When a young Viesturs Kairiss started to dream about becoming a filmmaker thirty-some-odd years ago, he knew his path wouldn’t be straightforward or easy. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, aspiring Latvian directors would have to travel to Moscow or St. Petersburg to enroll in venerable Soviet film schools. After independence, Kairiss was among the first class of graduates from the newly launched film studies program at the Latvian Academy of Culture, one of many ways in which the small Baltic republic attempted to assert its own identity after half a century of Soviet rule.

“We didn’t have any technique,” Kairiss admits of he and his film school peers, laughing. For his first feature film, “Leaving by the Way” (2001), he enlisted friends for below-the-line work and recruited actors from the local theater school. When the film bowed in the Crystal Globe competition at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, it was the culmination of what he describes as “a totally crazy, passionate journey” for a group of filmmakers laboring in an industry that didn’t truly exist.

This year, Latvia is sharing a spotlight with neighboring Lithuania and Estonia at the European Film Market, which has dedicated its 2023 Country in Focus Spotlight to the Baltic nations. It’s a sign of the tremendous strides the country has taken to put itself on the world cinema map, with the screen industries both producing more films and TV series than ever before and luring increasingly ambitious international projects to Northeastern Europe.

To understand that growth, one need only turn the clock back a decade, when Latvia launched its cash rebate program. Offering up to 30% on qualifying local expenditures, with an additional 20% available from the Riga Film Fund, it’s on par with Europe’s most competitive incentive schemes, and has transformed the production landscape in this country of 1.9 million.

The cashback program was among the key factors that helped Latvia attract the historical drama “Sisi,” a six-part series from Germany’s RTL, Beta and Story House Productions. Andrejs Ekis, of Cinevilla Studio, which hosted the production at its sprawling complex less than 40 miles outside the capital, describes the ambitious period series as a “gamechanger” for the Baltic biz, not only showcasing its growing capabilities but giving a much-needed boost to its capacity to host large international productions.

The six-part period drama series “Sisi” was filmed at Cinevilla Studio outside Riga. Courtesy of Cinevilla Studio

Scaling up a small but skilled crew base has been one of the industry’s top priorities, and hundreds of below-the-line professionals have passed through the pipeline since “Sisi” began shooting outside Riga in 2021. For many international projects coming to the Baltic country today, says Ekis, “they bring the director, the DoP and actors. That’s it. And with the locals, you can do everything you need to do.”

With the largest open-air backlot in the region and built sets that can accommodate various historical periods, Cinevilla is a major selling point for international productions; so, too, is Riga Film Studio, which boasts the largest sound stage in the Baltics. Ekis estimates production costs in Latvia to be 25% cheaper than in nearby Germany, and on par with major Central European hubs Budapest and Prague.

A small country that for centuries was ruled by its larger neighbors, including Sweden and the Soviet Union, Latvia bears traces of its long history in its wide range of architectural styles. That diversity is reflected in the productions it’s hosted, from the BBC’s “War and Peace” — which utilized the stunning, baroque Rundale Palace an hour’s drive from Riga — and Denes Nagy’s Berlin prize-winning WWII drama “Natural Light,” to Siiri Solalinna’s Sundance body horror “The Hatching” and season five of HBO’s Neapolitan mob series “Gomorrah.”

Several Latvian producers say they’re now fielding calls from foreign productions looking to use the country’s Soviet-era architecture as a backdrop for movies about the current war in Ukraine. That conflict, which in Latvia has brought back bitter memories of its own struggle for independence from Moscow, has energized a tradition of collaboration between Latvian and Ukrainian filmmakers, including documentaries from Andrii Lysetsky (“The Blessed Ones”) and Yuliia Hontaruk’s (“Company of Steel”), both of which will be presented by Latvian co-producer VFS Films during EFM. Meanwhile, the documentary “Eastern Front,” from the Riga-based, Russian exile director Vitaly Mansky and Ukrainian director Yevhen Titarenko, will world premiere in the Berlinale’s competitive Encounters strand.

The Ukraine war documentary “Eastern Front” will world premiere in the Berlinale’s Encounters strand. Courtesy of National Film Center of Latvia

This year, Riga has been selected to host the fifth edition of the ACE Series Special workshop for international producers focused on TV drama — another vote of confidence in the burgeoning biz. For many Latvian film professionals, however, the industry’s greatest strength stems from its ability to tell its own stories and bring those stories to a global audience.

“The last 10 years of what we’re producing, most of the films end up in A-class festivals,” says Alise Gelze, of Riga-based production company White Picture, who is currently financing “Blue Blood,” by director Juris Kursietis, whose feature debut “Oleg” premiered in the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight strand in 2019.

Meanwhile, 20-plus years after his Karlovy Vary debut, Kairiss’ latest feature, “January,” took home the top prize in the Tribeca Film Festival’s international narrative competition in 2022 — a first for the young Baltic nation.

“I think we are strong with local stories, especially in situations when [the European] co-production model is creatively made,” says Mistrus Media’s Gints Grūbe, who produced “January.” The cash rebate, combined with minority co-production financing from the state-backed film fund, has raised the bar of what is possible for Latvian filmmakers. For Grūbe, that’s allowed him to participate in projects like “Wanderers,” from acclaimed Lithuanian director Šarūnas Bartas (“In the Dusk”), an ambitious France-Serbia-Lithuania-Latvia co-production that he calls a “good vision” of cooperation between the Baltic neighbors and other European partners.

The world looks very different for Latvian filmmakers today, three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union paved the way for the Baltic nation to declare its independence. After years of having its purse strings controlled by Moscow the industry was forced to start from scratch, and “no one really knew how to produce and how to make proper European films,” says Gelze.

“It has changed a lot. I’m in the business more than 15 years, so I know where we started, which was a dark and gray place.” She laughs. “We’ve really grown.”