Ten years ago, Lithuanian director Romas Zabarauskas' debut feature was screened at the Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF). Now, he's back in Estonia to share his fourth – "The Writer." Days before the world premiere in Tallinn, Michael Cole caught up with Zabarauskas to find out more about the movie and why he believes we need to keep on having difficult conversations.
"I'm truly excited to come back," says Romas Zabarauskas, when I ask how he feels about his latest movie "The Writer," premiering in Estonian capital Tallinn. "And maybe it can also solidify my Baltic… what's the word? Baltic credentials," he smiles.
"The Writer" tells the story of two men, Kostas and Dima, who met and fell in love while serving together in the Soviet army back in the 1980s. Afterwards, Russian-born Dima joined Kostas in his homeland, Lithuania, where they lived together.
Then the '90s arrived, and Lithuania, along with the other Baltic countries, regained its independence from the Soviet Union. Kostas made the decision to leave both his country, and Dima, behind, relocating to New York in pursuit of an academic career.
The movie picks up their story 30 years later, with Kostas still in New York, teaching the culture of the region. He has also become a writer, and his latest book is about his and Dima's separation. After reading it, Dima decides to pay Kostas a visit to correct a few facts.
The art of conversation
"It's an English-language movie shot in the streets of New York and a studio. So, there are a lot of firsts for me," Zabarauskas says. "I've always been inspired by cinema that experiments with the art of conversation," he adds. And so, Kostas and Dima spend the duration of "The Writer" locked in a two-way dialogue, each challenging the other's perspectives on a variety of sensitive and potentially polarizing issues.
"Political debates are part of our lives, and I feel like it's nice to see that represented on the big screen. There aren't really that many films that do that. Within these discussions, there is a fear of saying the wrong thing and getting cancelled on Twitter. But I think we should overcome that fear."
Zabarauskas describes "The Writer" as "definitely a kind of movie like 'Sex and the City,' you know, where everyone chooses which character they are. People will choose whether they side more with Dima or with Kostas."
Even the movie's team of writers and creators are divided over, which of the two they feel a stronger connection with. However, Zabarauskas has a clear affinity with one.
"My politics are closer to Dima's. Dima is more of a realist, more down to earth and also more optimistic. Of course, I understand that Kostas also brings good arguments to the kitchen table," he adds, conceding that the answers to the dilemmas they explore frequently "lie somewhere in the middle of their perspectives."
"The entire film circles around the question of how much choice we have in our lives and how much we are defined by our social, political and historical circumstances," Zabarauskas explains. And while acknowledging that not everyone has the ability to decide the direction their lives go in, he still feels "a lot of people in Western countries actually have those choices, but don't necessarily seek them out."
He emphasizes the enduring impact of the Soviet occupation on both his own country and others in the broader region. "[It] lasted half a century and had different stages, but basically, there was no freedom of speech. It was an authoritarian regime and an occupation by Soviet Russia. And the people who resisted the regime became martyrs. It's important to understand that reality, because a lot of Westerners still have quite a naive understanding of the Soviet occupation and its impact on our region," he says.
"It was also very interesting for me to ask, did people have a choice back then or not? Is it a real choice if you're choosing between your safety and just living your life, or sacrificing yourself? Is that a real choice that any of us can consciously make?"
Nevertheless, Zabarauskas says his goal is not to educate people about the situation in the Baltics. "It's more about sharing a perspective on the world and also art itself, which is impacted by this context. And I think that's valuable, because, as people living in this region, we can have a unique perspective, that's worth sharing."
Still, it's clear that the kinds of debates depicted in "The Writer" are not only taking place in Baltic cities like Vilnius or Tallinn right now. They could easily be happening in New York and plenty of other places outside the region. "It's a very topical discussion. The film brings a perspective on global issues as well. So, I think this is what will surprise the audience."
"Of course, Russia's intensified terror in Ukraine since last year has impacted these discussions," Zabarauskas points out. At 33 years-old, for him, like many others who were born in independent Lithuania, the war in Ukraine has had a profound effect on his life and work.
"I don't normally wake up thinking about Russia. But this war made me realize, wow, Russia still has a lot of impact. And historically, even with its culture, it truly did and does act as a colonizer. It made me think that maybe sometimes I undervalue the culture of Lithuania or Ukraine or other countries that suffer from Russia's terror, because of this colonial tradition," he says.
