QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM TALLINN
In his days teaching at New York University, Martin Scorsese would advise his students, amongst them Oliver Stone, to tap into something personal. Latvian director Staņislavs Tokalovs, takes this advice to the extreme and burrows into the depths of the personal with his observational documentary, Everything Will Be Alright (Viss būs labi!, 2023).
It couldn’t contrast more with his previous narrative features – the psychological sci-fi drama, What Nobody Can See (Tas, ko vini neredz, 2017), and Lovable (Milulis, 2022), about a morally fractured young man, who must care for his deceased lover’s nine-year-old daughter. Perched in-between is the hour-long documentary, Mikhail Tal. From Afar (2017), about the Soviet-Latvian chess player, and eighth world champion.
Shot over the past four years, his observational documentary follows his 93-year-old grandmother Nina, parents Irina and Raul, and sister Patricija, through the mundanity of their everyday lives. Having lived in Riga for more than 30 years, one might think the family would have learnt Latvian – they haven’t. As the film unfolds, competing feelings of nostalgia for and disinterest in Russia surface.
Everything Will Be Alright delicately observes those little moments shared between a family. It begins with the grandmother, a Russian World War II veteran, whose warm and humorous relationship with her daughter draws us into the family’s private space. Together they attend the annual Victory Day celebration. There’s tension between Raul and Irina over decorating the Christmas tree, and Patricija upsets her father when she doesn’t respond enthusiastically to her present. Irina tells her daughter she should have said she liked it because he’d bought it with pure love – they could always exchange it later. However, Patricija rebuffs the idea of saying something she doesn’t mean. The mother tries to educate her daughter on how to deal with men and tells her that gifts are sensitive things. In another scene, Irina tells Raul that all a man has to do is shower and put on a clean shirt to look nice, whereas for a woman, it takes time. Then Patricija does her mother’s make up. We watch as the Christmases and New Years roll on by, and the impact of the Covid quarantine hits the family.
The film plods along through these moments of drama, and aside from a difference of opinion about one of Putin’s televised speeches, between the adoring Irina and unenthusiastic Raul, the film avoids sensitive or weightier subjects. Tokalovs appreciates that Everything Will Be Alright is not the type of film to force any observation. It’s attentive to the interpersonal relationships, but he’s unable to use the language of cinema to more directly communicate themes and ideas. Outside of what he chooses to show in the edit, he’s forced to trust the audience will try to see what it is he has seen and is trying to communicate.
Seemingly about nothing except the real drama of everyday life, it meanders through mundane family episodes, including the sick dog and a brief glimpse of Patricija’s wedding party. When the film’s timeline coincides with the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, Irina takes a pro-Russian stance, suggesting that it’s only the Ukrainians that are guilty of torture. We hear Staņislavs oppose his mother’s point-of-view, and yet their disagreement is fleeting. It does suggest a generational shift in opinion. Maybe it’s Irina’s mother’s service to her native homeland, who served on the front lines in the Second World War before she turned eighteen, that motivates her daughter’s loyalty to the Kremlin. On the other hand, the younger generations are not tied to such nostalgia and are able to adopt an enlightened view. This subtle and fleeting moment of insight is unforced, emphasising the importance of the audience’s active participation.
Throughout, his mother, a lecturer at the Information Systems Management Institute, is the film’s main driving force. She’s an energetic character, but as with all of the people he observes, he struggles to find a means to have them offer a significant point-of-view. Tokalovs doesn’t appear to ask what the point of his film is, or more bluntly, what the reason for its existence is. Perhaps his film is to be found in the details – an affectionate observation of his mother more than his family. The interest isn’t in weightier themes and ideas, it’ a portrait of sadness, of a woman longing for love, or it’s a reminder that we can be lonely even when we’re not alone.
Earlier, when talking to Patricija about gifts, Irina said it had been three years since she had a gift. She tells her daughter to always be grateful. Then, when her mother expresses her love, Irina cries. Everything Will Be Alright feels like a fitting, yet hopeful title. In as much as it’s about Tokalovs’ family, it addresses experiences that will broadly resonate, especially in how it challenges the romantic notions of happily ever after, and the romanticisation of growing old together. The director effortlessly critiques what these ideas mean in reality, how love and friendship evolve, and the hostility that years of familiarity creates.
Everything Will Be Alright just premiered in the Baltic Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.