Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 13th, 2021
My Favorite War (Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
For a brief period of about 20 years, from the end of World War I to the start of World War II, the Baltic nation of Latvia experienced a respite from foreign rule before once again being subsumed by the Russians, now with their own new country, the Soviet Union. From then until that empire’s collapse in 1991, Latvians chafed under the depressing (sometimes deadly) strictures of communist dystopia. Their emergence from beneath the Iron Curtain required significant re-education for the many who had been raised to believe in the ideals of the 1917 Marxist-Leninist revolution. It’s not easy to survive totalitarianism with one’s critical thinking intact. Nevertheless, Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen, director of the fascinating, mostly animated new documentary My Favorite War, appears to have done just that, though her journey, as we see it here, was often difficult. In vivid, often harrowing, detail, she walks us through her Soviet childhood and its enduring legacy.
“Truly happy are those who don’t have to make choices,” intones the narrator, a stand-in for the director, under opening live-action images of a vehicle driving (throughout, Burkovska Jacobsen will punctuate her animations with such short sequences). Indeed, the choices that she and her family face in the course of the movie’s 80 minutes are momentous. In 1974, when she is 3, her father and mother take her to the beach, against regulations and under threat of being shot, evading guards so their daughter can see the ocean. Interestingly, that paterfamilias is actually a member of the Communist Party, yet clearly open-minded enough to be able to break the rules. They all live at mom’s parents’ farm, in uneasy harmony, given that grandpa was shipped off to Siberia in the 1940s for daring to have been a landowner. Whatever ideological conflicts might exist, however, the rural setting makes for a lovely idyll for our young protagonist.
Too bad, then, that her father’s apparatchik aspirations soon require them to move to a new urban development many miles away. From there, things spiral further away from paradise, though baby Ilze grows into a willing disciple of the regime, not only joining the Pioneers (the Soviet equivalent of Scouts), which everyone must, but rising to the top of its ranks. Still, she is troubled by the long lines for food and scarcity of product. How could the promises of Moscow fall so short? Eventually, these doubts accumulate, as they do for others. By the time the late 1980s arrive, this world is ripe for new revolution.
The “war”of the title is what the Soviets called “The Great Patriotic War,” and the rest of us call World War II. Steeped in propagandistic tales of heroism as seen on state-run TV, Ilze romanticizes that period. She also takes great pride in the fact that her hometown is close to where the Nazis signed an “Act of Capitulation” on May 9, 1945, ending that theater of the conflict. Gradually, however, as Ilze approaches the final days of her country’s servitude, she begins to break free from her childlike fascination with this mythology.
Occasionally, we see the adult Burkovska Jacobsen, herself, in the flesh, sitting for an interview with a friend or walking with her own present-day children. What a voyage it has been. And what a movie she has made. Beautifully crafted, her images alternate between uniformity of design and specificity of intent, depending on mood and moment. Unfortunately for this viewer, though no doubt to the benefit of the Anglo-centric universe, all the different character voices are spoken in English, albeit by Latvian performers (and therefore with the appropriate accent). In a movie as otherwise authentic as this one, it would have been even more wonderful to hear the language of the people portrayed. As it is, My Favorite War still delivers a poignant narrative of resistance, a true testament to humanity’s ability to heal. Let it work its cinematic powers on you.