Since 2005, Sonora Broka has been curating both the national and international film programs for the Riga International Film Forum Arsenals, the Riga Nordic Film Days and the Children’s Film Festival “Berimora kino.” She has worked as the director of International Film Festival Arsenal for two years and participated in 2014 in the creation of its successor, the Riga International Film Festival, where she has now been working as artistic director for the fifth consecutive year. Sonora Broka hosts a radio show called “Piejūras klimats” (“Coastal Climate”), writes film reviews for the weekly magazine “IR,” the monthly magazine “Klubs,” and the portal “Kinoraksti.lv.” She has served on juries at several film festivals as well as the European Parliament’s LUX Prize jury.
Tara Karajica talks to her about her work as artistic director of the Riga International Film Festival, the cinematic event itself and this year’s edition as well as the situation of women in film today.
Can you talk about Riga International Film Festival’s founding? How has the festival evolved since its inception?
Sonora Broka: The idea of the Riga International Film Festival came from the institutional side – the aim was to bring together all the smaller festivals and film days in Latvia, and to present Latvian films and the film industry to international guests. It was in 2014, when the EFA Awards Ceremony took place in Riga. The Riga International Film Festival was planned as an umbrella with mainly organizational, administrational and communicational functions, but over the years, it has developed as an independent structure – for now, being the biggest international film festival in Latvia.
What is the best thing about the Riga International Film Festival?
S.B.: We are a rather small and friendly team – we can therefore easily discuss everything on a daily basis. There are almost no general rules we have to take into account when we are re-evaluating the festival design and strategy every year. We are free to choose what is best for the festival so it can evolve in the best possible way. Our interest is to create a cinematic event that would gather people with passion for cinema and that would stand for cinema with a significant artistic quality and ambition.
What is the selection process like? What do you look for when selecting films for RIFF?
S.B.: It is a non-stop process. Already before the upcoming edition of the festival, we start looking for next year’s films. Throughout the year, Riga International Film Festival’s curators gather information on the newest and upcoming titles, discuss possible cooperations with other film festivals and film archives, and travel to other festivals. With each year, the number of submitted films for the festival competition programs is also growing significantly. When selecting films, we have several directions. Firstly, the Riga International Film Festival is the possibility for local audiences to follow the cinematic processes in the world – we are showing films that have been awarded at major festivals and films by well-known directors. Secondly – but maybe even more importantly – we are looking for the newest trends in film language, new directors with interesting cinematic voices, and films that are defining auteur cinema nowadays. An important part of the festival are the national premieres; we are proud and honored to provide an international platform for Latvian filmmakers.
Do you operate by quotas in your selection? Are you mindful of the presence of female filmmakers in your selection?
S.B.: It might be connected with my childhood in the Soviet Union, a totalitarian system with plenty of quotas, but I do not believe in such regulations. Moreover, I would say, it is a very sad and uninspiring system that chooses artistic work based on its creator’s sex. In our previous edition, when our retrospective was solely dedicated to women filmmakers, we paid more attention to the balance of films made by women and men in the overall program as well, but no film was selected just because it was made by a woman. The result was close to 50/50, which clearly shows that there is no need to do that artificially. Of course, I am fully aware of the situation in the industry, and I think it is of the utmost importance to continue to provide equal opportunities in filmmaking for both women and men, otherwise we are developing an unhealthy system, standing on one leg. But I do not believe in artificial schemes in providing equality when we are talking about programming and the artistic values of cinema.
What can you say about this year’s selection? What should we look out for?
S.B.: This year, among our program highlights is Baltic animation, one of the most popular means of bringing the region’s name into the world. Even the honor of being the festival’s opening film was given to Away (Projām) by Gints Zilbalodis – his full-length debut in animation. Each of the three Baltic countries differs with its own special approach and method, yet they are united their unique and high quality artistic work that seamlessly interacts with the director’s masterful technique in visual storytelling.
When you select films, can you exclude your personal taste? If so, to what extent?
S.B.: I do not see a need to exclude personal taste when selecting films; on the contrary, I see it as a necessity for a festival programmer to have a certain taste and to continue developing it. The taste as well as the artistic vision are the most important elements when shaping your festival’s identity. I do not think it is possible to put your taste aside when selecting films – we are humans, there will always be a certain part of subjectivity in our decisions.
What is a good film, according to you?
S.B.: I can excuse professional weaknesses of the film if it will persuade me from an artistic point of view. For me, a film is a work of art; therefore, I am looking for films with personality, with something unique, even if it is not visible at first, hidden under the top layers, for filmmakers with their own artistic universe.
How would you define RIFF and its artistic direction? Has it evolved over time?
S.B.: From the very first year, Riga International Film Festival’s artistic direction has been my duty; therefore it is maybe not up to me to evaluate its evolution. But, when thinking about the structure of the festival, there are several programs that have developed a solid core for the festival such as the Feature Competition and Short Riga, Kids Weekend, Festival Selection, the German Film program “Berlinale Riga,” Nordic Highlights and a retrospective called “In Kino Veritas.” Every year, we also add something new, a focus on a certain geographic region or a film movement. After every edition, we analyze the attendance, and take it into account when we are planning the next editions. However, these numbers are just one of the parameters.
How do you make sure that the program is appealing to both filmmakers and the audience?
S.B.: Within the Riga IFF’s program, you can find films for both viewers with an exquisite cinematic taste and knowledge, and for those who might have come to the first festival screening in their life. First of all, we make a program that would be appealing to ourselves as viewers. If we are satisfied with the selection, then we can be sure that our audiences – both professionals and non-professionals – will also appreciate it.
What is the audience’s response to the Riga International Film Festival and its films?
