Documentary "Is It Easy to Be Young?", 1986, by Director Juris Podnieks (1950−1992)
The documentary “Is It Easy to Be Young?” (Vai viegli būt jaunam?) by the famous Latvian film-maker Juris Podnieks, released in 1986 not only tracked and immortalised a period of increasing economic and social liberalisation, but actually played a part in developing it. In the late ’80s, Latvians’ longing for freedom and the changes brought by perestroika coalesced in the National Awakening (Atmoda), a time of protests, discussion of previously forbidden topics and feverish activity. Within just a few years this had led to the successful restoration of the country’s independence, following almost fifty years of occupation by the Soviet Union. The film draws attention to the people that the official Soviet ideology pretended not to see: underground musicians, punks, Afghanistan veterans, junkies, protesters; and, by expanding the boundaries of what was possible, helped set in motion further changes.
Subtitled “about those who are looking for their place in the world”, the documentary features a series of interviews with a number of Latvian youths, all of whom had recently left or were soon to leave school. Those interviewed include a girl who had just given birth to a child, a young soldier recently returned from the ongoing war in Afghanistan, a troupe of protesting punks and a seemingly exemplary honours student. Although himself in his thirties at the time, Podnieks showed such genuine interest in the opinions of his young interviewees that they were ready to speak about their problems – problems which up to this point few had dared to talk about openly.
Podnieks had for some time been intending to make a film about the youth of the ’80s, hoping to address what he saw as a painful and pressing problem: the youth of the time, starting life with their idealism and acute sense of justice, found it especially difficult to reconcile themselves to the stagnation, hypocrisy and lies that prevailed in Soviet society. As one of the teenagers interviewed puts it: “there is nothing to fight for, nothing to die for, and nothing to live for”. Podnieks asks them about problems which up to this point few had dared to talk about openly. Through these interviews Podnieks also captures the blurry yet perceptible sense of changes and freedom that had been growing since Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in 1985.
He collected material for the film at every suitable moment, but it was actually by chance, while returning from work on another project, that he and his camera crew happened to capture events taking place at a concert by the Latvian rock group Pērkons, in Ogre, a town just outside Rīga. The group had been banned in 1983 and had only just been allowed to play again. The film starts with scenes of the concert and the rapturous response from the crowd of young people assembled. But after the concert ended, a group of those who had been attending severely vandalised a compartment of the train that was taking them back to Rīga, an act of vandalism for which they were later arrested and publicly sentenced. Podnieks included footage of the ensuing court session in the documentary; a number of the youths were given suspended sentences, while another was given three years at a labour camp.
The impact “Is It Easy to Be Young?” had when it appeared in cinemas in January 1987 has been compared to a bomb going off. Seemingly everyone wanted to see the film, and everyone was talking about it – not only in Latvia but throughout the whole Soviet Union, and even beyond its borders. Gaining international attention for the way it gave an insight into the situation of Soviet youth at the onset of perestroika, the film was eventually seen by 28 million viewers and shown in 85 countries.
As Ābrams Kleckins (1933), a screenwriter who worked on “Is It Easy to Be Young?”, has observed, the film came out at exactly the right moment: even six months earlier, and it would have simply been banned and would not have reached screens, whereas if it had been released six months later, it would not have had the same resonance, because by this point, these problems were being widely discussed, both in the media and in documentary cinema.
Some of the questions Podnieks asked the participants in the documentary, such as “where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?”, suggested that he intended to film a follow-up, but this was not to be. In 1992, having directed several more successful documentaries, Podnieks drowned in mysterious circumstances while swimming in a lake in western Latvia.
After his death, his friends created the Juris Podnieks Studio in Rīga, managed by Antra Cilinska (1963), who had worked with Podnieks on the film. Ten years after the release of the original film, Cilinska tracked down the heroes of the original film, in order to find out how the years that followed had changed them – the results were issued in 1997 as “Is It Easy to Be… After Ten Years” (Vai viegli būt… pēc 10 gadiem). There had been a lot of changes: the baby seen in the first frames of the original film was now celebrating her tenth birthday, one-time model student Juris was now studying at a prestigious business school in London, the former punk Sonita had grown into a fashion designer. But some had found the interim period extremely difficult: Raimonds, who had been given the harshest sentence of all for the vandalism of the train carriage, felt the experience of imprisonment had wrecked his life.
A further instalment in the series “Is It Easy… After Twenty Years” (Vai viegli… pēc 20 gadiem) appeared in 2006. Like the other two instalments in the series, it ends with scenes from “Sea of Hope”, a surreal amateur film obliquely concerning the predicament of ’80s youth, directed by one of the original young interviewees, Igors Linga, now known for his work on music videos.
You can watch the film online for free (with English subtitles) within Latvia on the portal www.filmas.lv or at the Audiovisual Reading Room at the National Library of Latvia.
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