Features, Film, Film Review

BBFF DISPATCH #1: Upurga (2021) dir. Uģis Olte / Kalev (2022) dir. Ove Musting

Part of the Boston Baltic Film Festival 2023


The Boston Baltic Film Festival runs from Friday, 3/3 through Sunday, 3/5 at the Emerson Paramount Center, and through 3/19 virtually. Click here for schedule and ticket info, and watch the site for Joshua Polanski’s continuing coverage!

Sometimes we find memorable images in the wrong places. At least, that’s what happens to Instagram influencer Mara (Elvita Ragovska) on her vegan hot dog video shoot near the Latvian-Estonian border in Upurga, where the indigenous Livonians live a life intimately connected to the land they live on, completely aware of its snares and vices. The end product results somewhere between Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), with a little bit of Livonian folklore sprinkled in.

Mara’s joined by her adventure tour guide brother Andrejs (Igors Selegovskis), amateur cinematographer Oskars (Reinis Boters), boyfriend Matiass (Rihards Sniegs), and ad agency marketer Eva (Inga Tropa). But, as these movies tend to go, there’s something going on near the film’s dark and creepy river, and the group finds themselves separated before long. 

There’s something ridiculous about an influencer—along with the adjacent careers of a cameraman and ad marketeer—taking a camping trip to capture the “money shot,” to quote Kiki Palmer’s character in Nope. And first-time narrative feature director Uģis Olte pokes fun almost to the point of satire, ultimately contrasting the ecologically aware Livonians and the digitally reliant Latvian campers. 

The film’s most iconic images—abstract pictures shown in highly manipulated framerates (perhaps even with some step-printing) and superimposed spooky shit—take place at night time underwater, accompanied by a beautifully mischievous score. Here, I hope the reader will gather, I refer to the intended meaning of iconic…not the Instagram Gen-Z semantically satiated “iconic.” Olte and cinematographer Valdis Celmins only use the almost experimental William Blake-esque descent imagery twice, which gives a bare minimum of two reasons to see Upurga at the Boston Baltic Film Festival.

And if you’re an enjoyer of the time-tested sports movie formula, there are a few reasons to catch Kalev, Ove Musting’s 2022 sports drama about the Estonian basketball team in the summer of 1990, as the Baltic states of the Soviet Union begin to declare independence from the communist empire. The formula of Miracle (2004) is followed to a tee, at least in terms of the plot: a dickish coach who barely missed out on the Olympics himself, the intrusion of outsiders joining the team after things appear set, a deep-seated underdog story, and the sudden occurrence of a political event that threatens the ability of the sports team to compete. The films even share a big bad.

On the surface, there’s little to separate the Estonian basketball film from its hockey predecessor. Beneath the surface, however, is a less-Disneyfied version of basically the same story: there’s bribing, cussing, and the reality of pending war. As Kalev competes for the Soviet Union Basketball League championship, the coach—who seems to truly only care about the sport and little else—and his team meet various political quandaries. The hockey players of Miracle desperately want to be soldiers in the capitalist fight against communism, whereas the basketball players from a Baltic state on the verge of Soviet collapse want nothing to do with politics. They want to shut up and dribble—but if they continue dribbling, will they be considered anti-nationalists? If they lose, will they be considered a national embarrassment? What if the war makes its way to Estonia? If winning is the only option, at what costs should they go to secure the tournament?

For this viewer, there just isn’t enough drama in this drama, even if it records an interesting premise and predicament from Baltic political memory. The sport action itself leaves a little to be desired, and the political drama doesn’t have the raw runtime to compensate for the former’s downfall. The flow of the game moves in giant swings, favoring the emotional propaganda of the sports movie genre over the inherent beauty of the stressful back-and-forth nature of realistic basketball. All that said, if you consider yourself a fan of basketball, Kalev still has something for you.



dir. Uģis Olte

90 min.



dir. Ove Musting

91 min.


Upurga and Kalev are screening as part of the 2023 Boston Baltic Film Festival. Upurga screens Saturday, March 4 at 3:10 PM and Kalev screens March 5 at 4:00 PM—both screenings at the Emerson Paramount Center. Upurga and Kalev, as well as a host of other films, are also available online from March 6-19 through the festival.

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