2008 XIAMEN INTERNATIONAL ANIMATION FESTIVAL November 1 through 5, 2008
Thursday January 29th 2009, 2:36 pm
Filed under: Festivals
Comments Off

I love to travel but one of the few places that I have never thought about visiting was China.  I guess that it has always seemed so far away to me.  When an invitation to visit the 2008 Xiamen International Animation Festival in Xiamen, China from November 1 through the 5th arrived it was a chance that I could not pass up.  I was very anxious to have the opportunity to see what China was creating in the field of animation since we get to see very little work coming from there in Europe.

Welcome to Xiamen
Welcome to Xiamen

The entire ASIFA International Board was invited to attend the festival and as the representative on the Board for ASIFA/San Francisco I knew that my members would be interested to hear my observations on the state of the art in China.  The International Board also planned to hold an official Board Meeting during the festival.

The first thing that struck me upon arrival at Beijing International Air Port was how new, modern, and international it was.  Passengers moved between terminals on high speed people-mover trains and the terminal book store shelves featured several languages including the latest best sellers in English.

It was a short flight from Beijing to the island of Xiamen.  From the moment my hosts met me at the airport, I was treated to a most generous and lavish week.  My room at the Yeohwa Hotel was almost as large as my home in Belgium with every amenity imaginable.  The hotel complex, located in a park like setting, was the place where Richard Nixon stayed when he visited Xiamen on his 1972 trip to China.

My plane was two hours late, so almost immediately I was whisked away to what was the first of many magnificent feasts.  Xiamen is famous for its cuisine, which features a wide array of seafood.  I love all types of seafood and was totally overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, variety and quality laid out on the numerous buffet tables arranged around a very large room.  Just in case you couldn’t find exactly what you desired there was a battery of chefs who would prepare anything that you would like.

I was surprised that the head chief was not Chinese but from the United States.  When he discovered that I have a particular weakness for shrimp dumplings, a plate of them appeared at my place every time I sat down to enjoy a meal at the hotel restaurant.  I must admit that I have never had the pleasure of eating all of the oysters and sushi that I have ever wanted before, even at breakfast!

The evening meal was served very early every day, usually around 5:30 PM.  No official activities were planned for most evenings but the hotel had a guest lounge that was stocked with complementary beer, wine, juices, and just in case you wanted an evening snack a nice spread of food including sushi.  Many of the Board members met there in the evenings and it was a lovely chance to catch up on news with each other in a relaxed atmosphere.

Daily activities began very early. I am not a morning person, so my 6:15 wake-up call was a rude shock, but when I opened the curtains it was already sunny and bright outside.  After leaving the cold weather at home in Belgium, the promised 80 degree weather was a welcome treat.

After a breakfast of sushi and steamed pork buns, I was ready for the 20 minute bus ride to the Xiamen Software Park where the festival took place.  The “park”, which has space for 40,000 workers, is brand new, and the festival was the first event to be held there.  The exhibit hall was packed full of the latest technology, more like a trade show than an animation festival.

Young animator at work in the exhibition hall
Young animator at work in the exhibition hall

Along with ASIFA Board Members there were several other special guests.  Bordo Dovnikovic, a pioneer of animation in the former Yugoslavia and Croatia, delivered the key note speech at the official opening of the film festival.   I was very interested to hear Bob Sabiston speak about some of the new innovations in animated effects.   Bob developed the rotoscope program, Rotoshop, was head animator on Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, and created a paint and animation program to be released on the Nintendo DS.    John Sanders, head of production technology at Lucasfilm in Singapore, spoke about the co-operation between East and West under Globalization, and Cary Silver, producer of Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Andrew Harris, Lucasfilm computer graphics and Lighting Designer as also gave a presentation.

Each ASIFA Board member was asked to bring a DVD representing their members’ work which was screened during the festival.  The ASIFA/San Francisco sampler that I took was more industry oriented, with samples from ILM and other Bay Area commercial studios although it did include excerpts from some lovely independent animation such as Sally Cruikshank’s Quasi at the Quackadero.  Each of us was also asked to participate on a panel discussion or give a presentation on a topic of our choosing.  I presented a program on the history of animation through music and afterwards young members of the audience told me that although they were aware of Disney they had never heard of the Fleischer Brothers or Chuck Jones.  They had no idea that this sort of animation was being created long before they were born.

