Documentary Releases: Baltic Tribes: The Last Pagans of Europe (2019) - Reviewed

It might be my own bias, but I never expect to see a truly awful documentary. I know they exist, and I realize I should probably count myself lucky for having been spared… until now. 

There are some documentaries, like Room 237, for instance, where I’ve been in the minority in thinking that the film itself would have been better as, perhaps, a special feature on a DVD or Blu-ray; that a feature-length look at subject isn’t necessary but still worth exploring in a shorter format. Baltic Tribes: The Last Pagans of Europe neither justifies its existence nor makes its subject matter interesting enough to explore in any short format. 

It tries. Boy does it try. There are many missed opportunities here, starting with the narration, which I have to wonder whether or not was used as a temporary track until the filmmakers could get someone with more enthusiasm to come in, and maybe they just forgot to get that person? 

I wonder because, what we’re left with what sounds like a text to speech (or Siri-like voice over) that has zero enthusiasm for the subject matter – 13th century pagan life. We do get another narrator, who is apparently supposed to be the character of Lars (Kaspars Anins), but even he seems to be grasping at straws. 

The narration gives way to the film’s other major blunder: relying solely on reenactments with no dialogue and seemingly very little direction from directors Lauris Abele and Raitis Abele. The actors all seem very stiff and rather that convey any emotion, the camera moves in and around scenes that should pack more of an emotional punch. Are we supposed to care or be downright bored? However well-intentioned, it is unfortunately the latter. 

While the actors are given nothing to do, the camera work – if I can give any positive feedback – is quite smooth and the cinematography is crisp enough to mislead one into thinking that Baltic Tribes: The Last Pagans of Europe is worth anyone’s time. It’s not. 

The question I’ve heard asked of many filmmakers, “Why did you decide to make THIS move?” is one that has come up often, even for good movies. Generally, one gets a sense that there was a true passion behind the project; that there was no way he or she could exist in this world without having made it. 

Documentaries can be about random subjects to us as viewers, but the filmmaker’s desire to explore a subject that is so deeply personal to them brings us into their head space. It allows us to appreciate a person, or subject we might not have otherwise sought out. California Typewriter immediately springs to mind. Granted, I love typewriters but, while getting to know various typewriter enthusiasts might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, their love for these machines, as well as the director’s respect of the material, are clearly conveyed in the finished film.

Baltic Tribes: The Last Pagans of Europe offers none of that. It instead feels like an assigned homework piece that in no way made me want to sit through the ninety-minute plus runtime. I guess truly awful documentaries, like the many bad narrative films that exist in the world, are possible to make. I wish I could have gone on believing otherwise. 

--Matt Giles