Bridging the Gap

Ten years ago, doc-maker Carl Biorsmark left Sweden to spend three months in Latvia, one of the newly independent Baltic states. He was fascinated by a society struggling to re-establish itself after years of Communist rule. He discovered a culture rich...
April 1, 2000

Ten years ago, doc-maker Carl Biorsmark left Sweden to spend three months in Latvia, one of the newly independent Baltic states. He was fascinated by a society struggling to re-establish itself after years of Communist rule. He discovered a culture rich in the documentary tradition, and a budding indie film community. Three months turned into a decade, and now Biorsmark (whose production company, Locomotive International, is based in Riga, Latvia) is anxious to show others the potential that exists in the region known as the ‘ex-East.’ The result is an international conference called Transit Zero.

From August 13-20, 100 industry types will gather first in Vickleby, Sweden, then in Liepaja, Latvia, for the first ever Transit Zero meeting. ‘Transit Zero is the essence of what we see in the media today,’ says Lars Hedenstedt, film project manager for The Swedish Institute, the primary funding and planning partner for the conference. ‘We are on a kind of zero point – east is going west, west is going east, analog is going digital, and fiction is going ‘documentarized.”

The main purpose of Transit Zero is ‘to encourage

the ‘film dialogue’ between the countries around the Baltic Sea, in terms of collaboration, coproduction and marketing,’ Hedenstedt says.

Biorsmark says they want to keep the number limited to 80 invited participants and 20 specialists, to preserve the intimacy of the gathering. He explains that they are seeking filmmakers interested in the Baltic region’s contemporary issues, people like himself who are fascinated by the transition the area continues to experience. ‘Participants will come from all over Scandinavia, but mostly from Sweden, and then the three Baltic nations [Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia], and Russia.’

Transit Zero co-founder Lasse Ernst (of Vickleby-based Eureka Film) notes that while the focus of the conference is documentaries, they plan to keep the door open to any interested feature filmmakers, as well. ‘The whole idea is to open up the borders we have, the borders between the past and the future, between different countries and cultures, and also between documentary and feature filmmaking.’ Ernst says they hope to generate lively discussion with such topics as ‘East and West: Who Really Cares?’ and ‘Tell the Story: Native or English?’

From Ernst’s point of view, there is merit to using a country’s native language to tell a story, but North American buyers in particular are resistant to the concept of subtitling. He’s hoping some broadcasters from across the Atlantic will accept the invitation to attend Transit Zero, and start breaking down the barrier. ‘In Sweden, we are used to seeing American or English films subtitled. We are used to that, but they are not. This is a very big problem . . . We can’t solve it in one week, but we can start the discussion. Perhaps we can make it possible for an American channel to have an Eastern European week.’

The week-long conference is sponsored in part by The Swedish Institute, which is contributing us$120,000 over two years, says Hedenstedt. On the Latvian side, the country’s National Film Center is helping to organize and provide staff for the Liepaja portion. Established in 1991, the Film Center provides US$800,000 to $900,000 to Latvian filmmakers each year, around 16% of which goes to doc-makers. The fee for Transit Zero participants is US$500.

Across the Baltic

Latvian doc-maker Uldis Cekulis, of Riga-based prodco Vides Filmu Studija, plans to attend Transit Zero and hopefully make some coproduction contacts. ‘Coproduction is the only way to get out of this situation,’ he says, referring to the severely limited funding resources in Latvia and the other Baltic countries. Both commercial and public broadcasters are reluctant to shell out any cash for non-fiction programming, especially since their maximum viewership is only 2.5 million (Latvia’s total population). ‘You can’t raise much money for such audiences,’ he says.

As an indie producer, Cekulis enjoys the exceptional situation of a regular contract with Latvian State TV. For the past three-and-a-half years, he has produced a weekly half-hour program to fill a slot devoted to environmental and wildlife issues. He doesn’t receive a license fee, however. The pubcaster offers up the ad space around the slot, so Cekulis’ earnings are based on how much advertising he sells. He has tried to get the attention of commercial broadcaster Latvian Independent TV, but says their interest runs more to fiction films and game shows.

Cekulis has managed to open a window to the international marketplace – through the pre-sale of two programs to Finnish broadcaster YLE. Both are 26-minute one-offs, slated to wrap by the end of the year. Who’s the Winner (w/t), budgeted at US$60,000, focuses on birds (specifically, terns) living on Riga’s rooftops, and the attitudes of the city’s human residents towards them. Struggling for Centimeters, which has a budget of us$80,000, revolves around Latvia’s Lake Lubana and the dissension between two groups over the lake’s water level. The pre-sale is the first time Cekulis has succeeded in raising outside interest in his programs.

Swedish filmmakers have a much easier time finding coproduction partners than Latvians, ‘and that’s not a question of the quality of the films,’ Biorsmark says. ‘It’s a question of not having the history of knowing how to approach an international market. [But] filmmakers in this part of the world are very quickly beginning to understand. That’s a very interesting process because it can’t be that they accept only a new system and make productions only suitable for a Western audience. They have to keep their own traditions.’

One of the distinctive qualities in Latvian productions is the use of metaphors. Says Biorsmark, ‘During the Soviet regime, the use of sub-language was extremely developed in films – being able to read between the lines. That was a style of filmmaking that became very strong on this side of the Baltic Sea. Sometimes this short metaphor of picture and language is difficult for Western viewers to understand, but once you do, it’s enormously rich.’

Swedish filmmaker Anita Oxburgh, of Stockholm-based Migma Film, is also planning to attend Transit Zero, though she isn’t specifically interested in hooking up with Latvian producers. In her opinion, the ex-East is only a possible market right now, as prices are not yet equal to the rest of Europe or North America. However, she is interested in researching the Baltic region for upcoming projects, and in networking in general. ‘It’s not just a question of money, but also about ideas,’ she says.

Even though Sweden and Latvia are close geographically, their systems are quite different. For one thing, Swedish broadcasters pay license fees, which range from US$5,800 to $17,500, Oxburgh says. And Scandinavia’s film funding system is well established. ‘Swedish filmmakers have been able to finance the majority of their productions through the national and Nordic support systems,’ she says, although she does concede that Swedish producers are increasingly seeking coproduction partners.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.