By Auksė Kancerevičiūtė
For more than two decades, Lithuanian cinema has continued to garner international attention. Lithuanian films premier at internationally acclaimed festivals, including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, San Sebastián, Karlovy Vary, Locarno, Amsterdam, Busan. Retrospectives of the work of Audrius Stonys and Šarūnas Bartas – well-known directors who are active to this day – were presented at festivals such as Visions du Réel (Switzerland), the Cartagena Film Festival – FICCI (Columbia), Transilvania International Film Festival (Romania), the European Film Festival Palić (Serbia), the Kiev Molodist International Film Festival (Ukraine). Over the course of his career that has spanned more than 60 years, Jonas Mekas, a pioneer of avant-garde cinema, has taught more than one generation of viewers how to experience film – from avant-garde provocations and documentary film to homemade 8mm films. Mekas’s influence is apparent to this day in the work of many artists and cinematographers.
A generation of young and ambitious directors grew up during the decades following Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union, and they slowly transformed the face of Lithuanian cinema. The feeling of active shift is strengthened not only by the increase in film production – if in the last decade there were two to three feature-length films in a year, then in 2016 there were 13 Lithuanian films that premiered in cinemas – but also in the bold debuts of young filmmakers. In these films we see an ironic glimpse into the reality that surrounds us (Andrius Blaževičius’s Šventasis / The Saint), an analysis of social masks, image and the relationships of a ‘perfect’ family (Lina Lužytė’s Amžinai kartu / Together for Ever). The most notable feature films made by Lithuanians in the last few years explore the complex history of the nation, they highlight the issues faced by modern society that have emerged at the juncture of two different regimes and two centuries.
From the 1960s, there has been a strong tradition within Lithuanian documentary film, passed down from generation to generation, that encourages filmmakers to search for original points of view, to explore existential questions and national identity. Contemporary Lithuanian documentary film often breaks with established canons and seeks new ways to impart reality. Young directors often address painful social issues in their films and feature at-risk individuals. Short and animated films are also unique in their innovation and atypical presentations.
This intersection with traditional auteur cinema in Lithuania’s cinematography reveals new stylistic, thematic tendencies, which we discuss in this publication.
Lithuanian cinema is one of the youngest in Europe. Professional national cinematography started relatively late, only in the mid-20th century. Its genesis is to be found in the stories of early filmmakers. One of these legends marks the start of documentary cinema. The first images of Lithuania (which unfortunately have not survived) were filmed in 1909 by a Kaunas resident named Władysław Starewicz (also known as Ladislas or Vladislav Starevich), who left for Moscow shortly thereafter and became the world’s leading pioneer of puppet animation. Lithuania in the early 20th century was of great interest to Lithuanian émigrés. The majority of the émigré population lived in the United States, and so filmed images were shown to émigré communities there. After Lithuania gained independence in 1918, a chronicle of cinema was initiated at the direction of the new government. Celebrations, exhibitions, presidents and officials, parades, and the city of Kaunas, as it grew more and more beautiful, were all captured. In short, all that the fledgling country wanted to or could be proud of.
Under Stalin’s Sun
Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet army in 1940, and the country was then incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. One of the first steps taken by the new government was to establish the Lithuanian Film Chronicle Studios in Kaunas. The Studios regularly produced documentaries that promoted the ‘new life’. The documentary film chronicle took on this role, which it would not shed for nearly 50 years. During the period of German occupation, only Nazis filmed propaganda material in Lithuania. In 1944, when Lithuania once again became a Soviet Republic, the film studio resumed its work. A series of film chronicles called ‘Soviet Lithuania’ were produced in 1946, and the first documentaries appeared in 1947. The falsified reality of the post-war period was more or less the same in all the Soviet republics: people exuberantly participated in elections, were pleased with achievements at work, built factories, brought in bumper harvests, all the while the images of an impersonal life are accompanied by the narrator’s enthusiastic voice. But these embellished images were at odds with reality. The brutal treatment of partisan fighters, deportations to Siberia, and forced collectivisation all remained off-screen. But the film industry grew. In 1949, the Film Chronicle Studios moved to Vilnius, and Lithuanians travelled to Moscow and Leningrad in ever greater numbers to study film.
Documentaries Find a Voice of Their Own
The political ‘thaw’ that began after Stalin’s death was also evident in documentaries. Until that time, those who were featured in documentaries had a certain social or ideological function, either as workers, farmers, or Soviet intellectuals. However, at the end of the 1950s, a new school of documentary filmmaking began to appear. The films of Viktoras Starošas, such as Svajos ir likimai / Dreams and Destinies (1961) and Nenusimink, Virginijau / Don’t Feel Down, Virginijus (1962) signalled the beginning. The films feature different generations, the intersection of their dreams and reality as they step into adult life. Starošas’s films demonstrated the importance of the director’s own voice in documentary cinema.
A revival of documentary filmmaking started at the beginning of the 1960s, with the return of Algimantas Dausa, Almantas Grikevičius and Robertas Verba from the film school in Moscow known as the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). Their films changed the way leading characters were portrayed. The heroes were people with an interesting fate, who could speak for themselves. The aim of documentaries also changed. The chronicling of a superficial reality or event, and the commentary of an ‘objective’ narrator, were rejected. More metaphors and a more refined montage sequences appeared. Almantas Grikevičius’s film Laikas eina per miestą / Time Passes Through the City (1966) about Vilnius and its reflections of the past does not contain a single spoken word. However, the images and sounds in the film create a tightly woven web of associations, which was emblematic in European cinema at the time.
Ideologised Documentaries and Poetic Cinema
Two main trends formed in Lithuanian documentary filmmaking at the beginning of the 1960s. The first was official documentary as a propaganda tool. Filmmakers did not abstain from the manipulation of facts or staging the so-called ‘socialist reality’. The second was poetic documentary, which appeared when documentary cinema experienced a boom not only in the Soviet Union, but throughout the Eastern bloc. A great effort was made to legitimise documentary cinema as a branch of art. Documentary filmmakers worked together with filmmakers from other republics, and their films were shown in cinemas.
In Lithuania, the poetic documentary tradition was formed by Robertas Verba (1932–1994). In his films Senis ir žemė / The Old Man and the Land (1965), Čiūtyta rūta (1968) and Šimtamečių godos / The Dreams of the Centenarians (1969), Verba showed the distinctiveness of the Lithuanian worldview. He often chose older people as his subjects, who talked about their ties with the land, their work, and the beauty of their homeland. He also explored the patriarchal world-view and values of the countryside, which were being actively destroyed by Soviet propaganda. Verba’s films created a local style of documentary cinema. His use of metaphorical images and minimalistic means of expression are still alive in Lithuanian documentary cinema today.
The tradition was continued by Henrikas Šablevičius (1930–2004), Edmundas Zubavičius, Kornelijus and Diana Matuzevičius, and Rimantas Gruodis. In their films in the 1960s and 1970s, these makers of poetic documentaries tried to show the world that was still around them, but one that was beginning to disappear. Some did not shy away from mocking ideological dogma by presenting it as a strange carnival, such as Zubavičius in his Mums nebaisūs jokie priešai / We are not Afraid of Any Enemy(1978). On the other hand, both feature and documentary films showcased various eccentric people who did not fit into official or normal categories of life. Šablevičius became famous for his portraits of eccentric people in films like Apolinaras, Žiniuonė / The Sorceress and Kretingos medinukai / Wooden Figurines from Kretinga. Self-taught artists, scholars with an artist’s soul and militiamen helped him to make reality look strange, and to highlight its more grotesque side. This is why there are so many metaphors and so much poetic commentary and stylisation in his films.