The competition programs, with the exception of a few foreign works in the Best Overseas Animated Short Film category such as Rune Wake’s Rabbit and Alexei Alexeev’s KJFG5, were unexceptional.  Over and over I saw formula styles of 3D characters that fell mainly into two categories – super heros and “cute” little big eyed kids and animals.  Plot lines were minimal.  Most of the films looked like they had been developed for show reels with an eye on an industry or television job.  Unfortunately I could find little or nothing in the way of artistic work.  All of the young people that I talked to asked me the same two questions, “How do I get into the industry?” and “How much money can I make?”

China has definitely entered the animation high tech race, but it seems to be totally ignoring the creative, artistic process in favor of crass commercialization that has little or no interest in well-developed story lines or high quality animation.  That said, I tried to take in to account that this is an emerging industry in a country that does not have the long tradition and history in an art form that the United States, Europe and Russia all share.  Rather than just accept what modern China produces, I hope that the animation community in other parts of the world will use their years of expertise to help guide China into a more creative direction.

For me the most important part of the trip was our ASIFA International Board Meeting.  There were 12 voting members and 2 non-voting members present as well as 10 proxies from absent members.  The Board had six major topics to discuss: budget, website, ASIFA’s magazine, an anniversary book, and finding an executive director.

Obviously, several of these items, such as the budget, anniversary book, Executive Director, and magazine are interconnected. The first lengthy conversation was about our magazine. Concern was expressed at the publishing and shipping costs of CARTOON which continue to rise.  There was also a long discussion about how to make ASIFA more relevant to the ever changing world of animation so that we can encourage new members to join our association.  Unfortunately, although there were many suggestions, no concrete resolution to this problem could be agreed upon.

As a member of the website committee, my main aim at the board meeting was to secure the board’s approval for the allocation of the 5,000.00 Euros that the committee needs to launch a redesigned website and maintain it for one year.  Anyone who has visited the ASIFA International website recently has seen immediately what an outdated mess it is.  One of our most effective tools to recruit new members to ASIFA International, especially young animators, would be to have a web site that gives up to date, meaningful information. I did achieve my goal of a 5,000 euro budget for the website.  We also agreed to provide an online French translation of CARTOON, our magazine.

The matter of selecting an Executive Director consumed a lot of time and generated heated discussion at the 2006 Zagreb Board Meeting. The matter is still unresolved. After more discussion about why this position remains unfilled, Bill Dennis offered to re-define the position and clarify the job responsibilities.  I hope that Bill’s work will make it possible for us to find a qualified Executive Director in quick order.  Filling this position will not solve all of ASIFA’s problems but if we can find the right person it would certainly be a step in the right direction.  There are many grants, especially in Europe, that are available for projects and organizations that encompass several countries and applying for these is a perfect example of a duty for the Executive Director.  A very pressing need is to have a person who can put together an information pamphlet that can be given out at festivals.  I know that what we need is an angel but if anyone can articulate our needs clearly it is Bill.

There were lengthy discussions about our magazine including the need for a new design and a revamping of the mailing system.  ASIFA will celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2010 and it has been proposed that we publish a book commemorating our history for the event.  There were discussions about the budget for the publication, timetable, format and number of pages.  At the time of our meeting we had not yet received our annual fiscal report and so several board members expressed a feeling that we had to wait until we knew our financial state before making definite publishing plans especially since no one on the board could quote definite costs for the proposed project.

There were very important issues that we didn’t have time to discuss, such as the need to rewrite the ASIFA statutes.  There are many issues that have come up in the last year that are not clearly defined in our present statutes.  We also did not have time to talk about membership fees and the possibility of a sliding dues scale according to the GNP of a country and the number of chapter members.

Originally, our board meeting was scheduled for only 4 hours, but with so many Board Members finally face to face and a multitude of major issues to deal with, we shortened our lunch hour and extended our meeting to the last possible minute.  Several of us voiced the opinion that we would like to continue our discussions in the evenings, since dinner was always served very early, but some Board Members didn’t seem to want more time for serious discussions.

I believe in the goals that ASIFA was founded to foster and promote and I will continue to work very hard to try and strengthen these aims, but I feel that we must realize that times have changed.  There is an entire new generation of animators who have no connection to ASIFA.  Our organization cannot live in the glory of the past, but must move into the 21st century and give our members an association that is as meaningful to them as ASIFA was to its founding members 50 years ago.

