Features, Film, Interview, Interview

BBFF Interview: Staņislavs Tokalovs

Part of the Boston Baltic Film Festival 2024


The Boston Baltic Film Festival runs in-person from 3/1 through 3/3 at the Emerson Paramount Center and will continue virtually through 3/18. Click here for the schedule and ticket info, and watch the site for Joshua Polanski’s continuing coverage! 

An eight-part mini-series about an underground jean production line in a mental asylum, a documentary spotlighting the Russian minority in Latvia through an intimate and messy portrait of the director’s own family, and a fictional social drama on the Balt upper-middle class: the Latvian director Staņislavs Tokalovs had a versatile year (or so). These three labors of Tokalovs’s love for cinema — Soviet Jeans, Everything Will Be Alright, and Lovable — will all play at this year’s Boston Baltic Film Festival. 

The three titles also testify to his versatility and adaptability. For Tokalovs, the right story is made through the right medium. While the mediums and scale for these three projects are about as varied as Baltic cinema gets, Tokalovs’ almost sociological attraction to larger social issues creates a throughline that connects the pieces as part of a larger project projecting the quotidian problems of regular people onto very specific individuals. The people vary — a Russian mother who can’t speak Latvian, a stoic cheating boyfriend, a passionate and carefree theater tailor — but, in each case, they navigate the social ladders of Latvia’s past and present as they attempt to make their own cases for the good life. 

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Boston Hassle: When did you first know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Staņislavs Tokalovs: There [are two replies.] The action-based reply [is that] we did some comedy sketches at school and … at the theater. And then, [I watched] some films and understood that I wanted to write, right? It was not that peculiar to write for film. At around 16, I just tried to write and then gradually it just spread throughout my whole life and became an obsession.

But after 30, I came to the conclusion that my love of film may be connected with [my] avoidant mother. When we went to see films, there were subtitles and I couldn’t read that fast. She was fully submerged in translating the films for me and was fully connected… not like in everyday life. I think I’m somehow, of course, both are true, but probably some trigger happened there [that] allows me to experience so much love that I think that there is so much love in films in general. 

BH: You have three very different projects at this year’s Boston Baltic Film Festival: a doc, a feature, and a mini-series. Can you walk me through your process of selecting a new project?

ST: It comes from a story. And then, because it’s all very subjective that you think that you understand the story, you try and find the best form for that story. So it’s not that, “Oh, let’s make a series.” What is the idea? It’s the idea first, and then you try to find the best form that will suit that story. If you succeed, it’s a good film. If you don’t succeed, it feels underspoken or just wrong. 

Lovable was clear. Also, the first draft was … personal, with personal experiences of being a young male, right? And [I] experienced some ideas that evolved into a feature film. It felt right. It felt right. 

And [Everything Will Be Alright emerged from wanting to] talk about the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia and having the urge to tell a more detailed story of that group. It was clear that a fiction film can not achieve this because it will be imaginative if it’s still fiction. That’s why it’s called fiction. So it was clear this needed to be a documentary story.

And then there was a lot of research. What kind of documentary story? We ended up with the [idea of a] spotlight on the family. The idea about Soviet Jeans was the initial idea: a young man is making jeans in a psychiatric asylum. The most correct form to talk about it in 2023 was a miniseries because it allowed time for the story to develop and expand and become something substantial. If you imagine a two-hour film or one and a half hour film based on that story, it would not work as well.  So the idea or theme and then the form, right? Because I also sometimes end up in, uh, meaning like. 

I’m also developing Three Deaths. I don’t know how it will play out. Maybe it will just fail with the script… after a year. It can also be like that. It was a performance and then that felt the most correct way to express the emotion that you get. I was reading Elmar Rivosh’s memoirs based on his experience as a Jewish sculptor during the Nazi occupation and the ghetto experience and how he managed to survive. This was the best way to express that, and I don’t see a film there; in any sense, [the memoir] was the most right way [to express what he wanted to]. So, it’s always trying to find the best form.

BH: Of these three projects, which did you find the most enjoyable to make?

ST: None of them. Everything was very painful. Things don’t come easy to me, so [they required] a lot of effort and all of them were very painful. I tried to max out my capacity at that moment in time, and when you max out and still make mistakes, you see how the film could have been better and that it’s not perfect or brilliant in any way. On any of these projects, you see a lot of potential for it to be better. It’s painful because it means that the idea of the film is not the problem, it’s the problem of you. You just need to evolve somehow as a human to make a better film.

