Documentaries showcase Riga from felines to geniuses

This week at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) in the Netherlands, two films featuring unique views of this year’s European Culture Capital Riga are being screened to the connoisseurs of non-fiction cinema.

Making its international premiere at the IDFA, Escaping Riga, by Latvian director Dāvis Sīmanis, is a full-length black-and-white chronicle about two of Riga’s native sons – seminal Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein and social philosopher Isaiah Berlin, from the perspective of their turn-of-the-century birthplace, which both men were forced to leave as ideologically-based regimes took it away from them.

According to the film’s trailer, “being trapped in a never-ending choice between communism, capitalism, pacifism and even fascism… the two figures grew to be implacable fighters against the stupidity of authoritarianism.” But in surviving the darkest days of war, neither was ultimately able to “escape deadly loneliness.” Alone in this world, the film suggests “they could rely on a distant and shadowy friend with whom their lives and deaths ran strikingly in parallel.”

Escaping Riga was screened as part of the IDFA’s Panorama category, featuring films showing the current state of affairs in the world’s documentary cinema field.

The other film featured at this year’s IDFA is a short titled Cats in Riga, by prolific Danish filmmaker Jon Bang Carlsen, listed as “an experimental ode to cat-hood.” Like its title so purringly suggests, this is a view of the capital city of Latvia through the eyes and ears of its cats, adding a new perspective to current news reports about the town’s human inhabitants.

From cat-loving mayor Nils Ušakovs’ conference-room pet cat to the ferals prowling the cobblestoned streets and alleyways of Old Town, to the high-rise Soviet-era apartment blocks on the city’s outskirts, to the pampered darlings of cat shows and exhibitions, “there are hordes of silent witnesses all over the place, looking like they’re keeping a sharp eye on what’s going on around them,” says the film’s official synopsis.

To realize the unique cats'-eye-view Carlsen enlisted the help of social anthropologists Māra Pinka and Gareth Hamilton, cameraman Valdis Celmiņš, sound director Aleksandrs Vaicahovskis, and producer Antra Gaile. The short was included in this year's Culture Capital commissioning of six short films by different directors, each focusing on a different aspect of life in Riga.

Carlsen's characterization of his feline protagonists says it all: "Cats are great lovers, vicious scrappers, but they couldn't care less about the meaning of life..."

Cats in Riga is part of the IDFA’s category Paradocs, meant to showcase films that crossover between genres.

Both works were produced in part by Latvian film studio Mistrus Media.

The IDFA runs until Saturday, November 29.

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