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Latvian Coyote (Valkatajs)

A human trafficker smuggles illegal immigrants into the EU at the Latvian-Russian border, in this fly-on-the-wall type of documentary - from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


The Schengen Zone is a much-coveted destination for immigrants from all corners of the planet. Once inside it, they can move freely between 26 European nations. Many attempt to enter by sea, a topic addressed in numerous recent documentaries, including Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (2016) and Markus Imhoof’s Eldorado (2018). Others try their luck by land: such is the case in the biggest takeaway from this doc..

Latvian DOP-turned-director Ivars Zviedris follows his countryman Pamil Pamiljans (nicknamed Pepe) as he goes to the court for the third time. He is being charged with assisting seven Vietnamese people to cross the Eastern border of his country, from Russia into the EU. He denies any wrongdoing and is surprisingly acquitted. He returns to his trade and eventually receives a custodial sentence. Pepe is a Latvian coyote, a term used to describe human traffickers on Latvian border towns. Images of a similar animal herding cows are displayed. The analogy is crystal clear: Pepe is an animal leading other creatures onto pastures green.

Pepe has little interest in his clients. At one point he questions: ““Why are they running from Russia?”, but that’s about it. He seems to dislike them, calling them “blacks” and mocking their accents. There is no sense of solidarity. His motivation is entirely pecuniary: he can make up to €4000 with one single group.

This illegal trade was born out of a combination of unemployment and immigration, we are told. Pepe’s living standards are indeed very low. He dwells in a very precarious shack with wooden walls and broken windows, in an impoverished village. This is where Zviedris cinematographic skills show. He deftly elegantly captures the subhuman living conditions in which these people live, conveying a palpable sense of helplessness.

There is also a palpable sense of irony: why would people travel from the other side of the globe in order to reach such an undesirable destination? In a way these impoverished border towns are not within the EU. They are the fringe. Some sort of unofficial buffer zone. That such people live such a primitive existence inside the EU is an uncomfortable reminder that the EU problems don’t necessarily come from outside. Poverty is still rife in many parts of the Union. The Latvian president announces on television that the country still isn’t on a par with other nations, and many people still live on €200 a month or less. Pepe and his friends chuckle with disdain.

This is an entirely observational type of documentary. The filmmaker never steps in front of the camera. He does not even prompt his subjects, instead allowing the images and spontaneous conversations to speak for themselves. There are no talking heads. And there is no overt criticism of Pepe, the immigrants, the Latvian government and even the EU. At the end, we are reminded that illegal immigrants continue to cross the Eastern border of Latvia into the EU – regardless of Pepe’s assistance. After all, it is impossible to stop the flow of immigration. This message seems to be the biggest takeaway from this quiet and beautifully filmed doc.

Latvian Coyote is showing at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, as part of Baltic Competition strand.

By Victor Fraga - 17-11-2020

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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