Director Juris Kursietis knew he had to make his Latvian Oscar entry film Modris when he kept seeing the same stories in the news over and over again. “Every other month, I was reading this story of a kid put into jail because he had stolen some candy from the Petrol station,” says Kursietis, a fact which he chalks up to “bureaucratic nonsense.” Named after its title character, Modris tells a similar story about a 17- year old gambling addict who has run-ins with his mother-and-the-law on the way to adulthood.
According to Kursietis, there are a few factors at play here that are contributing to a coldly logical, punitive society. The director at Tuesday’s Awardsline screening told Deadline’s Dominic Patten, “Bureaucracy is overtaking logical thought, because from the bureaucracy’s point of view, someone turns into an adult overnight, when turning from 17 to 18.” In Latvia, it would not be uncommon for a young man to be thrown into prison due to a trivial administrative offense, such as losing a passport or drinking beer in public if he was already on probation, which is the situation of the teenager portrayed in Modris.
But, as the director quickly realized in the development process, this was a phenomenon that extended to all of Europe, as the justice system there operates in a cold refusal of reality and routinely administers punishments unfitting to the crime. “Different producers from different countries were reading the script and said, ‘This happened to relatives of mine. This is a real issue in my backyard, also,’” said Kursietis. In Eastern Europe, this occurrence is attributable to the remains of figures in power who grew up during the cold and brutal times of the Soviet occupation.
On a continental scale, per Kursietis, this is also a familial issue: “In today’s society, there’s a gap between parents and children, between state and the citizens. And I think in every news story I read, you can look for that.”
Latvia is a country where it’s difficult to get films made, and shooting in this country certainly presented its fair share of challenges. As only two films are made per year in the country, financing domestically is impossible, and Modris eventually became a Latvian-German-Greek co-production, shot in 33 days on the Arri Alexa. The lack of film production in the region also meant that Kursietis was going to be working with mostly non-actors. There were certain older theater actors in the mix, but the younger talent, including lead actor Kristers Piksa, were all fresh faces. Over the course of a year, the director saw nearly 1,100 young men for the role of Modris. Piksa arrived close to the end of the casting process.
It was an especially challenging casting process because the director had to find non-actors who could learn to improvise, and adjust to his unconventional process. “My method working with them was that none of them had read the script before filming, and also during filming, I just gave them the scene half an hour to an hour beforehand,” said Kursietis. Coming from a documentary background, Kursietis chose for both creative and practical reasons, to shoot handheld. In addition he shot in existing locations versus building sets. The director noted, “For the non-actor, Kristers, I think it would be a lot more pressure to go on sets with everything built. I’m not sure he would’ve given the same performance. When we went into actual locations with the flexible camera, which was for the actor, I think that was the success that made it so real.” The actors worked very collaboratively with the non-actors, allowing them to figure out the process for themselves, and the result speaks for itself.
Since its release in Latvia, the film has received an emotional response from moviegoers. Kursietis said, “Some of my friends, who are young fathers, are saying, “You have to love your children. Some of them said they went home and hugged their sons and daughters. I hope that this is the reaction that comes, and with this reaction–it won’t happen overnight, but let’s say in five or 10 years–maybe this society will start to change somehow.”