Animal Farm

Dawn (Ausma)
(Latvia/Estonia/Poland, 90 min.)
Written and directed by Laila Pakalniņa
Starring: Antons Georgs Grauds, Vilis Daudzins, Wiktor Zborowski, Andris Keiss, Liena Smukste, Girts Krumins, Rudolfs Plepis, Ivars Brakovskis
Dawn, Latvia’s submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, ends with a horse taking a casual shit as a team of farmhands walks towards the rising sun. The camera holds on the offending—nay, poetic—turd for a generously lingering moment as chickens flock to it. Bathed in the glowing morning light, which looks heavenly in the wonderful black and white cinematography by Wojciech Staron, the horse patty offers a warm meal for the chickens. They nibble on the steaming turd as the workers march into the distance and their hymn to Soviet Latvia provides mealtime entertainment before the credits roll. Tsai Ming-liang, eat your heart out.

A long take of chickens eating shit probably isn’t the cup of tea for most Academy members and it’s safe to say that Dawn is an acquired taste. This eccentric and impressionistic tale from writer/director Laila Pakalniņa is a demanding film experience, but it’s a novel one filled with memorable images and striking compositions that far outweigh the erratic events that transpire on screen.

Dawn thrusts viewers into an allegorical collective farm where young worker Janis (Antons Georgs Grauds) sees collaboration and fair distribution as key elements to a strong community. The film pits idealistic youths against tough and oppressive elders, like Janis’s father (Vilis Daudzins), who refuse to yield to change. They work, they toil, they fight, and they prosper. There’s a little playing and a lot of fighting, and the dawn of communism is a hard battle for the new generation.

The film emphasises the suffering of the people with stark images and some brutal mob mentality as the leaders of the community resist a balance of power. With no clear plot to follow and a large mass of characters all toiling with poverty and the prospects of change, Dawn favours a series of impressions rather than a clear statement. The film bears obvious influence to classic Soviet cinema and its appeal seems best to kinophiles who relish Eisensteinian tempos and off-kilter imagery. It’s a film of bizarre sights and strange palpably symbolic actions, and one might do better with the film after taking in a bit of research since Pakalniņa provides little context. The excellent cinematography, however, ensures that Dawn is a consistently admirable film experience even if it borders upon nonsensical and at time inaccessible. This little animal farm is one odd duck.