When passing by the Lithuanian Cinema Studio nearly 20 years ago, still a student, I’d see a shabby, lifeless building. What has been the driving force for the revival of Lithuanian cinema that is garnering more fame throughout Europe and beyond? I have no doubt the cinema festival Kino Pavasaris, at which rudder you stay, has pepped it up.
The festival indeed has gained international acclamation, having drawn this year a record-high 99,798 spectators.
Cinema, as every field of life, needed time to get adapted to the changes Lithuania has been through. Importantly, a new and ambitious generation has grown up, which now possesses all the possibilities to get the international experience of filmmaking and take advantage of it.
Throughout the years, the approach has changed to cinema on the whole - from the legislative basis, to technologies and to the habits of spectators. This resulted in ten-fold higher movie attendance figures and a number of social and educational projects.
Co-production projects, involving foreign partners, have also been on the rise. In our national movie industry, some brave leaders have turned up who were able to put together really strong teams that have already completed a number of national and international-level projects: (built) films, film festivals and educational projects.
For a couple of years now we see a well-stitched market, demonstrating a growth in terms of film audience and box office revenues.
Who or what has contributed most to this growth?
Strong leaders of different fields of life who were able to make their ideas happen and achieve great results, thereby instilling hope and encouragement to others, have to be singled out first.
The vast possibilities of EU funding and the proper use of it by a number of talented screen workers have to be also credited in particular for the rebirth of Lithuanian cinema.
Namely, the European money has helped to create a modern cinema production infrastructure, including cinema laboratories and clusters. With the money, we obtained state-of-the-art production and exhibition equipment.
I’d like also to note the enthusiasm of the young and ambitious movie industry generation, whose zest has been crucial in breaking the ice and changing the approach to Lithuanian cinema.
What marked the breakthrough?
This came with the film “Tada Blinda”.
It is the first movie that has gained huge interest both of the spectators and authorities. Not surprisingly, it has seen the biggest box revenues, having outstripped even some popular Hollywood blockbuster.
The movie has boosted interest in creating other successful Lithuanian movies since then and proved it is possible.
Sure, changes in the legislation - passing the Lithuanian Cinema Law and founding the Lithuanian Film Centre also played a major role.
The private sector’s support to Lithuanian cinema has also been a key factor in the revival.
What makes Lithuanian cinema special?
A pretty complicated question. Just because Lithuanian cinema, in my opinion, is through some kind of transformation right now: many young filmmakers tend to experiment quite a lot and try out different new genres.
Speaking of our cinema from a global perspective, I‘d say Lithuanian documentary stands out internationally - especially by the specific shooting and the style when telling the story.
Among the most vivid and most successful movie directors are Audrius Stonys, Arūnas Matelis and Šarūnas Bartas.
The Lithuanian science fiction film "Auroras" has spearheaded some novelties in our national filmmaking, not to mention the exceptional reception it got from both the audience and film critics both in Lithuania and all over the world.
You are the director of Vilnius Film Festival "Kino Pavasaris" (Cinema Spring). How exceptional has been this year‘s "Kino Pavasaris"? (It ran from 20 March to 3 April)
Indeed, it has been special from many points of view. First, in terms of the particularly professional and meticulous film selection; we have devoted much attention to popularizing the festival‘s separate programs and individual films.
The festival this year took place simultaneously in Vilnius and Kaunas, also a new thing.
The film industry conference "Meeting Point Vilnius", attended by over 200 foreign professionals, has also marked the exceptionality of the festival this year.
The festival’s targeted program „Baltijos žvilgsnis“ has gained international interest. Importantly, record-high 99,798 spectators attended our film screening during the festival.
The festival has truly muscled up considerably since 1995, when it was organized for the first time.
How different is Lithuanian cinema from Latvian and Estonian? What aspects are we better at or sometimes worse?
First of all, Latvian and Estonian cinema institutions have been running longer than Lithuania‘s. The greater experience they got allows them to better coordinate both the domestic cinema network and its connections with foreign partners.
I believe that filmmakers from Latvia and Estonia tend to pick more important and topical subjects, therefore their films tend to be more attractive to foreign festivals and the global cinema market.
I've got to admit that Latvia and Estonia are more advanced when it comes to making decisions in cinema policies; their authorities are more considerate to movie directors and producers; the neighbours should be praised for more professional national cinema administrations and better production financing.
And that is not just words. Look, Latvia joined the EU fund "Eurimages" back in 2001, but Lithuania needed extra six years to catch up with the neighbours and start competing with them over EU investment in cinema.