The entire ASIFA Board visited the mayor of Xiamen at his office.  Along with tea and speeches we were each presented with a beautiful lacquer thread sculpture plate gilded with 24 carat gold leaf which is a 300 year old traditional craft in Southern Fuijan province.

Bill Daniels and Bordo Dovnikovic at the mayor's office
Bill Daniels and Bordo Dovnikovic at the mayor’s office

Besides the sumptuous buffet meals in the hotel dining room we were honored guests at several banquets including an 8 course dinner hosted by the vice mayor of Xiamen featuring such delicacies as Fo Tiao Qiang Soup with Assorted Seafood, Crispy Codfish, and Fried Rice with Fish Roe.  I was definitely in food heaven.

The vice mayor also kept making the rounds of the table.He would pour a clear white liquor into our glass and toast each of us.  I am still not sure what the liquor was but it certainly did pack a wallop!  The meal was followed by a party honoring ASIFA and more food and drink were served.

Nancy and the Vice-Mayor toasting
Nancy and the Vice-Mayor toasting

ASIFA Board members with Chinese animators
ASIFA Board members with Chinese animators

Open air fish market
Open air fish market

The division here between rich and poor is very extreme, more so than in any other country that I have ever visited. So far, I had seen new modern China, but I was anxious to discover if any of old China still existed in Xiamen.  One afternoon, my fellow Board Member Heikki Jokinen and I went to an old section of the city.  The sights and sounds were a vast contrast to the calm serenity of our 50 acre hotel compound.  The streets teemed with people and the open air fish market that we chanced upon stretched for blocks, with baskets full of every type of fish imaginable, and a few that I could barley fathom spread out on the ground.  Xiamen is famous for Oolong tea and one narrow street was crowded with entire families, young and old, sitting in their open doorways cleaning tea.

On the last full day in Xiamen, guests were taken to the beautiful island of Gulangyu a short ferry ride from Xiamen.  The island is home to Fuzhou University Arts and Design College as well as a tourist destination.  The works on display in the university gallery ranged from beautiful to creatively innovative and I was particularly taken with a group of fanciful ceramic underwater creature sculptures.  We were given a short tour around the island in little motorized trains with a stop to tour the piano museum.  As we drove past the lovely beaches, I longed to explore them, so I opted out of the museum tour and had a short walk on the beach instead.  I also got to explore the lovely garden below the museum which was full of fish ponds and a long walkway to a pagoda on rocks out in the bay.  When the rest of the group returned to Xiamen I stayed on Gulangyu and spent several serene hours walking on the beaches in the beautiful hot sunshine.  I also climbed to the top of the mountain in the center of the island where I was treated to a breathtaking 360 degree view.  It was also intriguing to explore the narrow streets and alleyways of the one town on the island.  After all of the delicious food that I had been eating, hours of walking was just what I needed, but all too soon it was time to return to the hotel to prepare for dinner and the festival’s closing awards ceremony.

Two Red Heads on the island
Two Red Heads on the island

If I had any illusions that the ASIFA Board has become a two tiered democracy, my last doubts were dissolved when we arrived at the Xiamen International Conference Center for the awards ceremony.  Our President, the four Vice Presidents and Secretary were led to front row seats with the rest of the invited dignitaries, while the five remaining Board Members were ushered up to the seventh row where we were definitely not served tea.  In a country where the smallest gesture or action carries great significance, the message was not lost on any of us “second class” Board Members.

The “Cyber Sousa” Award program resembled a splashy Academy Awards Ceremony gone awry. It was unlike any closing night award ceremony I had attended in Europe.  The show opened with the “Action Song” Dreams Come True. The presentation of the first award for Best Experimental Animation was followed by a “Dance Drama”, Scarecrow.  By far the most bizarre part of the program was a vocal selection from ChicagoGaojia Opera Clowns, Puppet Show: Daming Mansion, and Theme Songs of classical Chinese and overseas animation works. complete with skimpy costumes.  The award presentations seemed to get lost.  They were stuck in between such overwhelming productions as the

Even more bizarre was the awarding of the prizes itself.  For each award, three young people were ushered onto the stage, with the first prize winner always in the center.  All of the categories and award winners were announced in English as well as Chinese, so I assumed these were the actual award winners since “accepting the award for. . . ” was never said.  When we got to the Best Animation Film from Overseas the three people introduced on the stage were definitely Chinese.   KJFG No. 5 was announced the winner and it was definitely not Alexei Alexeev who stepped forward to receive the trophy but the obvious intention was to give the impression that it was and that all awards, even foreign awards, were won by Chinese.  This was one of the longest award ceremonies that I have ever sat through!

