In 1993, Lithuania removed laws prohibiting homosexuality. Polling conducted almost two decades after that indicated that public opinion regarding homosexuality remained roughly the same: 8 out of 10 Lithuanians believing that homosexuality was similar to an illness or disease. Although Vilnius has popular gay bars, a pride parade, and at a superficial glance, a tolerant culture toward homosexuality, homophobia sustains in the dominant culture. A mixture of the power of the Catholic Church, reactionary politics, and outright hatred helps hold back Lithuanian society from challenging this bigotry.
It is this hate that makes the works of Romas Zabarauskas both so proud and so brave. A director, writer and activist, Romas’ work challenges this wildly held homophobia and gives voice to Lithuanian queers. His most recent film, Nuo Lietuvos nepabėgsi (You Can’t Escape Lithuania) succeeds in critiquing this homophobia in an extremely unconventional fashion. His work does not fall into the similar story of oppression but presents itself in many ways as a question to both Lithuanian society and the very foundations of storytelling. In that fashion, even referring to him as a “queer director” does not provide a broad enough scope to what his work does. In essence, he looks to challenge foundations while leaving the viewer to wonder where those foundations are.
Part of a broader network of filmmaker in the former USSR and Eastern Europe that is not conforming to the Western exoticization of the region, he is a must-know. He kindly spoke to us about his film work and his future projects.
Finding funding for a film is always difficult, as it is in Lithuania. However, you circumvented the conventional path for funding and independently financed the film through Kickstarter. Do you feel that doing this allowed you to have more freedom to make a more thought-provoking film?
I love crowdfunding, but it shouldn’t be seen as a cure for everything. It requires a special type of creator and project in order to work. Even then, it’s extremely difficult to fundraise a budget for a movie. We successfully raised half of the funds for You Can’t Escape Lithuania through crowdfunding, and the rest through smaller grants and private sponsors. It was a success but at the same time, we were able to pull off this film because a lot of people worked for free or minimum fees. It was my second feature (after We Will Riot) and I don’t think I could go on working on such micro budgets. Luckily, just last week I got a positive reply from the Lithuanian Film Center – we’re getting a grant of 190.000EUR for my next queer feature, The Lawyer. The type of funding we get can’t change my content substantially. I wouldn’t be able to do what I don’t want to – that’s just how I work.
That said, crowdfunding helps to create a community, so I still plan to make a campaign for my new film. Stay tuned!
Your film has been stylized as a queer film, yet it presents many intersecting questions. There are issues of gender relations and migration. Do you want your film to be understood as part of the broader queer cinema tradition?
There are so many definitions of what “queer” or “queer film” means. For me, I’d love my work to be seen as being inspired by such different filmmakers as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Christophe Honoré, Lisa Cholodenko or Bruce LaBruce. And if my films are watched by gay men looking for pure entertainment, I also don’t mind that. They are in for a surprise.
There certainly isn’t any basic conclusions or solutions with your film. Yet, homophobia and nationalism remain prevalent in Lithuanian society, which you confront in your films. What did you want to express about Lithuania in your film?
It’s a difficult question because expressing something about Lithuania wasn’t my primary goal. I’m not interested in making realist or educational films. For me, it’s a film about self-obsession and a strange human fascination with storytelling. That said, I’m happy that the film reverses some stereotypes about our region and would like to pursue this line of representation in the future, too. I’m not impressed with the exoticization of post-Soviet poverty, which is so fashionable in the West at the moment.
I understand you’ve studied in both Paris and New York. Within Nuo Lietuvos nepabėgsi, you can really see a hybrid identity to the film as it has very standard beginnings but descends into a very deconstructive film. What were some of your inspirations while making this film?
First of all, I was inspired by my own life in Lithuania, where for some time I was known more as “that gay guy” than a filmmaker – and by the fascinating celebrity culture I discovered while living here. In terms of films, have you noticed the main character has “Ron Kirby” written on his T-shirt? He is the hero of All That Heaven Allows, my favorite film from Douglas Sirk, who remains a huge influence with his clever melodramatic style. In terms of representing gay people in a “bad” way, I was inspired by New Queer Cinema troublemakers and previous classics like Cruising. Indeed, since it’s a film about a filmmaker, there was a lot of space for cinematic games and references.
Your next feature “The Lawyer” will be shot in both Vilnius and Belgrade. Similarly to Lithuania, Serbia has both a history of authoritarian socialism and homophobia. However, both capitals have long histories of strong counter-culture. What drew you to Belgrade?
I can’t disclose much about my new film yet, because it will only be finished and released in 2020. Serbia fascinates me with its paradoxes, showing both authoritarian and pro-EU tendencies at the same time. For example, did you know that their current Prime Minister Ana Brnabic is openly gay and participated in a successful LGBT+ pride parade last year? Vilnius and Belgrade will provide an interesting context for two lead characters, but the main story is about falling in love. In terms of representation, I do think it’s time to look beyond the post-Soviet chic, à la Gosha Rubchinskiy, and this will be addressed directly in the film, too.