An Undiagnosed Social Reality
Films of an overtly propagandist nature were made by people who were clearly loyal to communist ideals. They praised figures in the Communist Party, told stories of how Lithuanians supposedly welcomed the Soviet government, and ‘unmasked’ priests in their atheistic films.
However, in the 1970s, a new kind of socially engaged documentary began to appear. This was closely associated with Viktoras Starošas and Rimtautas Šilinis. In Starošas’s film Aš myliu direktorę / I Love the Director (1978), there is an open dialogue about children who have been abandoned by their parents. Šilinis’s Savojo “aš” beieškant / Looking for Your ‘I’ (1978) and Randas / The Scar (1985) attempted to address juvenile delinquency. Gediminas Skvarnavičius’s satirical films criticised the ‘socialist’ reality in a different way. He analysed the problems of shortage of goods, poor service and even poorly made shoes with a sharp wit in his films Prie mėsos reik drąsos / Meat Requires Courage (1975), Galėčiau būti apolonu / I Could Have Been Apollo (1978) and Ko ašaroja Medėja / Why Medea Cries (1978).
After the start of Gorbachev’s perestroika, Saulius Beržinis’s film Vėliava iš plytų / The Brick Flag (1988) came as a shock. The growing violence in the army was openly talked about for the first time in a Soviet film. The film told the story of a soldier from Lithuania who shot those who abused him. This was one of the first Lithuanian films to be selected directly by international festival organisers without having to go through Moscow.
Nevertheless, the rather sparse analyses of the social environment, as well as social and historical change, are still a weak spot in Lithuanian documentary filmmaking. This is linked to a noticeable inertia among filmmakers. In the past as well as today, many documentary films are portraits of historical figures and artists. The portrait genre has proved to be the most durable, both in the mastery of the craft but also, unfortunately, in the number of clichés that are used. Over the last few decades, filmmakers Algirdas Tarvydas, Vytautas Damaševičius and Juozas Matonis have become what we could call cultural chroniclers. The younger generation of directors, including Vytautas V. Landsbergis and Agnė Marcinkevičiūtė, have also joined their ranks. Their films immortalise famous and forgotten cultural figures. One such figure is the stop-motion animator Władysław Starewicz, who has been called Europe’s Walt Disney. He was the subject of the film Vabzdžių dresuotojas / The Bug Trainer (2008) by Donatas Ulvydas, Rasa Miškinytė, Linas Augutis and Marek Skrobecki.
A Cinema of Change
The period of 1985 to 1990 was a time of dramatic change in Lithuanian cinema. Not only did censorship collapse, but so did the production and distribution systems. Older filmmakers used the opportunity to talk about the post-war resistance and deportations, which until then had been banned. Many films chronicled the start of the national awakening and Sąjūdis movements. However, these films are at times rather contrived.
The 1990s ushered in a new generation. Young directors professed their views on cinema, and also on reality. The first documentary films by Šarūnas Bartas, Arūnas Matelis, Audrius Stonys and Valdas Navasaitis demonstrated a turn towards personal cinema. These young directors did not want to identify themselves with an idealised past or with a present that was becoming more and more of a caricature, which occurred after the country opened up to consumer choice and was flooded by Western mass culture. Bartas’s film Praėjusios dienos atminimui / In Memory of a Day Gone By (1990), Matelis’s Dešimt minučių prieš Ikaro skrydį / Ten Minutes before Icarus Flew (1990), Stonys’ Neregių žemė / Earth of the Blind (1991) Navasaitis’ Rudens sniegas / Autumn Snow (1992) and Kornelijus and Diana Matuzevičius’s Iliuzijos / Illusions (1993) all showed a noticeable desire to speak about existential themes. These films asked questions about loneliness, the meaning of life, and the temporariness of existence. Their world is seen as if through the films’ characters, who have been marginalised by society or history. Their world is empty, dilapidated, and collapsing. At the same time, the films are unique inner landscapes of the filmmakers. The directors behave rather freely with reality, although they do not reject (or accept) the principles of observation. The static camera likes to record time, and that is precisely what fills the frame all the more frequently, becoming the film’s dominant feature.
Unusual experiments with documentary film language did not go unnoticed either: Stonys’s Earth of the Blind received a Felix Award for Best Documentary in Europe in 1992. After 1988, documentary films from Lithuania, which during the Soviet period were rarely shown abroad, have regularly attracted attention at international film events.
The work by the famous avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas had a huge impact during this time of transformation. His influence can be seen in the films of Artūras Jevdokimovas, Julius Ziz, Algimantas Maceina and Vytautas V. Landsbergis, who worked with him in New York in the early 1990s. The film Juoda dėžė / The Black Boxby Algimantas Maceina, about the transport of his grandfather’s remains from Siberia to Lithuania, is still one of the most original experiments in Lithuanian documentary film.
New Names, New Ideas
Lithuanian documentary cinema is changing because the people who are making it are changing. However, until now the dominant style has been artistic documentary cinema. Matelis’s film Prieš parskrendant į Žemę / Before Flying Back to Earth (2005), which documents the lives of children with leukaemia, won a number of important awards, including the 2006 Directors Guild of America Award for Best Documentary. The film is a meditation on reality and death, addresses the existence of miracles on earth.
Audrius Stonys’s thoughts on history, the body, family, and loneliness in his films Ūkų ūkai / Vanity of Vanities (2006), Varpas / The Bell (2007), Aš perėjau ugnį, tu buvai su manim / I Walked through Fire, You Were with Me (2010), Raminas / Ramin (2011), Kenotafas / Cenotaph (2012), and Avinėlio vartai / Gates of the Lamb (2014) show how he delves deeper and deeper into the nature of documentary cinema and experiments with the genre. Stonys’s most recent film Moteris ir ledynas / Woman and the Glacier(2016) has been the recipient of numerous international film festival awards. The main characters within the film are the glaciologist Aušra Revutaitė and the Tian Shan mountain range where she lived alone for 32 years at some 3,500 meters above sea level completely cut off from the world. Stonys does not simply tell Revutaitė’s story. Instead he narrates her life differently than many contemporary filmmakers who believe that the film’s subject must be completely laid bare or even become an exhibitionist. Stonys attempts to understand how the mountains became the only possible living space and why the silence that surrounded this woman was so meaningful.
Romas Lileikis immortalises the vanishing local residents of Vilnius’s colourful Užupis neighbourhood in his philosophical films such as K+M+B (2001) and Saša / Sasha (2006), and he has also directed a film called Dangaus šešėlis / The Shadow of Heaven (2008) about the unusual story of the descendants of the famous Lithuanian artist Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, to whom he is also related. Lileikis’s film Maat (2013) is like a return to early Lithuanian poetic documentary cinema. A return to black and white film that glows with the hundreds of colours of everyday life. He shows the glowing faces of children and teenagers, their inspiring and patient teachers, and kites fluttering in the sky at the beach. In this way, the director forms the central theme of the film about the importance in everyone’s life of meeting with the Teacher, about the joy of creation, and about independence that a child may not yet understand but certainly strives to attain.
