Obituary: Juris Podnieks

Juris Podnieks, film director, born Riga Latvia 5 December 1950, died Alsunga Latvia 23 June 1992.

IT WAS a bleak January morning in 1991, when, speaking by phone in a sombre, calm voice, Juris Podnieks told of the violent death of his film-maker friend and colleague Andris Slapins just hours earlier, when he and four others were killed by gunfire during an assault by the Soviet special police, OMON, on Latvia's Ministry of the Interior. With tracer bullets criss-crossing the sky over Bastejkalns park, in the centre of Riga, Podnieks picked up Slapins' blood-spattered Betacam videocamera and filmed his friend as he died. A few metres away another Latvian cameraman, Gvido Zvaigzne, lay fatally wounded by a high-velocity bullet that tore apart his abdomen.

Days before, Podnieks had returned from Vilnius, where he filmed the infamous 13 January Soviet assault on Lithuania's main television station that left 14 people dead. When gunfire rang out in Riga a week later, Podnieks, his teenage son Davis, Slapins, and Zvaigzne shouldered their cameras and ran toward the shooting. Minutes later, half the people in the group were dead or dying.

Podnieks explained that it had seemed perfectly naturally to rush to the action in Riga. He said, 'After all, I got out of Vilnius unscathed, I was feeling safe and confident,' or words to that effect.

This boldness, in retrospect, is perhaps the only way to attempt to understand Juris Podnieks' premature and senseless death on 23 June, almost 18 months to the day after he helped me to prepare Andris Slapins' obituary. Sometime during that day, when Latvians celebrate the midsummer Ligo festival with bonfires, frolicking and song, Podnieks borrowed a friend's scuba gear and drove to Zvirgzdu lake near Alsunga, in western Latvia, reportedly to spear fish. He failed to return and his body was recovered on 1 July. Latvian authorities are still investigating the precise cause of death.

Friends in Riga described as 'idiotic' the death of an internationally acclaimed film-maker who had been in many dangerous situations while filming epic documentaries on Latvia's struggle for national independence and on the death throes and collapse of the Soviet empire. 'A horrid, tragic circle has closed with Juris after the deaths of Slapins and Zvaigzne.,' said Augusts Sukuts, president of Riga's International Center for New Cinema, of which Podnieks was a founding member.

Podnieks graduated from Moscow Film Institute's Department of Cinematography in 1975. His first documentary, in 1978, was a film about twin musicians and conductors, Brali Kokari ('The Brother Kokars'), but already in 1982 Podnieks ventured out on political thin ice with Strelnieku zvaigznajs ('The Constellation of the Riflemen'), a film about the last surviving Red Latvian Rifles, Lenin's Praetorian guard, who did not hide their disappointment with what has become of the revolution they made in their youth.

Podnieks' international breakthough came with Vai viegli but jaunam ('Is It Easy to be Young?'), filmed on the cusp of glasnost and perestroika and released in 1986. The film showed a cross-section of Latvia's angry and troubled youth, including disillusioned Afghanistan veterans and colourfully-clad punk rockers. The international acclaim for this documentary helped Podnieks to land contracts from Central Television in Britain for a major documentary on the Soviet Union in turmoil.

Podnieks' last film, Imperijas gals ('The End of Empire'), was released in 1991. At the time of his death he was working on two films, one on Georgia, and another, the unfinished work of Andris Slapins, Baltijas saga ('The Baltic Saga'), a work combining elements of documentary and poetic surrealism and focusing on the western Latvian province of Kurzeme (Courland), where bloody battles were fought on Latvian soil during both world wars. It was in a Courland lake that Podnieks went on his fatal dive.

Podnieks's foreign earnings made him, at least by Latvian standards, a wealthy independent film-maker. After working for the now nearly defunct Riga Film Studios since 1972, Podnieks in recent years invested heavily in his own private studio, where he hired some of the best talent in the Latvian film industry, such as the composer Martins Brauns, the film editor Antra Cilinska, and the sound engineer Anrijs Krenbergs. When the humming, state-of-the-art editing suites in 'The Cat's House' (a building with a large iron cat on the roof at the edge of Riga's medieval Old Town) weren't making a Podnieks film, they were serving German or Japanese television or any number of other clients. Scuttling about helping with the myriad tasks of this growing enterprise were some 10 young film-making apprentices.

'This has been a great tragedy for Podnieks' immediate family, but in a sense, these young talents have also lost their father and mother all in one,' said Augusts Sukuts. 'This is a blow to Latvian documentary film from which I fear it may not recover.'

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition