The Elusive Present: an interview with Sharunas Bartas
by Anna Nieman
This interview with the Lithuanian auteur Sharunas Bartas, was conducted by Xenia Drugoveyko of Séance Magazine during the recent retrospective of Lithuanian Film: 1990-2010 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Sharunas Bartas was presenting two of his films— Three Days and The House. Read the original interview in Russian here. Translated with the magazine’s permission by Anna Nieman, it froms part of a larger Subvex Collective Interviews Project
Xenia Drugoveyko: You have chosen “Three Days” (1991) and “The House” (1997) to be shown during the week of Lithuanian Film. Are these your favorite films and/or are they especially meaningful to you?
Sharunas Bartas: Truthfully, this program was created for a screening at MOMA, in New York. “Three Days” is my first full length film, and “The House” is very much me and very little like my other films… A beautiful explanation, isn’t it? Too bad, I just invented it. [Laughs] All my works are important to me, but I choose “The Corridor” [as a favorite] – the reasons, like everything that has to do with love, are subjective.
X. D.: You are always making films on the border of narrative and documentary cinema: one dissolves in the other. To what degree is this effect intentional and to what degree is it accidental?
S. B.: The real life events are closer to me. That’s why this documentary effect is not accidental – it is achieved by combining a number of interconnected technical and dramatic methods. By the way, I am trying to avoid the word “narrative” – I think it has become outdated in relation to cinema. This term is not a genre and not a category – it’s from an area of philosophical categories. I do prefer to juxtapose the narrative and documentary cinema. You were quite correct in noting the dissolving effect. This is what the concept consists of: the relativity of the divide between life and its artistic comprehension.
X. D.: In your works everyday situations and relationships are often transformed into surreal ones…
S. B.: We don’t actually live in a real world, but in one we quietly agreed to call “real”. It’s limited by what we saw and heard. Or, more like, what we allow ourselves to see and hear. So, it turns out each of us constructs his own internal reality. There are similarities, perhaps, in the picture of the reality that you and I have, but we can hardly imagine how the world is seen by, say, an Indian or a native of Cote-d’Ivoire. There is another , unfortunate circumstance common to all of us – the elusiveness of time. Every new minute is not like the one that passed. There is no concept of “present”; well, there is but it’s too conditional. And more so than even the past and the future about which at least we are sure to possess a set of memories or notions. In this lies the essence of surrealism in my films: a gradual understanding of the everyday life through the prism of the inner subjective perception.
X. D.: This surrealism is built on metaphors. When are they born, during the script writing or in the process of shooting the film?
S. B.: I never invent metaphors. It’s awesome if a thought takes on some unusual form, but I wouldn’t attach the actual term “metaphor” to my films. If a metaphor is some intentional expression taking on some esthetically distorted form on film, then what I have happening is the complete opposite of that. A visual image – the reflection of the reality (mine every minute one of the imagined reality of the character) – a priori contains an expression. Although, one person will see it as parable, and the other as a very direct statement, read without italics and quotation marks. Because for this person it will intersect with his picture of reality.
X. D.: Watching “Eastern Drift” and contemplating it’s title, one can’t help but conjure the term “metaphor”; a metaphor of the contemporary world and the place of a human in it, not connected by the borders, nationality or ethnicity.
S. B.: Perhaps…. Yes, indeed. But, initially, I had injected it with a much simpler and obvious side of that idea. The process that occurs is much faster than was expected: the growth of the Earth’s population, the intermixing of the races and cultures. And it’s not only happening insanely fast, but against a backdrop of the endlessly improving technological possibilities. It is both intriguing and frightening.
X. D.: You’ve filmed in Siberia, and in Crimea, and in your native Lithuania, and in Africa… Let’s talk about the geography of your cinema – how do you choose the location?
