(Latvia 2007; Dir: Edmunds Jansons)

Little Bird's Diary

A lifetime of seeing

review by Chris Childs

Little Bird's Diary

original title: Čiža acīm

length: 23

year of production: 2007

country of production: Latvia

director: Edmunds Jansons

production: Bruno Aščuks, Studija Centrums

editing: Edmunds Jansons

sound: Ģirts Bišs

music: Ģirts Bišs

© images: 'Little Bird's Diary' (Edmunds Jansons)

‘Little Bird’s Diary’ depicts the life of Irina Pilke, an artist who kept an illustrated diary for most of her life. Irina’s story spans a large portion of the twentieth century, and name checks many significant global events: the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the horrors of war, and the mass-migrations of people to and from Europe. As Irina says at one point, “The British empire ended in my time... The French empire ended in my time”. Despite these seismic shifts on the world stage, Irina’s story is one of little moments. Her diaries are a trove of well-observed details, from the clothing of characters to the changing landscapes of her surroundings as Irina and her mother travel across borders.

Latvian filmmaker Edmunds Jansons takes on the task of compressing a lifetime of observations into a short-form piece, presumably a mammoth task. Irina’s drawings are used as the basis for the film’s animated sequences, lovingly recreated with the author’s trademark love of soft colourful palettes. Irina’s illustrations seem born for animation, and when translated into moving images seem to echo the adaptations of Raymond Briggs’ work, such as ‘The Snowman’. Obvious care has been taken not to impose on the artistic style of Irina’s work, attempting to transcribe her illustrations as faithfully as possible. This obsessive detail can even be seen in how the film composes each scene, placing images within boxy frames much as Irina does in her journals, somewhat similar to the panels of a comic strip.

The cartoonish and comic-like often come to mind when seeing Irina’s unique view of the world. Her observations are consistently comic and absurdist, even amidst what appear to be the darker chapters of her life. Her hospitalisation for diabetes is transformed into a strange theatre, playfully describing the times she shared with the staff and patients she lived amongst. One day the patients hear of Stalin’s death over the radio, and Irina begins laughing uncontrollably, remembering an old joke about the dictator (presumably unrepeatable, or unthinkable, during his regime). Comedy is also found in the cramped living conditions Irina endures, at one point sharing a small room with both her mother and her then-husband. “I would be cosying up to him,” Irina says, “when mother would lean over and ask, ‘have you paid the rent?’’. The three occupants of the flat are depicted at one point as cartoon cats, angrily fighting over a mouse. It’s in these moments when Irina’s imagination takes flight, veering the film into fantastical sequences, often involving characters speaking to, or transforming into animals. She often depicts her and her mother as two garden birds, an unbreakable unit moving from country to country. “Two birds,” she says, “who were forced out of their nest.” In one sequence where Irina is describing the political changes of the century, we see her wandering around a dreamlike garden, talking with mushrooms and caterpillars. It’s in such scenes that we see Irina as a solitary soul, caught amidst events beyond her control, but never losing her keen observations and interests in life.

Irina’s mother remains a constant throughout much of these shifts in her life, and the sequences depicting her mother’s death are touching. As she speaks of her last moments, we see an image of a red party balloon rising to the ceiling of a living room, bouncing around for a moment, and then popping. It’s perhaps in these wordless moments where the film achieves the greatest emotion, when Irina’s narration stops, and her illustrations communicate for themselves. Other such moments are the repeated images of fireworks over a night sky, seen out the window of her and her mother’s front room in Riga, then seen again as part of the May Day celebrations (a poetically bittersweet sequence that follows the death of Irina’s second husband).

The approach of the filmmaker is admirably hands-off, allowing Irina to become the true author of the piece, through her drawings and her spoken narration. Jansons is a filmmaker who from his previous work has proved gifted at adopting many different visual styles, from the minimalism of ‘Choir Tour’ (2012) to the lavish design of his recent feature-length film, ‘The Happy Ones’ (2021). Because of this confidence in visual invention, it’s interesting to see Jansons allow the film to be so fully absorbed into another artists’ vision. This is shown in the early moments of the short, where Irena is seen moving the puppets in place for the film’s first animated scene. There is a sense of hope that flows throughout Irina’s recollections, and throughout the film itself. These glimmers of optimism are found even while her mother is dying, a passing which was sudden and painless. “If there is a good death,” says Irina, “my mother had it.” This positive outlook seems to extend to her view of history itself, and time passing, which she describes at one point as ‘inevitable’ or ‘unavoidable’. Irena seems to embrace this inevitability, choosing to capture small moments of joy and strangeness through her diaries.

The precision of Irina’s observations means we feel present in her memories, becoming involved in sequences and images that feel alive and current. The film is an important document of a rich inner life, where Irina’s visions of talking animals and luscious gardens feel as tangible as the outside world. Perhaps Irina’s artistic approach can serve as a hopeful example of existing within troubled times while retaining wonder at our surroundings.

This text was realised in collaboration with the Latvian Animation Association.