Of course, out of the three, the most impactful emotionally [for] me is the documentary. This is inevitable. All the time spent with it [even] just thinking even about what film I was rooting the most to get somewhere to be seen. For sure, for sure, the documentary.

BH: I only saw the first two episodes of Soviet Jeans but I’m really enjoying it so far. How did this story originate for you? What was it that compelled you to make a mini-series?

ST: The idea originated 13 years ago from a task [given to me by] a producer from the First Channel in Russia. I started writing and he gave me a task to research a people who are called Cehoviki. In Russian, the Cehoviki are people who use state production facilities to produce private stuff and then sell them on the black market. They get extremely rich and they’re really active at the end of the ’70s and the beginning of the ’80s. I researched so many amazing stories of people trying to flee in these very strange ways and then getting caught and put in psychiatric asylums because you probably need to be crazy to want to run from the best state in the world. I’m looking at the 1980s Olympics [and] women in sports becoming pregnant [and having abortions] to gain an advantage. Crazy people being taken out 700 kilometers and just let out in the forest for them to walk back until the Olympics finish. Stuff like this.

I [used] stories like that [to write the draft] and he read it, called me, and said, “What have you written, Stas? The party policy now is that the Soviet Union was great. Rewrite it so we can submit it to the First Channel.” It’s 2010, before Crimea, before everything, and it’s already so interwoven with the political direction of Russia.

Many Russian productions were coming here [Latvia] at the time. Because they were coming here, I got acquainted, and I said that I was writing. It’s always cheaper to get a new writer, right? I had no money and there was money involved. I started to think, “Okay, so I can either take the money and rewrite what he wants” — but I had to overstep myself — or I say, “Okay, you go F-yourself?” It took me a couple of days, but I decided not to write it. I told them it’s all copyrighted. Don’t use anything written on my page. “I’m sorry, but I will not rewrite it.” It’s because it is the truth, right? I’m not reading some subjective perception. It comes from facts.

I wouldn’t forgive myself if I went in that direction. They did a series; I watched one episode and it was exactly what they said. They didn’t use my ideas, which was great, because in Russia they tend to do that because you can actually do nothing to them. Piracy is very active.  

I tested the idea a couple of times over the next five years. I talked to some Lithuanian producer and his reply was, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s meet tomorrow and let’s do it.” So I understood that the idea was really cool [and others could see that to some degree].  Then a possibility opened here to fund the series.

I was working with the producer, the one I worked with on Lovable, and I said that I had an idea. The idea worked for her and Waldemar Kalinowski, who is a Polish descent U.S. citizen. I called Teodora Markova, who is from Bulgaria. We met at one of the workshops on Lovable, and found interest in the way we look at work and write.

They all liked the idea and the three of us wrote it together. It was very fast because of limitations on how the money was given and how fast it needed to be produced. I walked into the office on the 3rd of January and then it was June and we were shooting. 

Part of the good outcome of working on an international team is that it gives perspective on humor and perspective in general from a very early stage. We started writing in 2021. The invasion had not started yet. The war had not started. But Navalny was already in prison and stuff. 

And Navalny was a big inspiration because I was following him as a person who was in prison. Because of this, and because COVID just ended, and because it was getting worse and worse in Russia, we decided that it could not be just a dark drama about the atrocities of the regime. It could have been for sure. We needed to find the truthfulness of the atrocities of the regime, but allow the characters to try and lead the best life possible in these circumstances.

You know, humor was a survival mechanism in the Soviet Union. So, we decided that the dramedy was the right tone. 

BH: It’s set in the ’70s. What was the hardest part about capturing the feel and look of the time?

ST: First of all, I was not alive yet; research was my best friend. You interview people with different perspectives, like a KGB agent and just the average reseller, and then you try and see what interconnects between them. Then this can be used as a fact. These are facts, like, “Things used to be sold at the Lima clock on the square,” or things like that. Then you go to four hospitals instead of one and see what rings true to all of them and what is common is what can be used. 

Locations are probably the hardest part. Even though there are many Soviet time buildings still, things have changed. The windows are plastic now. Or they are in [poor shape] and look abandoned. I thought we still had more buildings — I’m very happy that we have much less now — but, of course, it doesn’t help the production. So we had to go outside of the capital to find something that is half-abandoned and can still be used in some way. 

