Latvia’s Oscar Contender “The Pit” Teaches Audience About Love, Friendship, and Acceptance

Dace Pūce and Kristele Pudāne discuss filming The Pit

Based on stories reflecting true events by author Jana Egle, The Pit tells a fascinating story about what really lies beneath the surface in all humans regardless of age, or gender.

Telling the story of 10-year-old Markus, living with his grandmother after his father passes. The Pit features overlapping stories about family dynamics, a powerful friendship, and redemption of character. 

Beyond the already captivating story, the film’s cinematography and extraordinary performances pull audiences in and don’t let them go until the final fade to black. The film clocks in at almost two hours but never feels long or boring. The engaging visuals and heartbreaking, raw emotion never loosen their grip on the viewers and it makes for a truly compelling experience. 

The film discusses many sensitive topics that resonate with all kinds of viewers. From drug addiction to broken abusive families and transgender rights. “The Pit” has made history as being the first feature-length Latvian film to positively represent an elderly trans character, a quote “taboo topic” in Latvia according to director Dace Pūce. 

“The Pit” has received an immense amount of critical acclaim, being featured in multiple film festivals, and is Latvia’s official selection for nomination consideration at the 94th Academy Awards premiering in March of 2022.  

Director and producer of the film Dace Pūce and Kristele Pudāne speak highly of their remarkable film and emphasize the love they have for Latvia’s vast filmmaking industry.

Developing a film from the text can be difficult. Describe the process of adapting The Pit from the three stories it’s based on?

Dace: The inspiration came from Jana Egle’s book Into The Light. I bought the book and read all 8 stories and I loved it-especially three of them. I thought that I could make one story from all three of them together 

and I started to develop my own story. I asked my classmates from film school to join me and together we worked on it for about half a year. It took almost two years to make one story from three stories.

One of the strongest aspects of the film is its cinematography. The introductory continuous shot is a notable one. What do you think cinematography does for a film and more specifically how does the cinematography in The Pit immerse the viewer?

Dace: The Cinematographer(Gatis Grīnbergs). He worked so hard, we worked together to build up the setting. The long shot at the beginning, I had already thought from the beginning that my movie will start with a long shot. I wanted people to wonder what was happening like why is this boy wandering outside? Why is he speaking to himself? Then we see those two guys on the bicycles and his grandma so we were really introducing the audience into this small village and this boy’s life. I saw this in my head already in the early stages.

Kristele: Also it was really about good communication between the director, the production designer and the cinematographer. We wanted to show every location and how we would shoot that. We wanted to show everything in a very direct and honest way. We succeeded in this because as we mentioned the cinematography is very touching. We used a lot of natural light and everything possible to make this story really touching.

The child actors in this are phenomenal. What was it like working with them?

Dace: I don’t work with child actors differently from adult actors. 

Kristele: The approach is the same

Dace: Yeah, and before I chose the actor for the main role I went through a long process of casting. I wanted the boy to be like a quiet genius. I knew if I didn’t find that the whole film would be affected. I started in December and in April I found him. There were about 500 boys. Then I found Damir, he’s a Russian boy actually he’s from a Russian family and he was 12 years old instead of 10 like in the film. I understood that he was what we were looking for. I made acting classes for them. Latvia actually doesn’t have any acting schools for children and it’s why I prepared and understood how they worked together and how they would react. 

Kristele: Those courses actually were quite intensive and also what I liked about it wasn’t only about you having to learn new texts and a biography, it was more about how to teach them to express their emotions without even talking. It should come from inside. The acting should be less artificial and more natural. 

Which character in the film do you find yourself relating to?

Dace: Oh I think Grandma because she’s an old woman(laughs). She’s very deep. You can see and feel her pain and I had her in my first profession. My first profession was a conductor and I had a music degree. When I wrote the story I said ‘Oh she will be quite the conductor’ because I know all that stuff I know what’s required. I trained the actress to conduct. She thought in the beginning that it was very easy but then when she started she said ‘Oh it’s not easy at all’ (laughs). You have to direct about 30 or 60 people.

Kristele: You know what else is interesting, when we developed the story we had consultations with a lot of experts one of which was a therapist. He was talking to us about character relationships and how to build them naturally. He said you should love all of your characters even a little bit-even the bad ones but you have to love him to understand what he’s doing and why. You have to find something in yourself that can relate to them and that’s the most interesting part about developing a story because I really find Markus in myself, I find Robert’s aggression, I find the victim in Smaida. It’s really interesting how you can find everything in your soul. 

Which character in the film do you want the audience to learn a lesson from?

Dace: One of the main lessons is to listen to each other and don’t judge each other. In our society, we do it every day. We judge and we know about everybody and everything but it’s not always what we think. It’s a story about learning how to love, so many people are lonely and you have to try to understand one another. You’re never gonna know everything about other people. It’s very important, this movie’s theme of art and the joy of doing and creating. I think it’s the very heart of this film for both adults and children.