The Female Point of View
Until independence, Bitė Pajėdienė and Laima Pangonytė were the only two female Lithuanian documentary filmmakers. The last few decades have seen a woman’s point of view represented more often. The highly unique films of Janina Lapinskaitė feature people who are outsiders or who have disabilities, the marginalised, and people living in the provinces. Her Iš elfų gyvenimo / From the Lives of Elves (1999), Venecijaus gyvenimas ir Cezario mirtis / The Life of Venecijus and Caesar’s Death (2002) and Traukinys stovi penkias minutes / The Train Stops for Five Minutes (2009) revealed microcosms that until then had gone unnoticed in Lithuanian cinema. Moterų paslaptys / Women’s Secret (2005) and Lengvas raganavimas / Mild Witchcraft (2004) by Inesa Kurklietytė entices viewers with the mysteries of childbirth. Oksana Buraja (Dienoraštis / Diary (2004) and Išpažintis / Confession (2009)) bravely embraces documentary film taboos, and in films like Kretos sala / Island of Crete (2009) and Liza, namo! / Lisa, Go Home! (2012) she steadily teeters at the edge of feature film. The subject of Lisa, Go Home! is a young girl who acts as a metaphor for endangered childish beauty. Lisa is constantly running away from home where she’s surrounded by suspicious aunts and uncles. They smoke and drink, and the girl’s mother is verbally and physically abusive. Lisa is like a bright ideal of good that has grown among life’s weeds. She tries to resist, but for how long? The girl’s fragility and good intentions are highlighted by the adept camera work of Kristina Sereikaitė.
Cinematographer Kristina Sereikaitė could be considered a co-author of the work of young director Linas Mikuta, because his Dzūkijos Jautis / Dzūkija’s Bull (2013), Pietūs Lipovkėje / Dinner (2013) and Šaltos ausys / Dead Ears (2016) received international film festival awards specifically for cinematography. The subjects of Mikuta’s films are also outsiders: the homeless, marginal and reclusive village residents, although Sereikaitė’s camera reflects a poetic or tragic narrative of their grim existence. Agnė Marcinkevičiūtė has over the years directed cinema portraits of artists. Her films feature the writers Jurgis Kunčinas (Beveik laimingas / Almost Happy (2004)), Jurga Ivanauskaitė (Šokis dykumoje / Dance in the Desert (2009)), Justinas Marcinkevičius (Prie rugių ir prie ugnies / By the Rye and By the Fire (2010)), Renata Šerelytė (Sapno siūlas / Yarn of a Dream (2007)), the singer Arnoldas Vokietaitis (Prisimenu motinos balsą / Remembering My Mother’s Voice (2016)) and many other important figures in Lithuanian art. As a director, Marcinkevičiūtė is unique in her desire to convey the individualism of the subject she is portraying, using as much archival material as possible and really listening to every word uttered by the subject – sometimes her films become a sort of monologue.
Giedrė Beinoriūtė is constantly searching for new modes of self-expression and themes. The main characters in her films Troleibusų miestas / Trolleybus Town (2003), Vulkanovka. Po didžiojo kino / Vulkanovka. After the Grand Cinema (2005) and Gyveno senelis ir bobutė / Once upon a Time there was an Old Man and an Old Woman (2008) include eccentric fare dodgers on trolleybuses, people living in the Crimean Steppe who have the experience of being touched by the works of great cinema, and deportees in Siberia who find themselves in a folk tale. Beinoriūtė, together with her main characters, fills her films with phantasmagoric storylines. Irony and the grotesque, secrets and the nearly unnoticeable scars of the soul all merge within her works. In the film Pokalbiai rimtomis temomis / Conversations on Serious Topics (2012) Beinoriūtė speaks with children and attempts to understand their traumas, hopes, experiences, moments of happiness, and memories. This time, she chose a minimalist style – the screen shows only a child responding to her questions – and nothing else. The background is neutral, there is no pre-history, and the viewer can only sense the director’s reaction. The ironic film Kaip mes žaidėme revoliuciją / How We Played the Revolution (2011) by Giedrė Žickytė was the topic of numerous discussions in Lithuania when it was released. The young filmmaker attempted to present different views of the rise of independence in Lithuania – the Sąjūdis movement and the ‘singing revolution’. Her film utilizes a language of imagery familiar to a younger generation. Žickytė’s film Meistras ir Tatjana / Master and Tatyana (2014) continued the exploration of lost time. She is interested in the Soviet period, in its art, culture and bohemian life. The film’s subjects are Vitas and Tatjana Luckus – a famous Lithuanian photographer who died tragically and his muse. Their love story is the central theme of Master and Tatyana. Their world unfolds before the viewer’s eyes: their flat, the lion living in it, their bohemian friends in this complicated epoch which is difficult to comprehend.
Memories cannot fade for Josebe, the subject of a film directed by Žickytė with Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi, Yo no soy de aquí / I’m Not from Here (2016). Josebe has lived for many decades in Chile, but she finds herself in a nursing home after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, where she talks only about the past. The disease erases any memories of the previous day, but Josebe remembers Spain, the streets of her childhood, the Basque language. The creators of I’m Not from Heresubtly try to dispel fear, to show that memories outlive self-awareness, that they defeat death. But the dose of optimism does not satisfy them as they try to identify what lies beneath the promises and smiles and sadness in images of Josebe’s everyday life. This film was nominated for the European Film Academy Award and won awards at several international film festivals.
About victims and the righteous
Lithuanian directors often look at the world through the eyes of those with an unfortunate fate. The main subjects in the film Upė / The River (2010) by Rimantas and Julija Gruodis are people in a village who are cut off from the world by a river. For a number of years, the young director Mindaugas Survila observed homeless people living by a landfill site near Vilnius. His film Stebuklų laukas / The Field of Magic(2011) shows the everyday lives and the hopes of these people. Lina Lužytė in her film Igruški / Igrushki (2012) sensitively reveals the everyday existence of several unemployed Belarusian individuals who sew plush toys. The film Tėvas / Father(2012) directed by Marat Sargsyan, garnered international attention and featured a repeat offender who toward the end of his life became father to a number of children. His goal was to be named the oldest father in Lithuania. Sargsyan’s film elicits controversial reactions. It appears that the filmmaker was committed to the idea of making a film about a former criminal who became a caring father, but the film’s content contradicts this concept: the family’s reality is unfortunate.
In the last several years, Lithuanian documentary filmmakers have turned to the post-war period – several films have been made about those who participated in the resistance against Soviet occupation following the Second World War and the history of their generation which for a long time had been erased from the nation’s history. Vytautas V. Landsbergis consistently analyses this theme in his films Baladė apie Daumantą / Ballad About Daumantas (1995), Partizano žmona / A Partisan’s Wife (2011), and Trispalvis / Tricolour (2013).
The première of Mantas Kvedaravičius’s debut Barzakh (2010) took place at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was the opening film in the Panorama programme. Kvedaravičius, who is an anthropologist and spent some years in Chechnya, documented those who had disappeared or been kidnapped. He has won recognition and prizes at many festivals for his poetic portrayal of the pain felt by the families left behind, the search for missing people, and the experience of those who survived. In 2016, Kvedaravičius created the documentary Mariupolis, which is a narrative about the inhabitants of a city in Ukraine that found itself on the front lines following Russia’s aggressive actions.
Lithuania’s new documentary cinema may appear ambiguous. Directors search for manifestations of spirituality in the alleged lower depths of society. For the meaning of life by documenting the stream of everyday existence. For history’s lessons by relating what at first glance may seem the otherworldly lives of their subjects. Lithuanian documentary filmmakers approach reality as if they are refusing to separate what is eternal from what is temporary. They dive courageously into the rushing river of time.
 A refrain from a Lithuanian folk song, the first word is onomatopoeic and the second word means ‘rue’. [Translator’s note]
Cinematic Ambitions and Challenges
With a smaller population than London or New York, and a less robust economy than the Free State of Bavaria, Lithuania is one of the world’s most modest film production countries, supported by relatively minimal public funding (mainly administered by the Lithuanian Film Centre and Cultural Foundation), which accounts for the small number of national feature fiction films released annually varying from 2 (e.g. in 2011) to 21 (e.g. in 2016). Lithuanian production companies are typically boutique in size and focus on producing from 1 to 3 feature film projects at a time. The average budget of a local feature movie is between €500,000 and €2 000,000, which is quite minor in comparison with the budget of an average European film. This is due to the modest subsidies for film and to belonging to a small linguistic market (less than 3 million people live in Lithuania) as well as negligible private funding and support by local broadcasters. Therefore, the Lithuanian audiovisual industry decidedly depends on public funding, co-producing with foreign companies and pan-European film support initiatives, such as the Creative Europe MEDIA programme and the Eurimages Fund.
