A sudden explosion startles the unsuspecting audience at the Star and Shadow Cinema. Douglas Gordon is bringing the Lithuanian film programme Cinematic Inclusions to a close with ‘I Had Nowhere To Go’ (2016), a predominantly sound-based biopic that recounts the war-torn, exiled years of Lithuanian artist and filmmaker Jonas Mekas (1922-2019). Gordon is the only non-Lithuanian filmmaker whose work has been screened during the three-day event, but his poignant film consolidates a conceptual arc; one that has immersed viewers in the melancholic nostalgia of Lithuanian films made during, and for a short time after, the country’s Soviet occupation.
Each day’s films were grouped according to key aspects of Lithuanian cinema from the second half of the 20th century, the criteria defined by the two co-organizers: Janina Sabaliauskaitė, a photographer and curator based in Newcastle upon Tyne, and Lina Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė, a cinema and media historian based in Vilnius, Lithuania. Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė’s PhD research centred on the reconstruction of Lithuanian Film produced during the period of Soviet occupation. She is also a founding member of Meno Avylis Archive, an NGO that focuses on film education and film preservation, and has done restorative work on some of the shorts screened during the programme. Her expertise, paired with Sabaliauskaitė’s curatorial skills, made for an inspiring three days of films, Q&As and discussions. Films were embedded in their historical context but not stifled by it, allowing viewers to form a personal relationship with a cinematic language that was new to them.
The last day of the programme was dedicated to Jonas Mekas and the huge influence he had on Lithuanian cinematography. Mekas was a defining figure of the New York avant-garde film scene and in 1970 helped establish the Manhattan-based Anthology Film Archives, which was the ‘first film museum exclusively devoted to the film as an art’. Following the reestablishment of the State of Lithuania in 1990, filmmakers who had been inspired by Mekas, but hitherto not permitted to travel beyond the Iron Curtain, finally had the opportunity to work with him in New York. Through their creative collaborations, the non-linear narrative strategies typical of Mekas and Western avant-garde cinema were introduced to Lithuanian film. These trends, along with increasing political tension in the Baltic States, brought about a new cinematic language; a junction of West and East and an alternative to the traditional forms of filmmaking embraced by large-scale, state-owned production companies.
The second day of the programme explored experimental filmmaking that formed as a response to Soviet censorship. These poetic films combined methods old and new in an attempt to elude state control. Some still bore traces of montage, also prevalent in other mediums and in the cinema of the Soviet Union at the time. The abstract short ‘Reflections’ (1968), directed by Henrikas Šablevičius, epitomises this cinematic metamorphosis in how it elevates filmmaking to the ranks of other art forms. Šablevičius’ surrealist étude and his story of duality denotes an innovative and expressive direction that the other short films of the day build upon confidently. Such self-expression was not encouraged at the time, nor was it financially supported by the industry, and any suspicion of dissident ideas could be suppressed. ‘Reflections’, itself, fell foul of such accusations and upon its release was banned for almost two decades.
Another incident of suppression can be seen in how ‘Old Man and the Land’ (1965), by Robertas Verba, was initially banned because of rumours surrounding the political allegiance of its elderly, Lithuanian protagonist. The film is an exceptional example of traditional documentary filmmaking, which the first day of the programme focused on. Stylistically rooted in newsreels screened before feature films in cinemas, the format illustrates how filmmakers evaded censors to show the (inner) lives of people, be they old and marginalised, or children. These films established a unique cinematic language through irony and humour, the interplay between sound and meaning, piercing honesty and staged ideological narratives. The creation of this vernacular enabled them to deal with subjects both personal and universally human, along with those concerning ethnic traditions such as paganism, death, love, time (youth and old age), the medium of film and the nature of truth itself.
These documentary traditions radically differed from the Western style rooted in cinema verité. During a Q&A between Adam Pugh, Creative Director of Artists’ Moving Image at Tyneside Cinema, and Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė, the speakers discussed how strict censorship produced a style of documentary that was considered more unrestrained than other forms of filmmaking. This was demonstrated in ‘Cheer up Virginius!’ (1962), directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Viktoras Starošas. The narrative of a young boy, obsessed with a factory, who dreams of becoming a great sportsman, musician or factory worker so he can be the pride of his hometown is clearly propaganda. But the editing, sound and aesthetics delineate an alternative plot in which man (the young boy) faces The Machine and is left affected, changed. The brief inclusion of a train alluding to the deportation of tens of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberia carried out by Stalin’s regime.
Algimantas Maceina’s ‘The Black Box’ (1994) sheds a different light on the same national trauma. Screened on the second day, during ‘Experiments in Lithuanian Documentary Cinema’, the heart-rending film explains how families tried to repatriate the bodies of deported relatives who had died in exile, so they could rebury them in their homeland in accordance with Lithuanian tradition. This sorrowful journey was captured by Algimantas, who filmed his father and uncle illegally taking their father’s remains home in a black box. Shot in low quality, using long takes, the film was then sped up in post-production. The director’s decision to use ambient sounds and minimal narration allows the story to unfold with visceral honesty. The immediacy of this home movie aesthetic (a utilitarian rather than a conceptual choice) adds intimacy, which, in various forms, is key to connecting the elements of most of the films screened. In conjunction with this feeling of closeness and the candid long takes, in some of the films the sound overlaps into the following scene, forming slippages, or rifts, in the narrative. This strategy – which has become an essential component of contemporary documentary trends – is a seductive way to let truth filter through the cracks of fictional (ideological) narratives.
The quiet, internal rebellion that characterised films from the first two days helped articulate a nuanced poetic genealogy, evoking the painter Giorgio Morandi’s calculated and inwardly turning compositions made in the face of the deceivingly dynamic fascist ideals of Benito Mussolini in Italy. The interiority of ‘Earth of the Blind’ (1992), directed by Audrius Stonys, also shifts attention from the outside world, while documenting it. The complex relationship between storytelling and visual representation, which is a driving force of the film, questions the medium itself similarly to Jean-Siméon Chardin’s painting ‘The Blind Beggar’ (1730’s). Both works play with medium-specific attributes (texture, composition, colouring, etc.) to subtly tamper with the idea of that which is seen and what lies under the surface — the world of the blind. This duality perfectly set the scene for Douglas Gordon’s sound-piece, screened on the last day.
Sitting in near-darkness, the audience listen to Gordon’s immersive soundscape, ‘I Had Nowhere To Go’. Mekas’ voice echoes through the cinema, speaking of his life, his thoughts and his feelings as a displaced person during and after World War II. Frank Kruse’s score approaches its finale, and coming from two sides of the room, momentarily gains direction to meet in a single vanishing point behind a blank square of light, providing a symbolic space for the events of the three-day programme and the memory of Jonas Mekas.
The Cinematic Inclusions project was supported by Lithuanian Culture Attaché in the UK Juste Kostikovaite and the Lithuanian Culture Institute.
A digital archive of the films can be accessed here.
András Nagy-Sándor is an artist and curator based in Newcastle upon Tyne.