Journey to Lithuania: Vilnius Film Festival

Though it’s now been three months since I visited, the Vilnius Film Festival left a greater impression on me as an experience than most of the actual films. 

Its director surely won’t be happy to read such an opening, but I’ll admit it as a matter of honest disclosure: thanks to my window of free time matching Barrage’s runtime almost to a T, I slammed my laptop the moment it ended and rushed to the hotel lobby. It was effectively my last chance to watch the film prior to my interview, short of waking up around 7 and watching it first thing in the morning (something I’m not particularly prone to do when visiting new countries). Thinking I’d be the only guest being escorted to the reception in vehicular fashion, I was mildly disappointed in myself for showing up exactly at the appointed time when I realized the car would be full. Several festival volunteers recognized that my appearance meant they now had enough guests for the first car to leave, and I was promptly walked out front, alongside a pair of Japanese gentlemen who’d apparently just been waiting indirectly on me. The car greeted us with an unsettling silence after I’d awkwardly split the pair by insisting on giving one man the front passenger seat. Finally my backseat neighbor asked, “You’re also a filmmaker?” How to take this one… “Yes,” I stammered, “but not for this festival. Just a critic here.”

“Mmmm.”

“You’re a filmmaker?”

“Yes.”

“Uh, which film?” I fumbled through the festival goodies for the small program booklet while admiring his choice to bear the bright pink gifted tote bag right off the bat. He found the page and pointed out a title: What’s for Dinner, Mom? (Mama, Gohan Mada?)

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Intrigued, I read the description. It read something like “A pair of sisters reunite after their mother’s passing and find a mysterious box full of secrets…” My knowledge of Japanese cinema being relatively scarce and stereotypical, I immediately thought it a ghost story as my mind wheeled to relate it to a contemporary Japanese film I’d seen in recent months: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype (or Le Secret de la chambre noir).

I managed to say something stupid like “Interesting” to no real fanfare. I haven’t yet reached the level of ready-made instant analysis I’d like to – at least not in a way I’m good at communicating verbally. I sure can be quick to judge though. Most of the rest of the ride was in silence, me asking a few more questions but mostly remaining intimidated by the presence of an established director I didn’t already know (they will of course constantly exist, and I hope to one day join the ranks of the established unknown).

When we arrived at the Vignus Forum Cinema, the man I’d made sit up front (who turned out to be the producer, Hiroyuki Takase) offered to take a photo of the two of us standing in front of the towering multiplex. Maybe I don’t hang out in U.S. metropolises enough, but I’ve only ever seen this kind of towering multiplexes in Europe, and I really like them. Despite all the innate commercial functionality they facilitate, and the insanely priced concession stands, when you bring your own snacks and get to see films sans distribution deals screened on their massive walls with plush seats, it’s hard not to like the building itself, almost regardless of how I feel about the actual films.

Once inside, we were escorted to an elevator which took us to the top floor, where we were shown a coat room and finally walked down the hall to an elegant (if empty) reception. We were among the first guests not working for the festival by the looks of it. Even the water was served in goblet-sized wine glasses. The appetizers were laid out, uncertain if they were waiting for an official announcement or the mere presence of more people before they might be indulged in, but we were told to enjoy so I gratefully began collecting what I was pleasantly surprised to learn were exclusively vegetarian tidbits. After a brief conversation with Mr. Shiraha about cinema in general and his remark that 25 is too young to be a director (he might be right but that won’t stop me), I found Hiroyuki handing out fliers for What’s for Dinner, Mom? entirely in Japanese and notifying each recipient that there would be a screening the following day at 1:45. I offered to hand out a couple as well and he accepted. Soon a man took to the microphone and explained that shortly there would be a film screening. At last, a goal on the horizon to look forward to. Soon enough people began filing out and I followed the crowd down the stairs to an auditorium.

After an introduction of the different juries, we took in a screening of Requiem for Mrs. J, perhaps the first true Serbian film I’d seen since my Cinema of the Western Balkans course. Although I’d already sensed I might like the film after seeing some promo materials at the Berlinale, it exceeded my expectations. Its typically Balkan jet-black humor reflective of inequality in the commerce and workers systems, the narrative focuses on the titular Mrs. J (Mirjana Karanović, recognizable from Kusturica titles Underground and While Father Was Away on Business), who has decided to commit suicide as a means of escaping her oppressive domestic situation one year after the death of her husband: her younger daughter picks up nasty slang and attitudes from her classmates while the elder daughter works day-in and out to cover the expenses for the whole family, including her late husband’s mother who remains tethered to her dark corner room, with the occasional plight to the kitchen. Frequently I found myself watching the smallest details in (recurring) wide shots. One of the best dry jokes arrives in Mrs. J’s visit to her life insurer: following a reanalysis of her investment, a death at this point in time would value her life at a meager 3700€. Square, stark, precisely framed around the disarray of a life and nation in shambles, it’s exactly the right kind of (humorous) despair that doesn’t go too far.

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When I met one of the short-film jury members after the screening, she explained that each of the three had given the film a rating just to see how similar their tastes might be for the short-film judging to come. She revealed they’d gone with a 6, 7, and 8. I opted for a 7.8. She turned out to be Greek and mentioned her film would be playing the next day. Perfect, as the only officially scheduled slot I had was the immediately preceding What’s for Dinner, Mom? Her film was Park, and I agreed I would probably go. Something about meeting people who tell you their film is screening is far more enticing than a blurb and a photo can ever be. Even if the film looks less interesting (which it did not), there’s something fascinating about connecting what’s shown on the screen to a real-life personality. It’s compelling to learn what comes out of certain people.

