THE CHRONICLES OF MELANIE
2016, Viesturs Kairišs, Drama
Based on the memoirs of Melānija Vanaga, Chronicles of Melanie is a terrifying account of the mass deportation of residents of Soviet-occupied Latvia that occurred in June of 1941 as Stalin tightened his grip on power. Melanie, one of over 17,000 people deported to Siberia under suspicion of “collaborating with the enemy”, is forcibly separated from her husband Aleksandrs shortly after Soviet troops barge into her home at gunpoint and force her, Aleksandrs and their son Andrejs into a lorry to be transported to awaiting cattle cars. The journey to Siberia lasts 3 weeks aboard the cattle cars, during which a diet of scraps of bread, dirty water and no bathrooms are just the beginning of a long and brutal exile.
Most of the deportees are those who are part of families in which one or more members hold prominent positions in government, economy and culture. Aleksander is the editor of a Latvian newspaper and a natural target of Soviet purges.
Out of her detailed notes that later became the literary work of her 16 years spent in Siberia, Melānija Vanaga prepared a book of documentary prose Veļupes krastā, which was published in 1991, soon after Latvia regained independence. Later, it served as the concluding volume in Vanaga’s seven-book series The Gathering of Souls about the personal history of her family and Latvia.
By Wendy ide
“…a potent account of the human cost of Soviet ethnic cleansing in the Baltic region…The distorted sound creates a sense of delirium; the painfully slow movements of the malnourished women gives the film a nightmarish quality. Time slows down, both for the exiled Latvian women and also, at times, for the audience. It all amounts to a challenging viewing experience.”
By Tristan Priimägi
“The value of the film lies elsewhere, namely in the educational purpose it serves for both foreign audiences and younger generations back home.”
History destroys some but makes others be reborn. The film is based on Melānija Vanaga’s memoir Veļupes krastā. It is the most powerful literary testimony about the genocide against the Latvian people, reaching the level of ancient tragedy. The phenomenon of Melanie’s survival is a forceful confirmation of life and nature. The protagonist is continually confronted with her death, with the culmination of being subject to an incredibly complicated operation, which takes place in inadequate conditions, to remove her multiple malignant tumours. All that is happening to Melanie can only be called a miracle. And Melanie changes, too – she literally reaches transcendence over history and the temporality of life. And at the basis of it all are not religious technologies but humanity.
The film is in black and white. First, it is a historical film and the only visual materials that we have from this time are black-and-white photographs. A black-and-white photograph is subconsciously associated with the recent past, the 20th century, from which we have many photographic memories. To a certain degree, a black-and-white photograph creates associations with the time of the Second World War. Second, the black-and-white aesthetic is visually simpler, making us concentrate on the complex inner life of the story. Using the black-and-white aesthetic, it is also easier to avoid banalities, for this is a story where one should feel a degree of neutrality vis-à-vis the facts of suffering and death.
The film is developed from the subjective point of view of Melanie. Despite the fact that the events depicted took place in the past, it is important for the contemporary viewer to identify with the situation where you are awakened in the middle of the night and, totally unprepared, you are thrown into a cattle car and taken to an unknown destination – where your reality instantly switches from living to surviving.
The geographical location plays an important role in the film. The beginning of the film, the journey to Siberia, is physically ‘squeezed’ into the psychological anxiety of the protagonist and cattle car, but geographically, it is a journey that covers half of Eurasia. Arriving at the Siberian village, Melanie leaves the tight quarters of the cattle car and enters an open world, yet the claustrophobic effect remains, for it is impossible to escape the world created by the trauma.
In the first part of the film, Melanie is subject to the events taking place and her active participation is expressed almost entirely in the wish to survive and to protect her son. She manages to preserve her selfhood only at the level of instinct. Over the course of the film, the survival of humanity is emphasized. It is a film on spirit and spirituality, which, in terms of survival, turns out to be more important than physical fitness. The ethically human essence and actions of Melanie almost turn her into a cult figure for the villagers. And it pays off when Melanie’s life is in danger.
There are several culmination points in the film. First, the deportation for which Melanie is totally unprepared, making the audience think that she is so unfit for the situation that she will probably not survive. Second, life in Siberia. There is no place for sentiment, the only thing that one has to think about is survival, first and foremost protecting her son; all the rest takes second place. The third point of culmination is the son’s return to Latvia. Melanie remains alone and she has no one to care for – there seems to be no point to her existence. That makes the action now turn from physical survival to spiritual, revealing Melanie’s fundamental humanity.
-Viesturs Kairišs, Riga, 1 October 2016