Juris Kursietis is a Latvian screenwriter, film director and producer. Modris, his first feature film, is a bleak, naturalistic meditation on the consequences of adolescent abandonment— by fathers, by authority, by society. Modris won Best Debut Film at the Latvian National Film Festival and was Latvia's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2015. Kursietis was awarded Best Director at Tbilisi and Best New Director at San Sebastián.
Filmatique conducted an exclusive interview with Juris Kursietis to discuss the cruelty of social institutions, fluidity on set, the burden of Soviet influence and modern day slavery in the heart of Europe as the topic of his next project.
FILMATIQUE: Modris, the film’s protagonist, smiles only twice in the film. What sparked this teenager’s particular narrative of alienation?
JURIS KURSIETIS: It all started with a true story. A friend of mine is a criminal lawyer and for many years, every time we met, he told me he blamed himself for a case that he had lost. At first I just thought about the cruelty of the justice system, but time showed me, that it’s not only that. This story depicted a certain trend in today’s society.
FLMTQ: Modris and his mother seem to live in a symbiosis of love and hate, though the mother–son relationship remains opaque, just as the father’s absence from their life. What was important for you about the depiction of Modris’ dysfunctional family nucleus?
JK: It’s a trend of what I see around me. So many boys growing up without fathers. I also grew up not knowing who my biological father is.
FLMTQ: A strong presence of the legal system pervades the film via figures and places of authority: police men, lawyers, judges, police stations, the court, et al. How did you hope to represent this presence as a more metaphysical force in Modris' life? Do you believe his experience is particular, or universal to Latvian youth?
JK: It’s more than the judicial system: it’s the grown-ups around him. I think most of them thought they knew how things should be done for Modris. But their decisions were based on clichés and perceptions. I can put it in few words— time to grow up. Not only for Modris, but for everyone around him. The way many parents build their relationships with their kids, the way many teachers treat their pupils, the way institutional systems regard individuals. I think much of it comes from the Soviet background we must grow out of. Apparently 25 years haven’t been enough. I hope another 25 will be.
FLMTQ: Modris' austere narrative landscape is set in real locations, using many non-professional actors. Did you strive for narrative verisimilitude in Modris' story? Were these stylistic choices, or rather to lend a quality of naturalism to his journey, or both?
JK: I used this technique in my student film Will Have It Tomorrow and I knew that I also wanted to use it in Modris. Probably, with some alterations, in my next film too.
I find this kind of filmmaking very comfortable. I like working in long takes, with a camera that is not locked and with a lot of improvisation. Before shooting, none of the actors had been given a script. They just received the written text an hour or so before the first take. This was to allow their instincts to come out through improvisation.
I want to escape being ready for everything. Of course, we do our homework with character studies and improv sessions in pre-production, but I use real locations, long takes etc. to have freedom on set. The script is the basis, but I want movement in it. Otherwise the film won’t breathe.
FLMTQ: Many aesthetic and narrative techniques of the film evoke cinematic predecessors such as the Dogme movement. Who were your influences?
JK: I think the biggest influences come from things I don’t remember. I am very intuitive when I work and sometimes I wait until the last second before "action" to tell the actor something that just pops into my head.
I think the key is understanding why you make a certain film and what interests you in it. There is a reference in Modris to Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door— in the train station, when Modris approaches the girl. My DoP Bogumil Godfrejow and I made it like Scorsese did, when the main character meets the girl in a station and they talk about John Wayne. So maybe we can call Scorsese one of the influences.
FLMTQ: How was the journey of bringing this film to life? Does Latvia offer institutional support for first-features such as Modris?
JK: I wrote the first sentence in February 2011. For the next two years we developed the script and production. I worked at the Andrzej Wajda workshop, pitched the project in several film markets. I was very lucky to have a great team of producers— Vicky Miha from Greece and Ingmar Trost from Germany. They went the extra mile to secure financing from three countries and from EU funds. Latvia supports debuts, but the funding is minimal, about 100k euros. But if you succeed, you can get up to 500k euros for the next project.
FLMTQ: What are you working on now?
JK: On Oleg. It’s a story about a non-citizen, a butcher by profession, who leaves Riga for Brussels to find a better paying job. But his hopeful life turns into a desperately hopeless one, when he falls into the hands of Andrzej, a Polish criminal. Again, the film is based on true events of modern day slavery in the heart of Europe. The shoot starts in 2017; it should be on screens by the end of 2018 or early 2019.
Interview conducted by guest curator Dr. Loreta Gandolfi.