History may be written by the victors, but sometimes their victory is temporary. Once their power crumbles, so does the official narrative. Interweaving personal memories with spy stories both real and fictionalized, this imaginative docu-memoir compares competing versions of Latvian history, debunking the Soviet propaganda that dominated during the long decades of Russian occupation following World War II. Winner of the best documentary prize at last month’s Riga International Film Festival, Obliging Collaborators is an absorbing story of Cold War espionage which should have further festival appeal, and could even serve as an educational tool in school history classes.
The film and theatre director Peteris Krilovs was just two years old in 1951, when his father Osvalds Bileskalns was arrested and executed by the Riga branch of the KGB, Soviet Russia’s notorious secret police. As a member of the clandestine Latvian Central Council, Bileskalns had fought against the Nazi invasion during the war. When the Allied powers failed to restore Latvian independence in 1945, the ‘forest brothers’ of the LCC continued resisting against Soviet occupation. Their work included smuggling refugees to Sweden, as well as sending secret information to MI6 and the CIA. Russian agents infiltrated and betrayed the group in the early 1950s. Dozens were executed, jailed or sent to labor camps in Siberia.
In the late 1960s, a Moscow-sponsored propaganda movie was produced about the busting of the Latvian resistance, When Wind and Rain Hit the Window Pane. Krilovs uses clips from this film as ironic counterpoint to historical truth, carefully correcting the slanderous depictions of real LCC members as cowards, drunks, fascist bullies and sex-crazed sadists. There is more humor than outrage here at such heavy-handed, shamelessly partisan tactics.
Drawing on previously secret KGB archives, which only came to light when Russia withdrew from Latvia in the early 1990s, Krilovs animates sections of his father’s interrogation using clay figures and stop-motion animation. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin appear in another animated sequence, tacitly agreeing to Soviet occupation of the Baltic states at the Tehran conference of 1943. Privately, Churchill favored invading Russia after the war, but he ultimately went along with this betrayal.
Krilovs pieces together a half-century collage of Cold War powerplay in Latvia using real documents from the KGB files, interviews old and new, vintage newsreel, TV clips, plus his own slender family archive. He also deploys Johann Strauss waltzes as a musical motif, and even includes playful snippets from Bernard Hyman‘s 1938 Hollywood biopic of Strauss, The Great Waltz. These constant shifts of tone and style, zigzagging between fact and fiction, are largely successful in bringing a dense and potentially dry history lesson to life.
In Obliging Collaborators, it seems Krilovs is not searching for revenge but closure, or at least some clearer answers about his father’s murky fate. In the TV snippets he unearths from the late 1980s, elderly KGB agents still boast about their bad-ass exploits in bringing down the resistance movement. But in news footage shot just a few years later, after the end of Soviet occupation, bewildered old-guard lackeys face legal threats and angry interrogation as they lose control of the official narrative.
More than 60 years after his father was taken from him, Krilovs never quite finds the solid nuggets of revelatory truth he seeks. But he accepts this half-written final chapter with bittersweet resignation: ‘a man’s life is only partly owned by history, and partly by himself.’
Production company: Vides Filmu Studija
Cast: Baiba Broka, J?nis Dreiblats, Marks Geibers, Ivars K?avinskis
Director: P?teris Krilovs
Producer: Uldis Cekulis
Screenwriters: Alvis Lapi?š, P?teris Krilovs
Cinematographers: Andris Pried?tis, Valdis Celmi?š
Editor: Julie Vinten
Sales company: VFS Films, Riga
Unrated, 90 minutes