Latvians and Estonians are better at signing movie co-production agreements with foreign partners. Estonia is good at finding co-production partners in Finland, Russia, France and Georgia. Latvia is not behind the Estonians in that regard and collaborates with partners in Finland, Germany, Greece and Russia. It also eagerly grabs each possibility to participate as a small co-producer.
Latvians have understood before us the importance of commercial cinema to the domestic market and has started financing movies with an anticipated blockbuster effect.
Take, for example, Aigars Grauba‘s "Dangerous Summer" which, in 2000, competed on a par with the best Hollywood production. Later, the movie director saw big crowds filling cinemas with his costume epic "Riga Wars" and sport drama "1935 Dream Team".
Meanwhile, Estonia has advanced a lot with the development of animation and every year presents successful animation premieres.
Speaking of joint efforts in filmmaking, there has been much joy in Lithuania and Latvia before taking on making the animated epic "Golden Steed". Unfortunately, the results of the co—production has not been here yet.
Lithuanian film director Ignas Jonynas‘ thriller "Gambler" has proven, however, that Lithuania and Latvia can co-produce successfully.
This year seems to mark the first ever case when filmmakers of the three Baltic States will take on a joint project - shooting Kristijonas Vildžiūnas' drama "Seneka‘s Day".
To sum up the differences in their respective cinema markets, our neighbours seem to be more willing to take risks and experiment with genres, support young screenwriters and directors and maintain a distinct, specific cinema project.
Some foreign film experts point out that Lithuanian movies tend to be excellent in terms of cinematography, but are too lengthy and artsy. Do you agree?
This kind of misperception has been circulating for quite a while now, but it is not true. Those experts you cite perhaps had in mind films by Šarūnas Bartas, whose oeuvre has a very specific signature. But the entire portrait of Lithuanian cinema cannot be painted with same colours as Bartas' filmmaking. Today, we have not only him, but, in fact, a large variety of national filmmakers and our cinema is developing rapidly and dynamically.
Maybe it makes sense to ask ourselves whether we have enough Lithuanian-made movies, or those on the way, that could take off on foreign screens.
We really should admit that in terms of national movie production, there’s much to pull up and improve.
Most of the time, we have been a lot more fruitful over the borders. But this is about to change with the action movie "Redirected", which has been a blockbuster on the domestic screen and has good prospects abroad after the producers have signed a good distribution contract with the British sale company "Content". It was able to convince nearly all European movie distributors that "Redirected" was worth buying for redistribution.
Japan has also shown interest in the movie.
This autumn we’ll find out whether the efforts will pay off and whether "Redirected" will become the first ever Baltic movie to go on screens all over Europe and beyond.
Film director Kristina Buožytė, who has contributed a lot to changing the face of the Lithuanian cinema, has also to be credited for the change. She has proven, among other things, that it is possible to make genre cinema in Lithuania.
Her erotic (science fiction) drama "Aurora" (the film is better known abroad under alternative title "Vanishing Waves") hit a home run both in Lithuania and foreign genre movie festivals. Its distributors have signed sales agreements with many European and Asian countries, as well as Canada and the US.
She has been invited to shoot for foreign producers, and we‘ll be able to see how good she is at that as soon as this autumn.
Are there any other impediments besides the ones you've mentioned that Lithuanian cinema has to deal with?
I really wouldn't like to speak about finances, something all of us are chronically short of.
I believe that the biggest problem that our national screen faces is the lack of unity and collaboration in our national film industry. Tersely, there's no a common ground among the creators, which often turns out to be a generational thing. Nevertheless, it is good to see that producers and directors out there start seeing things similarly and talking to each other on a number of topics. If this continues, it will be great.
I also see a deficiency when it comes to education, especially in the provinces. I mean, schoolchildren do not get knowledge of the national cinema foundations, novelties and trends.
Another thing that worries me is the fact that most young people who graduate from prestigious and quality film schools abroad find it hard to integrate into the Lithuanian film community.
Last but not least, we still do not have a national film library.
How do you suggest tackling the issues?
First of all, it is necessary to pay much more attention and allot funding to education and preparation of cinema professionals.
Also, film education projects, especially those for children and youth in the provinces, ought to be better funded.
So to wrap up, is there a glint of hope that a Lithuania-made movie can rough up the waters in Western Europe or bring Hollywood’s attention someday?
As I said, there‘re quite a few professionals who are already making ripples internationally and receive global acclaim.
In our Vilnius Film Festival "Kino Pavasaris", we have even set up the nomination "Lithuanians abroad" for émigré Lithuanian filmmakers who shoot elsewhere but target the Lithuanian audience.
With the national cinema foundation being successfully laid, I believe that in five or 10 years from now we will hear of a Lithuanian filmmaker who will make us all proud.