By Monica Delgado
We met Laila Pakalnina, recognized Latvian filmmaker with a special focus in this last DocumentaMadrid Film Festival. Her remarkable body of work is composed by short films, documentaries and fiction features, from The Linen (1991) to Hello Horse! (2017). In this dialogue we talk to her about the motifs in her films and her chosen style.
Desistfilm: How do you see your work in the context of Latvian or Russian cinema?
Laila Pakalnina: At first, of course I have some connection with Russian cinema, because I studied in Moscow, and Latvia was still a part of the Soviet Union, though now our cultures are totally separated. But anyway, this is our big neighbor and of course, there’s influence. I need to say about connections too: Russian cinema, it comes from school, so it’s a part of your formation and definitively an influence. I can say that I became a filmmaker because during school I went to the cinema and I saw one particular film, and I thought “this is the language I want to use, that I want to speak”. And only afterwards I understood what I saw in cinema, it was Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”. It’s not that I’m trying to make post-Tarkovsky films, but to be honest; I must say that my decision of a lifetime was made because I saw his films.
In a Latvian context, I think films are very interesting organisms in itself, because the language we are using, I think we can say it’s an international language. Of course we use words which are languages of different countries. But at the same time, many things depend on which place you are coming. You can use the same film language but it will be different, even not talking about the context. Even when we’d like to say we’re independent from where we come, we are not really independent.
Desistfilm: You were a journalist before being a filmmaker. How did you make that transition?
Laila Pakalnina: I studied journalism in university because during the Soviet Union there was only film school in the entire place, it was in Moscow, and I wanted to become a documentary filmmaker, and it was not possible, because they didn’t have courses every year. So when I graduated school there was no possibility to go to study in Moscow for documentary filmmaking. And I decided that something which is somehow closer is journalism. But anyway, right after journalism I went to Moscow Film School, but after graduation I started making films but then, of course, this isn’t so financially easy to be an independent filmmaker, you somehow need a monthly income, so I worked for nine years in Latvia’s biggest newspaper, not as a journalist, I was a columnist, I shared my point of view on different things.
Desistfilm: In your first documentary, The Linen, you use black and white in a particular way. Did you have the intention to make an homage to traditional Russian films? I feel like this particular film was like an old film, because the black a white transmits a different period of time other than the eighties, when it was originally made.
Laila Pakalnina: No, that wasn’t my intention but I understand you. I made it in black and white because I like it as an esthetic choice; many of my films are in black and white and currently I’m in post-production of two documentaries that also use black and white. I understand your question about this “old film” look, especially something filmed in the sixties. I will even consider it as a compliment because in that particular decade cinema was using its language in a particularly strong way.
Desistfilm: I believe your documentaries show two main topics: landscapes and daily life situations, these two ways to represent a community. What’s your take on this?
Laila Pakalnina: I still think that it is very interesting to make films about simple things. Because, when cinema was born, with the brothers Lumiére, they made films about very simple things, like the arrival of the workers coming out of the factory. And now when we see those films, even if they look old, they are still very interesting, and I think we still live in the same world, because many things might be different, like technology, but life is as simple as it was.
Desistfilm: Why do you prefer to take on the rural life?
Laila Pakalnina: I never lived in the center of a big city. Right now I’m living on Riga, but still, I live on the outskirts. So I understand this kind of “outskirt life” of villages. I think to catch life in villages, you don’t need to dig through many layers, and you just can come with your camera and record. In the city this is more complicated. Of course, I like to be in the city as well, but I prefer to not film in such central places.
Desistfilm: What about your fiction films?
Laila Pakalnina: When I graduated in film school I said to myself that I will never make fiction because documentary in itself is so interesting, you can grab the camera and start shooting how these children is playing or you can make a film without any staging. I thought that that was enough for me; I’m so much interested in things that are happening everywhere. You just have to observe and you’ll see that many things are going on. But then, by watching films I started to think about films. I understood that there are the same values, the same language in fiction films and documentary, and in general, there is no difference, the only thing is how you make them, how you stage or observe and touch something.
Since I started to make fictions I still need to make documentaries. My comfort is when I’m making both at the same time, of course you can’t shoot both at the same time but at least you have an idea of both films at the same time.
Desistfilm: How much time did you invest in your latest work, Hello, Horse!?
Laila Pakalnina: We were shooting a bit more than one year, coming back eventually to the place again and again. But we spend a total of a one year period, and then editing and sound took two years, maybe less.
Desistfilm: There’s a special treatment of sound in that film. How did you work with that resource?
Laila Pakalnina: In all my films I consider sound something very important. I never use the live sound recorded on camera, but it doesn’t mean that in all films I create something different or new. For example, in Hello Horse!, this film is very special for me because most of sounds, there are live sounds, but others were recorded in the same area, because it was an interesting place to record, it’s far from cities, a quiet place where you can record good atmospheres.
Desistfilm: Do you believe there is any disadvantage to be a woman filmmaker nowadays?
Laila Pakalnina: I had no problems being a woman filmmaker; maybe I was too lucky to go through this narrow door when I was accepted in film school because now I think it’s changed. When I studied in Moscow in the 80’s it was different, in each room we were approximately ten people and we were only two women. Although, I think there was something about this that teachers knew, like, not having more than two girls in the course. I was lucky enough to be accepted and I didn’t feel different, but thinking about it, there was something on it, maybe…
Desistfilm: What are you working in now?
Laila Pakalnina: I’m in production of two documentary films right now. Both of them are in shooting period, both are black and white. One is called Spoon, it has no dialogues, but it’s about a factory where they make plastic and then sell it to different places. We started with the digging of oil, then the place where they use this oil to make plastic. We went to the plastic factories, in China. We still have one more month of shooting, and I will start editing in August. It’s all on fixed shots, just recording the process without voice over.
In 1997 we were shooting my first fiction film called The Shoe, I didn’t even remember that there was remaining of the negatives of this film, and now I’m shooting this documentary on 35mm. It’s such a pleasure to use this film camera and to experience all these feelings. The film is running, everything is being imprinted live on film, and it’s wonderful.