In our ever-increasing social awareness, how important was it for the team to create a narrative about an elderly trans man and represent him in a positive light especially in a European country?

Dace: Yes absolutely. This is the first Latvian feature film reflecting transgender issues. We were looking to our local audience here in Latvia, and they were really moved by this human being and this touching message. This to us, was a really big surprise. The audience was crying and standing for what we wanted to talk about. 

Kristele: This was actually important for us to talk about social inclusion in our society. It’s important to accept other people’s freedom to be who they want to be with no judgment. Transgender is actually very taboo here in Latvia and we know that those people exist in our society- the people who don’t really understand them. This was one of the reasons why we wanted to include this story in the film to show that they are very human and we can see Sailor and after all, he has suffered in his life he is still so thoughtful and such a good person. How he reacts to this small boy and Solveiga(the grandma) with who he had a prior relationship. He has no bad thoughts about others, he’s just such a nice person. We were very curious to see how our society would react to this but we really haven’t heard any bad comments about the film. Usually on social media people try to express their negative thoughts but no, really no one which is a good thing already for us. 

The relationship between Markus and Sailor is poignant and beautiful. Was there inspiration from other films to help cultivate their friendship? 

Dace: You can find some similarities from other films. One of which is called The Hunt. I was also inspired by the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. There was a brilliant message that we worked into the film. 

Kristele: Yeah I love the message of that movie. 

One of the things I love so much about this film is the subversion. There are so many ways you think it could go and then it surprises you with the exact opposite of what you were expecting to happen. Was that in mind when making the film? 

Kristele: Yeah I think it goes back again to judging by not knowing what’s happened. That was our goal to reveal time by time the true nature of these characters. We wanted to teach our audience that it’s important to ask first and to listen before it’s too late. Sometimes our reactions and attitudes could create really long-term consequences.

Dace: With the script, we were always thinking we don’t want to write exactly what we saw in other movies. 

This film shows a lot and doesn’t tell-which perfectly fits the tone and adds to the film’s effectiveness. Was that technique actively entwined with the thought process throughout the film’s production?

Dace: When I studied film directing my teachers always said less dialogue and to show more. In the beginning, the dialogue was a lot longer but the result was actually much shorter in the final cut. I threw out things that weren’t necessary.

Kristele: Yes, the final version of the film underwent a lot of editing. It’s important for us to show this message not only by spoon-feeding the viewers we wanted it to reveal itself. 

What do you want younger audiences to take away from the film? Do you think the message will differ for both younger and older audiences?

Kristele: Actually before we started production and while we were in the early development stages we had a possibility to attend multiple film festivals. We got to show this film to a child audience and it was very important to see if the story was too harsh for them. We didn’t want too much violence and we had this opportunity to present the film idea for 15 minutes but we actually ended up getting a 40-minute slot because they really started to discuss those matters.

They opened up and started to share their own experiences with bullying and how they got over it. That was really encouraging for us. Our Eastern audience was from 9 to 15 years old and they said that what they see on the internet was much worse than our film. For us it was important to show things how they are. That’s why our motto was ‘talk to the kids as equal’ when we were working with them. They understand and feel the things we are saying and the things we’re showing them. It’s really amazing how there are so many dimensions and they really see the perspective.

What are some other Oscar contenders that you’ve seen and would recommend? 

Kristele: We saw “The Jump” with is Lithuanian our neighboring country’s film.

Dace: At the beginning, there weren’t a lot of films submitted for the international category. We would love to see more of those films. We also saw a comedy film from Estonia that we really enjoyed. 

What is some advice you have for people who would like to go into film?

Dace: For directing you have to learn a lot. Directing is a sum of many professions. You have to learn to write, edit, shoot, sing, draw, how to write stories. You can have many many professions and then if you know more than three of those things you can start thinking about directing. In the industry everyone kind of speaks like one language and if you don’t know what they want from you it can be a bit of a problem. 

Kristele: From a producer’s point of view I would say don’t be afraid to be daring. Don’t be afraid to tackle taboo themes or issues. Be open to any possibilities and controversial opinions because out of them come the best stories. As a producer, it’s really important to have everything under control. You have to trust your team but also help and guide them. 

Dace: One more thing I’d like to add. Latvia is a small country but like Hugh Grant said in Love Actually we are a small country but a great one too. I’d really love to encourage other filmmakers to come to shoot and make more projects in Latvia because we really have great locations, we have a very professional crew, and amazing support from the national film center. They’re very good about funding and supplying us with what we need. I really encourage producers and directors to come to Latvia. 

The Pit will be streaming on Film Movement Plus on December 17th.