Ivars Tontegode: Knutifiction

Luckily I live in a country where subtitling of films is the rule – no dubbing as in German or France, where as an example European cultural channel Arte is the big sinner in the language killing discipline. In Denmark we hear the language spoken in the original film and when we don’t understand that language, we get help from the subtitles.

BUT sometimes it is hard to watch and read, as it was for me with Latvian Ivars Tontegode’s impressive biographical documentary about and with writer, poet and translator Knuts Skujenieks, who talks almost through the whole film of 100 minutes at the same time as I had to follow the interesting visual bombardment from Tontegode. I am saying this upfront to admit that my viewing of this new Latvian work suffered from me having to read and watch at the same time. On a MacBook Pro computer.

It will be better when I get to watch the film on a big screen… nevertheless I don’t hesitate to state that I have seen a remarkable film about a remarkable man, whose story is the one about 7 years

in a Gulag camp during Soviet time, where he wrote more than 1000 poems, several read in the film, before he came back to Latvia, a country that got its independence around 1990, a country that, as he says, ”have democracy but our society is not democratic”. Knuts Skujenieks, this jovial white-bearded more than 80 year old man, constantly with a smile on his face, tells his own story from cradle till now, with quotes from his literature and with his continuous reflection on Life in all its aspects.

I always advocate for ”form comes first”, ”make your aesthetic choice” before you start shooting – Tontegode who pitched the film as project at Baltic Sea Docs did so and I dare say that he sticks to a visual playfulness – is it too much? – that sometimes brings me back to the psychedelic 60’es and 70’es, often with erotic sequences that go well with the protagonist’s many ”adventures” as they are called.

And archive footage is being used extensively, newsreels (chronicles) from the time of Soviet Latvia, but also clips from films by local documentary heroes as Herz Frank and Juris Podnieks. The film is good when it gives the Soviet time with well chosen archive and the writer’s comments (there were also many good moments in the camp), it is better when the director ”goes bananas” and breaks his own rythm and Gott Sei Dank there are also more quiet moments, where the old man (as on the photo) walks by the sea. That’s the place where we think, isn’t it? I am already looking forward to a re-view.

The film will have its National premiere in Riga May 4 followed by screenings in cinemas – and it will be available at the Media Library of Visions du Réel, Nyon.

Latvia, 100 mins., 2017

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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