Lithuania pulled out all the stops for my arrival from England’s hottest October day in living memory, with a salmon-and-scarlet-streaked sunset above the spiky forests edging Kaunas Airport, complete with a fat, butter-yellow crescent moon. Later, my first night-time foray into the little streets of the Old Town (that I would get to know so well over the next three days) seemed magical, a perfect autumn night – with crisp leaves blowing over cobbles, an energising chill in the air and pools of light catching the profiles of fine old buildings – as I homed into the cosy, booked-lined Piano Piano bar on Town Hall Square to meet Festival organisers and hear about how the Kaunas International Film Festival came into being five years earlier.
It all began with a cinema, the beautiful Art Deco ‘Romuva’, just off Kaunas’s handsome, mile-long tree-lined Laisvės (Liberty) Avenue, threatened with closure in 2007, and how a group of friends got together to try to save it. It’s a fine building, the oldest cinema in the country, but its closure was more important than that. It was an emblem of cinema in Lithuania, a symbol of independent cinemas disappearing all across the country, where the void left after the retreat of Russian control with its public subsidies for film meant art-house screenings were almost wiped out, and even the Lithuanian films being made were seen anywhere else in Europe other than at home.
Ilona Jurkonytė and Tomas Tengmark, Director and Programmer of the festival, were two of those people, and now 5 years later they lead an army of workers and volunteers to run a festival which has grown remarkably, more than quadrupling the number of films shown, but still sticks to its idealistic first aims, to celebrate film in its art and social aspects and to support its cultural revival in Lithuania, both for audiences and for film-makers. A coup this autumn has been the attendance for a second year of Béla Tarr, following a retrospective of his work last year. This time he’s introducing what he has announced will be his last film, The Turin Horse, and leading a group of students in hands-on film master classes. To have engaged the interest and enthusiasm of this master of European cinema (he called the Town Square here ‘one of the most beautiful in Europe’) is quite a bag for a small festival, and Kaunas has obviously captured his imagination.
Next morning my first foray is to the Žalgirio Arena, the basketball stadium, one of the main screening venues. Basketball is to Lithuania what football is to most European nations (my hotel even offers special tours for basketball fans), and Kaunas now has the biggest arena in the Baltic region, opened this August, on the end of a large grassy island in the mighty Nemunas, one of the two rivers that hold the centre of the city in a pincer grip. A bracing walk along the riverside from the old town past the western part of the island, mostly nature reserve, takes me to a pedestrian bridge and across, along new gravel paths, to the screening venue, an auditorium in the rather menacing bowels of the modernistic stadium.
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HIGH ON HOPE [8/10]
UK 2010: Piers Sanderson: 72m
The first film is a delightful surprise. High On Hope, a first feature from Piers Sanderson, was made on no money, just favours, enthusiasm and sheer invention, developed and augmented from a short made in 2003 about the birth of the Acid House scene in the north of England. Blackburn, of all unlikely places, was the spawning ground. Though perhaps not so unlikely, as the film shows how in reality this music development so often seen as mostly hedonistic was actually highly political in the real sense. In the gloom of Thatcher’s Britain, the structures (disused mills and factories) that had first been places of hard labour for the working classes, then decaying blights on their landscapes, were reclaimed as places of uncommercial joy and self-expression. The utopianism is expressed with such joie de vivre that it’s easy to be carried along with the vision of liberation and the ‘new world’ that every generation of young people thinks is their own invention, another dawn it was bliss to be alive in. It’s no political tract, but full of fun and wit, using old footage of the events, police activity included (and their often enormous presence seems to underline that this was all a lot more than just kids misbehaving and a bit of electricity theft), interviews with leading figures, news footage and chirpy animation. Inevitably capitalism in the form of criminal money-making elements shouldered its way into what genuinely seems to have been a mostly innocent movement, establishment claims of serious drug problems and violence thus becoming self-fulfilled.
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South Korea 2011: Kim Ki-Duk: 100m
Co-winner of the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes this year and very highly considered in many quarters, try as I might I could only respond to Arirang, in all honesty, with boredom and irritation. This autobiographical ‘meditation on film-making’ by the director of some stunning and mysteriously beautiful films is shot in a cabin where he took himself off to live alone after two bad experiences had brought him to what amounted almost to a total breakdown and creative block – during the making of his previous film an actress nearly died by hanging (though accounts seem unsure whether it was a suicide attempt or a horrible accident), and he feels betrayed by two of his young student assistants leaving him. A tragic situation for any creative soul, but it’s not long into this film that the sympathetic juices begin to run dry, for this spectator at least, at his grandiose humility as he aggressively interviews himself about how bad he feels, looks back with admiration on his career, broods miserably over memories, declaims, with increasing manic tearfulness, ‘Arirang’, the unofficial anthem of South Korea, weeps in maudlin fashion as he watches his own performance as a monk going through punishing training in his 2003 film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring, and stomps around the humble, unheated shack, so cold that he sleeps inside a tent within it. There are occasional magic moments reminding one of his greatness – the mysterious knockings on his door that he hears at night that send shivers, the day-to-day banalities of his life quietly captured – and it does have biographical value for the future as a testament to a very dark period in the life of a renowned film-maker. It is undoubtedly brave to show himself so nakedly emotional and self-absorbed, and hopefully it proved therapeutic. But this doesn’t make it a good film.
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A breath of fresh air is welcome after that, and outside the mighty river Nemunas is a few steps away, broad and fast flowing, a countryside sort of river, feeling not at all urban, tree-lined and with grassy banks, a few fishermen in the fading light and a rowing boat or two. Then back, refreshed, for the final film of the day.
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A PARTISAN’S WIFE [6/10]
Patizano Žmona: Lithunia 2011: Vytautas V Landsbergis: 52m
A beautifully made documentary from Lithuania about Juozas Lukša-Daumantas, a leader of the Lithuanian partisans who had fought both Soviet and German occupation, and finally trained with the CIA in their attempt to undermine Soviet rule in Lithuania after the war. But this film is less about the politics of the time than the tragic romance between him and Nijolė Bražėnaitė-Paronetto, an émigré doctor he met in Paris, which came to light when his letters to her, almost impossibly high-minded and romantic to our cynical ears, were published. After only two weeks of marriage in 1948 Daumantas left on a mission back to his country, and they never met again. Though he died in 1951 it was not for six more years that his wife knew of his death. The film obviously has huge resonances in Lithuania itself as testament to a charismatic hero of their long struggle, but it also explains the situation, without being too heavy handed, for international audiences. It’s lyrical and sober, using photographs and contemporary film of Nijolė, now in her late 80s, talking about their life and revisiting a very old lady in Lithuania to hear the story of how she hid Daumantas and his comrades from the Soviets. Fine cinematography conveys the particular beauty of the Lithuanian forests where so many died. The director, the son of Lithuania’s first post-Soviet head of state, is a renowned writer of books for young people, and one of his intentions is to keep recent history alive for the younger generation.
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15th October 2011
part two of this report can be found here