Tiny Latvia Looking West as Film Industry Expands

Rocks in My Pockets Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Karlovy Vary Film Festival

Rocks in My Pockets Still - H 2014

The Baltic nation is hosting the 27th European Film Awards on Dec. 13

Walking around around Riga, the capital of Latvia, it's clear that while this tiny Baltic nation borders on Russia, its eyes are clearly turned towards the West. Whether its the Italian-style coffee shops, the German cars that crowd the streets, or the city's ubiquitous Christmas markets – all with canned English carols piped in over the speakers – the image Riga presents to the world is that of a European nation, first and foremost.

That's the image Latvia will be showcasing when it hosts the 27th European Film Awards (EFA), Europe's premier film prize, in Riga Saturday night. In addition to capping Riga's year as a European city of culture, the awards are part of a broader campaign by Latvia of strengthening ties between its local film industry and international partners.

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The EFAs come after 10 days of events in Riga, including the inaugural Riga International Film Festival, which is intended to showcase Latvian films for the international press and industry, and the Riga Meetings, a two-day series which runs through Dec. 13, and which outlines the benefits for producers to shoot in Latvia.

A major incentive is financial. Latvia is the only Baltic country to offer two cash rebates, for both the country and the city of Riga, which can be used in tandem. The national rebate offers up to 25 percent cash back for productions that shoot in the country while Riga's film fund boasts a 20 percent rebate for productions that shoot in the city and 10 percent for any that shoot elsewhere in Latvia but use Riga-based service companies.

“We are really seeing an increase in productions from outside now, thanks to the incentives, we've had productions from Germany, from England, from India, from Japan,” says Roberts Vinovskis, the Latvian producer of animated feature Rocks in My Pockets, which is Latvia's official entry for the 2015 foreign language Oscar.
“We are a small country so co-productions are a necessity for us and we need to establish the contacts with producers outside the country, particularly in Europe.”

Recent international co-productions to benefit from the Latvian funds include Sergey Loznitsa’s Cannes competition entry In the Fog and The Berlin Files by Ryoo Seung-wan. The local industry produces just a handful of films a year but has a strong track record. Mother, I Love You from Latvian director Janis Nords, which took the Crystal Bear for best children's film at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, also won best film at the Latvian equivalent of the Oscars, held in Riga Dec. 11.

Making the pitch for his hometown, Vinovskis notes Riga's varied history makes it an ideal stand-in. “You can shoot Germany or Russia here, Soviet or pre-Soviet times. You have modern Europe and cityscapes and you have beautiful landscapes, with four real seasons year-round.”

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Another Latvian producer, Guntis Trekteris of Ego Media, notes that cooperation with Europe has become easier this year since Latvia adopted the Euro as its official currency. Work with Russia, however, has gotten harder as that country's economy spirals downward.

“The Ruble has fallen 30 percent his year and it looks like the government will be giving less support to Russian filmmakers,” says Trekteris. “We've had talks with Russia producers who have shot in Riga and would like to do so again but can't commit because of the financial problems in Russia.”

While Latvia looks West, however, the European Film Awards this year, ironically, are looking East. The two frontrunners for best film are the black-and-white Polish drama Ida and Leviathan, a Russian retelling of the Book of Job, both of which picked up Golden Globe nominations this week.

Another contender is Turkish drama Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes this year. Western Europe is represented by perennial EFA winner Lars Von Trier – the Danish director's sex epic Nymphomaniac is a best film nominee – and another Golden Globe contender, the dark comedy Force Majeure from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund.

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With the exception of Nymphomaniac, all of the best film nominees this year are also candidates for the 2015 foreign-language Oscar. The EFAs aren't always the best predictors of future award success but for the past two years running the winner of the best film honor — Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty in 2013 and Michael Haneke’s Amour in 2012 — went on to win the Oscar.

Twitter: @sroxborough