During the many years that I have followed Latvian documentary cinema, the name Uldis Brauns has always been like a magic enigma. Who is he, where is he, what is he doing? The master, that is how he is characterised by many, including his late close colleague Herz Frank. The man who directed ”235.000.000” (1967), a work that far too few know about, that story comes later. I did not see him at the Riga symposia organised by another big name Ivars Seleckis et co. and when I asked around, I was told that he lives in the countryside and is not involved any longer. A loner, he was said to be.
Finally I had my curiosity saturated. Sunday after the Baltic Sea Docs Uldis Cekulis, Arvids Celmalis, Kristine Briede and I drove to his place ”Upeskalni” near the nice town Kuldiga (often pronounced Cool Diga!) in the Kurzeme district of Latvia. 90 minutes from Riga you turn down a dirt road and drive twenty minutes to reach a house standing alone (2,5 kilometer to nearest neighbour) in what you can only describe as a paradisiacal garden
with tall trees, chickens and geese walking and running around, a greenhouse for tomatoes, rows of vegetables and a river down at the bottom of all the green. Silence! Not to forget an old chevrolet and a tractor, and a cottage where Uldis Brauns took us for a traditional Latvian welcome – homemade beer.
From the first moment Uldis Brauns proved to be a storyteller, first when passing trees that had been planted in memory of his and his wife Dainuvite’s parents. We communicated with translation help of Kristine Briede, who has been visiting Brauns many times and has his confidence. We talked about ”235.000.000”, and I got the story about the film (working title USSR 1966) that was first rejected on a project basis, when Brauns and his colleagues turned up in Moscow with a very precise budget, but on the way out from the meeting, they were called back and had an ”ok, go ahead”. Which they did to make the film that was shown in Leipzig. With consequences. Brauns was called to Moscow and was told that he should cut from the moment where the GDR high representatives left the cinema (!), no further explanation, plus some other moments including a scene from the official welcoming of de Gaulle to Moscow. Brauns was not in Leipzig, he did not know that the film would be shown there! The film exists in three versions, 70 minutes, 110 minutes and 140 minutes. The latter, the director’s cut, lies on the floor in the Riga flat of the director and needs to be restored – on the way back our small group decided to address the National Film Centre of Latvia to ask for help to have this happen.
Brauns and his wife hosted us wonderfully , we saw a painting he had made, ”Boy with Red Balloon”, a fine work, that made us talk about Albert Lamorisse’s film from 1956 and he had great anecdotes about his meeting with Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda on an international festival.
(Before the visit I had seen a dvd ”Comeback” issued by Society European Documentary Symposium with 5 of Brauns many short films, including the beautiful ”White Bell” that he shot, Herz Frank script wrote and Ivars Kraulitis directed. One of the films, directed and shot by Brauns, is ”Summer” that is made in Kuldiga. We did not have time to talk about them).
Photo: The last couple of hours of the visit took place in the sleeping room in the house. From left you see Kristine Briede, Müller with number 10, that´s me, Uldis Brauns and Arvids Celmalis doing sound.
We were looking at sequences of ”235.000.000” – with big difficulties because of dvd machine treating the dvd in a strange way – sabotage, Brauns said – but we had no problem in seeing how magnificent the film is. And how actual it is: many scenes deal with ”departure” and ”love” and ”waiting” for the soldier to come home. The camera work is the whole way through amazing, Brauns told us how he had prepared the camera people in beforehand in a film that have now words and when you see it today, is an homage to Life and to the joyful co-existence of people from the many republics of USSR. The reason for putting aside the film can only be found in the advanced poetic storytelling and the focus on ordinary people and their lives in grief and happiness.
Uldis Brauns, a man of 81, walking with a stick, slow but fresh in mind and generous and mild. He has been living in the house in the countryside since 1971, nature surroundings shape people…
Photo below: Same situation as above but including his wife Dainuvite to the left and the dog being carressed, Voucher, to the right.