These challenges, however, have not precluded Lithuania in its cinematic ambitions to become a vibrant locale for a native film industry and film culture, because, as we all know, filmmaking is so much more than a large population and enormous financial resources. It requires a unique historic and cultural experience, a rich and expressive language and, as Andrew James Horton argues, ‘the essential ingredient of talent’. Actually, the latter in combination with a clear cinematic vision and a high degree of professionalism and the dedication of filmmakers leads to the emergence of high quality films, even when the economy is in a downturn. Some great examples of our filmmakers’ ability to produce marvellous films without adequate funding are the first works of Šarūnas Bartas (Trys Dienos / Three Days, 1991, Koridorius / Corridor, 1995 and Mūsų nedaug / Few of Us, 1996) and Valdas Navasaitis (Kiemas / Courtyard, 1999), which paved the way for younger artists, namely Ignas Miškinis (Diringas / Diring, 2006; Karalių pamaina / Kings’ Shift, 2016), Kristina Buožytė (Kolekcionierė / The Collectress, 2008), Emilis Vėlyvis (Zero, 2006; Zero II, 2010), Justinas Krisiūnas (Emigrantai / Emigrants, 2013) and some others, whose low-budget productions raised significant funds from private sponsorship.
It is worth recalling that Lithuanian cinema rose to international prominence in the early nineties with a new (post-Soviet) cinema, which was visibly marked and defined by art cinema texts. Both the state and the film industry had to be rebuilt after the collapse of the Soviet Union and re-positioned on the world map. It should be noted that Lithuanian film quickly evolved from a marginal to an international phenomenon because of the affinity and interest expressed by prestigious international festivals and the combined efforts of filmmakers-auteurs that started their careers during the Soviet period in Lithuania (including Vytautas Žalakevičius, Algimantas Puipa, Gytis Lukšas, Janina Lapinskaitė and many others) and those who debuted during the period of political and economic transition in the late eighties and early nineties (such as Šarūnas Bartas, Valdas Navasaitis and Audrius Juzėnas).
In the 1990s, the films of Šarūnas Bartas (Three Days, Corridor, Few of Us) and Valdas Navasaitis (Courtyard) became a symbol of Lithuanian cinematic auteurism, which has been synonymous with the extremes of the art cinema style (long takes, fragmentary narrative, minimal acting and the use of desolate and vanishing locations as central points of reference in their thematic preoccupations) and the rejection of many of the tenets of mainstream filmmaking (a clear plot, action-based narrative, emphatic characters, etc.). They both began working in documentary film before moving to ascetic stylized features, which explains their preferences for a realistic approach and an interest in a phenomenological exploration of time. Their early works, as well as more recent films, (Freedom (2000), Seven Invisible Men (2005), Eastern Drift (2010), Ramybė mūsų sapnuose / Peace to Us in Our Dreams (2015), Šerkšnas / Frost (2017)) by Bartas and Perpetuum Mobile (2008) by Valdas Navasaitis), which already feature certain elements of genre film (i.e. criminal drama, road movie, war movie) are instantly recognizable for their long takes and fluid, sometimes sinuous camera movement, their picturesque mise-en-scène and ambient sound design; contrasting urban and countryside settings; de-dramatized narrative structure, and slow camera movements attuned to the traumatic experiences of a disaffected, alienated, insular and existentially damaged protagonist confronting the new reality (the transition from the Soviet system to the capitalist one) and coming to terms with traumatic memories of the Soviet past, which often feels like a slowly emerging apocalypse.
The most distinctive authorial works by young filmmakers undoubtedly are Kristina Buožytė’s sci-fi melodrama Aurora / Vanishing Waves (2012), Ignas Jonynas’s thriller Lošėjas / Gambler (2013), Alantė Kavaitė’s drama Sangailės vasara / The Summer of Sangailė (2015), and Andrius Blaževičius’s drama The Saint / Šventasis (2016). All these movies introduced new subjects for Lithuanian audiences, such as the milieu of international neuroscientists and professional ethics (Vanishing Waves), everyday dramas of Lithuanian paramedics (Gambler), the mutual affection, dreams and goals of young girls (The Summer of Sangailė), and the effects of the global economic crisis on the life of a Lithuanian provincial family (The Saint). All these movies explore the consequences of moral choices that face the protagonists, but do not model any ‘new waves’ or ‘stylistic trends’ in Lithuanian film because of aesthetic and generic difference.
Reflecting the Past
The Soviet period features prominently in historical Lithuanian cinema because the directors lived during this time and retain fresh memories of it. And so, historic films gained prominence in the national cinema through a very personalized cinematic form, which was used as a vehicle for expressing major concerns about the situation through which they lived and in which they were living. Gytis Lukšas is perhaps the best director (next to Bartas) to discuss, because his works are among the most interesting and exhaustive that address the recent Lithuanian past. Lukšas’s Duburys / Vortex (2009), based on the novel by Romualdas Granauskas, is yet another apocalyptic presentation of Soviet Lithuania, which reveals the gradual degradation of the Soviet people, both the colonized (the Lithuanians) and the colonizers (the Russians), as forced de-teritorialization and re-teritorialization makes citizens feel rootless and alienated even in their own country or town. The film is composed of stylish black and white images, uses mainly long takes to reveal the emptiness and stagnation of the place in which the central protagonist resides and intermingles. However, the director leaves the viewer (and post-Soviet Lithuania) with hope because at the end of the film the main protagonist surfaces from the vortex after trying to drown himself. Other filmmakers, such as Jonas Vaitkus (Vienui vieni / Utterly Alone, 2004), Kristijonas Vildžiūnas (Kai apkabinsiu tave / Back to Your Arms, 2010), Audrius Juzėnas (Ekskursantė / Excursionist, 2013) and Donatas Ulvydas (Emilija iš Laisvės alėjos / Emilia, 2017), are more explicit in dealing with historical issues in their films (than, for example, Bartas or Lukšas), and focus on personal rather than collective dramas in their highly visual and emotional cinematic dramas.
National literature is yet another important source of inspiration for local filmmakers. Adaptations of books by famous Lithuanian writers are among the most popular film genres among filmmakers, which have been brought to the big screen by filmmakers such as directed by Janina Lapinskaitė Stiklo šalis / A Land of Glass(2004) based on a story by writer Vanda Juknaitė, Dievų miškas / Forest of the Gods(2005), based on the novel by Balys Sruoga, Lukšas’s Vortex (2009) based on the novel by Romualdas Granauskas, Nuodėmės užkalbėjimas / The Whisper of Sin (2007) and Miegančių drugelių tvirtovė / Fortress of the Sleeping Butterflies (2012) both of which were based on the literary work of Jurga Ivanauskaitė and directed by Algimantas Puipa. Puipa’s newest feature, Edeno sodas / Garden of Eden (2015), is inspired by Janina Survilaitė’s novels. This film genre is most admired by local audiences and the statistics prove this. For example, in 2005 the feature film Forest of the Gods climbed to the top of the domestic box office (€186,523) and was viewed by approximately 650,000 cinema goers while the adaptation of Rimantas Šavelis’s novel Tadas Blinda. Pradžia / Tadas Blinda: The Legend is Born (2011) directed by young filmmaker Donatas Ulvydas broke all the records for attendance in Lithuania in 2011, surpassing even the American blockbuster Avatar with box office of over one million Euros.
