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BALTIE ZVANI (WHITE BELLS, 1961)

Documentary, 24 min. Script: Hercs Franks; director Ivars Kraulītis; camera: Uldis Brauns; in the role of the little girl: Ilze Zariņa

A turning point in Latvian cinematography — filmed using some of the feature film techniques, it nevertheless became a corner stone of the Riga school of poetic documentary. 

A groundbreaking film that began a new era in the history of Latvian documentary cinema. This poetic visual essay that follows a little girl in the Riga of 1960s, launched a new school, the so-called Riga poetic documentary, which, in a way, is a paradox: the film relies, in part, on non-documentary elements. Just as we know the name of the little girl, we also know that her impulsive stroll through the streets of Riga, admiring a shiny, nickel-plated stag on the hood of a Volga and flowers – the "white bells", in the window of a flower shop and later grieving over the fact that she has dropped her little bouquet amidst busy traffic etc. has been scripted by the creators of the film.

It was this documentary short, in which its authors found the stylistics and poetic indeterminacy that became the style of Riga documentaries in order to avoid the obligatory nod to the ruling ideology and sidestep preaching the Soviet iron-clad "truth".

 "Baltie zvani" also reverberates with echoes from world cinema classics, particularly the famous city films: Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt, (1927), and the Russian avant-garde director Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoaparatom, 1929), with their conceptual juxtaposition of the industrial rhythms and human activity. It is also close to the trends in the 1960s world cinema that respect the liberties and human values of artists (e.g., Georg Danelija’s Ja šagaju po Moskve etc.).

The skeleton script of Baltie zvani: a little girl lags behind her comrades, who are busy collecting scrap metal, and goes for a walk in a city filled with cars blooms into a chronicle of the urban rhythms of Riga of the early 1960s. The authors forgo both a read narration and a manifestation of truisms, building their phonogram only on city noises and sounds. In contrast to many other classical works of the poetic school (especially 235,000,000 by Uldis Brauns (1967)), ideological engagement of the film is minimal, confined almost entirely to a shot of the flag of the Latvian SSR.

The white bell-shaped flowers that the girl has dropped on Riga’s main thoroughfare (then Lenin Street, now Brīvības, i.e. Freedom Street), full of trucks, represent a poetic generalization: they are capable of stopping even a road-roller; so, according to the authors, human values emerge triumphant over urban brutality. It is the first time in Latvian documentary cinema that the human scale, a little girl with a bouquet of flowers, considers equal to the industrial and/or historical developments. The poetic optimism of "Baltie zvani", its metaphoric language represents an alternative to the ideological curtsies constantly exacted at the time.

This confrontation between the rhythms of the city and a child with flowers takes its place in the history of Latvian cinema as an eloquent testimony of a particular era, a successful integration of elements of acting in a documentary texture and a play with forms, which confirmed the professionalism of Latvian documentary cinematographers and vividly expressed their principle to talk about living human beings on a human scale, free from ideological clichés.

Dita Rietuma

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