S. B.: It’s pretty easy to make the decision regarding the country: the choice is based on the concept of the film and, of course, on the pragmatic reasons, the ability to conduct the filming with the most efficiency. It’s more complicated where it comes to the specific region. For example, before filming “Seven Invisible Men”, I traveled around Crimea for quite some time, searching for the right location. Once I got to the Kerch Peninsula, I immediately felt that it was what we needed. The living there is unlike anywhere else: it’s beautiful and strange and somewhat scary, all at the same time. You have to coexist for a while with any place before it will begin to release its energy to be absorbed into your work.
X. D.: After the release of “Seven Invisible Men” you were often called a connoisseur of Russian soul. What makes it unique to you?
S. B.: After getting to know Russia quite well, visiting many of its cities and villages, I can say that Russian soul is the most receptive and changeable. Unlike any other, it is influenced by “the genius of the place” – the climate and the local way of living. Which is more diverse here than anywhere else. I think the famous enigma of Russian soul comes from Russian multiculturalism. A Russian more often then anyone is forced to wonder who he really is.
X. D.: But what about the national heritage? In your beloved “The Corridor” critics have noticed the influence of German expressionism.
S. B.: That’s the first time I hear about it – got to remember this one! [Laughs] I wouldn’t name specific schools, traditions and directions – in their national aspect, anyway. Rather, there is an influence of the globalization and the general complexity of the modern world. I can’t imagine how to characterize it in some specific terms, but understand why every man attempts to classify and sort out every object of art perceived by him. This organizes the experiences and simplifies understanding. But when it comes to cinema, classification causes nothing but trouble. It is, indeed, the kind of an art form where any categories are conditional. Even with genres there’s a complete mess, I am not even talking about styles. The same goes for the national traditions.
X. D.: Your films are so unhurried; it is as if they move with the pace of a real human life. What does it have to do with?
S. B.: I am trying to make films about very simple things. And, admittedly, when it comes to simple things, we are quite unskilled in contemplating them, and in vain are rejecting them as an obvious granted. We don’t have such a habit – so it takes a lot of moral strength, effort and time. That’s what I give myself and my viewers; time. To set the pace for a film, the editing tools are not enough; you need a basis for choosing this or other tempo. Same, actually, goes for the other technical details: for example, the currently popular in documentary and pseudo-documentary films shaking camera, shooting with some insane-to-the-viewer angle. Sometimes it’s justifiable, but more often, unfortunately, it looks like silly excess.
X. D.: Your films have few words in them, and at times are pretty much silent, but all the everyday sound seems to be the real music. How do you compose it?
S. B.: It’s a very interesting process: there’s, as they say, enough algebra, as well as harmony. When we technically build the soundtrack, we bump up or turn down this or that element. As a result, unwittingly, the audience’s attention is focused on the sound of steps, clanking of the dishes, sounds of voices, singing of birds. It creates an illusion that the viewer picked it all up himself out of the usual everyday din.
X. D.: And this unfailingly makes you feel not like a member of the audience but a part of the action.
S. B.: It’s wonderful, if so, but, to be honest, I never specifically aim for it. On the other hand, I do have to watch the footage, judging it from a point of view of the audience. At this point I often feel myself as a part of the life on the screen. Though, I think, the secret is not in the sound and not even in the pace: it’s just when a person understands and accepts (and it hardly ever coincides with each other – at least not with my films), he always becomes a participant.
X. D.: What is the contemporary viewer in need of – who or what would you like to see on the screen?
S. B.: First of all, the audience is in need of reference points. The viewer has become a victim of a wild visual stream, in which there are formats, genres and styles all mixed together. The TV series are stylized to look like films; films are simplified to look like TV series. Everything is present in this stream. But once you start looking, the hell if you’ll find something. There’s almost no films made about what is really happening in our life. There is not enough honesty. Cinema should show life. It even makes commercial sense – anyone is interested in seeing films about people with the same issues and recognizable circumstances. The regular, real people are the most complex and difficult characters, but we must make films about them.
X. D.: Is there something you haven’t said about the regular people in your films, something you still want to express?
S. B.: As long as I am alive, I will continue to speak out, but right now I’m not ready to answer what about. Remember, I was telling you about the elusive present? Who knows, how many times it will elude me, yet, and where will it lead me, when I begin to make my next film.