Contemporary Lithuanian cinema, produced by younger filmmakers, has become increasingly preoccupied with interrogating, adapting, and absorbing generic templates, which are borrowed from the cinematic models of Hollywood and Western popular cinema. However, these films not only incorporate certain genre conventions, but also art cinema in general. The appeal of this generic formula to young generation of filmmakers is evident – genre films tend to be well-suited for dealing with current issues of modern life (migration, alienation, new forms of sexuality, cultural diversity, the emancipation of women, expansion of the black market, etc.) in Lithuania, to be cool to appeal to a young audience, and have the potential to cross over the national border. The economic development of Lithuania and the triumph of a capitalist modernity with all its advantages and disadvantages and new heroes (all kinds of dealers, a new creative class, gamblers, businesswoman, pop-stars, ambitious young people, etc.) suddenly occupied Lithuanian screen. Very evident in the films of the 2000s, the city and the urbanness in general has finally assumed cultural and ideological dominance. Several films, such as the drama Nuomos sutartis / The Lease (2002) and Senekos diena / Seneca’s Day (2016) by Kristijonas Vildžiūnas, the films Diring (2006) and Artimos šviesos / The Low Lights (2009) directed by Ignas Miškinis, the black comedies Zero (2006), Zero II (2010), Redirected / Už Lietuvą! (2014), and the political satire Zero III (2017), all directed by Emilis Vėlyvis, Valdas Navasaitis’s criminal drama Perpetuum Mobile (2008), the psychological drama Collectress (2008), the directorial debuts (dramas) by the young filmmakers Saulius Drunga (a film for young audiences Anarchija Žirmūnuose / Anarchy in Zirmunai, 2010), Dovilė Gasiūnaitė (Narcizas / Narcissus, 2012), and Lina Lužytė (Amžinai kartu / Together for Ever, 2016) are marked with an attempt to visualize the city as Vilnius (and the city in general) and its citizens had been a ‘missing discourse’ in Lithuanian literary and visual culture for a while. Interestingly, other Lithuanian cities also gradually became popular locations for cinematic stories, namely Klaipėda in the case of Gambler, Elektrėnai in the film The Summer of Sangailė and Kaunas in Emilia. It should be noted that the city in these films is a city of the imagination that film directors (and the city dwellers) inhabit and which inhabits them.
Due to the generic, stylistic and thematic diversity and dynamism of transnational collaborative practices of the local cinema, it is becoming more international and successfully attracts international funding, promoters and an audience. International collaboration is growing more important in order to produce feature features with a higher production value and easier access to international markets. Among the most successful recent international co-productions are Frost, coproduced by Studio Kinema (Lithuanian), Kino Elektron (France), Reborn Production (France), KNM (Switzerland), Donten & Lacroix Films (Poland), and Insight Media/Tato Film (Ukraine); Redirected coproduced by Wellington Films Ltd (United Kingdom), Kino kultas (Lithuania); Back to Your Arms, jointly made by Studio Uljana Kim (Lithuania), Studio TOR (Poland), and Studio Pola Pandora Film (Germany); Eastern Driftcoproduced by Kino Bez Granits (Russia), Lazennec Films (France), Studio Kinema (Lithuania); and Vanishing Waves, jointly made by Temora (Lithuania) and Acajou Films (France). The internationalization of the Lithuanian film industry made the films more successful in crossing national borders, and courting prestigious international film festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival (The Summer of Sangailėin 2015), the Cannes International Film Festival (Seven Invisible Men in 2005, You Am Iin 2006, Peace for Us in Our Dreams in 2015), the Berlin Film Festival (Eastern Drift, 2010), the Busan International Film festival (The Saint in 2016), the San Sebastián International Film Festival (The Gambler in 2013); the Montreal World Film Festival (The Loss in 2008, Vortex in 2009, ), the International Film Festival Rotterdam (You am I in 2007, Perpetuum Mobile in 2008), the Cairo International Film Festival, (Perpetuum Mobile in 2008, the Loss in 2008), the Shanghai International Film Festival (The Loss, 2008), the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (A Land of Glass in 2005, TheCollectress in 2009, The Low Lights in 2009, Vanishing Waves, in 2012), the Edinburgh International Film Festival (The Vortex, 2009), the Palm Springs International Film Festival (The Vortex in 2009, The Loss in 2009), and the Tallinn Black Nights Film festival (Eastern Drift, 2010, Back to Your Arms, 2010), among many others.
In conclusion, from the nineties until now Lithuanian filmmakers continue to tread a cinematic path between, on the one hand, extreme auteurist films like the Bartian Freedom, Seven Invisible Men or Frost which have gained international visibility, and on the other hand, so-called ‘audience’ film by producing best-selling literary adaptations like Fortress of the Sleeping Butterflies, historic melodramas like Emilia or Tadas Blinda, The Legend is Born or black comedies such as Zero II or Redirected, with a strong presence in the box-office.
The growing popularity of Lithuanian short films is evident in the attention they have received from local audiences, as well as in the accolades they have won at international film festivals. They are usually the work of amateur directors or students, and are known for their unusual style, exploration of different forms, and attempts to express the auteur’s intentions. A young and ambitious generation of filmmakers who employ clearly defined principles in their work examine themes connected to the realities of life in their country, they reflect on the recent past and speak boldly about events in current society.
One of the most interesting films is Jau puiku tik dar šiek tiek / It would Be Splendid, Yet…(2009) directed by Lina Lužytė, which won prizes at festivals in Germany, Monaco, Poland and Azerbaijan. The succinct narrative encompasses an abundance in its meaningful nuances by describing the attempts of ordinary people to adapt to the new economic and political circumstances. Through the use of accurate details and subtle irony, the early years of Lithuanian’s independence are reconstructed. Meanwhile, a question arises: how do you, having recently emerged from a repressive regime, find your identity in freedom?
Echoes of the Soviet period in contemporary society, the spread of pop culture, relationships plagued by envy: these are all issues that interest the new generation of directors. For example, Andrius Blaževičius in his graduation film Bergenas / Bergen(2009) and his second film Dešimt priežasčių / Ten Reasons (2011) contrasts people of different generations and experience, and examines the influence of mobile technology and television shows.
Childhood memories are often a source of inspiration for the acclaimed director Giedrė Beinoriūtė. She has made a number of documentary and short feature films, such as Mama, tėtis, brolis, sesė / Mummy, Daddy, Brother, Sister (1999) and Egzistencija / Existence (2004), that intermingle gravity and irony in an environment that is full of paradoxes.
The well-known playwright and director Marius Ivaškevičius chooses the father as the central figure for his films Mano tėvas / My Father (2007) and Tėve mūsų / Our Father (2010). The strength of his films is in the dramatic composition and the psychological portraits of the characters. Our Father, which is based on a true story of a daughter who was imprisoned and abused by her father, received the Young Jury Award at the Tous Courts d’Aix-en-Provence International Cinema Film Festival, as well as the prize for Best Short Film at the 2011 Kinoshok Film Festival in Russia.
Marat Sargsyan, an Armenian director explores a homeland that no longer exists in his short film Lernavan (2009). At the crux of this film are a father and son who are searching for the father’s birthplace, Lernavan. However, this place doesn’t exist and no one has ever heard of it. At the 2009 Vilnius Film Shorts Festival, the film was recognized as the best feature film. Lernavan was awarded the Press and Bronze Egg prizes at the Kustendorf Film and Music Festival in Serbia, and at the 10th Annual International Film Festival 2ANNAS in Latvia it won the Jury Prize and also two awards at the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival. Ieva Veiverytė analyses the complex relationships of the family as the smallest social unit in her feature film Šuns dienos / Dog’s Life (2013) which does not shy away from the complicated and fragile everyday moments in the life of a woman and her daughter.
