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THE ENTHUSIASTS ARCHIVE

Banner stills from The Flipside of the Coin, courtesy Riga Film Museum

The Flipside of the Coin (Monētas dubultportrets)
Romualds Pipars and Maija Selecka, Latvia, 2008, digital transfer from 8 mm, 100 minutes

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Still from The Flipside of the Coin, courtesy Riga Film Museum

Latvia’s history in the 20th century was extremely turbulent. The independent Republic of Latvia was formed in 1918, and 20 years of relative peace and prosperity followed. Beginning in 1939, however, the country was occupied first by Soviet and then Nazi troops. After World War II the republic was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. There ensued a period of rigidly authoritarian rule under which any opposition to centralized Communist Party ideology had severe repercussions. Mass deportations to Siberia were used to terrorize the population during the Stalinist period until 1952, and Latvia remained a part of the repressive Soviet system until it regained its independence in 1991.

Home movies are a revealing genre in any culture, but those made by people living under a totalitarian regime can show important facets of shared history that would otherwise never have been preserved. This was why, almost 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, filmmakers associated with the Ģilde film studio, Romualds Pipars (b. 1952) and Maija Selecka (b. 1937), gathered and digitized 450 hours of footage that had been shot with 8 mm cameras from the 1950s through the 1980s in Soviet Latvia and preserved by more than 70 home movie enthusiasts. The film The Flipside of the Coin is a 100-minute selection from that footage that addresses, using previously publicly unseen images and meticulously reconstructed sound, a contentious cultural and political history—the other side of the “coin” of Soviet experience that was overshadowed by its official representations.

The film documents the work, leisure, celebrations, and everyday life of several generations in an era of rigid political censorship and portrays life in a socialist country where the domineering official ideology differed greatly from the concerns of ordinary citizens in their private affairs. The film shows such intimate and personally significant events as children’s first steps, family holidays, weddings, funerals, parties, and rites of passage. Public scenes typical of and particular to Soviet life also abound—footage of queues in stores due to food shortages and rationing, official parades, meager living conditions, and the loving care of a car, a prized possession for many people who could acquire one only after spending fifteen years on a waiting list.

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Still from The Flipside of the Coin, courtesy Riga Film Museum

To provide contrasts and emphasize the disparity between official and unofficial depictions of the era, the film juxtaposes home-made footage with Soviet cinema newsreels, which now appear as a distorted mirror, portraying the same events in a vastly different light. The counterpoint to Soviet triumphalism, seen in a propaganda newsreel of heroic military scenes set to upbeat marching music, for instance, is a touching home-movie scene of a young man having his head shaved before leaving for mandatory military service. A latent sadness imbues the scene: draftees from the Baltic republics were stationed as far from home as possible, often in Central Asia or Siberia, and in the late 1970s and 1980s many found themselves fighting a decade-long losing war in Afghanistan (1979–89). A decade earlier, by a cruel twist of fate, some were also part of the Soviet military invasion of Prague in 1968.

Yet another striking feature of the film points to the difference between official ideology and lived experience. Even rapid urbanization, industrialization, and modernization characterized the postwar period in Latvia (as well as other parts of the USSR), numerous scenes in home movies show how people remain connected to the rural countryside and harking back to an agrarian life. This connection can also be found in other films in this series, most notably in Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, made in Latvia’s southern neighbor, and Karpo Godina’s Litany of Happy People. For Latvians, the connection to the land was driven in part by necessity: in conditions of persistent, decades-long shortages and rationing of food and other goods, an extra sack of potatoes and access to homegrown pork made a real difference to a family’s well-being. There is also, however, a symbolic dimension to the images. The desire of individuals to have their own plots of land, either allotted by the state or partially retained from the period of the republic, also stood in for the nation’s yearning to have its own little piece of farmland. It recalled how Latvia prospered during independence thanks to its farming tradition—a memory that again contrasted sharply with forced Soviet collectivization and the prohibition of private property.

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Still from The Flipside of the Coin, courtesy Riga Film Museum

We should not, however, take entirely at face value not only the official propaganda but also the home movies in The Flipside of the Coin. Though they appear to be unmediated, free of ideological constraints, and as depicting the “true” life of Soviet Latvia, they also raise questions. What did home-movie makers deem important enough to be portrayed on film, given that this was an expensive hobby for a Soviet citizen? The answer might account for the overabundance of footage depicting special occasions and public events.

In addition, one might argue that even in the private sphere, the camera remained an instrument of documentation, and documents were taken seriously in the USSR. The subjects of the home movies thus seem often to perform their “scenes,” hamming it up for the camera. Admittedly, this is a universal tendency of people faced with a camera, but here it results ironically in images whose mood is not far from that of joyful and contented Soviet citizens portrayed in official imagery.[1] This footage does not aim directly to use film as a tool of protest. We can thus contrast it with a small but important number of radical Latvian artistic attempts to use home movies to create a truly nonconformist vision of Soviet reality, such as the performance artist Andris Grīnbergs and his films, especially Self-Portrait of 1972. This film, also shot with an 8 mm camera, was a provocative piece of self-aware filmmaking that contains explicit sexual imagery and depicts Latvian hippies—the very margins of society—engaging in the Soviet version of intentionally countercultural activities.

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Still from The Flipside of the Coin, courtesy Riga Film Museum

Last, it is important to remember that these movies, originally mostly silent, are accompanied by a sound track that was added in postproduction. Though the filmmakers used authentic period recordings of sounds and added voiceover to offer contextual commentary about the particulars of the era, the sound track undeniably alters the meaning and perception of the footage and further blurs the line between documentary and fiction. What the editors offer us is a hybrid that consists of original bits of history and a much later narration.

Despite this, the film is a veritable time capsule, a trove of Soviet-era images and situations that today elicit responses ranging from resentment to nostalgia. For some, they even hold the allure of the exotic. The technique of juxtaposing the images of private life with representation of the collective, moreover, continues a tradition in Latvian cinema and enters into a dialogue with such films as the landmark 1967 documentary 235 000 000, also featured in this series. 
— Līva Pētersone

The series organizers would like to thank Līva Pētersone, curator at the Riga Film Museum, for her tireless assistance with our research for the series. Thanks also to Baiba Urbane and Sanita Grina of the Ģilde Film Studio and Agnese Surkova of the Latvian Film Centre for their help in making a screening of this film possible in Washington.

 

1. This idea was proposed in an article by Inga Pērkone-Redoviča, “Escape,” Kino Raksti [Writings on cinema] (Riga) 3 (2009): 22. (back to top)