My Favorite War: the animated memoir on growing up in Cold War Latvia

1 March 2021

Living on the westernmost edge of Latvia — and of the Soviet Union — in the 1970s, the nearby beach was off limits, in case citizens of the self-proclaimed “happiest country on Earth” would swim away, ostensibly to other, less happy nations. Growing up in a village not far from the coast, Ilze, the director and protagonist of My Favorite War, never saw the sea — instead, she watched television, glued to constantly-repeated Second World War films. When her father was later given a position in the town of Saldus, Ilze and her family moved to communal housing next to a forest used for military training. But life here was no easier. Ilze’s father was killed in a car crash, leaving her to be raised by her mother: the daughter of an ex-Gulag prisoner, tired of never arriving on time to queue for butter or soap. As Ilze grew up, she too grows tired of the overbearing Communist Party and her authoritarian school teachers policing her movements and thoughts. Suddenly, she realises there is something suspicious about the world in which she is forced to live.

As an adult, Ilze has fought to crystallise that experience on screen. The result is a six-year labour of love from a joint Norwegian-Latvian team, is this harrowing animated memoir that unveils a repressed chapter of recent Baltic history.

“I wanted to use my own experiences, but reflect the larger history of my country,” director Ilze Burkovksa-Jacobsen told The Calvert Journal. “You sense very early, even as a child, the limitations that Soviet life is giving you. We’d even joke that Latvian people read newspapers the Arabic way, because we’d start from the back page. The front page was propaganda, and at the back there were culture and sports.”

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To try to free herself from constant scrutiny, the animated Ilze decides to “sing to the pipe of the Party”, like her father before her, hoping to become a journalist and lead the local unit of Youth Pioneers. Then she unearths the bones of a German soldier in her sandbox — based on the director’s real-life experience — and Ilze starts wondering what is buried beneath the USSR’s propagandistic narrative of wartime glory. Inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, in this coming-of-age story, dotted with Soviet iconography and songs, the decisive main character sets off on a journey of self-discovery that mirrors that of her country, and starts unearthing the truths of Cold War Latvia. Interweaving scattered but impactful archive clips, intimate present-day snapshots, and sometimes brutal, other times humorous, animated sequences, My Favorite War pieces together the suppressed emotions of Soviet Latvia with childhood anecdotes, masterfully reflected upon through the eyes of an adult.

Burkovksa-Jacobsen chose animation to tell her story because she believed that the footage she needed to tell her story wasn’t available in Soviet Latvia’s historical records. “It would have been impossible to make this film using state archives, because they only show happy, devoted pioneers. No archive shows the fear, the stiffness, the inner avoidance towards what we were forced to become a part of. They’re only showing the lies,” says the director. “Animation allows me to show the feelings I had at the time. During the Soviet era, we had to look for a subtler, more pictured way of expressing ourselves, and animation allowed us to speak between the lines.”

“The drawings combine something serious, and something scary. This is how I remember my childhood,”

With the exception of the bright red neckerchiefs of the pioneers, My Favorite War is devoid of bright colours, impregnated with an obscure, heavy smoke. The characters, illustrated by Norwegian artist Svein Nyhus, stare back at the viewer with black, void eyes. “The drawings combine something serious, and something scary. This is how I remember my childhood,” explains the director. “I wanted the eyes to transmit that we were not allowed to express what was inside of us. In turn, we were also protecting ourselves by blocking everything we say. All the time you had to censor yourself.” A member of the audience suggested, she recalls, that the eyes could be CCTV cameras — when you look at them, they stare back at you, piercing into your thoughts.

The title is not accidental — as a child growing up in the Courland Caldron area of Latvia, where the articles of capitulation were signed on 9 May 1945, war-winning propaganda was ubiquitous. To the point that, a little girl like Ilze would consider that she had “a favourite war”. It is a mindset and a world that Latvia’s youngest generations struggle to understand. “I made the film both in Latvian and in English. I wanted to make everything understandable to foreigners, but also approach young, local audiences,” explains Burkovska-Jacobsen. “After one screening, I overheard a 15-year-old tell his mother: ‘now I understand why you are talking about the Soviet era all the time.’ That is good. It means that he’s found an emotional connection.”

The film, premiered in 2020, has won multiple accolades, including Best Film at the prestigious Annecy Film Festival, and it is currently competing for an Academy Award in the Animated Feature Film category. But perhaps what is most remarkable is the resonance that this Latvian story has had abroad, showcasing the power of lived experience to connect with international audiences. In particular, the film had sold-out screenings in Hong Kong and Belarus, countries currently undergoing their own pro-democracy journeys. “It means that everyone finds something for themselves in the film, finds a way of relating to it,” says Burkovska-Jacobsen. “It is not just my story, or the story of my country. My Favorite War is the story of all people who are fighting to win their place back.”

My Favorite War is available to rent on Vimeo on Demand

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