In recent decades, new intonations and a widening array of genres have gradually appeared in short films. Jūratė Samulionytė’s experimental work Nerutina / No Routine (2008) stands out with its rebellious attitude and the distinctive techniques used. The individually photographed frames and stop-motion animation are combined to convey the story of a middle-aged office worker called Henrikas. The objects around him try to help him break free. The films Aš tave žinau / I Know You(2009) and Nesiseka šiandien / Not Lucky Today (2010) and 8 minutės / 8 minutes (2016) by Dovilė Šarutytė are marked by their more complex plots and elaborate filming techniques, as well as by their hints of documentary reality.
Austėja Urbaitė’s short films – Etiudas / The Etude (2013), which is an adaptation of a short story by Jonas Mekas and Tiltai / The Bridges (2015) – transfer everyday existence to a more philosophical plane. In finding beauty in small everyday details, the main characters in The Etude try to fend off a fear of dying and to understand that death is a remembrance of someone’s life. The films were awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Scanorama European Film Forum. And The Bridges, which is the story of an attempt to find bridges between people and learning to live in the here and now, was recognized as the best Baltic short film at Scanorama. Karolis Kaupinis’s 2014 debut short film Triukšmadarys / The Noisemaker is not only one of the most successful and widely shown Lithuanian short films. The film explores the problems of our country and our society: stagnation, insularity, fear of change, bureaucratic mechanisms, and also considers wider themes of danger and waiting for the end. The Noisemaker was awarded the Silver Crane as the best short feature film and recognized as the best Baltic short feature film at the 19th Annual Riga International Film Festival 2ANNAS.
Jonas Mekas is a pioneer of the diary film, a poet, film critic, curator and philosopher. He was born in 1922 to a family of farmers in Semeniškiai, Biržai region. With World War II in progress and with the Soviet army approaching the borders of Lithuania in 1944 Mekas and his brother Adolfas were forced to flee Lithuania. After the end of the war, Mekas studied philosophy at the University of Mainz from 1946-1948, and in late 1949, both Jonas and Adolfas emigrated to the United States, settling in New York. As soon as he arrived, Mekas borrowed some money and bought his first 16mm Bolex film camera and in 1950 began shooting his own films. In 1954, Mekas and his brother (Adolfas later became a film studies professor) published the first issues of Film Culture, which for a long time was the most important promoter of avant-garde and classic film in the United States. In 1958, Mekas was invited to write for the Village Voice’s ‘Movie Journal’ column. And four years later, Mekas founded the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, which later became the Anthology Film Archives. The main goal was to provide a space and opportunity to preserve the legacy of avant-garde film – not only films, but also books and documents. The Archive exists to this day and is one of the largest and most important screening venues and archival institutions for avant-garde film. Even though Mekas filmed individual episodes in his everyday life throughout the 1950s, the film Guns of the Trees (1962) is considered his cinematographic debut. Mekas described this film as ‘a letter written by a mad heart in a mad world’. The New York Living Theatre’s filmed performance of The Brig(1964) was awarded the Grand Prize (Documentary) at the Venice Film Festival. By capturing moments from life that at first glance may seem mundane, by working without actors, a film crew or a script, Mekas became known as a creator of the diary film. A few of his most significant films include: Walden (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Lost Lost Lost (1976), Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol(1965–1982), Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas (1992), and Happy Birthday to John (1996). These films not only capture an authentic reality, but also embody the spirit of the time by poetically revealing with empirical images a nostalgia for details of life in Lithuania or New York. Mekas chronologically recreates Lithuania’s independence movement and explores themes of freedom and resistance in his film Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR (2008), which he made as a montage from various television news clips. Sleepless Nights Stories (2011) which captures every single day of the year is a meditation on love, memory, friendship and solitude. Mekas’s films have been shown at numerous international film festivals and in art galleries throughout the world, including the Centre Pompidou (Paris), Moderna Museet (Stockholm), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Venice Biennale and others. Mekas and his films have also received numerous awards including: the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Mel Novikoff Award; Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Ministry of Culture, France; the Lithuanian National Culture and Art Award; Special Tribute, New York Film Critics Circle Award;, the International Documentary Film Association Award, Los Angeles; Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Ministry of Culture, France; Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Ministry of Culture, France; the Lithuanian National Prize – The Order of the Grand Cross for Merits to Lithuania.
Lithuanian animation is a very small player in the international animated film market. And within Lithuania, animation occupies a comparatively small space in the cultural life of the country, but it stands out because of the originality of its stylistic expression and sensitively conveyed subject matter.
Animation is more often a component of other kinds of visual art. Today, animated content appears in advertisements and on the internet, it is used in mobile device programmes and games, and is becoming part of graphic design. A number of music videos are made in Lithuania using 3D, as well as 2D, animation. Photographs are also animated, and filmmakers experiment with the pixelisation of live characters. The characters are filmed frame by frame, and later the frames are put into a series with the help of specialized programs to create the appearance of movement that did not previously exist. All of that is also animation.
The Beginnings of Animation in Lithuania
Władysław Starewicz began working with film and animation in Kaunas. In 1910, he made the first puppet animation film called Elniaragių kova / Lucanus Cervus. He then started on five additional animation films, which he had to finish later in Moscow. True classics of puppet animation appeared on the big screen between 1910 and 1913, including Gražioji Liukanidė / The Beautiful Lukanida, Kino operatoriaus kerštas / The Cameraman’s Revenge, Miško gyventojų Kalėdos / The Forest Dweller’s Christmas, Žiogas ir skruzdėlė / The Grasshopper and the Ant, Vabzdžių aviacijos šventė / Insect Aviation Week. Starewicz is also considered to be the pioneer of Russian animation.
In 1937, the artist Petras Aleksandravičius, together with the cameraman Stasys Vainalavičius, filmed one of the first promotional animation films, called Du litu – laimingas medžiotojas / Two Litas – a Happy Hunter, which was made for the lottery run by the ‘Young Lithuania’ National Youth Union (active 1927-1940).
After Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union, animators worked at the Moscow-based Soyuzmultfilm studio. It was there that the artist/producer Gražina Brašiškytė created the hand-drawn animation films Užburtas berniukas / The Enchanted Boy (1955), Drakonas / The Dragon (1961) and Tarakonas / Cockroach (1963). She also created the sets and characters for Gintarinė pilis / The Amber Castle (1960) (directed by Aleksandra Sniezhko-Blotskaya, with a script by Regina Januškevičienė and music by Julius Juzeliūnas), which is based on a Lithuanian folk legend.
The first Lithuanian hand-drawn animation film was made only in 1966. The director Zenonas Tarakevičius created the film Vilkas ir siuvėjas / The Wolf and the Tailor at the Banga Film Studio of the Kaunas Radio Factory. A few years later, the Commissioned Films Studio was established in Vilnius. It was not subject to ideological guidelines and did not receive state funding. The director Juozas Sakalauskas made the following animation films there: Ežio namas / A Hedgehog’s Home (commissioned by the Firefighters’ Union, 1968), Telesforas gatvėje / Telesphorus on the Street(commissioned by VAI, 1970), and Gera turėti draugų / It’s Good to Have Friends(commissioned by the Soviet Union’s Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 1971). He also made the animation film Strakalas ir Makalas / Strakalas and Makalas (2007) together with Valentas Aškinis at the Filmų štrichai studio. The director Antanas Janauskas made the animation film Iniciatyva / Initiative (1970) at the Lithuanian Film Studios. However, animation did not manage to take hold at the state-run studio. No animation films were produced at the Lithuanian Film Studios right up to1983.
