Bookended by visits to the same stretch of coastline under very different circumstances, Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen’s My Favorite War makes a perilous journey into her nation’s past through the eyes of an artist – or in her case journalist – as a younger woman. A self-portrait of sorts, the Latvian-Norwegian filmmaker seeks to come to terms with her experience of growing up during the Cold War.
Using her own story to explore the horrors witnessed and suffered by so many more across the Baltic states, her second feature documentary provides thought-provoking and accessible insight. Blending animation, photography, library footage and contemporary first-hand testimony, both her own and interviews with others, the picture painted provides progressively broader strokes. With a family split between her father’s Communist Party allegiance, and the secretive free-thinking of her mother and grandfather – the latter deemed an ‘enemy of the state’ and sent to Siberia, Ilze’s early childhood is beset by a dangerous polarisation that cannot be seen, let alone understood.
At an age of picking favourites – colours, flowers, clothing – the inquisitive Ilze, from watching movies on TV, selects the Second World War as her conflict of choice. Even thirty years after its conclusion, constant reminders of the Nazis’ atrocities, the protective arm of the Soviet Union fighting off invaders and her county’s fame as the site of where the Act of Military Surrender was signed in 1945, are spoon fed unendingly to her school class. The preferential treatment afforded her father sees the family moving in an upward trajectory, so why wouldn’t she, too, join the strongest team and lead her fellow youthful Pioneers in singing the party’s praises?
The flowing, expressive animation, which evokes changing moods and era through striking uses of colour and shade, sees dark eyes slowly but surely open wider, questioning, challenging the status quo. Nightmare visions of children burned alive by the Germans and bones buried under a sandpit; the USSR supposedly stockpiling food but people around her starving in bread lines. An Orwellian realisation dawns as Ilze begins to dig – literally and figuratively – beneath the surface: “The equal society was not equal for everyone.” Was she, as her grandfather would ask, red all the way through like a tomato or just red on the outside, like a radish?
Told from the viewpoint of a girl who grows to be a young woman over the course of the film’s slim runtime, this keen metaphor reflects My Favorite War’s simplicity and subtlety of storytelling. A non-linear construction and distilling of relatively complex ideas into easily manageable chunks do not pander to younger audiences or diminish the seriousness of its message. But neither does the film shy away from the atrocities.
Recollections from a close friend who contemplated suicide due to the Soviet regime’s strict infringements on freedom of speech and opportunity, and those of a villager who as a teenager was commanded to drag German corpses into a mass grave, are brutal. Coming full circle, and back to where she began, there is never perhaps the catharsis or emotional involvement we may expect from such a personal account, but Burkovska Jacobsen’s film will live on as a warning to her own children and future generations.
The 2021 Glasgow Film Festival takes place between the 24 February to 7 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63