Me and my bear ears
Me and my bear ears

I cannot thank our hosts Johnchill Lee and Anni Liang enough for the generous hospitality that they showered upon all of the ASIFA Board Members.  I also have the fondest memories of my translator who showed great humor and tolerance in putting up with my western ways.  They must have seemed very strange at times to her.  And of course, I will wear my hand sewn “bear ears” from one of the Exhibition Hall’s costume sales booths that she presented to me with great pride and fond memories.



FRIENDLY FIRE ACCEPTED AT TRICKFILM FESTIVAL
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 1:49 pm
Filed under: Festivals
Comments Off

Nik and I just received word that German Director Andy Kaiser’s animated film, FRIENDLY FIRE has been accepted for the TRICKFILM FESTIVAL, May 5 through 10 in Stuttgart, Germany. This is a major festival and we are very excited. Nik created the music and we send congratulations to Andy, Cadi Catlow, and all of the other people involved in this wonderful film about the horrors of war. If you are planning on attending the Festival be sure not to miss FRIENDLY FIRE.

Friendly Fire
Friendly Fire



ANIMA 2009 February 20 through the 28th Brussels, Belgium
Saturday January 17th 2009, 9:14 am
Filed under: Festivals
Comments Off

I always look forward to ANIMA BRUSSELS , not just because it is in Brussels which is only a 30 minute train ride from my home in Gent, but because it is a wonderful opportunity to see a wide array of animation.  The Festival, housed in the beautiful Art Deco Flagey building, takes place February 20 through the 28th, Carnival week vacation in the city, and features programs for all ages.From Hayao Miyazaki’s new masterpiece,  Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which I was lucky enough to see earlier this year to a tribute to American film maker Ralph Bakshi there will be something for everyone at ANIMA BRUSSELS.   Bakshi created the first X rated animated film with his 1972 adaptation of R. Crumb’s emblematic underground comic strip Fritz the Cat.

Fritz the Cat
Fritz the Cat


One of my favorite events is the Parents/ Children’s Party which takes place at 11 AM on Sunday the 22nd.  Tiny tots, young film aficionados and their parents are treated to a lovely breakfast in the upstairs Studio 4 followed by a special screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.   If you have youngsters in your family, or can borrow one for a few hours, this is an event not to be missed.

Bill Plympton, icon of independent animation, will be a special festival guest and Nik has been invited to introduce Nina Paley’s award winning Sita Sings the Blues.  He will also give a question and answer session following the screenings.  You can be sure that Nik will also play some music in the festival bar also.

It wouldn’t be ANIMA without the International Competition with over 200 short, feature, commercial and music video films.  I don’t want to give away all of the surprises but if you are anywhere near Brussels on 20 through 28 February or need a good excuse to visit this beautiful Art Nouveau city, be sure to join Nik and I at ANIMA 2009.

You can get more information about ANIMA BRUSSELS from their web site:

www.animafestival.be



WHEN APPLES ROLL TO PREMIER AT BERLINALE
Tuesday January 13th 2009, 10:53 am
Filed under: Festivals
Comments Off

Anyone who will be in Berlin for the 59th BERLINALE, February 5th through the 15th should be sure to see WHEN APPLES ROLL. This delightful hand drawn animation is the creation of young Latvian director, Reinis Kalnaellis, and will be screened as part of the Generation Competition category.

WHEN APPLES ROLL is the tale of a cat who lives in an antique wooden cabinet with her devoted friend Mouse.  Every autumn the two friends pick apples in an orchard at the edge of town, but this year things turn out a bit differently - all of a sudden, a strange egg rolls into the orchard.  What follows is a charming story of love and letting go that can be enjoyed by everyone.

