Field Notes:
A Design Film Festival
in Latvia

Date: 18 Sept 2020
Location: Kuldiga, Latvia
By: Felix Ng (Anonymous)
Where is Latvia?

That was my first thought when we received an invitation from Ilze Supe of Kuldiga Artists Residency to bring A Design Film Festival (DFF) to Latvia in 2013.

Even though it has been 30 years since Latvia achieved independence from the Soviet Union, the country is still haunted by its past today. Many Latvians I met and spoke with shared how the country has gone through a ‘brain drain’, with thousands of people who dreamed about becoming doctors, artists, and engineers fleeing to neighbouring countries to seek a better life. However, that has slowly started to change in the past few years. The capital city of Riga is modern, with restaurants, cafes, boutique stores and galleries. You will find well-designed posters plastered on walls promoting photography exhibitions and rock concerts. People I met were comfortable speaking in English, even though their main language were Latvian or Russian. They were surprised to meet a non-European in their city and were eager to share more about life in Latvia. Our local guide said that the only time you would see an Asian person here were Chinese businessmen looking to invest in property and local businesses. Then, it wasn’t a place you would think of for a vacation.

Riga to Kuldiga

It was a 2-hour drive from Riga International Airport to Kuldiga, the town where DFF would be held. For most of the trip, the roads were flanked by empty fields with horses and farms, with few cars and even fewer people.

Kuldiga was quiet, peaceful, with few buildings taller than 3–4 stories. It is a small town with a population of 10,000, with preserved medieval architecture. It seemed like everyone’s homes came with a backyard where they would grow their own food. People here ate meat just once or twice a month, preferring simple meals of bread or pasta they made at home, and vegetables they grew in their garden. Restaurants served mainly vegetarian and seafood dishes, with the occasional ‘game meat’, depending on what the local hunters were able to find. If this makes Kuldiga sound like a rural city, it isn’t quite. In the city centre, you will find shops like any major cities: florists, cafes, and supermarkets. There are galleries, museums, book stores and a park where movies are screened every weekend during spring and autumn. This is where we would present the films from DFF.

From 15–17 August 2013, we screened four films: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Design & Thinking, PressPausePlay and The Human Scale. The event was titled in Latvian to locals as Dizaina Filmu Festivāls Kuldīgā.

Sune Petersen, a visual artist from Copenhagen also travelled to Kuldiga for the event. He created live visuals for the opening and closing party. The audience interacted with and danced to his motion graphics on the screens, and their silhouettes masked part of the projected visuals were all part of his concept.

There was a lot of homemade wine during and after the event, so my memory about the rest of the event (and trip) is a blur after so many years.

I do remember taking a trip to visit the Baltic sea, in a vintage Lada. Visiting the world’s longest waterfall. And a really cool cat that lived behind the houses we stayed in.

Mobility is the key

What fascinated me most about Kuldiga, was that even with just 10,000 inhabitants who lived over 150km from the capital city of Riga, there was a desire to learn and see the world through design, film, and art. Despite the language difference and even though many of the people were not artists themselves, they could feel and understand the stories presented in the films. The language of design and film is borderless. They are universal mediums for people who are curious about the world, if we are willing to prepare and present them in an accessible way outside of our ‘professional ghetto’.

What we have tried to achieve with DFF from the beginning was to help the public, who may not be design professionals but are curious, to learn more about it. Film is a great medium for anyone to learn something new, especially one that is often wrapped up in jargon and high concepts like design and art. It feels like entertainment, is highly accessible and an extremely mobile medium. When we used to curate and produce exhibitions, it was expensive and logistically difficult to bring them overseas, and required tedious steps to get the right paperwork to ship artworks and displays.

That is now one of our main criteria for creating any form of content, that it must be mobile. This means that it must be easy to share and able to travel anywhere in the world. It also must be able to appeal to a global audience through a universal medium and language. And with DFF, all we need to bring on a flight is a hard drive with the films.