Film critic Alissa Simon reviews ‘My Favorite War’ for Variety

- VARIETY, Alissa Simon, 21/01/21

The impressive animated memoir “My Favorite War” revisits writer-director Ilze Burkovska-Jacobsen’s childhood in Soviet Latvia in the 1970s and ’80s. The result of a nine-year labor of love from a Norwegian-Latvian team, it combines distinctive cutout animation with family photos and archival footage to forge a look at an authoritarian society through a young girl’s eyes. It also encompasses her eventual realization of the painful history repressed beneath the platitudes and propaganda of her school days.

A narration by the adult Ilze adds another layer to the narrative as she looks back and ponders the connection between freedom of choice and happiness. After a remarkable festival career (in a pandemic year, no less) that included a prize at Annecy, the film is now available on demand via Vimeo for American audiences.

The war referred to in the ironic title is WWII, or as Ilze is taught, the great patriotic war against the Nazi enemy. As a young girl (voiced by Mare Eihe) on her grandfather’s farm, she eagerly watches war movies and television series and plays soldier with her cousins. Later, at school, she learns to venerate the fallen heroes of the Soviet Union and tries to prove herself worthy of their sacrifices.

Animation proves an ideal medium to depict how Ilze’s active imagination is charged by WWII, the Cold War and her teachers’ warnings to never forget the Nazis’ evil deeds. In nightmarish thoughts, she pictures enemies who always speak German, even if they happen to be Americans coming with atomic bombs.

Ilze’s life in Saldus, a city located in the Courland area of Latvia where the articles of capitulation were signed on May 9, 1945, provides another connection to the war. When she hears the term “Courland Caldron,” she envisages a bubbling witch’s kettle rather than the grim battlefield she later researches.

During Ilze’s childhood, talking truthfully about the war’s grim statistics and collateral damage was taboo, but animation allows the film to show the grisly ways in which some of the gruesome secrets of Courland’s past reappear: first, a human skeleton in a sandbox; later, a bulldozer unearthing and tossing into the air an entire boneyard as horrified students watch from a window.

Even as Ilze conforms to the model of Soviet girlhood society lays out for her, becoming a perfect student and leader of her unit of the Young Pioneers, she also learns from the remarkable, yet ideologically suspect maternal side of her family. Her beloved grandfather (Juris Kalnins), once an independent farm owner, was deported to Siberia in the early 1940s and is now designated an enemy of the people. He’s an artist and a man of great principal. When told that he should apply for amnesty, he refuses, saying, “If I ask for amnesty, I admit that I’ve done something wrong.” Through him, Ilze sees that she, like her father before her, is “singing to the pipe of the Party.”

As a teenager (Madara Bore) during glasnost, Ilze is inspired by being allowed to say what she thinks. She starts to reject state ideology, looking for the truth underneath and forming her own opinions. It’s a heady time of civil protest, when Latvians petition to withdraw from the Soviet Union and a 600-km human chain comprised of two million people holding hands stretches across Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Editors Julie Vinten and Reinis Rinka incorporate the family and archival photos and period moving image footage with the animation into a smooth narrative flow. They also neatly embed the film’s other layer, the war stories that Ilze collects to learn from. These fascinating tales are shown in black-and-white animation, and one could imagine more of them constituting a feature of their own.

Burkovska-Jacobsen’s Norwegian concept artist Svein Nyhus gives the characters disconcerting obsidian eyes. He also includes in Ilze’s imaginings a nightmarish face that resembles Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Meanwhile, lead background artist Laima Puntule creates settings that reflect accurate period detail.

This international version of the film, submitted to both the Academy and the Annies, features English language dialogue spoken by Latvian performers.

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