From When Apples Roll
From When Apples Roll

Last year when I was in Latvia I saw the initial drawings for the film.  This year when I visited Rija Films, I was pleased to watch it in the last stages of editing and saw that my high expectations were not going to be disappointed.

I look forward to seeing this delightful film at many festivals this year,  and hope to see more excellent work from this talented young animator in the future.



ARSENALS Film Festival - 12 through 21 September 2008
Tuesday January 06th 2009, 9:19 am
Filed under: Festivals
Comments Off

Riga, Latvia is one of my favorite cities.  The Daugava River running through the center of the city before it reaches the Baltic Sea makes it a wonderful city to walk through.  Riga is a historians delight, full of architecture that reflects the diversity of cultures, from the 12th Century German conquest and art nouveau delights to 1991, when the country won independence from the former Soviet Union.  The architecture of the Soviet period is still interesting to give you a feel of how the city was when it was still part of the Soviet Block.

Sergei Eisenstein was born in Riga and his father, a famous architect, designed many of the beautiful art nouveau buildings.  The city reminds me very much of St. Petersburg.  It has the same beautiful yellow and rose hues of paint and when the sun light hits at the right angle the city glows – sort of like those evenings in San Francisco when the sunset hits the windows of the buildings and they glow golden.

I was very excited when Nik and I were invited to give a presentation on music and animation at ARSENALS Film Festival, taking place 12 through 21, September.  I had heard so many good things about the festival and it turned out to be a smorgasbord of tasty delights, film treats of all kinds from around the world and parties with outstanding catering.

Animated films are not presented as a separate competition category and no animation was presented in the International Competition, but the Baltic States Film Competition was enriched with seven Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian animated pieces.  I was delightfully surprised by director Roze Stiebra’s I Played, I Danced.  Several generations of Latvian children have watched her heart warming films with their strong musical influences.  Her new film, based on a play by Rainis, the Latvian Goethe, is the story of Tots, a musician who suffers the trials of the underworld to bring his beloved Lelde back to life.  In this film, Roze combines the tempo and editing style of music videos with classic animation techniques taking her work in yet another direction.

It was lovely to see Signe Baumane’s award winning Veterinarian on the big screen.  The touching story of a sad veterinarian who loses a patient, is based on events the she experienced when visiting her sister, a professional vet.

Ieva Miskinyte, whose 2006 Maestro was a big crowd pleaser at festivals, has used the aesthetics of black and white graphic art in her new film Bridge.  Hardi Volmer, a member of Estonia’s renowned Nukufilm Studios, creates films that often make me smile.  His new film Closing Session is no exception.  The story, told using stop motion plasticine, deals with the diverse world of religions and the vast range of differences and interpretations people give to them.

Although it was not contemporary animation film, The Bug Trainer is a new documentary about the animated films of Wladyslaw Starewicz. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip into the amazing world of  the great Russian pioneer of puppet animation.  The Bug Trainer explores Starewicz’s creative ideas and concepts of his work, along with opinions from film critics and other animation directors to help us understand why he is still considered one of the greatest creators of the animation world.  The 53 minute film was also in contention for the Best Baltic Film Award.

The Best Baltic Animation Award went to Little Bird’s Diary directed by Edmunds Jansons.  I have written about this delightful film before, since I had the pleasure of meeting Bruno Asčuks, producer of the film, on my previous visit to Riga last year.  The film brings to life the beautifully drawn diaries of 80 year old Irīna Piļķe depicting her life during World War II and her ironic view of events in the Soviet Union.  Bruno and Latvian writer Nora Ikstena heard an interview with Ms. Piļķe, and after meeting her and seeing her amazing diaries he conceived the idea of bringing her drawings to life.  I have been fortunate enough to see the actual diaries when I visited Bruno at his home and they are truly an amazingly beautiful record of an important period of history. The film also received a commendation from the INTERFILM Jury (composed of three members of the Lutheran Church).

Three pieces of animation were presented in the Panorama category.  Four new episodes of Signe Baumane’s Teat Beat of Sex (# 8, 9, 10, and 11) were screened as a group and are as entertaining as the first 7.  These short films of Signe examine sex from a woman’s point of view, covering such diverse topics as the size of a man’s “kirby”, panties – to wear or not to wear them, and kissing the prince who turns into a frog.

