The Poetry of Life
The best fiction films are the ones that manage to capture some element of real life. It doesn't matter if they are set in a galaxy far, far away or taken straight from today's headlines. They feel real no matter how contrived. The best documentary films work in reverse. They take real life and give it scale and resonance that makes one forget that what we are watching is the mundane and common. They take things and events in life that most of us don't pay too much attention to or take for granted and elevate them to epic status. Ivars Seleckis' documentaries Skersiela (Crossroad Street) and Jaunie laiki Skersiela (New Times at Crossroad Street) accomplish this with such effortless ease that one forgets that these are documentaries. They feel real and surreal at the same time. Both films take place in a small street in the Pardaugava section of Riga. The first was filmed in 1988 and the second 10 years later in 1998. The first film slowly introduces us to the residents of Crossroad Street. There's Julis the cab driver and his arch-enemy and neighbor, Aldis, a stone mason and part-time preacher, who has set up a what seems to be a major monument-making factory in his backyard. It's a noisy undertaking and a constant source of irritation to straight-laced Julis. There's poor Daiga, pregnant and abandoned by her lover. She lives as an unregistered guest of her cousin in the same house as Julis, his wife and his daughter. She fears that any moment she will be kicked out into the street. The house itself was built by and belonged to her grandfather, a famous Latvian writer, during Latvia's independence. It has been turned into communal housing by the Soviets. Daiga is now nothing more than a squatter. There's Osis, feeble-minded but gentle, who lives with his 80-year-old mother. There's Tolik, the son of a Latvian mother who was deported to Siberia and a German father whom she met and fell in love with there. He speaks only Russian and can barely move because of an untreated childhood disease he contracted in Siberia. There's Peteris and Olga, a bickering but loving, easy-going old couple who grind horseradish in their backyard for sale in the market. There's even a glimpse of the mysterious Casino Plumins tooling around in his Zigulis. There are many more, but they all present a cross-section of Latvia and, as the title suggests, find themselves at the crossroads as a dying empire takes its last gasps. Their lives are filled with chaos and pathos. Aldis, the stone mason preacher, keeps mouthing homilies about the spiritual life while in constant pursuit of earthly rewards. Julis finds himself lost in this new chaotic world, not nostalgic for the past, but resentful at having to live in a world in which a taxi driver no longer has the same status as his enterprising stonemason neighbor. Then there is poor Daiga who, despite it all, keeps smiling through the tears. Jaunie laiki Skersiela revisits the neighborhood 10 years later. Nothing is the same and at the same time it all seems strangely familiar. Daiga, the helpless young woman, is now a mother with a 10-year-old son. The house from which she was kicked out is now entirely hers and she is busy making it into her little safe haven. She has a job and a man and a healthy and happy son. She is strong and vibrant and in full control of her life. Aldis is still as devout as ever, if not more so, but his business has fallen on hard times. Racketeers have burned down his modern workshop and he now has to fight for control over his property with Galina, his father's second wife. Daiga has just turned off his water, water which he has been poaching off her pipes for his workshop all of those years. Peteris and Olga are still making horseradish in the back yard and bickering in loving fashion. And Casino Plumins is now tooling around in a brand new Mercedes and living in a house right out of the pages of Architecture Digest with his beautiful artist wife. A lot of old shacks on Crossroad Street are being torn down or remodeled and rebuilt. There is also a huge new addition to Crossroad Street: a mansion built by a mysterious and wealthy gypsy. Side by side we see modest, well-kept family homes with tidy gardens and run-down buildings with junk-filled yards. Times have changed mostly for the better, but in some ways for the worse. Latvia is independent and people have freedom to take control of their lives. But there is still chaos and uncertainty. People are rebuilding, but the first thing everyone seems to put around their property is a sturdy fence. An abandoned freight train rests on the nearby railroad tracks. Everyone has to duck and walk under if they want to get to the store. Osis now receives his disability pension in lats and not rubles, but it is still barely enough to get by and perhaps even less than it was before. Tolik's health has taken a turn for the worse. And Casino Plumins, despite all of his wealth, seems sad and lost and hungry for something that he just can't reach. The magic of Skersiela and Jaunie laiki Skerrsiela is that they allow us an entry into these peoples' lives. It's an honest look that neither glamorizes nor minimizes real life -- real life as lived by real people in extraordinary times.
- Jun 2, 2006
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