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BLACK NIGHTS 2021 Baltic Film Competition

Review: Homes

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- The newest film from Laila Pakalniņa is an experimental documentary hybrid that celebrates the home environment in poetic fashion

Review: Homes

For most people, there is no more intimate place in the world than their own home. Folks feel exposed when they let somebody, let alone a film crew, into their home to find the “truth” hiding in plain sight. The people of Latvia and their homes are the subject of the new film produced, written and directed by seasoned Latvian helmer Laila Pakalniņa, who has worked in both the short and feature-length format, and in different categories of documentary, experimental and fiction filmmaking. The experimental doc simply called Homes has premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, in the Baltic Film Competition.

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The rules of the “game” are simple: Pakalniņa and her cinematographer, Gints Bērziņš, position their selected subjects and order them to hold still for a minute outside their homes while they film them from the inside, through the (usually closed) windows, but sometimes also through open ones or through glass doors. The goal with each of the visits is to achieve the appearance of a beautifully composed artistic photograph from past times, with an emphasis on aesthetic qualities like symmetry (or the lack thereof) and the play between contrasts, such as light and shadow, rather than a quest for information or a deeper truth.

Yes, most of the shots feel staged because they actually are staged. However, they do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in very specific contexts that Pakalniņa shows in a casual fashion. The individual and group portraits cannot be still lifes, as we see and especially hear the things going on in the background, from the street noise to COVID-19-related news on the radio. Also, some of the elements of these particular “filmed photographs” cannot be controlled, like small children and pets, but it is also surprising how some of the grown-up people have trouble standing or sitting still for a minute.

Finally, the subjects come from different backgrounds in terms of their ethnicity (we hear different languages spoken, Latvian, Russian and English), their class (judging by the details found in the home décor, some places are more modest, while others are more lavish), the settings of their abodes (urban, suburban or rural) and their living arrangements (we usually have nuclear families, but this is far from being the rule). Pakalniņa and Bērziņš do not disregard those differences, but they are also not aiming to show us a precise representation of Latvian society. They are creating art, so, for instance, an image of a nuclear family outside their flat in an apartment building while their black cat waits for them patiently on the windowsill is more significant than any attempt at social analysis, while the fact that all of the subjects have let them film them from within their homes speaks volumes about the trust they have placed in them.

Everything in Homes is subordinate to the art, which is clear from the instructions that Bērziņš gives to the subjects, the graduated black-and-white cinematography, in which light and shadow look even more poetic and lyrical, and the precise, clear-cut editing by Ieva Veiveryte. The only issue with it, as is also the case with other films of this type, is that it feels a little arbitrary, since it would serve equally well in a short or mid-length format, as well as a prolonged video work suitable for a gallery or museum. However, one thing is clear: with Homes, Pakalniņa celebrates the home environment and totally does it justice.

Homes is a Latvian production by Hargla Company.

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