Black Ceiling, the Estonian animation/poetry project pairs the country’s top animators with 7 pieces of classic Estonian poetry.  There are currently 3 animation/poetry projects, from Holland, Belgium and Estonia, and each one is uniquely different is style and character.  I hope that animators from other countries will undertake projects like this, since animation is the perfect medium to bring poetry to life.

I found the film Devil’s Fuji, at 32 minutes, to be far too long and tedious.  This story of a Latvian Devil who occupies Japan’s Mt. Fuji felt more like an annoying animated music video with a loud and jarring sound track.

Arsenals is really several festivals inside one fabulous big film event. Along with the usual competition and panorama screenings of new films, the festival also celebrates silent film and music.  The 1923 Hollywood extravaganza Salome, starring the exotic Alla Nazimova opened the festival.  Screened at the new hall of the Latvian National Opera, the film was accompanied by live music performed by the Latvian National Opera Orchestra.  The official reception which followed was full of delicious food and drink in a 1930’s atmosphere.

The first Norwegian film made in 1926, The Bridal Party in Hardanger was presented at an open air screening.  Four other silent films, including Guy Maddin’s 2000 homage to silent cinema The Heart of the World, were shown throughout the 10 days of the festival.

The evening Panorama programs covered every style and subject, from the just released Penelope Cruz - Ben Kingsley film Elegy to Mike Lee’s critically acclaimed Happy-Go-Lucky.  I saw Elegy at the Flanders International Film Festival and was totally amazed by Dennis Hopper’s performance as Ben Kingsley best friend.  I haven’t seen Hopper give a performance this strong in a long time, and if I hadn’t known it was him I would never have guessed it.

I was very glad that I had the opportunity to see the poignant About Water: People and Yellow Cans.  This visually stunning film focuses on the power of water or the lack of it in 3 developing countries.  The land and everything on it is crumbling into the Indian Ocean in Bangladesh.  The people have devised a system of building houses that are easily dismantled and rapidly moved further inland.  Juxtaposed with this is a story of villagers in a Kenyan slum lining up to collect water in yellow cans.  The image of a ship cemetery in the middle of a Kazakhstan steppe, near the shrinking Aral Sea, still haunts me.  Austrian director Udo Maurer gives us much to ponder about one of our most necessary natural resources.  The screening was followed by a reception where water from different parts of the world was served.

That same evening, I Love, You Love, the opening film of the Slovenian Films of the 1980’s series was screened followed by a lovely reception.   One of my favorite and unique screenings was listed in the catalog as Pay In Kind where the audience paid for their admission with gifts from their garden.  The viewers were treated to the 1982 Slovakian film She Kept Crying for the Moon, the story of a single woman raising her illegitimate daughter in the macho society of Eastern Slovakia.  Meanwhile, Latvian chief Mārt Rītiņš iņš prepared a special ARSENALS soup with the garden gifts.  It was shared by all after the screening.

Along with all of the film programs there were numerous seminars and special presentations.  Nik and I presented a program tracing the history of animation through music.  Nik also played his saxophone at a festival gathering at the hotel and presented a more formal concert at a local club “I Love You” in the Old Town.  Several of our Riga friends who were not attending the festival came to the club to see us, so it was a lively mix of good music and conversation in a relaxed atmosphere.

I was delighted to attend the opening of the Cinema Made by Jews in Latvia exhibition at the Latvian Jewish Society.  This beautifully presented exhibit featured broadsides, programs, and photographs of a bygone era and gave a vivid picture of the Jewish contribution to early Latvian cinema.  Of course, the opening included a lovely reception with food and drink.

The opening of the Baltic Film presentations was the 1913 silent feature A Tragedy of a Jewish Student.   The film, the earliest known to be made in Latvia, shows such historic sites as street cars passing the Orthodox Cathedral, the University and the little bridge by the Opera House.

Hardi Volmer, Nancy, Māris Gailis and Aka Sultan
Hardi Volmer, Nancy, Māris Gailis and Aka Sultan

The catalog was full of many intriguing films but unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to see very many of them because the festival planned so many wonderful special events for their guests.  On the first of two excursions we traveled by bus to Easter Island on the North Sea Coast.  This man made stone island, linked to the land by a narrow strip of land, was built during the Soviet era to be home to a sea water pumping station for a nearby fish farm.  Māris Gailis, former Prime Minister of Latvia, and his architect wife Zaiga master-minded the transformation of the crumbling pumping station into an environmentally friendly show case house.  The only thing that I really miss from San Francisco is the ocean, and it was such a pleasure to walk along a beach on the Baltic Sea. Our host took us on a walk to see a wedge of swans that live near his home.  Our beach stroll was followed by delicious food and drink upon our return to the house.

