Vilnius Festival Defies War-clouds And Pandemic

in 26th Vilnius Film Festival – Kino Pavasaris

by Bernard Besserglik

Organising a film festival is complicated enough at the best of times, but organising a film festival against a background of war and pandemic poses problems that are unprecedented. Lithuania is devoted body and soul to the cause of the Ukrainians in their struggle against Russian aggression. The yellow and blue flag is visible everywhere in the city of Vilnius; hoteliers, officials and shopkeepers wear yellow-and-blue badges. A country of fewer than three million inhabitants, Lithuania has taken in and is continuing to take in thousands of refugees from the destruction being inflicted on Ukraine’s people and infrastructure.

The 27th edition of the Vilnius International Film Festival (VIFF) that ended in April 2022 was the first to be staged in-person since the outbreak of the pandemic two years ago. However the situation regarding the festival was anything but “back to normal”.

As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, organisers decided to deprogramme the five Russian movies booked prior to the February 24 assault, and to disinvite the Russian filmmakers and artists who had been expected to take part in the festival.

The disharmony was symbolised by the case of Sergei Loznitsa, a filmmaker who has worked extensively across Russia’s “near-abroad”, expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy for denouncing what he considered its feeble response to the attack on Ukraine, who wrote an open letter in which, among other things, he deplored the blanket boycotting of individual Russian filmmakers.

Festival director Algirdas Ramaska defended the decision to exclude all Russian filmmakers, while declining to comment on Loznitsa’s stance.

“This is no time to promote Russian culture”, he said. “Anyway, the public would have boycotted any Russian movies we had programmed”.

The boycott imposed by the festival was no different from boycotts in the fields of sport, business, science and culture, he said. Culture is the strongest agent of soft power, and the Russians are well aware of that, he noted. “The priority now must be to stop the war.”

The problems created by the pandemic are of another order and  are potentially more enduring. They are not all unique to Lithuania, having to do with changes in film-going habits globally. Put simply, as a result of the pandemic, people have grown used to going out less often and seeking out other forms of on-screen entertainment.

The consequences for festival organisers around the world are likely to be dramatic. Prior to 2020, the pre-sale of tickets for the Vilnius festival was of the order of 40,000; this year, pre-sales numbered around 10,000. Ramaska notes that a similar fall in the number of live attendances is discernible in other cultural spheres such as theatre and music.

The fundamental changes observable in audiences post-2020 is having consequences for festival programming, with increasing emphasis being placed on half a dozen or so hot-ticket movies given greater visibility while other more demanding movies become a harder sell.

An incidental detail detected by Ramaska personally was the greater nervousness of audiences during screenings, with spectators fidgeting in their seats, checking their mobile phones, and other expressions of tenseness, all attributable, in Ramaska’s view, to a greater sense of insecurity in the outside world.

Despite the difficulties, the VIFF laid on a varied selection of more than 80 features with an international competition and sidebar sections such as a Panorama, retrospectives, debut features, experimental movies, an informal market and a short film competition.

A highlight of the festival was the Ukraine Day, an event organised  and repeated ten days later, laid on to provide a platform for a dozen Ukrainian filmmakers and industry representatives. The proceeds from the screening of five Ukrainian movies were to be donated to organisations chosen by the filmmakers themselves.

One of the films was Mariupol, directed by the Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicius. Tragically, the film – a feature-length vignette of scenes from the fighting in the Donbas region in the years 2014-15 – was given a repeat screening at the festival’s closing ceremony to honour the director’s death. Kvedaravicius, who was also an anthropologist, was killed on the eve of the ceremony during the siege of Mariupol, aged 45. He leaves a wife and two children.

More generally, Ramaska deplored what he saw as the current over-production of movies, aggravating the situation created by the backlog of movies completed in the months prior to the outbreak of Covid and still awaiting distribution.

For Ramaska, the glut means that many films were being made that no-one will see. The changes in film-going habits require filmmakers to change their habits too, to become “not so arrogant” towards the public and to “stop ignoring audiences”.

The situation called for “less content and higher value”, he said. In his view, the United States and Europe inhabited “two universes”, with the former favouring private investment where the European industries tend to live on state subsidies. For Ramaska, the path to a healthy future leads via the American option.

Bernard Besserglik  
Edited by Amber Wilkinson