Contemporary Lithuanian Animation: The Professionals Making Animation Films
One of the pioneers of the development of new Lithuanian animation was the director and graphic artist Nijolė Valadkevičiūtė. She made her first film Medis / The Tree (1983) using cut-out animation. Later, she produced one animation film every year, an enviable rate, including Mįslė / The Riddle (1984), Jūratė ir Kastytis / Jūratė and Kastytis (1989), Laimės Žiburys / The Light of Happiness (1990), Košmariškas sapnas / A Nightmare (1995), Edeno sodas / The Garden of Eden (2007), and Aš esu / I Am (2012), and many others. In her work, animation becomes a field for experimentation, where abstract ideas, such as waiting and hope, take on an expressive graphic form. Her graphic style is very distinctive, and a drastic graphic form of cinema often frees itself from a standard plot, leaving us to delight in the pictures, as if in an interactive gallery.
The beginning of contemporary hand-drawn animation at the Lithuanian Film Studios is closely associated with the caricaturists Ilja Bereznickas and Zenonas Šteinys, who after graduating from the Postgraduate School of Scriptwriters and Film Directors in Moscow, where they studied directing for two years, returned to Lithuania in 1985. Bereznickas’s graduation animation film was Paskutinė dovana / The Last Present (1985), followed by Baubas / The Hobgoblin (1986). His other films include Bermudų žiedas / The Bermuda Ring (1988), Senelis ir senelė / Grandpa and Grandma, (1999), Baubo aritmetika / The Hobgoblin’s Arithmetic (2004), and Ne ožkoje laimė / The Goat Luck – Bad Luck (Vilanima Film Studio, 2017). Bereznickas’s work is characterised by its humorous style, instructive ideas, and bright colours. His films are usually intended for children.
After Šteinys completed his graduation film Buvo, buvo, kaip nebuvo / It Was, It Was, How Couldn’t It Have Been (1986), he made films at the Lithuanian Film Studios, including Dosnumas / Generosity (1988), Kadaise Lietuvoje / Once Upon a Time in Lithuania (1990) and Batas / The Shoe (1996), which was finished by others posthumously. He searched first and foremost for meaning, philosophical subtexts and depth of thought in his animated films, often concentrating on images with a caricature-like flair, and spurned detail in order to illustrate the central theme. His animation films are steeped in a metaphysical and contemplative disposition. The film Generosity, which is based on the folk tale ‘The Generous Apple Tree’, follows the four stages of a person’s life: childhood, youth, maturity and old age. The restrained colours and the flowing pictures create a very distinctive atmosphere.
After a 16-year break, the director Antanas Janauskas once again began to make animated films. His film Antspaudas / The Stamp (a joint production between the Lithuanian Film Studios and Mosfilm) came out in 1986, while Palankios aplinkybės / Favourable Conditions (Lithuanian Film Studios) appeared in 1989. He made the films Telegastrovizija / Telegastrovision (2000) and Trumpas sujungimas / Short Circuit (2003) at AJ, in his own studio. They are optimistic stories full of paradoxes, where the same character moves from one film to another, experiencing an overwhelming conflict with his surroundings. The character embodies the director and his ideas. The animation film Urzgianti pagalvė / The Growling Pillow tells a story about people who have an idea that is so powerful it could blow them right off the face of the earth. In the film Smalsi moteriškė / The Nosey Woman, Janauskas deals with a struggle which, it seems, has dragged on and will never end, even though centuries have passed and the world has changed.
In the same productive year of 1986, the director Valentas Aškinis made the classic hand-drawn television lullaby Dėdė Miegas / Uncle Sleepy (LTV, The Commissioned Films Studio). Later, he made Kaktuso paslaptis Mystery of the Cactus (1989, a joint production between the Lithuanian Film Studios and Mosfilm), in which he harmoniously combined graphics made up of black-and-white lines and a visual plasticity with an original score by Faustas Latėnas. In 1991, together with Antanas Abromaitis, with whom he established the Vilanima Animation Film Studio, he made the animated films Trovas / Trove (1992), Smaugliukas Džeikas / Jake the Snake (1993), Meškinai – pasaulio gelbėtojai / Global Bears Rescue (1997) and Normano arka / Norman’s Ark (1995, 13 15-minute episodes), which was the first Lithuanian hand-drawn animation film series. Soon afterwards, the first full-length animation feature film made in Lithuania appeared – Odisėjo nuotykiai / The Adventures of Odysseus (1998, artists: Jolanta Šiugždaitė, Jurijus Grigorovič, Rolandas Petrokas), a screen version of the ancient masterpiece by Homer about love, sacrifice, loyalty, and the journeys and heroic exploits of Greek warriors on the seas and on magical islands. In Senelės pasaka(Granny’s Tale, 2012), Aškinis, together with Jūratė Leikaitė, adapted a poem by the popular Lithuanian poet Salomėja Nėris for the big screen. Another full-length film made in Lithuania is Valentas Aškinis’s (with Reinis Kalnaellis) Aukso žirgas / The Golden Horse (2014, Vilanima film studio, with Rija Film, PTD, Copenhagen-Bombay) which is based on ancient Baltic tales, the myth of the sunflower and a play by Janis Rainis. The main character is the princess Saulė (Sun) who symbolizes goodness, light and love. The Dark Mother imprisons her in an ice coffin on the highest mountain. The power of evil prevails and the kingdom is beset by darkness, tears, hatred, and despair. The allegory of the capture and imprisonment of the Sun on a glass mountain is a symbol of the thirst for freedom by enslaved nations. Everyone waits for the true anointed one who can climb the mountain and free the princess, and then bring light and freedom back to Earth. And if there is not one worthy person on Earth with a pure heart and clear conscience who will sacrifice all in the name of others – then humanity is not worthy of redemption. These lofty ideas are woven into a fantastic and melodic language, a poetic form and plot in the film The Golden Horse.
The director Henrikas Vaigauskas made the animated films Medkirtys / The Woodcutter, (1991), Aeroplanas / Airplane (1997), Jūros draugas / The Friend of the Sea(1999) and Piratai / Pirates (2005) at the Lithuanian Film Studios after Lithuania became independent. His animated films are characterised by extreme simplicity of plot, clear colours, funny gags, and the visual style of children’s comic books.
The director Jūratė Leikaitė debuted in 1996 with a striking and bold animation film for adults called Metamorfozės / Metamorphoses (Vilanima), and later began making animation for children. And so a spate of films was produced: Braškės ant eglės / Strawberries on a Christmas Tree (1999), a trilogy about a snail called Maiva, with Sraigė Maiva / Maiva the Snail (2000), Svajonių bokštas / The Tower of Dreams (2001) and Solistė/ The Soloist (2002), along with the animation film 100 klausimų apie pasaulį. Lietus / One Hundred Questions about the World. Rain (2003). The film Paparčio žiedas / The Fern Blossom (2003) signalled a new stage in her work. Among her creative interpretations of Lithuanian legends, celebrations and traditions at Filmų štrichai studios, Leikaitė made Užgavėnės / Shrovetide (2005) using hybrid techniques. She also made the film Marti iš jaujos / The Bride from the Barn (2006) in the style of black and white graphic art. The film Margučių rytas / Easter Morning (2007) uses drawings and photographs, while Šokančios Vilniaus verbos / Dancing Easter Palms of Vilnius (with Valentas Aškinis, 2010) uses documentary material and animation. In 2011, she also made Taip Laima lėmė / Laima Determines the Destiny). Her animation films are closely linked to Lithuanian folklore, folk tales and myths, and are notable for their playfulness, a distinctive style of narration, and stylistic experimentation.
