Is It Easy to Be Young?

English Title: Is It Easy to Be Young?

Original Title: Vai Viegli Būt Jaunam? (Latvian) / Legko li byt' molodym? (Russian)

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Riga Film Studio

Director: Juris Podnieks

Producer(s): Baiba Urbane

Screenplay: Abram Kleckin, Evgenii Margolin, Juris Podnieks

Cinematographer: Kalvis Zalcmanis

Editor: Antra Cilinska

Runtime: 80 minutes

Genre: Documentary

Language: Latvian, Russian

Year: 1986

Volume: Russian

The film starts with the court investigation of an incident of vandalism on a train, perpetrated by young rock fans returning from a concert. The film explores different youth sub-cultures, featuring interviews with punks, drug addicts, young artists, students and looks at the burning political and social issues of the perestroika era, namely Chernobyl and the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of the young generation.

Juris Podnieks’s Is It Easy to Be Young? is one of the key perestroika films that enjoyed enormous mass popularity and critical attention. Its cultural significance is comparable to the documentary Ordinary Fascism (1965) by Mikhail Romm. It is one of the first perestroika films that looked at Soviet society through the eyes of the young generation. What it means to be young in the Soviet Union was one the main themes in perestroika and early post-Soviet filmmaking. The young generation was viewed as the bearer of hope, freedom and change (as in ASSA, Sergei Solov’ev 1988) or as the lost generation that struggled amidst hypocrisy and inadequacy of the ‘adult’ Soviet world (as in Little Vera, Vasilii Pichul, 1989). Podnieks’s documentary displays a sophistication in weighing both of these options, personalizing them in the reflections that the interviewed participants share with the camera. The film explores several dimensions of what it meant to be young in the Soviet Union, and Latvia in particular: how youth related to the Soviet system of values and institutions, and the role the young generation played in the dangerous ‘hot spots’ of the late Soviet history – Chernobyl and Afghanistan. Tracking the participants of a rock concert who vandalize the suburban train and are brought to court, the film seems to be firmly on the side of the young people – misunderstood, constrained and abused by the system of ideological clichés. The film sides with the youth in a ‘j’accuse’ moment when it narrates the story of a young woman faced with a criminal trial and psychiatric ward because she took a ballet dress to pose for pictures. The unruly punks in the film pronounce the judgement that would be reiterated in other perestroika narratives: the young generation despises the Soviet way of life as deeply hypocritical, superficial and stifling self-expression.

However, Podnieks’s film goes beyond simple negative identification of the sore points in the late Soviet history. Another immensely popular film, This is No Way to Live (dir. Stanislav Govorukhin, 1990) is a very good example of a documentary in which the sole goal is to dismantle, dispute and debunk the Soviet way of life. Podnieks’s film gives a more nuanced picture, making individual fate and moral choice the focus of his story. The variety of subjects interviewed in the film talk about their lives and their experiences. And while these experiences are pieced together by history, such as the war in Afghanistan or Chernobyl disaster, they remain in focus as individual existential and moral choices. Thus, Podnieks interviews a young amateur filmmaker who shoots a film about young people. His film within Podnieks’s film addresses the audience with abstract and allegorical figures – a maze-like hallway, a cloaked figure of death, young people standing in the strikingly blue sea in the end, a symbol of hope. The introduction of abstraction highlights the ways Podnieks’s film transcends concrete history and returns to questions of personal choice, of what it means to be young – right now and always. The film is shot in a combination of colour and black-and-white stock, reserved mostly for the to-camera interviews, creating a sense of chronicle, something recorded for history. The variation of film stock serves the purpose of joining historic reference and personal experience, the concrete chronicled time and abstract values that govern people's choices. This combination of acute awareness of individual fate and historic and social experiences that affect us makes Juris Podnieks’s film a unique documentary and a landmark in perestroika filmmaking.

Author of this review: Volha Isakava