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VILNIUS 2024

Review: My Freedom

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- A key figure in Latvia’s independence struggle contends with her era’s duplicity in Ilze Kunga-Melgaile’s smart debut historical drama

Review: My Freedom
Erika Eglija-Gravele in My Freedom

The life of Ita Kozakevica, a key political figure in Latvia’s pro-independence struggle during the final years of Soviet rule in the 1980s, was the inspiration for Latvian director Ilze Kunga-Melgaile’s solid debut feature, My Freedom. Kozakevica, a Polish-born journalist and translator, committed herself to activism and eventually became a member of Latvia’s transitional parliament as the small Baltic nation regained its independence, before her untimely death in a swimming accident in 1990 at the age of 35. The historical drama, which had its Lithuanian premiere at the Vilnius International Film Festival (Kino Pavasaris), conveys the fraught intersection of the political and the private in a paranoid atmosphere of clandestine allegiances and secret-police surveillance, through the story of Alicija (Erika Eglija-Gravele), whose activities in the Latvian Popular Front, an opposition organisation, put her marriage under strain (the name change makes licence for fictionalisation overt).

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The independence movement, alongside similar struggles in the other Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia, sought to wrest decision-making control from party functionaries and resist the Soviet Union’s Russification policies, safeguarding the culture and language of all of Latvia’s ethnicities and restoring native-language schools.

Political meetings, and long evenings of smoking, drinking and singing that took the edge off the pressure-cooker tensions for the agitators, offer a few lively moments amid all the talky manoeuvring and strategising, but the real drama lies in the triangle that develops between Alicija, her academic husband Ilgvars (Darius Meskauskas) and her campaigning ally Normunds (Girits Gravelis), who harbours an unconfessed love for her. Ilgvars is wary of the potential reputational damage and danger of his headstrong, politically committed wife’s work, and the stakes are raised even further when she receives an anonymous, type-written note claiming that her husband is a “KGB snitch”. As questions over Ilgvar’s past, including how he managed to travel to the United States and mysteries surrounding his relationship with his father, fuel mistrust between them, their marital problems are compounded as she hits the election campaign trail with Normunds, whose own intentions and honesty fall into doubt.

This rather conventional-looking historical drama, shot in oppressive, dour browns to evoke the time, is elevated by strong lead performances, and a smart, nuanced script by Inga Rozentale and Anna Kalnina, which holds respectful space for the integrity of idealism but has a strain of worldly, caustic wit running through it that prevents rose-tinted triumphalism or sentimentality. The film ultimately allows beauty and meaning to survive in the murky, grey moral areas of the human condition and romantic relationships, acknowledging the exhausting toll of an era that was nearly impossible to navigate without a degree of moral compromise. It suggests that some understanding for others’ failures and weaknesses was essential, as a newly independent Latvia faced the task of rebuilding internal cohesion after the devastating decades of Soviet repression, when a denunciation from a secret informer could land an unsuspecting person in a labour camp, and trust in the system, and even one’s nearest and dearest, had been eroded by years of turbulence and difficulties. Against this astutely observed climate, Alicijia’s courage and belief in her cause stand out as all the more remarkable.

My Freedom is a co-production by Latvia’s Tasse Film and Lithuania’s M-Films.

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