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Family Ties and the Power od Reenactiment

At the end of October, Family Instinct by Latvian filmmaker Andris Gauja won the Silver Eye Award for Best Mid-length Documentary at the East Silver Market. The film will also be screened in competition at the upcoming IDFA (Nov 17 - 28). Line producer Ilze Eglite of FA Filma reveals more about the unusual story and form of this compelling film.

Family Ties and the Power of Reenactment

An Interview with line producer Ilze Eglite about Andris Gauja's documentary film Family Instinct

Hana Rezková, Zdeněk Blaha

When you watch the film, its form relies strongly on fiction film devices, especially the reverse angle shot during the dialogues, the structure of the scenes and lights on the set.

Andris wanted to make this movie as a cross between documentary and fiction. He knew exactly what he wanted to make out of this material because he lived with this family for a long time. Thanks to that, he earned their trust and they shared with him the stories that happened before, like when Valdis, the brother, went to jail and other key moments he later recreated with them. That’s why some parts look like fiction but all of the situations really happened.


So how did it work in the real situations? To what extend did you re-enact? At times you see the camera change place during a dialogue or the lighting...

In some scenes there was artificial lighting, but not too much. Regarding the characters, in some parts Andris asked them to move a bit. Also the people living there were very eager to "act it out" and happy to tell the true stories of their lives that happened before and now to replay them again for the camera. But it is only in few cases.


Like in the part where one of the protagonists lying on the ground covered with blood stains pretends he’s committing a suicide?

Yes, but that happened before, he really said he would himself in the past because Zanda doesn’t love him. He tried to kill himself with a small knife so it was based on the true situation. But in this scene, Zanda and the others didn’t know it was just paint. For them the whole situation was true.


So there are these two combinations that some people know and some don’t...

Andris didn’t make up the stories, he was living with the protagonists and they were sharing their past with him. The director spent a lot of time with each character to work with them. The situation in which the mother is scolding her son for being an alcoholic and tries to take the beer from him is a pure documentary situation. Same as the one with a fish for Zanda or all the parties – that's documentary footage. There are two parties but it was always the same.


How did Andris Gauja find Zanda and her story anyway?

When Zanda's first son was born, Latvian Television covered the story because of the incest. Andris was working at that TV studio at that time, making television documentaries, and Juris Poškus, another director from our company [FA Filma, Ed.Note] sensed that this story has a big and strong artistic potential. We were lucky and made a deal with the television company not for a television documentary but a pure creative documentary. The authorities already knew that Zanda and Valdis are brother and sister and have a child together.


But the final title says that Zanda left the house...

Well, that was not true when the film had its premiere in Latvia. She was already back in her village. When Andris made the final cut, he took Zanda, the kids and her best friend Andulis to live in the other part of Latvia but no one believed that she would stay there. Maybe two weeks, maybe a month... And she really did run back after two weeks. She left her brother but came back after a while to live with him again. They all came back to their village and as Zanda said, it was very boring to live in a house which is empty, in a place where you don’t know anyone. I actually met Zanda in Riga for one day and she was talking about her life in kind of a proud way, saying “I have still some action in my life, something is still happening. I am never bored.” She isn't depressed or sad. In the film you can see she’s quite broken from all the situations but somehow she likes this life. She is 28 years old and hasn't seen anything else. She can’t live a quiet life in the countryside.


That’s also in the film, the part when she gets a subsidized flat and than in another scene running away from this new home.

Yes, but she actually lived there for one month. However, she brought all her friends to live with her in this apartment so it was still the same. She grew up in a children's home so she has strong bonds with her family and especially her children and doesn’t want to lose them. She can’t be alone, even if the father of her child is her brother. Zanda has various stereotypes about what family is. Is it a husband? Father? Mother? Child? Home? Zanda actually doesn’t drink, as the only one in this community, but even so it is hard for her to leave. Dzon and Andulis are living in the same house. Her mother is living in the house – they all live together under one roof. Her oldest son has already left the house but Zanda is not like him, she can never move out, she doesn't want her children to have the kind of experience she had as a child.


How big was the crew and what equipment did you have? You were filming in relatively small spaces.

There were only the director and the cameraman to keep the atmosphere quite intimate. With a larger group the characters would never be so open.


Even the spectacular outdoor shots at the snow fields?

Only these two made it. Everything was very improvised. We didn’t even have many stills from the film, only from the final cut, because we didn’t even have a photographer. Sometimes the cameraman made a few shots with a camera during the filming. Like the one with Zanda in a blue sweater on her bed, which is one of the few photos in good resolution.


The storyline is kind of fluid and there are flows that take you through the film. Was that set up at the beginning? Did Andris decide in advance to have the structure recreated with these flows?

He was making his film for two years so it was not something that he kept in mind from the start. He wasn't thinking about how he would put it together. Andris lived with them for a while and after Valdis was released from jail, the shooting had to stop because he didn’t want to be in the film. So Andris made the final cut. But he started to edit it already in the middle, to get the main construction, but he made a lot of changes before the final cut. The first rough cut was about 18 minutes or so and then 50 and 60 minutes and in the end we have two versions, for Autlook Filmsales it is 58 minutes and for the screening in Amsterdam [at IDFA, Ed.Note], it will be 61 minutes.


What is the difference?

They're a little different. For Autlook we cut out parts from the end credits - many thanks and so - because it is not so important for the international public and also the part where Zanda is reading a letter and she’s standing and reading it, Andris replaced it with another shot and a voiceover.



Family Instinct received the Silver Eye Award for Best Mid-length Documentary at the East Silver Market.

Please click here for a reminder of all documentary projects pitched at the East European Forum.

The interview was first published in the 3rd issue of Industry Reel, our industry bi-daily for film professionals in Jihlava.