By The fireplace in the living room of former Prime Minister Māris Gailis
By The fireplace in the living room of former Prime Minister Māris Gailis

The next morning a group of us took an early morning flight to Liepaja, the Southernmost Latvian costal city. After a bus tour of local sites and a visit to a Navy cruiser, we were taken to Karaosta.  This former closed secret military town is slowly becoming a place for artists and a tourist destination.    On the coast a short distance from the city, we toured some artillery bunkers and I was struck by the similarity to the coastal fortifications that I used to climb on the cliffs right outside of San Francisco.

In 1994 the Soviet army left Karaosta and most of the block houses were stripped of anything that could be carried away leaving skeleton houses and piles of rubble.  The town appears to be a landscape of ruins except for the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church built during the reign of Tsar Alexander III which has been painstakingly restored to its former glory.

For our last stop, we were taken to Karaostas Cietums, the only prison in Europe open to the public.  Built in Tsarist times, it has housed a wide range of prisoners, from those convicted for military breach of discipline, to Stalin’s enemies.  Now it is a bed and breakfast where you can spend the night on a prison bunk or iron bed.  We were all locked in cells and then “marched” under orders of strict silence to the dining hall where we were fed a prison meal and given our ration of vodka to keep us warm on our flight back to Riga.  I wish we would have been given more information about the history of the prison and  I found it very strange that people who still have vivid memories of the horrors of the Soviet era would want to spend the night there, much less see the entire experience treated as a bit of a joke.

Our Commandant at Karaostas Cietums
Our Commandant at Karaostas Cietums

On the last day of the festival, Nik and I paid a visit to our friend Vilnis Kalnaellis’ Riga Film Studio.  Vilnis, producer of such films as Tripletts of Belleville and Signe Baumane’s moving Veterinarian has a beautiful, state of the art studio.  Nik was particularly envious of the music production facilities.  We had the opportunity to watch When Apples Roll, a film by Reinis Kalnaellis, Vilnis’ son.  The film, which is in post production, is a delightful hand drawn tale about a cat that lives in a wardrobe with her best friend, a mouse.  I look forward to seeing the final version at festivals this spring.

Vilnis and Reinis Kalnaellis
Vilnis and Reinis Kalnaellis

The festival staff loves surprises, and after sitting through so many traditional awards ceremonies I had no idea what fun awaited us.  The winner in each category was called up to the stage to receive their award and then seated under a beauty salon style hair dryer.  The main prize of 20,000.00 US dollars was awarded in a lottery to emphasize that all of the Competition winners in each category are equally good and deserving to receive the top honor.  This was no normal lottery however.  A representative of each film chose a cup of coffee from a table.  In one cup the festival president had hidden a flower petal.  On signal everyone started to drink their coffee.  The lucky petal was in the cup of a Latvian boy, representing American director Ramin Bahrani and his film Chop Shop.

Following the award presentations, Sergei Ovcharov’s   film The Orchard, based on Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard was screened.  I found the vaudeville style treatment of the original story to be very trite and totally out of keeping with the feeling of the original play.  The film did, however, contribute the theme for the closing ceremony with its rose petal rain and the cherry blossom in the cup.  The Latvian Society House, site of the closing night party, featured a beautiful spread of food and drink.  It was high end catering – lots of salmon, shrimp and baby lobster tails and sweets, sweets, sweets which Nik loved. The band performed lively traditional music.  The highlight for me was the traditional Latvian dances which festival staff and guests performed into the wee hours of the night.

I am delighted that Nik and I had the opportunity to attend the 19th International Film Festival ARSENALS.  Film makers should not hesitate to submit their films to this wonderful festival.  The theatres and projection are of the highest quality and the festival staff went out of their way to ensure that guests were treated royally.  We had a most wonderful time and I certainly hope that we will be invited back again.   You can contact the festival at:  arsenals@arsenals.lv.  Visit their web site at:  www.arsenals.lv