Sunday, April 06, 2014

Panorama Europe ’14: Cinematic Inclusions (including The Black Box)

The Lithuanians did not take to Soviet domination, culturally or politically. In strange ways, they cultivated their rugged, taciturn image to help sustain their distinctive national identity. One can see this strategy at work in a series of short documentaries restored to commemorate Lithuania’s EU presidency. Collected under the title Cinematic Inclusions, these often abstract films screen together for adventurous viewers during Panorama Europe.

In observance of strict chronology, the most accessible (and longest) Inclusion is the final film of the program. Not so surprisingly given their non-conformist nature, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were deported to Siberia during the Communist era. The exile experience was especially painful when family members passed away, because Lithuanian customs highly value burial in one’s homeland. As the rotten Communist system started to crumble, many repatriated Lithuanians returned to Siberia in hopes of smuggling loved ones’ remains back home. Algimantas Maceina followed his father on one such mission in The Black Box.

In part, Box is like a time capsule of the early days of newly independent Lithuania, but it is also an ethnographic record of Lithuanian funerary customs. However, it is not included in Inclusions merely to represent the mid 1990s. While Maceina faithful records the trip, as well as the subsequent wake and funeral for his grandfather’s recovered remains, he plays the footage as if on an accelerated fast-forward. At least, you cannot say he does not respect the audience’s time, as he documents a significant phenomenon largely particular to Lithuania.

Before going further, it is worth remembering American experimental film icon Jonas Mekas is Lithuanian. Indeed, he would most likely appreciate the avant-garde aesthetic of the rest of the Inclusions. As much cinematic essays or visual tone poems as they are documentaries, they are remarkably consistent in tone and subject matter, despite spanning twenty-seven years of frustrating national history.

In the 1960s, Robertas Verba established a template with The Old Man and the Earth and The Dreams of Centenarians, celebrating the salt-of-the-earth while explicitly rejecting Socialist Realism. Poring over every wrinkle and imperfection, Verba’s films have a clear inclination towards grotesque fetishism. Not very doc-ish, they present a rather surreal perspective that becomes even more pronounced in films like Almantas Grikevičius’s Time Passes Through the City. The ambivalent attitude towards industrial “progress” reflected in Henrikas Šablevičius’s A Trip Across the Misty Meadow is also clearly out of step with Socialist propaganda. Yet, it is hard to get any less Soviet than the jazzy interludes that make their way into several of the films’ soundtracks.

Its execution might be a bit eccentric, but just about any viewer will get something out of Algimantas Maceina’s The Black Box. While the rest of the constituent films are decidedly more demanding, they represent a fascinating episode in cinematic history. It is good to know Lithuania values its heritage enough to preserve them for posterity. Recommended for hardcore fans of experimental film, Cinematic Inclusions screens free of charge this Wednesday (4/9) at Bohemia National Hall and Saturday (4/12) at the Museum of the Moving Image (free with regular admission), as part of this year’s Panorama Europe.