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Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen • Director of My Favorite War

“We were manipulated to love war”


- We talked to Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen, the director of My Favorite War, about living in two realities

Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen  • Director of My Favorite War

In her latest film My Favorite War [+see also:
film review
interview: Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen
film profile
, screening at Haugesund, Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen comes back to her childhood in Soviet Latvia, one that saw a tragic personal loss, gruesome secrets that just wouldn’t stay buried and, finally, a certain team of Four Tank-Men and a Dog. It’s a long story.

Cineuropa: Since you describe the film as an “animated documentary,” at what point did you decide to combine animation and non-fiction?
Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen
: I didn’t find my truth in the archives – there is no footage of it. The only way to capture that feeling, my inner experience of the childhood I lived in this grey small town, would be to make a fiction film or, yes, animation. Actually, the whole idea came from one of these wartime stories. For years, everyone kept telling us about the heroism of the Soviet army. So to discover that it wasn’t really the case, that they were hiding the truth about the civilians and their suffering… These are big topics, truth and lies. But at the same time they have a concrete shape: lies are not abstract.

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You show that propaganda can take many, often very friendly faces. Like the ones in a popular Polish show from the 1960s, Four Tank-Men and a Dog, set during World War II.
My generation still remembers these things. I guess Latvian people could say I am explaining too much in the film. But for the foreign audience, it’s new! This TV series serves to show how we were manipulated to love war. Every episode was an event. It had all the right elements: friendship, humour, a feeling that we are on the side of the good guys. They even had a dog! When I started writing the script, I wanted to show my journey also through films. Starting with this childish series and then ending with an image of that broken girl from Elem Klimov’s Come and See. But it was way too much. This film is complicated enough as it is.

It’s interesting to be reminded that politics can be so appealing to a child. I also remember illustrations with a smiling Stalin and kids giving him flowers. It was almost soothing.
When you put it like that, it makes you realise how dangerous it all is. From a very early age, you learn that there are two realities. You look at all these propaganda pictures and you know it’s a game. It’s not real, it couldn’t be! Because in your family, people are different. There was this feeling of safety that came with a belief that your country was strong and could protect you if needed, because we all really feared war. Many of my classmates still tell stories about their nightmares, waking up in the middle of the night believing the Germans were coming.

You already mentioned this “greyness” and you can really feel it, even though animation about kids could easily get too sweet. Here, they don’t even express that much through their eyes!
There is something insect-like about these eyes. I really wanted Svein Nyhus to be the concept artist for this film. He is known in Norway as a children’s books illustrator and he doesn’t go for cute expressions. I knew he was the only one who could combine their childishness with something edgier and scarier. Luckily, his wife persuaded him to do it, and then it turned out he actually knew Soviet war history very well. For the background, I wanted it to feel very foggy, and I loved working with [background artist] Laima Puntule. She jumped into this challenge with such energy, expressing her own memories as well. There is a certain pressure coming with all this greyness. You just want some colour, you want to get out!

Did going into such personal details, like during the filmed conversation with your friend, ever get too hard? After all, you worked on My Favorite War for years.
I went to her, because we don’t really talk about this in real life. I felt very pushy, but that’s one of the great things about animation. At one point, you don’t need to push anymore.

There were so many stories I wanted to tell, like the one about the demolition of the graveyard next to our school. We were watching these bones, flying in the air. I thought that one was actually waving at me! I can’t forget that day. After that, it all poured out of me like an avalanche. Which is funny because at first, when my co-producers said there needed to be more “me” in the film, I fought back. Saying: “It’s not about me, it’s about Latvian history!” Hiding behind all these big words. Some questioned the image of my father, a member of the Communist party. He was an opportunist, trying to advance his career, but I couldn’t turn him into a villain, because it wouldn’t be true! I still love him; I miss him. I spent so many years trying to remember things, to get it right. And immediately after the film was done, I felt it going away. I don’t need to keep it in my head anymore. It has been set free.

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