Soundtrack to a Revolution
“Live the Truth in an Untrue Time”
The Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City was a fitting venue for Pērkons – a V R Rockumentary, which was well-attended by members of the So Cal Latvian Community Center on Sunday, February 23. Viewers donned oculus headwear for a sensory storytelling of the 1980s Latvian rock band through a riveting 11-minute virtual reality film directed by Cory McLeod.
The film transports us to 1980s Soviet Latvia, to a packed outdoor concert full of high-spirited, exuberant youth galvanized by music – and a rare, forbidden taste of freedom.
Speaking to the crowd at the Wende, Edvins Rusis, who knows the band personally, described the members of Pērkons as down-to-earth intellectuals weaving their talents as classical musicians, poets, and dancers, with the works of other famous artists. They sometimes had to construct their instruments. The result was music that hit home, unified the youth and stirred passion for freedom, while flying under the radar of stern Communist censorship.
Some of the songs came on like folk tunes, even seeming silly, but transitioned into compelling music with a stronger beat. Lyrics were metaphoric. In It’s Very Stupid to Kill a Swan, the swan was understood to mean the nation.Simply the Green is not really just a song about the seasons. You will survive this winter. Keep the fire going. As long as we have fires on hilltops we will survive. Such double entendres got past the censors, who couldn’t quite put a finger on the song’s specific offense.
But Pērkons threatened the Soviet regime, which considered rock music to be chaotic and socially evil in general, and particularly dangerous when it came to Pērkons. Soviet doctrine was conflicted, Mr. Rusis pointed out, wanting to eliminate nationalism and homogenize everybody on the one hand, while at the same time touting the Soviet Union as a leader in the arts. Pērkons exploited that opportunity, being a national artistic success while cautiously igniting passion for personal freedom among fans.
In the reminiscences of Dr. Juris Bunkis, Honorary Consul for the Republic of Latvia in Southern California, a 1985 Pērkons concert stirred passion for individual freedom, similar to the influence of 1960s music on American youth. In 1985, the Latvian audience didn’t yet dream about national freedom.
The band moved carefully, preferring to inspire passive defiance, rather than to incite outright protest at one big concert and then spend the next twenty years of their lives in prison. Even so after a concert in ’85, some kids vandalized a rail car, were arrested, and made examples of. The film reconstructs these events with graphic visual imagery, putting the viewer on the train, and in the defendant’s stand at the trial before Soviet Latvia’s most ominous judges, including the Minster of Ideology.
It was heartbreaking to witness the grief on the face of young Raimonds Plorinš as he learned he’d be punished by hard labor in Siberia, practically a capital sentence, for mischief that was probably borne from tasting personal freedom that was unattainable to him, and acting out pent up frustration at a repressive society with youthful impulsiveness.
Then Pērkons was banned from Latvia. “Outlawing” the band backfired on the authorities. Naturally, everybody wanted to know what about the band should be outlawed. The band re-emerged under different names at various kolkolzes. Pērkons is credited with a critical role in the resistance: Feeling free was a step in making freedom in society real, a stepping stone to the People’s Awakening. Cory McLeod states, “Many of the people who stood at the vanguard of this revolution experienced freedom for the first time at a Pērkons concert.”
Finally and importantly, McLeod brings the relevance of these historic events to bear on today’s culture of misinformation and fake news, urging us to publicly live the truth in an untrue time.
The production was made possible with support from the American Latvian Association and American Latvian Association Cultural Fund; the Embassy of the Republic of Latvia to the United States of America, the Latvian Cultural Association TILTS, and LOAM Latviesśu Organizaāciju Apvieniba Minesota, among other sponsors and supporters.