Riga was the third city in Imperial Russia where the travelling cinematographers from the Lumière brothers company showed their films in 1896. It is possible that they filmed in Riga as well. Evidence of filming taking place in Latvia can be found since the beginning of the 20th century – Riga’s 700th anniversary exhibition was filmed in 1901, as were the fire brigade’s exercises in Jelgava in 1907, as well as other occasions. In the spring of 1908, a film called “Riga, Life and People” was shown in cinemas, and was most likely shot by the court cinematographer Alexander Hahn-Yagelski. Riga was captured on film several times in 1910, and at least one piece of footage, that of Tsar Nicholas II’s visit to Riga commemorating the 200th anniversary of the annexation of the Vidzeme region into Russia, has been preserved. The Emperor was filmed unveiling the statue of Peter the Great. According to documentation, this segment was also shot by Alexander Hahn-Yagelski. Another rare preserved pre-WWI piece of film footage of Riga is the 1913 fiction film, Where Is the Truth? A Jewish Student’s Tragedy (“Kur patiesība? Ebreju kursistes traģēdija”).
The founding of the Republic of Latvia in 1918 is theoretically also the beginning of national cinema; however, until the authoritarian takeover in 1934, national films were made by individual enthusiasts rather than as the result of an organized state film culture. The assembly-type films characteristic to Latvian cinema were made by small production companies without serious technology or capital. In the 1930s, the fragmentation was voluntarily surmounted after Kārlis Ulmanis seized power and cinema was recognized as a propaganda tool, therefore the entire filmmaking system was gradually centralized and film production companies were placed under the jurisdiction of the state (Ministry of Public Affairs).
The Soviet occupation period is connected to the industrialization of film production in Latvian cinema. This type of film production required the availability of production resources, meaning a developed technological base, production planning, tiered and salaried employees and regular financing that was facilitated by the USSR’s centralized system.