Lithuanian villages, as in most of Eastern Europe, are now in semi-terminal decline. Once lively places known for their traditions and values, they are increasingly deserted. Schools are closing down, and once-thriving churches becoming monuments to the past.
So when CEEL contributor Agne Dovydaityte found her grandfather’s diary, detailing daily life in one such settlement from the mid-eighties, she decided to embark on making a feature-length documentary on the topic with director and cinematographer Alexander Belinski, using her ancestor’s words as the script. ‘It’s not a film about Lithuania,’ she says. ‘It’s about a man at a distinct moment in time when nothing was certain, except for one’s faith and the landscapes around you. It’s a film for everyone and about everyone.’
The film will be completed in summer 2018, and the Kickstarter campaign to raise funding has begun. Here Dovydaityte and Belinski discuss the project, with Borimir Totev:
How did you end up on the path towards documentary film making? Did you encounter a turning point or a moment of clarity?
Dovydaityte: I came to London in 2014 to study Journalism, while working as a bartender in one of Angela Hartnett’s restaurants on the side. I’d wanted to be a journalist since I was five years old, and I’ve always envisaged myself being involved in print or online media, with a focus on Eastern European culture and politics. However, as someone with high expectations, I found Journalism studies rather boring and disappointing. I met Alex at university and consequently was introduced to avant-garde cinema, cinematography, and film production. I also began practising Russian with him. Initially we collaborated on video projects for university, then for the hospitality industry, also filming some events and conferences. We felt rather comfortable working with each other – he as camera person and editor, and myself as producer.
Belinski: I was born in Ukraine and lived in Germany for a short while, before moving to the United Kingdom. After finishing secondary school, uncertain whether I was more interested in politics or communication, I decided to study Journalism at university, where I met Agne. I’ve been interested in film for a long time. What started out as regular watching of films gradually turned into a passion, perhaps even an obsession with what cinema had to offer. Inevitably I found myself at a point where things I watched rarely satisfied me anymore, and I therefore developed a desire to create, based on all that I’d learned along the way. I didn’t necessarily pick documentary cinema as the format to pursue, and I’m very much open to narrative cinema as well – however, this is what I’m currently doing. Having said that, I believe the highest form of cinema is a kind of hybrid of documentary and narrative.
On one of your trips back to Lithuania you stumbled across an exciting discovery. Tell us more about what inspired “The Sun Sets in the East”?
Dovydaityte: When I discovered my grandfather’s diary and mentioned it to Alex, we came to a natural realisation that it was a valuable document, telling of moral values and a pastoral lifestyle that is all but forgotten in the ‘developed’ world. We also realised that it would make for an interesting documentary. The diary of my grandfather described the slow and simple life of a peasant in 1984 Soviet Lithuania, in a very delicate and touching manner. Contrary to what some might expect, it is not an emotional diary, he wasn’t a person who experienced loads of suffering, he wasn’t deported, he did not get lost in the stream of history. It is a diary of the everyday life of a peasant, who wakes up in the morning and goes to weed furrows or cut trees in the park. Politics barely reaches him, and he allows himself to seek God, also in a very non-emotional way – simply living by the rules, following church orders, and being a good person.
Where exactly are you in the process of making the film right now and what can we expect to see as a finished product?
Belinski: At the moment we are alternating between pre-production and principal photography, and we hope to close the gap soon with a crowdfunding campaign. Recently, we were in Lithuania for a week, to shoot the summer segment of the diary, with the help of friends and relatives acting as chauffeurs and guides. This segment is now being edited, so in a way we’re also stepping a little into post-production territory too.
Dovydaityte: I am mostly responsible for the organisational part of the film, but we both have a clear vision of how the film is going to look, and we’ve already started shooting it. The visuals mostly show countryside Lithuania, lone villages and houses, fields of barley and hay, with industrial buildings and constructions disturbing this peaceful scenery. Where before there used to be allotments, now there are factories, the landscape is divided by electricity pylons and giant industrial chimneys. These visuals are combined with a voiceover of the diary…. It simply shows how the life of a regular Lithuanian peasant looked, and the landscape in which it unfolded. This is not a film about Lithuania. It’s about a man at a certain period of history where nothing was certain, apart from one’s faith and nature. Most of what is told by him and shown by us is applicable everywhere and always.
This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in SLOVO journal on 14 August 2017. For the interview in its entirety, please click on the Slovo logo below.
Those interested in the The Sun Sets in the East, willing to give advice, financial support, or wishing to ask further questions should click on the right-hand image below, for details of the Kickstarter Campaign.