Obituary: Juris Podnieks

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The Independent Online
JURIS PODNIEKS had a powerful presence, emanating strength combined with gentleness, writes Robert Temple. He was unselfish, high-principled, and utterly fearless. He was passionately devoted to the pursuit of truth, which he wanted to show. He hated commentaries and preferred for his films to convey their messages by their powerful images with a minimum of verbal explanation.

He and his talented crew acted like one body connected to a single brain. And they were all courageous to an extent some would regard as foolhardy. Juris made a record for posterity of the most dramatic events of the second half of this century, and all the best footage of the disintegration of the Soviet Union shown on ITN News was shot by him. I asked him about Yeltsin: 'He's a wonderful man,' he said, 'and all the stories about him being a drunk are KGB lies.' He told me Yeltsin always greeted him enthusiastically 'because, after all, I've been paying attention to him for longer than most people' - by filming him.

Juris was doing his last documentary project when he died, for he wanted to go into drama and film something by Mikhail Bulgakov. He and I had planned to be partners in a venture to make a large number of training films for the Baltic countries. His wife is the chief adviser to the Latvian President, and his old school chum now Latvian Prime Minister, so we were to have official backing. He was prepared to set aside much of his own time for creative work to benefit the country in this way.

No one who has seen a Juris Podnieks film can ever forget it. His haunting imagery, perfect editing and unrivalled eye make viewing compulsive and hypnotic. Probably his greatest work was the two-hour paean to Baltic culture, Homeland. It is a work of art, like a Rembrandt.

Juris took the only film of the Chernobyl reactor at the time of the disaster, from helicopter and the ground. I asked him how he dared expose himself to the radiation. He said: 'It was too important an event. The world had to know. It had to be shown. Sure, we were exposed to radiation. But I only got four rads.' But what about cancer? 'You have to go sometime,' he said.