New Trends or the Map of Ptolemy

An excerpt from Uldis Cekulis’ interview with Herz Frank in 2005

Director Herz Frank. Photo: Ivars Seleckis

The title of the film should be broader and deeper than what will be seen on the screen. It should be within the coordinate system which embraces not only what I see but also my associations. The big wide world that it embraces. And in this sense our poetic documentary cinematography has always done just that: we looked broader right from the start. When we started working we sought and tried to find something deeper and bigger in the event, in the person.

Poetic filmmaking actually did not originate in Latvia. In well-known works of Dziga Vertov he discusses poetics and poetic filmmaking. And he was the one who discovered something more in his weekly realistic documentary newsreels, news. However, as opposed to us Vertov has politicized his cinematography. We have come closer and gone deeper into human personality. Our main character was an individual who was not central in the system at the time. The main thing was the state, the Communist Party, the revolution. Individual was a function that did what this big machine needed.

Visual Culture

Latvian visual art was poetic to a certain extent too whether it was a monument or anything else. I would say that art was statuary. The approach and the shot always had to be composed, it had to be found. I think that Latvian visual arts, fine arts have had a great impact on cameramen and that is the basis for our sub-consciousness.

Documentaries and Television

People talk about a documentary and they think it is the same as a TV show. An average viewer does not differentiate between a TV show and a film. “I saw on TV…” and any documentary aired on TV is seen as a TV show. And there is no other way it could be perceived. Only an expert will understand the meaning of the term ‘creative documentary’. For example, channel Arte airs films in the evening. The channel audience understands the meaning of creative, so to say, authored films. But all films have authors and the person sitting at the TV cannot differentiate, he does not really understand what they want him to believe. I think that everything depends on one’s associative capability, one’s development. A good viewer understands right away whether it is a news report, a documentary or a show that touches him deeply. Today if the image on the screen remains the same for a while, people switch the channel. The most dangerous thing is the fact the viewer is holding a switch – a remote control – in his hand and he does not want to wait for too long.

But isn’t it true that today directors are adapting to the rules of the game and making films by artificially destroying the rhythm of the film?

Yes and it is forced on them by editors and producers. That it should be shorter and more concise and everything turns into a clip. Chop! Chop! Done! I think no serious director will ever do that. If you do not want to watch and air it, then that’s that. Then it will not be aired… For example, 10 Minutes Older that we made together with Juris Podnieks in 1978…

At the beginning no one got it. The head of the committee asked, “But where is the text? Where is the text?” The application, the scenario said that raising children is a duty based on the Constitution and that fairy–tales facilitate this process. So when fairy–tales are performed on the stage it is not only an awesome experience, celebration for children but it is also educating. All that was included in the description to get money for the film. And afterwards no one needed it for a long time. It took more than 20 years. I showed it in courses, at various seminars. It was about serious things: that it is not about special effects, it is about the most important thing: we see reality and we film it as it is. The reality gives us a chance to ‘scoop’ artistic values from reality. All you have to do is be at that place, turn on the camera on time and take your time before you turn it off! As they say in Russian: not only look but also see what is happening in front of your eyes. And then you can make a documentary that will have a 100% documental value and at the same time have artistic value if it will touch peoples souls. And now so many years later 10 Minutes Older is shown in several festivals …in the “New Trends” section.

Poetic Cinema

In literature, for example, a poetic text can be written in one line. And then you will realize that a poetic text differs from an ordinary one – from a report or prose by being extremely concentrated, dense. Every word has an adventure or a character behind it. So all the words in a poetic line are not made of concrete but instead moulded in metal for good.

As a symbol?

Not only a symbol. Symbols are not always alive. The hammer and sickle is not alive even though it is a symbol. We are talking about a living document. In terms of its structure and content and words and combinations of words selected it draws an image that is stronger and more concentrated than a whole page of prose. That’s what I am talking about. And we did not fake reality. We just selected the shots and moments that matched the event the most. Poetic document is a document that remains extremely accurate and at the same time has an artistically deep effect. The impact should be emotional. When the viewer sees this visual text he understands not only with his mind but also with his heart.

And what about a script? Commissioners often say: write a script. But you cannot write one for a documentary…

Yes you can, why not?! I published a book “The Map of Ptolemy” in 1975 where among other things I write about Ptolemy who was a well–known astrologer and geographer. He was the first to draw the map of the world although he did not know that the Earth was round at the time. He had no clue about America either, he never went to sea himself, but he draw Europe based on the stories of sailors. There was England on his map, the Mediterranean, Arabia somewhere there… Further off there was Asia, but he did not know where it ended and he had no clue what was beyond the ocean either.

But based on his map the big discoveries were made! Columbus, Magellan, Vespucci – they all began with his maps. In the Middle Ages when the discoveries began they made a new map every 3 months. Cause they had to make adjustments constantly: from a sea to a bay, from an island to a peninsula etc.

What I mean is that a script for a documentary is a map of Ptolemy. Some things we guess, some things we know, but on this journey we have to discover a new land.

And if we discover a new land, we have a film!