"But even the younger generations than me need to understand our past to be able to fully assess it and move on. It's interesting how the younger generation is looking at this from an entirely fresh perspective."
That said, as a director, he's also aware of the potential pitfalls of tackling the war in Ukraine too earnestly. I ask him about one part of "The Writer" in particular, where Dima claims he's been reading a lot of Ukrainian literature recently. "Did you start reading that before the invasion, or after?" Kostas asks him. Dima's response is rather muted.
"It can be very virtue signaling, of course, if, all of a sudden, you are interested in the culture of the country that is currently suffering most," Zabarauskas notes.
Perhaps that's one of the reasons why the issue of national identity is explored in another way, as the characters cook borscht together? "Well, there is a very famous fight or debate between Russia and Ukraine, which Ukraine has now basically won, because UNESCO recognized borscht as Ukrainian. But, then there is also cold borscht (šaltibarščiai), which is a pride of Lithuanian cuisine, but also of Belarusian and other cuisines. It's definitely an interesting metaphor and an example of how culture isn't so easily defined by borders."
However, which country one belongs to is not the only form of identity at the heart of the conversations between Kostas and Dima in "The Writer." "We need to shift the discourse a little bit in terms of how we speak about minorities," he says.
"Being a queer person from Lithuania, when I talk with the foreign media, oftentimes, I feel caged in this kind of victim position. But I also consider myself very privileged because I come from a middle-class family and continue to have that middle-class life."
Zabarauskas points out, that as the producer of his own films, he is his own boss. "But I also feel it's important to talk about the creativity of queer people, for example, our vision and efforts to shape things in unique ways, rather than just to always portray our stories through the lens of victimization."
Before our interview, Zabarauskas had told me that after getting engaged to his boyfriend Kornelijus last year, they rented a car and drove from Lithuania to Saaremaa to celebrate. "It was a really fun trip," he says, "and now there is the added symbolism in terms of Estonia legalizing marriage equality from next year," while unfortunately Lithuania lags behind.
"We don't have any recognition of same sex relationships really, so it's a sad contrast and you wonder why, because it seems as if our country shouldn't be that different."
However, he tells me, that when it comes to queer cinema, Lithuania stands out as a leader among the Baltics. "Estonia and Latvia don't compare at all with the number of queer films. And now there is a new generation of queer filmmakers that are starting to make their first films."
"None of my films have been censored," he says, adding that they have also received the support of the Lithuanian national broadcaster. His previous feature "The Lawyer" and upcoming film "The Activist," were both supported by Lithuanian Film Center. The only reason "The Writer" was not eligible was because it is a co-production with the U.S. "I cannot really complain," he says.
Still, he tells me about the importance of the Lithuanian parliament recently rejecting a proposal to amend the "Law on the Protection of Minors from Negative Public Information." The phrasing of the law, which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled violates the right to free expression, is strange, Zabarauskas says, "but basically it's meant to limit information [communicated] about the LGBT+ community to minors."
While it has only actually been applied a few times, he adds, the law acts as a preventative measure, limiting the freedom to produce art, including cinema, for fear of being censored.
The politics of art
As our conversation draws to an end, Zabarauskas has some more positive news to share. All the tickets for the world premiere of "The Writer" at Tallinn's Black Nights Festival (PÖFF) have sold out.
"It's 112 seats. So, we're truly happy about the response so far," he tells me. "The challenge is, how to bring people to the cinema and convince people to watch the film. But I'm actually quite confident that people will enjoy it once they do watch it. And to be honest, I like the film, so I think people will enjoy it."
"All art is political in a sense, and currently, there are a lot of films that deal with specific political topics. They often focus on the human rights perspective and empathy with victims, humanizing some political topics. However, they shy away from a more specific political debate," he explains.
"It's a conscious choice because filmmakers don't want to provoke viewers, who might have different political views. But, we should have those difficult discussions. It's good for people to have strong positions, but then to be able to exchange them with others."
"I love to say that what I've done with my films is not difficult in Lithuania, it's impossible. But," he smiles, "I did it anyway. So, that's nice."
"The Writer" is showing at Tallinn's Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF) on Wednesday, November 15 and Saturday, November 18. Wednesday's screening is followed by a short Q and A session with director Romas Zabarauskas.
Editor: Andrew Whyte