Beyond the Avant-Garde: Film Culture in Lithuania

Photo of Culture Trip
2 December 2016

The film industry in Lithuania lacks the international prestige of some other Eastern European countries. Nonetheless, as Hannah Shotton discovers, it has produced several talented filmmakers, and thanks to the establishment of the Kaunas International Film Festival, is fostering a new generation of Lithuanian filmmakers.

Lithuanian cinema’s lack of an international reputation belies the variety of cinematic talent which has emerged from this Eastern European country. Filmmakers like Arunas Matelis are creating intriguing documentaries about the current state of Lithuania, whilst the Kaunas International Film Festival is championing a younger generation of independent art house filmmakers. This generation is following in the footsteps of pioneering Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas, whose classic avant-garde documentaries engage with his own Lithuanian national identity.

Kaunas International Film Festival

In 2007, a group of young people banded together to save Lithuania’s oldest cinema ‘Romuva, based in Kaunas, from being turned into a casino. The result was the Kaunas International Film Festival which is still going strong to this day. The festival takes place annually in late September, and aims to broaden the availability of art-house film in cinemas to host exclusive premiers of Baltic and Lithuanian feature films, documentaries and animations. The festival operates mainly out of the Romuva itself, accompanied by a scattering of events based in bars in the surrounding areas. As well as Baltic premieres, another aim is to show films that have already been critically acclaimed worldwide, provided that they have a social or artistic message. The festival organisers also work with educational authorities to programme screenings for students, promoting film education in Lithuania. It is now regarded as the most important film event in Kaunas, KIFF is building a worldwide appreciation of Lithuanian film-making.

Arunas Matelis

Independent film director Arnas Matelis established one of the first independent film companies in Lithuania, ‘Nominus’, and is best known for his 2005 documentary Before Flying Back to Earth (Prieš parskrendant į žemę). Based in Vilnius Pediatric Hospital this insightful short documentary offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of young children suffering from Leukaemia. Matelis’ own daughter spent eight months at the hospital fighting Leukaemia, bringing a certain sensitivity to his approach in showing the emotional stress experienced by the children and their families. The film received extensive critical acclaim, winning awards from Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, Brooklyn International Film Festival, and the Directors Guild of America, and firmly put Lithuanian film-making on the cultural map.

Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas is a pioneering Lithuanian filmmaker, who was at the forefront of the avant-garde film movement of the 1960’s. His eventful early life certainly contributed to the variety of film work. After fleeing Lithuania during World War II in 1944, Mekas eventually emigrated with his brother Adolfas, settling in Brooklyn, New York in 1949. Soon after his arrival, Mekas purchased a Bolex 16mm Film Camera, and began to make short films, giving a personal perspective on his life and surroundings. On discovering underground film screenings of avant-garde and art films at venues such as Cinema 16, Mekas was inspired to show his own work in galleries and auditoriums, slowly becoming immersed in the avant-garde scene that was exploding at the time of the early 1960’s. Mekas became associated with artists such as Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and musicians John Lennon and Nico. Mekas has always fought for the exhibition and preservation of art-house film, and in 1970, he became the director of The Anthology Film Archives, a space to house the writings on experimental film, exhibit avant-garde films and to act as a museum space to preserve and celebrate experimental film-making.

Mekas often takes an autobiographical approach to his work, culminating in an avant-garde aesthetic through choice of image and visible editing. Reminiscences of a Voyage to Lithuania (1972) is based on Jonas’ and his brother Adolfas’ return to their home town Semeniskiai after 27 years. The film consists of three segments, the first showing their life in New York as immigrants as filmed by Mekas, the second documenting their visit to their childhood home and the family reunion, and the third shows a visit to Manburg, the town where the brothers spent a year in a labour camp during the Second World War. As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) is compiled of footage filmed by Mekas over the space of fifty years. Small moments of beauty are edited into an avant-garde style autobiography, acting as a meditation on colour, light and movement. Mekas takes his audience on a journey through his life, navigating through short glimpses into visual memories. As well as making films, Mekas is renowned for his poetry, and has had many articles published on the film theory and technique. And although he is no longer resident in Lithuania, the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Centre was opened in 2007 in Vilnius, Lithuania, standing as testament to the impact his work has had on the avant-garde film world, and the degree to which his national identity is rooted in his work.

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