DocTalk: On the Barricades of Europe — The Boston Baltic Film Festival
By Peter Keough
The populations in former Soviet Socialist Republics and current NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia know all too well what it’s like to live under Russian subjugation as is seen in a trio of trenchant and timely documentaries.
Had Putin’s invasion of Ukraine gone according to plan the former Soviet Socialist Republics and current NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia might well have been next on his hit list. These countries had been through it before: their populations know all too well what it’s like to live under Russian subjugation as is seen in the trenchant and timely documentaries in this year’s Boston Baltic Film Festival (March 3-5 at the Emerson Paramount Theatre; March 6-19 virtual screenings).
Such is the case with the photographer Arunas Kulikauskas and the painter and musician Eugenijus Varkulevičius-Varkalis, two Lithuanian artists featured in Ramune Rakauskaite’s meandering but engaging Back from New York (2022; available online March 6-19).
When the then gatekeepers of art insisted on Soviet Socialist Realism, calling for depictions of an idealized workers’ paradise, Varkulevicius-Varkalis responded with photographs of discarded plumbing, dead dogs, and rustic squalor. It didn’t win him many friends in the Vilnius gallery scene. So when an opportunity arose to head for New York, he jumped at it.
He found the city overwhelming, exhilarating, and lonely until he heard of the filmmaker, archivist, and critic Jonas Mekas, another Lithuanian émigré, who was revered in the underground art scene. The two hit it off and were joined by Kulikauskas, also fresh from the Baltics. The three hung out in a madcap, productive collaboration, becoming known as “the Lithuanian mafia.”
Both men have since returned to their native land (Mekas died in 2019 at 96), Varkulevičius-Varkalis settling down on a farm with his wife and children and Kulikauskas still apparently a bit crazy after all those years. When the two meet today in the latter’s attic studio, Kulikauskas greets his friend with a spontaneous performance of a piece played on two recorders simultaneously. Varkulevičius-Varkalis, now a teetotaler, turns down a drink. Director Rakauskaite evokes the spirit of the pair’s time shared in New York (it appears to be the ’90s, though the film could use more specifics on time, place, and people). He seems to be emulating Mekas’s own cinematic style, with his rapid fire montages, blues and jazz soundtrack, and disorienting jump cuts, intercutting the high-spirited past with the more sober (at least in Varkulevičius-Varkalis’ case) and reflective spirit of the present day.
Helga Merits’ The Story of the Baltic University (2015; available online March 6-19) opens with an image hauntingly reminiscent of one that shocked the world a year ago when a stream of civilians – many of them old people and children – crossed a collapsed bridge in flight from the Russians then advancing on Kiev. Here those fleeing are trying to escape the invading Red Army during World War II. They are some of the 200,000 from the Baltic countries for whom Germany was the only refuge from Soviet tyranny.
One might think the last thing on their minds would be how to get a college degree, but in fact hundreds — Merits’ father included — leapt at the opportunity when academics from all three Baltic countries pitched the idea to establish a refugee university in newly liberated, bombed out Hamburg. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) supported the proposal, facilities were eventually found in a former Luftwaffe barracks, and in March, 1946 the Baltic University was a reality. The following year they issued a press release stating, “Our institution will be recorded by history.”
“But it was not,” notes the film’s voiceover narrator. After numerous name changes and a few relocations, with its numbers reduced by emigration, it closed in 1949, having graduated 76 students.
After finding her late father’s study book, Merits set out to learn more about the lost institution and managed to track down illuminating archival material and, more importantly, a few surviving alumni and former students. Piecing together their memories with documents, photos, and film clips, she tells a story of resilience, optimism, and resourcefulness as the school endured the post-war hell of food shortages, furious winters, and day-to-day uncertainty to instill in students the will and resources to seize their dreams. As one alumna recalls, “They were the three best years of my youth.”
A striking image in The Story of the Baltic University — in which a cook stirs a giant vat of an unappealing liquid in a campus cafeteria — finds a parallel in Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius’ Mariupolis 2 (2022; screens March 5 at 1 p.m. at the Bright Screening Room in the Emerson Paramount Theatre). A woman does the same in a rubble-strewn lot. In the first instance, students line up for a meager bowl of the soup, smiling because they look forward to a hopeful future. In the second the bedraggled survivors of the Russian siege of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol huddle around the fire and smile ruefully – they might be looking at their last meal.
Kvedaravicius had visited the city in 2014 when Moscow-backed insurgents battled the government in a takeover attempt, events he recorded in his documentary Mariupolis (2016). Mariupol was spared then, but when he returned in 2022 following the Russian invasion the city was under siege with little hope of rescue. In the film, Kvedaravičius holes up in a church with others seeking shelter. Their world consists of the basement, where everyone sleeps and eats, the stairwells, windows, a parking lot littered with debris (despite the constant sweeping), and the view from the roof of a flattened city, ruins everywhere, flashes of tracers crossing the sky and conflagrations blurring the horizon at night. The Azovstal steelworks sprawls nearby where the Azov Brigade is dug in: the last vestige of resistance. The roar of explosions, small arms fire, passing jets, and helicopters is unceasing and, except when bone-rattling close, ignored.
Sequences pass at length with little happening, which allows you to study in depth and detail the extent of the devastation. Fragments of conversation are overheard. In one exchange a man describes how his neighbor’s house was blown up along with his neighbor, pieces of whom ended up on the man’s roof. Three days later he was able to recover the pieces and bury them. He recalls how the dead man’s hands were still wearing white gardening gloves.
Occasionally Kvedaravičius follows some of the residents on an excursion. He joins two men as they come across a generator in a blasted building. The doorway is blocked by two corpse so they drag them out and fumble with the machine to see if it is salvageable. One of the men complains about the stench. Another suggests that the filmmaker check out a nearby car to see if the battery is still intact. From behind the camera, perhaps because he is uneasy about pillaging the dead, Kvedaravičius declines. After much fumbling the two others drag the generator across the rubble to the church. “It’s for the kids,” one mumbles apologetically. Then they notice that after all that trouble they forgot to find the cable that goes with the device.
Were they able to get it to work? We never find out. Were the dead men ever buried? Possibly. There is a shot later of a grave with withered flowers on it. Meanwhile, people pass the days from one meal to the next. They are like Beckett characters, not waiting for Godot but for Gotterdammerung. At one breakfast a minister says a prayer of thanks. Another man says how lucky we are. Just go to the mass grave by the theater if you don’t believe me, he says, referring to the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre which the Russians had blown up, killing around 300 – mostly children. Though there were two huge signs — clearly visible from the air –with the word “Дети” (“Children”) on them, the Russians bombed it anyway. “God didn’t protect those who didn’t pray,” says a man who apparently believes more in the power of prayer than the power of signs.
The film is rough but this roughness intensifies its realism, heightens its sense of dread, and deepens the pathos and horror. No doubt Kvedaravičius would have rendered it into a more artful form but he was murdered — by the Russians or by separatist forces allied with them — last March before he could finish it. His fiancée Hanna Bilobrova recovered the body and the surviving footage, which she shaped into the finished film in time for its premiere at Cannes just a few weeks after the filmmaker’s death.
Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).