ARTS / Something For Everyone: Juris Podnieks was the film maker's film maker: brave, tireless, driven by the urge to bear witness to the inhumanity of the Soviet system. A Channel 4 season of his work shows that he was also extremely gifted
Sunday 13 June 1993
On 20 January 1991, Boris's son, Juris, went with his cameramen Andris Slapins and Gvido Zvaigzne on to the streets of Riga to film the Black Berets who were firing on demonstrators calling for an independent Latvia. A few days before, while state television reported that people were attacking defenceless soldiers, the team had had a narrow escape when troops put down another protest in Vilnius. But this night, both cameramen were hit. Andris, who lay dying on the ice, cried out: 'Film me, film me]' Podnieks picked up his friend's bloody video-camera and pointed it at him. He took in the figure lying on his back, hands clasped over his heart like a saint on a tomb, the terrible gurgling in the chest cavity, the rasping for breath.
The next day, he made a statement: 'We'd gone out to the battlefield to look for the truth with the help of a camera - that was our only weapon. Those who shot us are slaves of the system - puppets in the hands of a power that is trying to keep itself alive. It is this system that has been strangling us all these years.' And so the father spoke through the son.
WHAT KIND of man would film his friend's last minutes? A man who once told the student he was about to marry that she would always come second to his work, who went into Chernobyl when the air was still crackling like a stuck 78, shrugging off the prospect of cancer: 'You have to go sometime. The world had to know.' 'Juris was on a crusade,' says John Willis, head of factual programmes at Channel 4, which on Saturday begins a season of Podnieks's remarkable documentaries. 'He thought the story he was telling was so important.'
It was also intense, the lust for liberation spreading like bush fire. Where it went, Podnieks followed. Left behind at their Riga studios, his editor Antra Tsilinska recalls: 'They would go to Leningrad for a week, stay for three, then ring to say they weren't coming back - they had to go to Armenia.'
In Podnieks the Soviet Union had formed an artist peculiarly equipped to record its disintegration. Britain's documentary tradition is rooted in the grit of realism, but Podnieks was a lyricist out of the Riga school of 'poetic documentaries'. Living in a state where having ideas earned a knock on the door at three in the morning, he had refined a way of speaking through images. So, when one of the stories of the century almost literally broke, as W B Yeats had exclusively predicted ('Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world'), Podnieks had a technique to catch its epic sweep. Antra Tsilinska, only half-joking, says: 'England had Shakespeare, Sweden had Bergman, we had Juris.'
And Juris, by another stroke of luck, had enlightened British backers. Richard Creasey, of Central Television, was in Moscow in February 1987 looking for someone to make a film about the pending apocalypse when he spotted a huge queue braving a blizzard outside a cinema. 'What's on?' he asked his companion, assuming ET had landed. 'A Latvian documentary,' came the reply. Incredulous, Creasey joined the queue and saw Is it Easy to be Young? in which Podnieks tracked a group of teenagers caught up in a trial for wrecking a train carriage. There was, Creasey recalls, 'an extraordinary energy that burst out of the screen'. The film, which revealed festering disillusion and casual nihilism ('If you see a dog, kick it') among the nation's youth, broke box- office records, coming as a welcome breath of foul air to a country where pollution officially didn't exist. It made Podnieks a hero in Latvia. A friend recalls that it became impossible to walk down a street with him 'because everybody thought it was their duty to say hello'.
Is it Easy? had the unmistakable Podnieks stamp: fragmented scenes deployed like snatches of music, the instinctive movement of the camera to the right place (when one lad is sentenced to three years' hard labour, Podnieks doesn't focus on his crumpling face as a lesser director might, but keeps the shot wide to hold the expressions of his friends - shock, sympathy, and sneaky there-but-for-the-grace-of-God smiles). And, as always, Podnieks gave great question: we hear him coax and chivvy a young rifleman out of his indifference to his country's history into a blast of impotence: 'For our grandfathers there was something to fight for, something to live for. Today there's nothing worth living or dying for. Nothing.'
Curly and burly, Podnieks had an endearing sexiness that drew both men and women to him, which may help explain his knack of getting them to talk. 'It was as if they trusted him to protect them from the horrors that had befallen those who dared to speak out in the pre-glasnost days,' Creasey says. When Creasey met Podnieks a few days later, he too was buoyed by that confidence. Tsilinska recalls: 'Richard told Juris, 'Film the Latvian phone-book, film anything. I don't care. Just film.' '
The TV deal gave Podnieks carte blanche, after a lifetime of carte noire: and he went for it as if there was no tomorrow. Which was only sensible: tomorrow was up for grabs, and everybody wanted a piece. In Uzbekistan he filmed horribly burned protesters, clothes flaking like embers off their sooty bodies; in Central Russia he made a factory look like a Vermeer, a beautifully ironic light in which to film a dark satanic mill. He filmed Andrei Sakharov, a foetal bundle on a camp bed just after his release, murmuring about the criminalisation of truth. As the camera closed in on Sakharov's exhausted face, a big bell clanged numbly on the soundtrack. Bells turn up all the time in Podnieks's films: don't ask for whom they toll, they toll for thee. 'Juris had a strong documentarists, 'he was trying to do something for everyone.'
