Saturday, December 09, 2023

EU Showcase ’23: My Freedom

Ita Kozakevica did something revolutionary in Latvia. She ran for office. It was not just her. Kozakevica was part of the first class of Popular Front candidates, whom challenged Communist incumbents, without having the election rigged against them. She emerged as a popular leader of the democracy movement, but her personal relationships were complicated. The intersection of her public and private lives is the focus of Ilza Kunga-Melgaile’s My Freedom, which screens during AFI’s 2023 European Union Film Showcase.

Latvia is not independent yet, but Latvians are starting to believe it might be possible. Glasnost and Perestroika have spiraled out of Gorbachev’s control. In hopes of appeasing the Baltic nations, genuine democratic legislative elections have been allowed and Alicija (as the Kozakevica character is called throughout the film) has been chosen as one of the Popular Front’s best hopes for the Supreme Council.

Here is where things get a little awkward. Her de facto campaign manager will be Normunds, a failed poet, who has long carried a torch for her. They will be on the road together for extended periods of time, right when she receives anonymous notes regarding her husband, Ilgvars. He was always more accepting of the status quo than she was, but it turns out he was also an informer, having betrayed their friend Kurts, a highly respected dissident writer.

That is a lot for Alicija to process, but she still has a campaign to run. Of course, the incumbent Communists still try to build in institutional advantages in their favor, but Alicija and Normunds develop a knack for reaching people despite their obstacles.

My Freedom
captures a rarely dramatized period of history—the end game of the revolution against Soviet occupation. It also captures the beginning of the flood of post-Soviet revelations regarding who informed on whom. This will not be easy for Alicija, but her grace will make her a beloved national figure.

Tragically, the real-life Lozakevica died far too young, in an unfortunate drowning accident. It is tough assignment for Erika Eglija, but she truly humanizes the revered independence leader. She deals with a lot of stuff throughout her life, as a social worker a dissident, and wife. In many respects, this is a deeply feminist story. Believe it or not, the Soviet Union was extremely patriarchal. Just ask the Latvian ballerina sexually assaulted by a powerful government official, one of Alicija’s final clients before launching her campaign.

Darius Meskauskas and Gints Gravelis are both terrific as Normunds and Ilgvars, neither of whom is as simple as you might presume. Indeed, it is only logical that both men are deeply flawed. After all, they have lived their entire lives under Communism.

The restrained
My Freedom does not quite pack as much power as Leave No Traces or Soviet Milk, but it is still an unusually honest film. Despite the intimate nature of much of the drama, it is so realistic, My Freedom often feels like we are watching a documentary unfold. This is definitely a high-quality period production, so it is fitting Latvia selected it as their international Oscar submission (it is considerably better than many of the frontrunners). Recommended for its themes and performances, My Freedom screens again tomorrow (12/10) and Tuesday (12/12) as part of AFI’s EU Showcase.