throughout the documentary. Observational scenes blend in with archive materials and re-enactments of Ieva’s memories, captured on photos that recall life in the 1970s. The first-person voiceover that accompanies the archival materials and the recreated photos offers a deeply personal insight into those moments. They are filled with pain and inner conflict, yet also have smatterings of wonderment when they portray the discovery of the new and free world.

The re-enactments of some of the key events in Ieva’s life result in visually and emotionally engaging scenes. Furthermore, they seem to give our protagonist an opportunity to face her past as she guides the actors through her memories. Interviews with the family members and people who knew Imants shed some light on his life as Ieva moves further along on her journey.

Although it’s the story of a single family, My Father the Spy also offers a broader look into the Cold War, affording us a glimpse behind the façade put up by both sides. The various narrative strands that Grube and Kilmi had to interlace form a compelling whole that documents an unusual family. It’s a real-life spy story, far from the conventional glamour of the genre, which shows the grim reality and everlasting effects of leading a double life.

My Father the Spy is a Latvian-German-Czech-Estonian co-production, staged by Mistrus Media, 8Heads Productions, Kick Film and Pimik. Its international rights are handled by Canada’s Syndicado Film Sales.

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