BH: You set Everything Will Be Alright around Christmas and the New Year. Why is that? 

ST: The reason is that based on the much more than a hundred hours of material that we captured over this time period, which is not a lot for a documentary, these events had the biggest energy. 

And because it spans over four and a half years, it had to have at least something to be structured around. Every new year also shows how things changed: the relationship changes, physical events like my sister being there or not being there, or just factological changes. It allows us to see change, which is enormously important for a dramaturgical piece. [The holidays] had a lot of energy — fun and sadness — all together. It was very clear from the beginning, after shooting two New Year’s, that it’s probably gonna be in the film, right?

Then after the third New Year happened, which was completely crazy with the amount of stuff that just played out by itself: the fight, the table breaking, the lift breaking, celebrating with the grandmother, it is just completely crazy. 

After that it was clear that it [was going to] be based around the New Year. Structuring a documentary is always a big question because there is no script. So you can do anything. And when you can do anything, you’re most often just lost.

BH: You chose to be very non-judgemental toward your family. But behind that non-judgment are thousands of choices you had to make as a director, including what to keep and what not to. And the moments you kept and shared are difficult and painful, and they enshrine family turmoil into the cinematic record. How difficult was this vulnerability as the director?

ST: I hope it won’t sound narcissistic, but I didn’t have [any] big problems of dividing my family or being part of the family side and directive side.

I come to work, and we need to work. We need to capture everything. And then if I want to cry, [that’s separate.] For example, the saddest scene for me was when my sister received the gift of the earrings, and I got emotional because it evoked a personal memory of me receiving a gift and not understanding. So you first finish the shoot and then you go out and then you can cry and be, you know, sad about yourself and your memories. But while you work, you work. 

I only once broke [this divide between myself as a family member and director]. I tried to interfere like a brother when [my] mother was saying something to [my] sister. This episode did not go in, not because of that, but just because the film had no space for it. At my sister’s school, I said, “Mother, stop, stop, attacking my sister.” And the DOP said, “What are we doing here? Shooting a film or resolving your family issues.”

He’s also a very close friend. This was the only time we had this conversation.  Somewhere after two years of shooting and then never again. It was a pathology of wanting to absorb things because you cannot handle being part of them. Like a pathological voyeurism: it’s easier to observe and through that you can understand more about what is happening because this film brought me closer to [my] mother because I saw her everyday life and spent more time with her and I understood her better. The film helped. And like my mother says, “I agreed to this because I can just spend more time with you.”

[Before the last year and a half], we were just shooting something that we were interested in; we knew that probably it would become a film, but we didn’t know how big it was. [We thought,] “It’s gonna be nothing.” So, there was no pressure to make some film. That only became apparent later. For the biggest period of time, we just tried to capture these events and see if they led somewhere. 

BH: How did the production go? Was it just you and the DP?

ST: We made a very clear decision at the small apartment that it would be just the two of us. I recorded the sound. We tried to use a sound designer for a couple of big scenes, but I didn’t like this approach because when we were there with this big boom, it looked like a film crew straight away. When there is just a guy with a camera and a guy with a small boom in his hand, it feels much less like a film crew and you’re bound to capture more.  

He’s now friends with my family too. For you to understand, just after the New Year, my mother brought baklazhany to his family.

BH: Has your family seen Everything Will Be Alright? How did that screening go? 

ST: Of course. They were at the premiere. I showed the film to my mother the day before the premiere. We signed the paper that [said] even if she doesn’t like it, I’m still gonna screen it … just for safety. 

She watched it and was sad when it was sad and laughed when it was funny. And then she said in the end that “Yeah, it’s a good film.” I became angry. I expected a big reaction from her and it never came. 

BH: And your stepdad? 

ST: He said that it was a nice session of therapy. But he only watched it once. My mother likes to really overdo it, so she’s watched it like ten times. It’s not because she’s watching herself; she also watched Lovable like nine times. 

Grandma has dementia, so she cannot watch it. The time span of her short-term memory is probably less than two minutes, so it’s just physically impossible for her to watch it at the stage she is now. 

[My] sister did not watch it for a long time. It came out in March, and she watched it during Christmas. She also said that it’s a good film, but she was very scared to watch it because she probably did not remember what was shot there. It was such a long period of time. As a young woman there is so much change and she’s very different now than when she was 17. And you have to watch yourself being 17 and, you know, doing some stuff that you would never do now.