The director Ieva Bunokaitė also makes films with hybrid techniques based on Lithuanian folk tales. She has boldly combined cut-out animation, ceramic puppets, woven textiles, thread, flowers and various dried materials in her animated films Gudri duktė / A Smart Daughter (Lithuanian Film Studios,1995), Lapė ir vynuogės / The Fox and the Grapes (Vilanima, 1996) and Bičių piemuo / The Bee Shepherd (Lithuanian Film Studios, 1999). She made the film Aš einu pas tave / I’m Coming to You (Vilanima, 2002) using photographic animation. She brought Jeronimas Laucius’s story about a witch, a girl, beauty and love to the big screen in the film Grožio paslaptis / The Secret of Beauty (2009) using ceramic puppets.
The directors Aurika and Algirdas Selenis made their first film Arkliavagio gudrybė / The Horse Thief’s Trickery (1998) at the Lithuanian Film Studios. They revisited the theme in Čigonas ir drakonas / The Gypsy and the Dragon (2006), which they made at their own studio, Animacijos studija. Their films are playful, they present paradoxical situations, and are didactic. In 2000, they began creating a series of films based on Lithuanian legends and folk tales, including Vilniaus mergelė / Vilnius Maiden (2000), Neringa (2001), Žemaitė – Žemaičių pramotė / Žemaitė – The Proto-Mother of the Samogitians (2002), Eglė žalčių karalienė / Eglė, the Queen of the Grass Snakes (2003), Lietuvių mitologiniai dievai / Lithuanian Mythological Gods (2006) and Lietuvių mitologinės būtybės / Lithuanian Mythological Creatures (2008). Their earlier films are known for their expressiveness both in graphics and colours, and for their symbolism. In later films, they use the technique of successive phases of motion (where an image gradually disappears and is replaced by another in one second or less), their animation is more stylised, and the works are constructed not so much as a synthesis of movement and narration, but as a renewal of images and moving cinematic pictograms.
The directors Šarūnas Jakštas, Vitalijus Suchockis and Juras Visockis have made animation films in the style of caricature. Algirdas Šimkus and Saulius Tamošaitis have made several animation films with puppets. Artūras Bukauskas made the hand-drawn animation film Telefono linija / The Telephone Line (1991) and later Lopšinė miestui/ A Lullaby for the City (1995). Then, by combining frames with actors and animation he made the films for adults Erotomotto (2005) and Estetomotto (2006).
The New Generation of Directors Speak Out Loudly and Clearly Through Their Films
The young generation of directors tell Lithuanian folk tales and also the original tales they have created for children in their animated films. They delve into universal questions of freedom and analyse sensitive issues related to interpersonal, generational and gender interactions. With expressive graphics and a Kafkaesque style, the film Tiltas / The Bridge (2007) by Ieva Miškinytė explores issues of human existence. In Saga / The Button (2012), she examines stories about people and objects, where people wander, dream, search for something, long to discover, and long to be discovered. It is a deeply allegorical story about buttons that are lost and found, and all of the invisible threads that bind them. The sensitive and poetic film Vaikystėsdienoraštis / Diary of Childhood (2009) by Antanas Skučas tells the story of how a young girl is cured of her illness, and her special relationship with nature. The film Laimės žiburys / A Spark of Joy (2015, Tylus kinas) is an adaptation of a story by Jonas Biliūnas about sacrificing for the greater good.
While studying in Estonia, Urtė Budinaitė made the animation films Kambarys dviems / A Room for Two (2009 ) about a woman who is ready to give her heart to a special person and Giesmių giesmė / Song of Songs (2010) about the relationship between a man and a woman, about a battle in which the woman becomes a wolf and the man, a sheep. In Lithuania, she made the symbolic-allegorical story Nepriklausomybės diena / Independence Day (2012) about a musician who escapes from a radio, a ship that crashes into a sugar spoon and sinks, the failed hopes of finding love on the other side of a door with a little heart, and finding a lost cap. Budinaitė’s animated film style is similar to caricature, with the characters portrayed in bold strokes. She does not prioritize the plot, but instead focuses on the relationships between the characters and their emotions, which are highlighted by using a background that is simple, monochromatic, and not overburdened with detail. Urtė Budinaitė (Urtė Oettinger) and Johan Oettinger combine puppet and digital animation in their film Nuopuolis / Ragnarok (2016, Art Shot, made with WiredFly and Basmati Film). The film tells the story of a hungry eagle and its unsuccessful hunt in the mountains. The filmmakers remind us about the most important values and being faithful to our convictions.
For the animated film Tiulis / The Tulle Curtain (2010) the directors Darius Jaruševičius and Inna Šilina chose to use a style of graphic design similar to that of children’s drawings. The film explores global issues. There is an allusion to the Berlin Wall, which is typified by a light tulle curtain with a dotted pattern of an atomic mushroom cloud, which divides the area into two parts where different metamorphoses occur: a tulle curtain with concrete arches greets a poet, wraps a tank in a wedding veil, and turns into a barricade, canons and a place for ice fishing.
Skirma Jakaitė’s animated film Galim susitikti, galim nesusitikti / We Might Meet, We Might Not (2011) tells the story of being a teenager and explores the tight and fragile ties between those who are closest to you. It is driven by constant doubt, fear, distrust, hope and disappointment. The continually flickering black-and-white graphics, the total animation and the meaningful introduction of spots of colour all create a mood of emotion and extreme anxiety that helps perfectly to express the main idea of the film. Skirmanta Jakaitė and Solveiga Masteikaitė in their animated film Neeuklidinė geometrija / Non-Euclidean Geometry (2013) try to answer the eternal question – where does love disappear to or what does it become after we die. In the film, the two intersecting intimate stories submit to the heart’s logic, which has nothing to do with routine logic.
The graphics in films by the director and book illustrator Rasa Jonikaitė are like illustrations in children’s books. The animation film Uodega / The Tail, 2007 recounts the fishing trip adventures of a wolf and a fox, while Brolis Bebe / Brother Bebe (2009) is a story that teaches goodness, love and caring for one another. The decorative style of her films, the combination of lively and colourful characters, together with cut-out animation and a cheerful musical background create an atmosphere common to folk tales.
Vladislav Berezhok made the good-humoured and light-hearted animation film Zuikio kopūstai / Rabbit Cabbage (2011). It is an unusual folk tale about the origin of wood sorrel (‘rabbit cabbage’ is a literal translation of the term in Lithuanian), using plasticine animation and colourful characters.
Reda Bartkutė-Tomingas’s film Kaltė / Guilt (Joni Art, 2013) is a story about a lonely fox that tries to distance itself from the outside world and enjoy the guilt that has escaped into freedom, guilt which torments it and forces it to choose between madness and reconciliation. The film features a fine graphic style and the atmosphere created persuasively pulls the viewer in.
The film Miškas / Forest (WRKS, 2015 m.) by Ignas Meilūnas tells the story about an old solitary naturalist who tries to capture a shining forest-dweller. The film merges frames with actors and animation into one whole. In his other film Pono Nakties laisvadienis / Mr Night Has a Day Off (2016), the director brings a man named Night into the natural panorama of Vilnius. Mister Night decides to take a walk during the day and is unpleasantly surprised by the light and bright colours that he is not used to seeing.
The film Kaukai /Running Lights (PetPunk, 2017) by Gediminas Šiaulys is a brief story about how eternal life is embodied in newly reborn plants and creatures, a fantastical story that encourages one to think about death.
The films made by the younger generation of directors, including Greta Stančiauskaitė, Meinardas Valkevičius, Birutė Sodeikaitė, Tomas Tamošaitis, Tomas Ramanauskas, Jūratė Gečaitė, Vita Lažinskaitė, Giedrė Narušytė, Nathan Jurevicius are marked by their individual style.