Fighting cultural monotony

Article published on April 4, 2007
Article published on April 4, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

A small community of film fans have given a new lease of life to cinema in Vilnius

The bright and inviting foyer to the old Skalvija cinema on the bank of the Neris seems to be glowing. Inside, young people keep warm in the newly constructed 'Bruce Lee' café. The walls are freshly painted and every table is occupied. The visitors are awaiting the next showing of Murderball, a sentimental documentary about wheelchair-bound basketball players. 'The number of visitors has increased by 350% in contrast to the previous year,' beams Greta Zabulkaite, Skalvija's manager.

Good programming, warm floors

The programming at Skalvija is arranged by a very vocal public, who prefers arthouse films to Hollywood blockbusters. The true public is willing to abandon luxury for this: the theatre offers no Dolby Digital Surround Sound system, and in winter it can get uncomfortably cold in the screens. To combat this, there is a varied program and dozens of warm blankets in the foyer. But this is all the visitors need to enjoy a good evening at the cinema.

The work of the cinema goes beyond merely screening the film. Skalvija recently established a film-academy offspring, where students can venture into the world of filmmaking. With the assistance of film professionals, budding new talents can learn about acting, production and film technology. 'We promote the talent of the students and develop their cultural awareness. So we draw on our guests for the future,' explains Zabulkaite.

Enthusiasm of the young

A change of scene: it's 7pm in the futuristic 'Life Club' not far from the city centre of Vilnius, and over a hundred young people have assembled together. Lithuanian film stars are arriving in the midst of the flurry of flashes from photographers. With gentle electronic sounds and calorie-deficient finger food, the Vilnius film festival presents this year’s spring cinema.

In previous years there have been scarcely 45,000 visitors to the screenings. Within two years viewer figures have doubled. Even with the viewing figures for international films, promoter Vida Ramaskiene still says that the figures beat those of years gone by. 'Above all, we want to encourage the youngsters. If, say in the future there is no longer any interest in festivals and the cinema, then we won’t give them any more,' explains Ramaskiene.

The problems of the continued existence of people engaged in the cultural sector in Lithuania are valid. In autumn 2005 the largest independent cinema in Lithuania, 'Lietuva', was closed down. The building itself is to be torn down. In its place investors plan to build exclusive new apartment buildings for the town’s newly arrived upper classes. At the same time the municipality believes that Skalvija’s building should also be bought by private investors. Alarge part of this blame for the low number of visitors is attributed to the cinema. This seems to signal the collective conclusive end of repertory cinemas in Vilnius.

Loss of diversity

The same applies today as did then: in Vilnius cultural pabulum has been broadly followed. In Soviet times, long queues would build up from evening to evening for the many small cinemas of the Lithuanian capital. Film offered a rare opportunity to conserve Lithuania’s cultural identity. If a Lithuanian goes to the cinema today, it is often to one of the multiplex cinemas in the suburbs, which mainly screen Hollywood blockbusters.

It is thanks in large to the dedication of film and cultural enthusiasts that an alternative film scene exists in Vilnius. A civic initiative to abolish cinema in Lithuania is hindered today. And if the property itself proves beyond rescue, the 'building must remain a place of culture,' says Sarunas Bagdonas, leader of the initiative. He has strained court proceedings, the irregularity of which has been examined by private investors along with the sale. All so long as the cinema is not torn down.

Animated scene

For some young people, it has become downright prestigious to voluntarily support independent cinema. The Pavasaris cinema alone will be backed by thirty volunteers. For the organisers, there have been reports of so many students that they must select a few with whom to meet. 'We are very glad to have these voluntary helpers. Without them there would be no Pavasaris cinema,' states Algirdas Raaska, the festival's administrator.

One of the helpers is Jurga Stakenaite. She is the co-ordinator and person responsible for questions of logistics. She also jointly organises a small winter film festival with the French cultural institute in Vilnius. 'In the last few years, a very lively scene has emerged which focuses above all on showing people interested in culture, in good cinema removed from the Hollywood mainstream,' explains Stakenaite.

Zabulkaite can only endorse this. 'This year there have not been enough weeks in which to keep up with all the festivals,' explains the manager of Skalvija joyfully. The foreign cultural institutes have been particularly active in organising their own film-weeks or film-festivals. Lithuanian artists are exempt from charges for these.

In the meantime, Skalvija remains debt-free. In December 2006, the municipality was even paid an additional 80,000 Euros at the end of the year upon submission of their balance sheet, adds Zabulkaite. The sale of the building is also on the table. In spite of this, it is possible that Skalvija will soon be removed – its growing popularity means that screens are simply too small.

With thanks to Dalius Drevinskas