After a hearty buffet breakfast (not having a lot of excess cash to throw around tends to translate to eating a lot when it’s free), I was personally escorted on foot by a festival volunteer to another hotel for my interview with director Laura Schroeder to discuss the finer points of her film Barrage. I felt bad about having watched a screener which I hadn’t gotten around to during the Berlinale, and even worse when she asked me how I’d seen the film, but I was at least glad to have had it so the interview might be possible at all.

Afterwards I had just enough time to make it to a matinee of the Best Picture-winning Moonlight. Unfortunately my keen sense of anti-direction stepped in and I fudged a 5 minute walk so badly that I missed the first ten minutes of the film. For the second time in two days I had managed to somehow disturb my own proper viewing experience. I started to wonder if it was more important to have seen the films, or to have seen them ‘correctly.’ What followed was enjoyable enough, if a bit underwhelming. Anyone interested in a slightly less vague idea of my thoughts on the film is invited to read Pauline Kael’s review of Cassavetes’ Faces.

Next up was What’s for Dinner, Mom? which proved wholeheartedly pleasant. It’s not the kind of film I’m going to sing about from the rooftops, but I’d certainly recommend it to anyone with fond memories of cooking with their mother, though it won’t be a likely hit in vegetarian circles, thanks in no small part to an obsession with finding and eating ‘pig trotters.’ Yes, hooves. An echo from Requiem for Mrs. J appeared as the titular matriarch faces a bleak prognosis, “I can’t afford to die.”

Park proved less focused than I’d expected given its production history, and hardly what I expected to have come out of the director I’d met the previous evening, but absolutely pulled its weight. Poor Greek kids hang out in the abandoned Olympic village, spending their days generally meandering, having sex, riding around on scooters and watching their dog get into fights. As such a description may or may not make clear, it retains a light flavor of early Pasolini. Its imagery is more visually competent than most of its handheld contemporaries, especially during its brief forays focused on non-human moments. While its continuous motion and blurs sometimes border on difficult-to-watch, it is fitting in its focus on movement as means of visual communication, especially given the physical language between its child actors.

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When I managed to catch up with its director again later (Sofia Exarchou) I asked her if she was familiar with Korine’s 1997 poetic white-trash vignette-a-thon Gummo, as a few select moments had reminded me of it in terms of style and tone. Yes, she liked the film and half-lamented that Vice had even sold the picture as the ‘Greek New Wave film that might be the next Gummo’ for the headline of their piece about the film and interview with her. Despite my love of Gummo, I’m really not sure if coming across this headline in the wild would have compelled me to see Park or driven me away from it.

Finally, I ended the day with relatively guaranteed enjoyment; a 35mm print of the late Abbas (or Abbasas as he’s called in Lithuania) Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, in which we witness the surrogate filming of a scene from a 2-year-elder Kiarostami picture: Life and Nothing More (or And Life Goes On…). All the cracks and rhythmic texture of the print alone lent the experience a cosmic glow. My favorite moment (closing shot aside) comes in the form of a shot focused solely on a tray of tea as it’s passed around to the entire crew. As each subsequent glass is served, the empty space of the tray expands in hypnotic fashion.

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On my final full day I interviewed Sergei Loznitsa about Austerlitz (during which my newfound Japanese friends knocked on the window for a heart-warming emphatic greeting) and took in an evening screening of Untitled, a documentary by Austrian director Michael Glawogger whose idea from the outset was simply to travel and film – the rest would take care of itself and however the results came out, they would be dubbed Untitled. Tragically, Glawogger did not manage to complete his journey as planned, as he contracted malaria and passed away in Liberia. The film ambles with all the aim and accuracy you’d expect based on its blueprint, yet its varied destinations alone make for more versatile watching than a similar German ‘documentary’ title I saw earlier this year, 2+2=22 [The Alphabet]. Nowhere else will you see (two full teams of) one-legged soccer playing fanatics, kids fighting on a pile of trash, a monkey attempting to eat an ink cartridge and maggots slowly bringing to rest the corpse of a horse. Where the sound is composed predominantly of empty space, ambient crunches and rolls, the musical score blusters in with asynchronous thuds, whomps, and crackles – much to my delight. Where characters are predominantly silent or speaking in an un-subtitled ‘foreign’ tongue, added narration by Monika Willi (which presumably comes from story fragments written by Glawogger during his travels) fills in the metaphysical gaps without over-explaining. Although I remember reading a different name as the voice behind the texts, we can still thank Willi for their inclusion, as she stepped up to the gargantuan task of editing an unfinished mammoth – and ultimately, bringing Glawogger’s final film to life on the screen.

On my last morning there were no screenings which I’d have time to finish before my trip to the airport. What I did have time for was a trip to a restaurant for which I’d been provided meal vouchers by the festival. Over 2 courses with a juice and coffee, I reminisced about what a great festival experience this had been; perfect weather (which was, I’d been told, the first they’d had all year), pleasant people, solid films (the selections varied from new obscure gems to…well… Moonlight. Not to mention the simultaneous Lynch and Kiarostami retrospectives). This was a special place, which of course remains so even in my absence.

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