Saying goodbye to Lenin at the Baltic Sea: “My Favourite War” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film7 min read
Hailing from the self-proclaimed happiest country in the world, Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen takes us on an intimate journey behind the Iron Curtain into the depths of her evocative memories, where the warmth of family life intertwines with the hardships of living under Soviet surveillance.
A little girl is longing for a glimpse of the Baltic Sea. She knows it’s there — her family lives nearby. But she still can’t understand why it’s proscribed to put your feet on the sand and listen to the waves. One day, her parents can no longer bear to deny her this one wish and the family sets off to see the forbidden work of nature. The car disappears into a thicket of trees to avoid a barrier of patrolling soldiers. But it’s hardly a success and more of a letdown. What awaits the family is a rather brutal clash with cold reality — they are able to admire the sea, but only from behind barbed wire, a sad reminder of the freedom of which they are deprived of. This is the opening scene and just one of many memories that director Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen has chosen to include in her highly personal work My Favourite War and share with the audience. Memories of her bittersweet childhood have been pieced together to create a true-to-life coming-of-age story set in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic that is both subtle and remarkably moving in its outcome.
The story unfolds through idyllic childhood scenes. Little Ilze has no complaints about her upbringing. She’s growing up in a loving home, with supportive parents and grandparents who always have time to chat about interesting things. Her favourite pastime is playing with friends and reenacting scenes from WWII-themed TV series such as Four Tank Men and a Dog or Stakes Larger Than Life (as a Pole, I was surprised to see that these shows were more collectively distributed outside the Polish People’s Republic, as they definitely have cult status here in Poland, and the opening ballad of the former show, Restless Rains, can easily be described as the defining theme of the post-war generation).
But there are cracks on the surface that only deepen over time. Ilze, who, ever since she was a young girl, has wanted to be a journalist and who has a sharp eye and a tendency to question what was usually taken for granted, begins to sense that the truth is very different from what the Soviet propaganda is trying to sell the nation. She notices how the political system they are forced to live under affects the relationships in her close family. Her father, a source of inspiration for Ilze’s early journalistic aspirations, was a member of the Communist Party and a charismatic city manager of Alsunga. Her grandfather, meanwhile, was a political dissident who was deported to Siberia. A prolific painter who “looked for beauty in everything around him,” he was never allowed to exhibit his work and sought solace in listening to Western broadcasts. In an interview the director said: “I wanted to show how tragic for the people can such an authoritarian regime be. How it is to feel that the people you love stand on the opposite sides politically. Kind souls both my Father and Grandfather, their ground was split by the inhuman system.”
Over time, Ilze, a once proud and dedicated Pioneer leader, grows weary and overwhelmed by the constant waves of propaganda, and begins to abandon the beliefs she so fervently defended not so long ago. Just before graduation, she experiences two personal victories over the ossified Soviet system. The first is when she gets her classmates to sign a petition to not take part in the shooting exercises. In another, she takes advantage of the climate of Gorbachev’s political thaw and manipulates her final exam topic to express her prominent dissatisfaction with the contemporary political situation.
It has to be said that the decision to present the story through the medium of animation definitely had an impact on the project, as it was more convincing and suggestive in the way it conveyed the flow of flashbacks. By choosing to animate her life experiences, the director set a narrative tone similar to that of films like Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir and Kill it and Leave This Town — features that also used a less restrictive form to deal more freely and flexibly with painful experiences and the lingering breaths of ghosts from the past. As a great connoisseur of animation art, Burkovska Jacobsen was able to balance the story with her younger self’s changing perspective on reality, subtly sharing her most genuine feelings and stinging memories without lapsing into cheap sentimentality. The style was created by established illustrators Svein Nyhus and Laima Puntule and it fully captures the spirit of the gloomy atmosphere that hung over the entire area east of the Iron Curtain. The colour palette is visibly muted, with more colour appearing in scenes depicting the younger, happier Ilze. The characters are presented in a rather disturbing way, with eyes designed as simple insect-like black dots, similar to the button eyes of the characters in the Coraline film. This unsettling design makes the My Favourite War‘s narrative more memorable, lending weight to scenes in which Ilze finds the bones of German soldiers in a sandpit, or in which Ilze’s grandmother reveals why she despises strawberry soup.
The director’s intention was to familiarise the audience with this period of Latvian history, which is often overshadowed by the global focus on events that took place mainly in the territory of the former Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. The war — more of a metaphorical one — continued and the resistance grew stronger in the hearts and actions of brave people. In one of the final scenes, My Favourite War incorporated the real-life archives of participants in the Baltic Way — a peaceful demonstration that took place in August 1989, when people joined hands in a human chain across the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The days of the USSR were inevitably coming to an end and the political atmosphere was filled with a breath of fresh air, heralding the long-awaited freedom. It can be said that Latvia always predicted such an outcome — there is an anecdote about the emblem of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, which depicts the rising sun, the sign of the bright, prosperous freedom that will come with the adaptation of socialist principles. The thing is, due to the geographical location, the sun could only be seen over the Baltic Sea at sunset, making the whole picture an embodiment of the fall of socialism. “The last soviet military base in Latvia was shut down in 1995. This is when the Second World War ended for me,” says Ilze towards the end of the film. In the final scene, she returns with her children to the Baltic coast we saw at the beginning of My Favourite War, once forbidden to visit, closely guarded and fenced off by barbed wire, now open for all to enjoy its beauty. There is only laughter and happiness and, above all, the feeling of not being held back by the system.
The director has a final message in My Favourite War for international audiences that resonates well with current events, but can also be interpreted as universal: “Don’t be just a spectator in your life,” she advises. “Think about ways you can make a change for the better — even if it’s very small steps. Not all of us can be Greta Thunberg. But every tribute or support for a better world matters. Do think about some other aspects of society building. Authoritarianism is possible only if people let themselves adapt to undemocratic changes step by step. It doesn’t always start with a big radicalism in the beginning. So, be aware of those smaller changes when democracy is threatened.”
There is a quote that is somehow identified with the character of the famous Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. It may be true, it may be false, but in the end it doesn’t matter. It says: “Life is terrible, but I have decided that it is beautiful.” The past affects us, but does not have to determine who we are. Ilze and the millions of people with a history like hers have had to endure a lot, but at the same time they have tried to find a ray of light here and there. Wars end and regimes eventually fall. And that is when the beauty comes. Always.