He is sitting at a thoroughly hewn kitchen table in his house surrounded by the forests of Kurzeme. Everything around him is always solid, well laid and placed. Garden, mown lawn, field, the company of scarecrows, 4G Internet.
He is an old man with grey hair now, happy as a lark.
He does not walk around too much anymore and his daily connection to the outside world is a radio. A radio and a small portable tape recorder. Fingers pushing buttons, fast forwarding and rewinding. He plays a Georgian choir singing “Pūt, vējiņi” (Blow, Winds) in Latvian, geese cackling – “a fox was busy here one day”, wind rustling in spruce–trees, rewinds and suddenly the familiar tune composed by Raimonds Pauls from the film 235 000 000 is playing.
Radio orchestra has instrumentalized it in a sort of a medley. “A couple days ago they played it at the lunch break concert,” he says with White Father’s smile on his face.
Uldis Brauns during the shooting of “USSR –1966” (working title of “235 000 000”). Photo: Hercs Franks
“In filmmaking music is the road to the character’s language. Poetics is in our genes. It comes along with Latvian folksongs sung to us by nannies and mothers in our childhood,” he tells when asked.
Does he remember the singing of his own mother who was taken away from him at the age of ten?
Uldis’ parents and brother were deported in a cattle car to Siberia with hundreds of thousands of others in 1941. His father never came back from Vjatlag. Little Uldis stayed in Latvia with his sister who was only 12 at the time.
“The most important thing is to listen and visualize with your mind’s eyes. Visualize the whole film beforehand. The picture, the sound, and the musical setting. Without the perfect pitch there is no place for you in the film industry,” he says.
Uldis Brauns (1932–2017) – distinguished photographer, cameraman, director – one of the fathers of the Latvian poetic documentary filmmaking. We always say ‘one of ’ but Hercs Franks tells about him: “Our leader. The standard–bearer. The one who inspired the new view, who removed the propaganda, the embellishment and shot art on film. Brauns came into the Riga Film Studio as a cameraman. Together with Ivars Kraulītis they shot “The White Bells” (“Baltie zvani”, 1961) – bells not bellflowers – those small flowers had to resound as bells across the whole Soviet Union. There was a new approach to ordinary things. Suddenly all of it was sort of on another level. Widescreen… Brauns shot his first films “The Worker” (“Strādnieks”, 1963), “The Building” (“Celtne” 1962), and “The Beginning” (“Sākums”, 1961) on the widescreen. You see, the visual culture was completely different, it was higher than in Russia… Then in 1963 Seleckis and Freimanis came with their poetic view of fishermen and then I added a philosophical, biblical view that might be typical of the Jewish culture to the screen and all that together – the visual culture, good journalism and philosophical approach with focus on the human – created the so-called ‘poetic filmmaking’ which originated in Latvia and which is the so-called ‘Latvian filmmaking school’.”
“Clouds are of huge importance,” says Brauns. “Clouds are very providential in my life. When I worked as a feldsher – doctor’s assistant I used to ride around on my motorcycle in spare moments, look and sometimes even chase clouds. And there are clouds in most of my photos because I believed that it was a kind of a gift of God that was constantly writing something on the ground – books of wisdom and fantasies.”
He could have remained a feldsher – a country boy who loved nature. However, it could not have been a coincidence that one day Riga Film Studio’s newsreel van swayed through the gates of Saldus Zoo Veterinary Technical School where he was studying at the time. The country boy who was already passionate about photography watched the story being shot enthusiastically, the elegant movements of the cameraman Vadims Mass’ camera, all the lamps and wires… He asked the guys from film studio if he could buy a piece of good film and after graduating went to Moscow to enrol at VGIK. He failed miserably with his naive pics of cats and dogs. However, he went there again the year after with others – he had seen and realized the level of photos submitted by the ‘matadors’.
Brauns was a remarkable student already at the institute, re- members Naum Kleiman, film scholar. Different.
With his camera, his tripod that he had found after the war on a potato field – it was a German aviation device that he remade and later used to shoot his films. With his motorcycle he had used to travel and photograph all over the post–war Latvia.
Asked about films he always points out that it was largely team- work and lists all of his colleagues: cameramen, assistants, directors, script writers, administrators, com- posers, the sound crew. Both living and deceased. Especially of the grand film “235 000 000” (1967) which took a whole year for 4 permanent crews to shoot and which documented the Soviet Union at the time on an unprecedented massive scope. It is a film that Tue Steen Müller, Danish documentary theoretician, expert, and cinephile refers to as a world-scale masterpiece that has not been recorded as one of the greatest films in the world film history only because none of the westerners has actually seen it due to the Iron Curtain. Even we have only seen a part of it – nearly half of it was censored and cut in Moscow. This film encodes the essence of poetic filmmaking. Back then it was criticized by many – Soviet functionaries as too anti-Soviet – a jazz festival, a girl singing in English, and others as too Soviet – after all it showed the military might of the empire, weapons and congress of the Communist Party.
“Bridges of Time" trailer
Uldis Brauns, still from “Bridges of Time" (2018)
Through the lens of time distance one can see how cleverly and accurately the film was made – it shows everything! – the Party congress with the mutant-like politburo mass, the threatening, pointed profiles of militiamen and the deadly rockets…
Brauns has never had it easy with his films. It was difficult in the beginning and the ‘old guards’ of the Riga Film Studio did not hesitate to scold and criticize – why are the lights so dim, why are workers shown in dirty boots and vatniks? Brauns does not know how to work with lights at all! Whereas a committee that came from Moscow to evaluate studio work watched it and invited Brauns to take the Highest Scriptwriters and Director’s course in Moscow without any entrance exams. His teachers there included great masters – also Agnès Varda, Chris Marker… It was a breath of fresh, worldly air.
He had good and bad times. Critical mood alternated with success and recognition. The bankruptcy of the Film Studio after the collapse of the Soviet Union took the film financing system down with it and brought the active life of the cinematographer to a halt.
But Uldis Brauns is a survivor. He moves to the countryside with his wife Dainuvite where he ploughs, plants, mows, threshes to have bread on the table. The country boy does not perish. He knows how to operate both a tractor and athresher.
Almost every time I visit the Brauns I ask Uldis about his paint- ing. About the little blond boy holding a red balloon with a big hole in the middle. Is it the boy from “The Red Balloon” (1956, directed by Albert Lamorisse), the short film that once enraptured the jury of the Cannes and maybe even inspired “The White Bells” a little?
He always smiles nonchalantly and says that it is just a neighbour’s boy.
However, paintings just like films have at least two creators: the author and the viewer. So I know what kind of a balloon it is. It is a flag!