At the Encounters Film Festival in Bristol – a five-day event dedicated to showcasing short film-making and talent – there was a spotlight placed on film-makers from small national cinemas in the former Eastern bloc, namely Ukraine and Lithuania. Post-Soviet cinema has begun to capture the attention of cinephiles in the UK, with The Guardian producing a Top 10 in this context that included films from the oft-neglected cinemas of Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia).
The Encounters festival is aptly named for a viewing audience that would rarely see – in the UK, at least – films from cinematically small countries like Lithuania, except for perhaps Sharunas Bartas’ films. The focus on the Baltic state of Lithuania arose in three contexts, first post-Soviet documentary, second a series of experimental documentaries by Deimantas Narkeviciu, and third a programme of contemporary short films from the country. As outlined in the Encounters programme, the Lithuanian shorts from 2013 to 2015 included a corpus of work that had already circulated international film festivals and the Lithuanian Film Academy, valorized as a cross-selection of the best Lithuanian shorts on offer.
The first film in this section, The Noisemaker (Karolis Kaupinis, 2014), neatly demonstrates a co-production trend that moves beyond the Nordic countries and Scandinavia, filtering into the Baltic regions. The short had been screened previously as part of the Pardi di domani section (future talents) at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival in 2014. The short, a Swedish−Lithuanian co-production, operates as a bleak comedy, with each beat of laughter rhythmically arriving at every point of pure farce – the headmasters’ sabotage of the school bells and desks and plants toppling unprovoked from trolleys. A small provincial school with no students becomes more than an empty shell by the headmaster – and his trusty helpers – who cast their minds back to their school traditions. The resulting mise-en-scène becomes over-saturated and hyper-masculine milieu of teenage years gone by, evinced by the hundreds of penises scribbled on the bathroom walls. The grey tones of the institution and the location eerily evoke the post-Communist Soviet tower blocks of Kieslowski’s series for Polish television, Dekalog (1989).
A sense of despair and fractured relationships in a similarly bleak landscape reverberate through Dog’s Life (Leva Veiveryte, 2013) in which the freeing of a guard dog and loved pet ends in a roadside death. However, the death of the pet is revelatory – latent issues and tensions in the mother and daughter relationship seep out in the resulting action. It is dealt with in dialogic fashion with the mother’s line: “Will you bury me under the bushes too?” This line places the death further in the cadre of metaphor, much like the discarding of a wounded dog from a bridge in a bleak, miserable Belgium in Bouli Lanners’ Eldorado (2008). The title further contends a frustration with daily life, with work and repeated hospital visits for the daughter. However, in The Fish of My Life (Julius Siciunas, 2014), the death of an animal – a fish, in this case – foretells a twist. Repetitions and reverberations are plentiful in a short narrative that frequently turns back on itself. Daily life and morning routines in a rural setting provide both an unexpected image of the Lithuanian countryside alongside an unexpected death. The simplicity of narrative evokes simplicity of daily rural life – a wake, eat, and work cycle. The slow pans across the frame introduce each new day, providing a structured rhythm to pastoral life. This use of the camera provokes a lyrical and almost poetic tone of a short that is based on gestures more than dialogue. The use of wide-screen fills the screen with bright golden (almost sepia) fields – a distinct contrast to the grey tones of concrete jungles in the previous shorts. The colouration also contrasts with the images of the Lithuanian countryside in Bartas’ short film Children Lose Nothing (part of the Visions of Europe omnibus film), which is characterized by a dull, bleak and toned down pastoral landscape. The golden and over-saturated colouration stops well short of depicting a pastoral and rural idyll. Recalling Damjan Kozole’s film Spare Parts (2003) in which sepia tones are used to colour documentary footage of a time of Slovenia under the rule of Yugoslav dictator Tito. The lack of dialogue – an aspect that also pervades Barta’s aforementioned short – draws attention to small gestures, which slowly reveal an irrevocable sense of fracture between husband and wife. Symbolism emerges in the form of the scythe, which perhaps recalls the sickle that represented the Soviet Union and, therefore, augurs poorly for the lead protagonist.
The final instalment Anthology of the Plot (Arturas Jevdokimovas, 2015) celebrates the life of a specific bar in Vilnius, the Suokalbis, which was created in 1992. As the credits reveal, the bar was a meeting place for artists, poets, philosophers and students at a particularly important point of time for the city and the country, that is after the fall of the Berlin Wall three years earlier. The online blog by Gint Aras that inspired the subject matter of the film calls the Suokalbis a dive. The documentary highlights a time of excess, of liberty and freedom, which is evinced by the numerous dance scenes. These scenes further reveal a somewhat hidden comedy that arose from the aleatory capture of drunken middle-aged men on the dance floor. The texture is grainy and black-and-white, which coheres to preconceptions of a documentary style of filmmaking that is raw and unexpected. The structure reads alongside Gint Aras’ lament of a decline of a public space (that closed in 2010) and the breaking down of barriers from a liberal, left-leaning position. The short film is not, however, necessarily imbued with a sophistication that encourages political, social or even historical readings – unlike the previous Lithuanian strands of the festival.
Viewed back-to-back, three live action shorts were each imbued with a sense of bleak or dark comedy, with only Dog’s Life eschewing comedy for pure drama. Beneath the comedy, there are rhythms and a lyrical form of film-making that slowly reveal a certain bleakness and miserablism. Such an event highlights the potential of cinematically small nations beyond the already-established auteurs.