They filmed in Afghanistan, they filmed in Armenia, but the KGB stopped them, so they stuffed microphones in their jackets instead; they filmed Boris Yeltsin threatening the apparatchiks ('If their power cannot be broken, perestroika will not occur. The only method is to thump them]'), and they filmed in Chernobyl as a fine talc settled on their faces. 'If you'd told Juris he was brave,' says Creasey, 'he'd have laughed and said you were a wimp.'
When they finished they had 100 hours of pictures and 200 hours of sound. John Willis and Roger James of Central were stunned by the images, but told Podnieks they didn't know how he'd get a film out of it. Podnieks and Tsilinska spent another year in the cutting room, and Hello, Do You Hear Us? was finally broadcast jointly by ITV and Channel 4 in five one-hour parts. It won a Royal Television Society Award, while Red Hot, the first episode, took the Prix Italia. Graef says: 'Juris was dealing with emotions on a grand scale, and it was as if the screen had grown to take them.'
The team regrouped in Latvia and began work on Homeland, Podnieks's masterpiece. Focusing on the Latvian Song Festival for Life and Liberty, which had been banned for 50 years, it moved even further from pure documentary to an impressionism that captured the flurry of longing and regret. It opens with 24,000 singers in national costume ringing little bells - a tinkly thrumming that is both poignant and eerie. Podnieks was a great filmer of crowds: he adored the patterns that people made, but that didn't mean they were faceless. He continually cut from the grand design to catch a woman smiling, or a child aloft on an old man's shoulders. There was always time for the individual - the opposite of the totalitarianism that had dehumanised his people.
Homeland also feels like a deeply religious film, drenched in a spirituality that had always flowed through Podnieks's work. It reaches its apotheosis on a Lithuanian hill, where a forest of crosses, filmed against a sulphur sky, conjured 10,000 Calvaries.
The film was to be transmitted on Thursday 7 February, but in January the barricades went up in Riga and the cameramen were shot. On Tuesday 5 February, Tsilinska and Podnieks were due to fly to London, but that morning they heard from the hospital: Gvido had died. Tsilinska says: 'Juris was sitting there saying we are not going, we can't. Then at the last minute he got up and said 'there are no excuses'.' For two days in London they agonised over a postscript to Homeland. It was broadcast, complete with one of the most moving scenes ever seen on television, when Andris's camera hits the ice and judders forward, as the bullets convulse his body.
Back in Latvia, Podnieks wanted to make an antidote to the prevailing pessimism: he chose a 'comedy' to show the absurdity of people shooting one another. Filming began, but by June 1992, the Riga team was running on empty: they hadn't had a holiday for five years. Anrigs Krenbergs, the sound man at Chernobyl, had all his teeth fall out; Juris complained of pains in his heart. They gave themselves a few days off, and Juris went diving for lobsters. On the 23rd he was reported missing. The whole team drove out to the lake and combed the shore while divers searched the water. After three days, rumours began - Podnieks had been kidnapped by the Black Berets, the Russian Army. Larger than life, they reasoned, surely he must be bigger than this prosaic death. Then, on the eighth day, a young diver brought his body to the surface. He was 41.
EVERYONE AT school agreed that Juris Podnieks would be somebody - 'it was just a question of whether it would be a gangleader or a genius'. He was a headstrong only child, easily bored by lessons. His father took him to the film studios to keep him out of trouble, and the boy picked up lighting, then a camera. It was love at first focus. In 1968, he began work as an assistant cameraman, moving on to the Film Institute's Department of Cinematography in Moscow where he graduated in 1975.
Low on information, his films could never be propaganda - theyE were too mobile and buoyant for that. Mistrusting film-makers wTHER write errorho thought they could tell the audience what the story meant, he never used narrators, deploying sparse captions to establish time or place. He trusted in the power of images to tell their own story, and like Tarkovsky, whom he admired, he was a great iconographer. But unlike Tarkovsky he never let his artistry get in the way of the story. Like the Allied film-makers in the concentration camps, he made a point of filming from as many angles as possible, to make it harder for anyone to say it wasn't true.
An exquisite early Podnieks short shows a tiny boy watching a puppet-show through the dark: excitement and fear pass across his face like a breeze over milk. The film is astonishing for its technical accomplishment, but also for its tenderness. That combination was evident again in The Constellation of the Riflemen, Podnieks's 1982 film which broke the taboo surrounding the Latvian Rifles, Lenin's loyal guard who were promised much during the revolution but ended up with a pitiful old age. Podnieks didn't need to labour the wider implications: the boy who would have made a great gangster had turned to exposing crimes.
JUNE 1993, and in a flat on Great Portland Street, Antra Tsilinska is editing Unfinished Business, Juris Podnieks's last work, which she and the surviving members of the Riga team completed. The room doesn't look anything special - anaemic Anaglypta, sun-spotted Dralon, a Frans Hals print laughing crookedly on the wall - but this is the room where Tsilinska sat with Podnieks editing the Homeland postcript. Now she is back again, but this time it is Podnieks who is dead.
'Sometimes I am still cheating myself that Juris will come. I have a feeling that now, for a while, I am doing something instead of him, and then he will come and it will be all right.' Why put herself through this? 'Because that was always the way with Juris. We've been days and nights trying to put two shots together the best way, and shouting that it doesn't work and that it's never going to work and actually this is the most dreadful film we are making and actually we'll have to throw it all out. You have to do the maximum, you have to show the story.'
Like the man said, there are no excuses.
Channel 4's 'Camera of Courage' season begins on Saturday at 8pm with 'Why Do Angels Fly? - A Tribute to Juris Podnieks'.
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