Latvian Movie Night #1: Četri balti krekli / Four White Shirts

Each Saturday during the state of emergency, Joe and Līga will be hosting a socially distanced Latvian movie night on Facebook. The events take advantage of the films that have been subtitled in English and made available to stream for free on the portal, and is meant to be something fun and safe to do on the weekend together. Guests are invited to all start watching a film that has been previously voted on at 21.00 Rīga time, and then write comments on the event page or join a live video call discussion with other viewers. For the first week, the 1967 classic Četri balti krekli (Four White Shirts) was chosen by guests to watch together.

In our narrative-obsessed society, we often become more fixated on the story behind behind a creative work than the actual work itself. While the tortuous multi-decade process behind Guns 'N Roses' Chinese Democracy or U2's controversial release strategy for Songs of Innocence ended up sparking more conversations and thinkpieces than any of the music contained on those albums, there's also cases like the Beach Boys' long lost Smile or David Bowie's parting gift Black Star where the music actually lives up to the legend. Rolands Kalniņš' 1967 film about Soviet censorship, which was promptly shelved for two decades by the same Soviet censors it criticized, falls squarely into the latter category — the film is just as fascinating as its storied production and long road to wide release. 

The film's plot is relatively straightforward: an up and coming band Optimisti (The Optimists) is on the edge of major success thanks especially to the lyrics of their bandleader "Jūlijs" Cēzars Kalniņš, a telephone installer by day who has never received any formal training. His songs are based on what he hears and sees around him in his everyday work and life, and he is unwilling to compromise in any way when an official complaint is penned by culture worker Anita Sondore over lines critical of Soviet society. Although Comrade Sondore begins to regret her actions after meeting Kalniņš by chance, our "hero" is forced to make a choice faced by so many artists before and after him: make changes to his songs in exchange for success and recognition, or stay true to his artistic values and remain in obscurity.

Late 1960s Rīga is brought to life with stunning shots of vivid cityscapes, many of which are recognizable even today to anyone who has spent time in the capital city. This phenomenal cinematography along with a soundtrack full of composer Imants Kalniņš' very best work paired with Māris Čalklais' poetry help elevate the film to classic status. For their parts, actors Uldis Pūcītis and Dina Kuple make their characters feel like real people despite virtually no exposition — although we learn nearly nothing about Cēzars' or Sondore's pasts, we become deeply invested in their struggles to stay true to their consciouses.  

When people voted for this to be the first one shown in the movie night series, I was a bit worried at first — after all the topic doesn't exactly make for lighthearted popcorn munching. However, the film seemed to resonate with nearly everyone who participated. A former student of mine who joined the video discussion afterwards claimed this was the tenth time she had watched the film, and that each time she noticed something new and interesting. Locals who lived here during the Soviet era explained the concept of artists needing to live a double life and express themselves with clever subtext. On unexpected discussion topic turned out to be whether or not the movie counts as a "musical" due to the centrality of the songs to its plot and flow of events.

Despite its classic status that was confirmed when it was warmly received at the 2018 Cannes film festival, I am always surprised by far off the radar it is for many people who have grown up here. I've had classes of adults where no one had ever seen the movie, despite almost all of them knowing the words to its songs that were re-recorded and reused by Imants Kalniņš in different contexts. While ten times might seem a bit excessive for most people, like my former student I also noticed many small details I hadn't recognized the first time around. She recommended that everyone watch it at least once, and I couldn't agree more.

To join in the next event, where we will be watching Mans draugs - nenopietns cilvēks, join our event page here!