"Brahms and Goat Milk". Film about Vestards Šimkus

Rūta Celma’s archive. . Pianist Vestards Šimkus and director Rūta Celma in London
Una Griškeviča
17-04-2013 A+ A-
‘Brahms and Goat Milk’ – this is, most probably, how filmmaker Rūta Celma’s latest fete – the documentary about the outstanding Latvian pianist Vestards Šimkus will be titled. Three and a half years’ work will result in its premiere in the ‘Splendid Palace’ on May 14.

In search of the funding

Director Rūta Celma, who has made films about the world-famous Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons, the wonderful bass Egils Siliņš and other prominent figures in Latvian culture, began to develop ‘Brahms and Goat Milk’ in the spring of 2009 when Vestards returned to Latvia with the laurels of Maria Canals Piano Competition in Barcelona. ‘Well, how was I not to make a film about such a fantastic personality and musician?!’ – Rūta rhetorically answers to why she chose to make a film about Vestards.

Vestards had all the world’s pianism stages opening to him at the time, while Rūta Celma was still a director without her own studio, which was why she enlisted a producer and rolled up her sleeves. ‘Then, it was me and her who were trying to find the money to finance the film, for the studio didn’t fund me when I was making my documentary about Mariss Jansons either. So, I had gained some knack in fundraising, although it is humiliating to ask for money to make a film…’ Rūta just sighs, adding that the process of making this film was one strewn with moments of despair and loss of hope.

But the love of cinema is so enormous! It is all my life and I cannot think of doing anything else.

Director makes no secret that this film was made possible for all the support she received from her husband. ‘He is our bread-winner, the one who feeds me and pays our bills, which is not easy as he is a creative personality as well!’ Rūta smiles a little bitterly.

Hands, hands, hands

One of the first episodes of the film was shot in the concert where Vestards interpreted ‘The Seasons’ by Pēteris Vasks, which are given even four minutes of the screen time in the film instead of the planned three. So the film gradually came to be born, while Rūta still very vividly remembers the day of their visit of Vecmokas and meeting Vestards’ family.

It was quite like an exam, for I had to tell what the film will be like, my concept for it. I answered that my films depart from people they portray and I will never be able to say – it will be like this or like that in advance. A film is created in the process of its making!

Besides, Rūta thought it important to focus the hands of the pianist in the film; she would almost say that they are its central image. ‘I noticed that Vestards has several rituals of hi sown; for instance, he makes these caress-like gestures before taking his place at the piano. You will see how it looks in the film. For a moment, I even entertained the idea of making a three minute trailer of the film with nothing but his hands, hands, hands in it….’

Trailing the pianist

Director was asking Vestards constantly in the process of shooting: Where are you going next; what is important to you; where will you play? ‘It was impossible to foresee anything this time. I had to know his program! I remember, Vestards once told me that he is to have a very important concert in Berlin, on which a lot would depend.’ So, me and our cinematographer Aivars Kalniņš, to whom I owe all the greatest compliments and gratitude, set on a trail of our protagonist through the main cities in Europe he had to play in.

Bilbao, Berlin, Barcelona, London… If you have eyes and interest and you are alert to your surroundings, every place will offer you a wonderful story of its own. For example, waiting in the airport ticket-line, Vestards would start to play on an invisible instrument…

Working of this film, Rūta was able to visit nearly all the cities in Europe where Vestards has played; well, Shanghai had to be omitted. ‘He wanted us to go there very much; unfortunately, it was too expensive a trip. And nobody was able to help financially, which is why I understood – I had to establish my own studio, for my previous one, where I made ‘The Darling of Fate’ told me I couldn’t hope for the money for Vestards’ film earlier than in two years. I am not old enough yet to wait for two years for my turn!’ – Rūta reveals a nuance, in our dialogue, which made her establish her own studio RUUK.

Liszt’s storm and the land of childhood

‘There are so many episodes in the film I would wish to talk about! The one about Vestards’ love for his sister Aurelia… About how much forest means to him – as it does for me, as, being a gamekeeper’s daughter, I have grown up in the forest myself. So, his feelings are so close to me,’ Rūta Celma reveals, mentioning some of the filming places – such as the wonderful medieval castle outside Barcelona where Vestards played already more than once, on the way. ‘We saw what a real tempest is like there, a real rain fall and palms getting broken… Our cameraman had to wade the water with his camera on the shoulder afterwards, and I still asked him to photograph, and some of these shots will be seen in the film.’

While Vestards’ commentary on it was: Well, yes, Liszt is a composer to conjure up a storm like none other!

This is one of Rūta Celma’s favorite episodes. By the way, she has many such stories to tell. For example, one about Vestards confessing, in their first winter of filming, that people generally alarm him more than animals and he feels very apprehensive for the last ten minutes before going out on the stage. ‘I still remember us filming deep in the snows of Vestards’ childhood land in minus 13 degrees, when he was telling about piano music and why he must walk twenty kilometers a day. It may sound too beautiful for some, but this is the world he lives in…’

I ask Rūta whether she feels content with what has been achieved now that more than an hour long film is nearly finished. ‘I don’t know. I am practically never content for you can always do better and you can always do differently. Perhaps, I will be more satisfied after a time, when I will have the distance,’ director admits, adding that it had not always been an easy film to make. And still, for Rūta, it is one the favorite films.


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