My fourth visit to this year’s Leeds International Film Festival offered a mild disappointment followed by one of the best films I’ve seen this year. First I’ll deal with the problematic film. Before 2014 I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen a Latvian film and then two came along with very similar stories. At Bradford’s festival in April I enjoyed Mother, I Love You (Latvia 2013), an engaging film about a young teenager in trouble at school, deceiving his loving mother and having nighttime adventures in Riga and a brush with the authorities. Modris, the protagonist of the more recent film, is older – he has his 18th birthday during the time period of the narrative – but he also takes off after a dispute with his mother (caused by his need to find cash to feed his slot-machine addiction). Again he is in a single parent family but up till now he hasn’t bothered too much to find his father, accepting his mother’s explanation that his father is in prison.
Modris is an apathetic teen, the kind of guy of whom older people are likely to say: “He doesn’t do himself any favours”. While that’s true it doesn’t mean that we can’t have any sympathy for his position, but writer-director Juris Kursietis makes it more difficult for me at least in shooting many scenes handheld in close-up and sometimes very shallow focus. Close-up and handheld here means an extremely off-putting image. And why shoot in ‘Scope if you are going to waste the potential for widescreen compositions? I can cope with handheld if it’s done with care but here it seems to be striving for some kind of effect. The young man playing Modris, Kristers Piksa, was present at the screening and in the Q&A he told us various things about the production. Kristers was not trained as an actor and he got the role almost by accident. A perceptive question from the audience prompted him to tell us that many of the handheld scenes were shot in one take – but that sometimes it might take anything up to 16 takes to achieve the desired result. Researching the film after the screening and taking on board the actor’s comments, I note that director was trained in the UK at the Northern Media School (Sheffield Hallam) and that this was his first fiction feature after documentaries and short films. He seems to have followed the ‘Ken Loach approach’ of giving his actors only the pages of script that they need for a specific scene, so that they remain fresh, reacting to events. I note also that Bogumil Godfrejow, an experienced and award-winning Polish cinematographer and some established Latvian actors in the cast means that even with a limited budget (€350,000?) there was the opportunity to make an interesting film. In the end it is the script that lets the film down. The story is based on a real character (who Kristers Piksa told us is now somewhere in the North of England) so it should have credibility. Kristers himself definitely has a screen presence – tall and gangly with a memorable nose. At times he presents an air of bemusement and incomprehension that reminded me of Vincent Cassel’s performance in La haine. But too much is unexplained or introduced and not followed up, so it becomes difficult to really care about the character. The potential narrative about gambling addiction seems to get lost completely.
There are, however, a number of interesting aspects of contemporary Latvian culture that do come to light in the narrative. The most obvious is the disconnect between what appears to be a society that validates music and other forms of cultural expression and has created a relatively high wage economy but which also operates a draconian criminal justice system that can lock up offenders for relatively trivial offences (i.e. the kinds of offences many teenagers commit. The film also offers the frictions of social class difference (like Mother I Love You) and hints at the legacy of Russian control of Latvia prior to 1991 and contemporary issues about migration. I wanted to like Modris more than I did. Perhaps on another day I would have done – but it needs a better script. I have to point out that the film has received good reviews from various festivals and Toronto called it “tough, but compassionate”. This trailer for the film makes it look much more exciting than I found it in reality: