Before I say a single word about Laila Pakalnina’s new film Spoon (2019), I need to thank Elina Reitere and the Latvian Film Institute, who allow me to discover the filmography of Pakalnina. It is a fascinating world for me. Except for Béla Tarr, I cannot say that I have seen a lot of slow films from the former East bloc. The Baltic countries are not on my radar at all. This doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. As I can see with Pakalnina’s work, there is some truly formidable work out there. It is a question about visibility and availability. Some directors who make great films are luckier than others in getting their films out there. It is not only about talent. There is such a large pool of slow-film talent out there, but you only see some and not others. I’m always happy if I get a chance to see new names popping up on my radar.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about Pakalnina’s Ausma, which was a mind-blowing film experience. It was a traumatised film that left me with many images to digest. It left me with a bitter taste in my mouth about my own country’s history, too, the shadow of communism, of totalitarianism and the focus on children for a perfect indoctrination. There was something nightmarish about the film, something that crossed from reality into bad dreams and back again. It was an intense (slow) rollercoaster. Ausma was clearly a feature film, inspired by real events, and my being unaware of the rest of Pakalnina’s filmography I was able to go into Spoon without much expectation or anticipation.
What is Spoon? Of course, one could straightforward classify it as a documentary, an observational documentary to be exact. And this is what it is. But Spoon is also like an onion. It peels away several layers of what makes our modern life. There are many aspects that have defined our turn towards modernity. There are the ways in which we communicate, there are the ways in which we travel, the ways in which we work and live. But there is something so pervasive that it often goes unnoticed. Nothing has defined our modern life more than plastic. It used to be a magic alternative to everything that was expensive, because it made things easier and cheaper. On the other hand, it is the symbol of our disregard for nature, for our natural surrounding, for our home. It is a symbol of exploitation – the exploitation of resources, of labour.
Spoon is a document of this. Since the beginning of this year, some European countries have banned the use of single-use plastic. From January 2021, single-use plastic items will be banned. One can assume that they have seen their day and as we’re slowly phasing it out in Europe, Pakalnina goes on a trip to show what is involved in the production of plastic spoons. Curiously, though, this isn’t clear for a long time. Apart from the fact that Spoon is beautifully shot, it is, if you haven’t read anything about the film beforehand (which I didn’t), a mystery, reinforced by shots of the exterior of what looks like factories, by smoke and vapor crossing the frame from left to right, from right to left, and by workers often dwarfed by their environment. Nothing indicates that this is a film about plastic spoons. For about 45 to 50 minutes, Pakalnina doesn’t show the real subject of her film.
She shows factories. She shows container ships. She shows smoking chimneys and oil refineries. She shows workers arriving at their work place, behind computers, wrapped up in overalls, masks and gloves. There are journeys by sea and by land. There is sunshine, there is snow. Pakalnina’s beautiful, often breathtaking shots show vast operations, global networks, endless production chains, over-towering factories. When all of this gives way to images of the last stages of the plastic spoon production and their being prepared for shipping, the whole paradox and irony comes to the fore. Pakalnina not so much speaks about the plastic spoon alone, but about the bizarre and pointless ravaging of the earth for something that we chuck into the bin after a couple of minutes. Many more items than the plastic spoon, just as disposable, require a baffling amount of resources and labour, invisible to the everyday user of those products.
It is true that Spoon is a documentary, but it is also an educational film. Perhaps, the beauty of each shot makes it difficult to realise at times. And yet, the arresting images also draw you in. From time to time Pakalnina uses hypnotic music, warped sounds that underline the staggering, dizzying industrial processes. This is it, this is our modern life, it says. This is it, this is where progress has taken us. This is it, the dirty, poisonous fruit of our labour. There are many more poisonous fruits which we are currently tasting. Initially sweet in taste, they promise us a better life. Plastic is the poisonous snake which lures us in, which seduces us, only to mislead us.
This is Spoon. A film about the toxic snake of modernity. We looked into its eyes once and became hypnotised. Today, we no longer see what this sweet fruit has turned us into. Spoon is a superb document about the lengths to which we go in order to create a small, disposable item. Having seen a feature film and a documentary, I’m fascinated by the ways in which Pakalnina easily moves between the two. Filmmakers tend to stick to one, but Pakalnina chooses whatever works best for her subject. The subject comes first, the decision of whether a feature film or a documentary is most suitable seems to come second. There is definitely more to discover about Pakalnina and I begin to think that she needs to be in my book!