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IFFR 2021 Big Screen Competition

Dāvis Sīmanis • Director of The Year Before the War

“From the beginning, I wanted to focus on an eclectic visual style”


- We talked to the Latvian director, who presented his third feature film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam

Dāvis Sīmanis • Director of The Year Before the War

The Year Before the War [+see also:
film review
interview: Dāvis Sīmanis
film profile
, the third feature from Latvian director Dāvis Sīmanis, premiered in the Big Screen Competition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Set in 1913, one year before the First World War, the black and white wartime drama was inspired by the emblematic figure of Peter, a Latvian hero. Sīmanis told us about his esthetic concept for the film and his inspiration for the main character.

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Cineuropa: This is your third film telling a story set in wartime. What fascinates you about these specific time periods?
Davis Simanis:
These are critical periods that represent a test for civilisation. Life takes an extreme form of existence. The nature of relationships is shown in a radical manner, in its purest sense. I am interested in showing characters that are not only confronted with a war that is on the outside, but who are also struggling inside themselves. If I wanted to tell a story set in the present, I would have problems finding inspiration. I think that drama is harder to find nowadays. I see a certain fatigue of people with their lives, but no intense participation in life itself. I would have to tell stories about boredom.

Where did you get the inspiration for your story?
1913 is a year of great extremes. Human rationality makes way for irrationality, it's a period where madness reigns. I have been inspired by the story of a Latvian anarchist who really existed but whose life is a matter of great speculation. Not much is known about him. I wanted to recreate a version of it and let him interact in some form with the people he might have met.

Where was the film shot?
We mostly shot in Latvia and the Czech Republic. We split the shoot into four parts and did some additional shooting in Austria, but concentrated on the resources of two main geographical areas.

The way you mix several languages in the film is very interesting. What did you like about it?
There was irrationality that led to the war. People missed the occasion to understand each other. Even though they were communicating in different languages, they didn't succeed. It seems to me to be some kind of contradiction. Did conflicts arise because there were so many different languages involved? Is it some mysterious force majeure that leads to an inevitable misunderstanding in Europe?

What visual language did you adopt?
From the beginning, I wanted to focus on an eclectic visual style. The film is a certain homage black and white films, not necessarily silent films, but films that were produced before WWII. Moreover, the handheld camera represents the inner turmoil of the character. And the more static shots with the calmer images occur when he is more relaxed. I wanted to achieve a balance between the two extremes.

Why was it important to shoot the film in black and white?
Black and white gives the film a certain unity despite the non-linear narrative and the kaleidoscope-like experience that the story represents. Moreover, it underlines the historical setting and is also an homage to black and white films. It also emphasises, in my opinion, the feeling of loneliness of the main character. He is almost never alone, always surrounded by people, and yet he is lonely.

The acting, as well as the make-up, also reminds of silent films. Why did you opt for a more eccentric mode of expression?
I wanted to achieve a contrast between the main character and the people around him. The latter could be all his alter egos, more outgoing and eccentric alter egos.

One of the themes of the film is identity. What were you especially interested in?
I see my main character as someone who could be referred to as The Man Without Qualities such as in Robert Musil's novel. Someone down to earth who is susceptible to be manipulated and impressionable to his surroundings. Being confronted with war and therefore with his own death, he starts, as I guess would a lot of people, to think about who he really is. A lot of people who, at some point in their life, achieved something big, wouldn't necessarily think of themselves as being exactly the persons they were supposed to become. I imagine my main character looking back and being astonished that he became responsible for creating an ideological regime.

You seem to like absurd humor and surrealism. Are there any filmmakers in particular you have been inspired by?
It's already the second time I use these elements. I like dark humor and pushed this film more in that direction. There are a few big names I have been inspired by, but I would name Guy Maddin and Jan Švankmajer as some of the most important ones. 

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