Always Look Up
An award-winning film director stares at the sky
In his best films, the director Arūnas Matelis always looks up. He looks into the sky, together with his protagonists, be it the sculptor who remade the sculptures for the roof of the Cathedral in Vilnius, or workers who emerge to stare at an eclipse of the sun.
This gaze, directed at the source of light, is never emphasised in his films. It is never forced on you, but can always be felt very clearly, almost physically. It is part of his outlook. It always breaks through the pandemonium of reality.
The director and the children in his latest film Before Flying Back to the Earth look out of a window beyond the hospital.
This film is very powerful emotionally, and amazing by its suggestive cinematic language. It has won awards at most film festivals in Europe. In February it was awarded one of the most prestigious awards in the world, that of the Directors’ Guild of America in the documentary category.
The director says that the goodwill and charity inspired across the world by his films are much more important to him than the awards.
“This shows that we often think too little of the world, and underestimate film,” he says.
Back to earth
In Before the Return to Earth the director steps through the door of a place we do not usually see. The site is a hospital, where children are being treated for leukaemia.
The film begins with a scene where a little patient is having his head shaven, and this introduction into a completely new world that is difficult to understand accompanies us throughout the film. The little boy gives a smile, and the threshold between everyday life and a place where its value is amplified a thousand times has been breached. The value of every second lived by the film and its protagonists is invaluable in terms of any known standards of value.
In the film, Matelis uses black and white photographs of the children and pictures taken by them. Each shot is permeated with respect for those who appear: the children and their parents, the doctors and cleaners. Matelis has created a film in which none, not even the least important shot, indulges in false sympathy. It is a film which does not demean man, but states the meaningfulness of his presence on Earth. Each shot speaks of the value of daily life behind the walls of the hospital.
The film is based on Matelis’ personal experience. He spent many days in the hospital, where he was able to observe the events that inspired the film.
“I saw that the children and their parents, despite the anxiety and pain, often looked happier than people who are outside the hospital. Why? How can this be?”
The director’s return to the hospital with a camera was an attempt to find an answer to this question.
Matelis looks beyond the limits of his personal world. The film forces us to do this. He has created a film where it would be simply indecent for the director to have his own agenda, or to direct reality.
Therefore, a video camera is given to young Andrius. His footage, which is edited into the film, enjoys equal rights as the rest of the film, and is an inseparable part of it.
Andrius, with whom the director speaks a lot in the film, tells him about time, which passes like lightning in the hospital, and about his pain.
He was destined to become a co-author, in a direct sense, of one of the most compassionate and most humane contemporary films. What overwhelms us is not the disease, but a simple thing like the ability to be human on both sides of the camera.
After Before Flying Back to the Earth was seen by over 400 million people at various festivals across the world, and on television, a wave of humanitarian aid started on an incredible scale, which reached Lithuania from as far as Japan.
Speak about what you don’t know
Forty-six-year-old Matelis came to cinema in a somewhat roundabout way, after four years of studying mathematics at Vilnius University.
“Mathematics is not as far from film or music as it may seem,” he says. “In my opinion, mathematics comes between poetry and music, as it deals with absolutely pure things, numbers.
“Nevertheless, there came a time when I could no longer stay in maths, because I became interested in another space, man, life going on around me, art, the mood of the time, with its meaning and meaningfulness and futility. All this forced me to drop maths and to take up film.”
A few years after graduating from the Theatre and Television Department at the Lithuanian Academy of Music, Matelis set up one of the first independent film studios in the country, called Nominum. He has directed eight films, and produced around 20. Films directed by him have been shown at festivals in Cannes, Rotterdam, Oberhausen, Locarno, Tokyo, Sao Paulo and at many other festivals, and received numerous awards.
Now Matelis can laugh when recalling how they were taught about cinema in Soviet times.
“We never saw films,” he recalls. “Our teachers told us about them and brought books in which stills from films were shown. We had to imagine the films.”