BH: Like Soviet Jeans, Lovable tells a story that combines societal issues and an individual’s ability to navigate the social ladder. In Soviet Jeans, that story was at the intersection of communism, the Black Market, and a mental asylum. In Lovable, it’s capitalism, shady business deals, the manipulation of wills, and the death of a partner. What interests you about these sorts of social dramas? 

ST: You’re the first person to notice that, and I now will have to think about it. I never looked at them from that angle. And it’s the same actor too who navigates it.

My first short was a story where a grandson returns to his grandmother in order to care for her [in exchange] for her apartment [after she dies]. This is very similar too.

I just felt the need somehow, and I cannot explain it. I really like the juxtaposition of this personal urge and the urge to own things, [or materialism.] Detached from human interactions and the possibility of feeling. And to look at what a person needs in order to be a person, right?The juxtaposition of these needs and a society of owning stuff. This always triggers me. Like in Soviet Jeans, can you substitute your mother with Western stuff? Or does acquiring all the money that you think is possible make you not feel anything? Which is Lovable. It’s a story of a person who tries not to feel anything.  

BH: What sort of impression do you hope Lovable leaves on your audience?

ST: I’m not expecting people to like the character, or even root for him, but I hope it leaves them with a hope that things may be different. Going further, I think it’s a very subtle thing, which created many problems in understanding this film from the audience’s perspective. It’s quite niche, but it found its small audience that understood what it is about. 

The character tries really hard not to feel anything towards the world. And that breaks him, right? He comes to an unconscious feeling that there is something special, that he found something very special in that last moment. That is actually life. He needs to look further, but then the film finishes and we never know what happened. We were discussing [this] with the DOP, Oleg Mutu, who is a renowned director of photography and one of the creators of the Romanian New Wave, which still has a massive grip on European, especially Eastern European, cinema. 

We were discussing that if the film would continue, he could be standing on a cargo ship just looking at the sea alone. The obvious question is would he come back and take her [with him]? It really depends on where his life goes. Maybe he just stays. This is the biggest event of his life.

BH: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing Latvian film in the 2020s?

ST: Two challenges. The first is the inside challenge. It’s very hard to find a big subject, the big themes that have universal [appeal] so that the films can travel around the world. There is more of that now, but it’s very connected with the war. People are interested in the Soviet times. 

The second is going to be a comment on the Western world: [there is] not a big enough interest in looking at the modern problems of the Baltic states or Eastern Europe from the perspective of the middle class or some other subjects. Eastern Europe is like the outskirts of Europe and people in the West and in the U.S. really want to know and see stories of poorness and how the people struggle. This is probably part of how they see the world — and then it becomes very hard to see, for example, a story like Lovable, which is about middle-class or high-middle-class family problems from Eastern Europe. If it were a French film, it would be very different though, right? In that [case], it’s okay [to Western viewers] and it’s normal. This can only change through time. 

BH: What’s your favorite film you’ve seen in the past year?

ST: Anatomy of a Fall. I think it’s brilliant. And for something that wasn’t a new release, Sherman’s March (1985). It’s a completely crazy documentary but in a very interesting way. It is very interesting from the point of view of the instruments that he uses to narrate the story because he’s shooting it himself and narrating it himself and also including the family and everything. It’s completely crazy. 

BH: What’s next?

ST: I’ve been writing a feature film and [we are] really struggling to find [its dramatic resolution]. We’ve been writing it already for one and a half years and just struggling massively with everything. So like painful, very painful parts of the craft, you know? 

It’s called Three Deaths, and the premise is that people are dying and resurrecting and start to tell what they actually think after their resurrection. And it creates conflict here based on the local history and events unfolding now in the world. 

I’m also starting two new documentaries. One is about a senior home. We witnessed a death while shooting in the senior home and it’s gonna be called Who is Velta Ivanova? Who is this person? Because I met her five hours after she died. So I want to just figure out who she was and that’s gonna be the film. The second one, I’m gonna go with my stepfather, who you saw in the film, to Cuba, because his mother is dying and he wants to meet her. It’s called Cuba Deprivation. He is going to meet his mother, and I’m gonna try and understand how living with a stepfather and my father living away affected my personality. 

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and In Review Online, and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film.

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