S.B.: The Latvian audience had the privilege to attend an international film festival already before the independence; the International Film Forum Arsenals was founded in 1988, opening up a cinematic universe for people who did not have access to most of the Western film classics as well as contemporary experimental and auteur cinema. It was a breakthrough that defined the film taste of several generations. We are now continuing the tradition, bringing every autumn a large number of important and outstanding films to Riga. Out of 148 films we are showing during eleven festival days, only a small number will be released theatrically in Latvia afterwards. The attendance of the Riga IFF has a stable growth and we can therefore say that in our sixth year, we already have a loyal festival audience. The viewers’ response to the films on social media also shows that we are going in the right direction.
Since 2016, the festival has expanded the range of activities for industry professionals and students as well as public events during the festival – international film forum, an educational and networking platform, focus on film criticism and film literacy, public lectures, panel discussions and other audience and industry mingling events. Can you expand on that?
S.B.: The Riga IFF Forum is a meeting place for local and international filmmakers and film students. It is a possibility to meet each other, to strengthen existing cooperations, to make new contacts, which can turn into new projects, and to participate in discussions on important topics. This year, the European Film Academy Board meeting takes place within the framework of the festival. The Baltic Animation Meet-up or BAMU was organized to create time and space for communication between animation industry professionals in the three Baltic States. This year, the BAMU is focusing on co-production case studies and funding sources as well as the synergy of education and industry. “Riga IFF goes VR” is a set of four inspirational lectures on the basics of VR storytelling. Also, the Magnetic Latvia hackathon took place, focusing on creating educational content for children and youth.
You have said you value the chance given to the film audiences to take part in events such as lectures about films, masterclasses or Q&A sessions and talk about films in an environment that promotes film culture. Can you comment on that?
S.B.: Meeting filmmakers is, for the audience, a very important added value of the festival. It takes time to open up the rather introvert Latvian viewers, but when they are brave enough to start asking questions after a film or a lecture, you can experience very exciting conversations. Then, the screening turns into something more; into a moment where different worlds meet, where we have enlarged the perception of the film, the perception of the artistic vision of the filmmaker.
You have also said that children’s films are important in raising new generations of viewers, and the festival is a natural environment for it. If a child can sit and watch a film in a theater and then get to talk about what he/she has seen and felt, he/she may later be able to accept something other than just gift-wrapped Hollywood productions. Can you elaborate on that?
S.B.: Our program, “Kids Weekend,” is our investment in the future of both the festival and society. If kids grow up without gaining this very special experience and knowledge of how to “read” these films, they might be not interested in non-mainstream cinema even after growing up. The films included in the “Kids Weekend” program encourage them to think, fantasize and develop empathy – all crucially important qualities in young personalities, in young members of our society.
Do you work with other film festivals around the world?
S.B.: We have a curatorial cooperation with the International Film Festival Schlingel for children and young audiences and the Kristiansand International Children’s Film Festival, the Vilnius International Film Festival – Kino Pavasaris, the Vilnius International Short Film festival, PÖFF Shorts and the Nordic Short Film Network are among our partners. We have started to discuss a program exchange with the Montréal Festival du Nouveau Cinéma and this summer, I curated a Baltic cult film’s program for the Midnight Sun Film Festival. Starting from next year, the Riga IFF will be among the twenty-four film festivals to nominate short film candidates for the European Film Awards. Every new cooperation enriches our festival. We see the film festival family as a united network from which we all can benefit both on levels of organization and curation.
Can you talk about the Latvian film industry? What part is RIFF playing in its development?
S.B.: We see the festival as a logical part of the Latvian film industry. The Riga IFF proudly promotes Latvian film and the Latvian film industry internationally and creates a platform for film professionals to meet potential international partners and co-producers. During the Riga IFF and Short Riga Test screenings, the Baltic short film presentations take place. It is a section for Baltic filmmakers to present their films to a panel of international experts who offer in-depth analyses of their work. We are most happy to see the film projects pitched at our festival return as completed films as a part of the Riga IFF film program.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past two years. What do you think of the situation of women in film today? How is it in Latvia?
S.B.: Regarding the situation of women in film today internationally, I believe we are in a moment just before major changes. The male gaze era is over, for sure. Already now, we can see more young and aspiring female filmmakers in the industry, and the tendency is just getting stronger. In Latvia, the situation has never been critical, but also, there is a young and promising generation of female filmmakers who are either finishing film school or making their debut films just now. I have produced several short films by Signe Birkova, a Latvian film director with a unique and uncompromising approach to filmmaking. Among the most well-known Latvian directors of the last few decades, is Laila Pakalniņa who just this spring has had an impressive retrospective at the Centre Pompidou.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
S.B.: It would be difficult to choose just one, so I would have to say Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, Kira Muratova, Agnès Varda… These are the names that define Film History for me. But the contemporary film world would be incomplete without Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel, Lynne Ramsay, Jessica Hausner, Valdís Óskarsdóttir, Shahrbanoo Sadat, Anna Eborn, Nataliya Meshchaninova, Laila Pakalnina, and others. To name just one film… today it is Zama by Lucrecia Martel, but if you ask me again tomorrow, I will name another one.
What does the future hold for RIFF?
S.B.: We all are creating our future by ourselves and everyday. In the span of six years, the Riga IFF has grown into an important cinematic event for Latvia. This year, we are receiving many compliments both regarding the program and the team work, and I believe that a professional and reliable team is at the base of every great film festival. In the future, we will continue to work hard in order to bring exquisite cinematic treats to Latvian viewers and will also do our best to promote Latvian film to the international public. We hope that the Riga IFF will become a central meeting place for regional filmmakers and that their meetings will result in many successful projects and strong films.
Photo credits: ©A. Zeltina