He admits that until now his biggest authority has been his former teacher, the documentary maker Henrikas Šablevičius, whose works, created at a time when much had to be left unsaid, have left a big impression on him to this day.
Matelis’ first film, Ten Minutes before Icarus Flew, was made in 1990, just before the transformations which brought about the regaining of independence and the demise of the Soviet Union. The ten-minute film reflects this transition, with its rhythm and powerful metaphorical language.
“When I began to shoot my first film I did not know how to go about it. It seemed that I should make the film, and then I would know what to do. To tell the truth, however, I still don’t know how to. And in fact, the further I go, the scarier it is.”
Nevertheless, this obscurity did not prevent him from making an excellent film, which was shown at many international festivals and won several prizes. In addition, it was also an important film, which became a kind of manifesto of the younger generation of filmmakers who praised this poetic documentary.
“For me, it’s torture when I’m making a film and know how I’m going to do it,” he says. “If I know the scenario, then there’s no joy of discovery. Is it worth writing a scenario for six months, and copying it during filming, so that you reach a known place at a certain point?”
He says he chooses his themes according to a very simple principle. There are things in life that affect you in one way or another, when anxiety or excitement overwhelms you.
“I don’t even know how I get grabbed by the material,” says Matelis. “I begin a new film with great difficulty. I begin, but then I stop, and start, and stop again.
“I ask myself whether I want to go deeper, whether it will open up for me. Like on a journey. Making a film is like life. You devote a year or two to a film.”
It takes him a long time to make his films. He would have needed another six or 12 months to make Before Flying Back to the Earth if it was not a co-production with film companies from other countries. He admits that he would surely have given up at a certain time.
“Because so many people participated in making this film, I simply couldn’t stop. We were late as it was. In Lithuania you can negotiate with the Ministry [of Culture]. Elsewhere you cannot,” he confesses.
On games, a minister’s portfolio and a business streak
The film Ten Minutes before Icarus Flew can be treated not only as a very important and sensitive reflection of the period, when people were waiting for change. Now it has become important from a historical point of view for its location, the Užupis quarter, a special part of Vilnius.
Matelis was the first to point his camera at this district, and we could say that his film changed it beyond recognition. The area became a centre of attraction, where local and foreign filmmakers came to shoot. Užupis became a free, bohemian town; it was declared a republic. And, for his merits, Matelis received the portfolio of the minister of migration and transformation of the Republic of Užupis.
Apart from his own films, which appear every few years, Matelis produces films (also prizewinners at international festivals) directed by his friend Audrius Stonys. Seven years ago they made The Flight over Lithuania, or 510 Seconds of Silence together for Expo 2000 in Hanover. This ten-minute film is a technical masterpiece, and its commercial success reveals the other side of Matelis, that of a clever entrepreneur who always finds original ideas.
It is not difficult to identify advertising made by Matelis. The director calls commissioned films (for example, a Suzuki advertisement) a chance to earn a living, but he admits that it is also a very interesting job.
“Advertising has different goals each time. But these films do not require night-time work. I would call them games in between something else. They require less spiritual and physical effort.
“It’s like passing time, and at the same time a possibility to make a living. It’s a job, which allows you to breathe freely later. You play at making a film, and later you don’t have to do what you don’t want to.”
Perhaps this article has so far paid too little attention to Matelis’ fame?
He has received the National Prize, and was nominated by LT Identity 2006 for the best representation of Lithuania abroad.
It is not often that a Lithuanian has the honour of winning an award along with Scorcese in Los Angeles, being applauded by Hollywood celebrities, and of proving that Lithuanians can compete with the Americans, who control 80 per cent of the film market.
Nevertheless, Matelis has a straightforward opinion about awards and festivals. “Participation in festivals has become a fetish. It’s a true vanity fair. It’s not the awards which make you shoot films. They are not the focus during the process,” he says.
“On the other hand though, festivals are a possibility to be heard, to meet thousands of people, to encounter viewers who like film. Glory is a tool for getting sponsorship for the next film.”
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