Sister City Cinema: The Lithuanian Film Festival brings visions of Vilnius to Chicago

Americans have long been loath to learn foreign languages and equally unenthusiastic about subtitled films–an unfortunate trend, but by no means a hopeless one. Launched in 1960 by Mayor Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s uncommonly active Sister Cities program has since been dedicated to building the city’s international character through events like the upcoming Lithuanian Film Festival, organized in collaboration with Chicago’s sister city Vilnius and the Lithuanian film company Era Film. The five-night series will introduce Chicagoans to a recent blossom of Lithuanian short films and documentaries.

The festival came together when Ieva Dilyte, Sister Cities’ Manager of International Programs, proposed the idea to the program’s Vilnius Committee in Chicago and the Lithuanian Consulate. It was enthusiastically accepted: two Lithuanian Film Festivals had been successfully staged years ago, and the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in West Lawn has regularly shown Lithuanian films. According to Dilyte, “The screenings are usually pretty well attended by the local Lithuanian community, who…always ask for more.” As home to the largest population of Lithuanian descendants outside of Lithuania itself, Chicago is a natural host for the festival.

Ieva Dilyte contacted Rasa Miskinyte, founder of the Vilnius-based production company Era Film, and asked her to recommend recent films for the festival. The Chicago committee also made suggestions to the program. “The Chicago Cultural Center audience could be quite different from, say, the Lithuanian World Center audience in Lemont,” Dilyte explains. She adds that “Lithuanian cinema is going through a sort of revival and there are quite a few new interesting films made every year. Some of the films that have been successful in the festivals around Europe were never shown here and are nearly unknown to local film audiences and the Lithuanian community.”

In the United States, it is easy for filmgoers to lose track of all but a few international films; in Europe, necessity binds together the audiences of fiscally and geographically leaner nations. Smaller domestic audiences and less prominent entertainment industries require that filmmakers who want to get their visions on celluloid must commit to international co-productions and tailor their pictures for international festival audiences. “To make films for only local screens is too unthoughtful,” says producer and director Rasa Miskinyte, “as local films would never pay back the financial investment and would be seen by so few people…Era Film has pinpointed its mission as bringing Lithuanian stories to international audiences.”

Lithuanian directors also have difficulty getting their films made.“To make a film in Lithuania is always a challenge,” says Miskinyte. “The means to finance productions are so, so, so miserable.” Despite winning four Silver Crane awards (the Lithuanian Oscars) in 2009—for best script, best directing, best soundtrack, and best producer’s work–“The Bug Trainer” “was very weakly attended by the local audiences,” said Miskinyte, who co-directed the film along with Donatas Ulvydas, Linas Augutis, and Market Skrobecki. “Probably, the documentary genre is still not much appreciated by Lithuanian audiences,” she explained.

Screening on the festival’s opening night, “The Bug Trainer” is a “creative documentary” about stop-motion animation pioneer Ladislas Starewitch. Starewitch’s films were populated by bug puppets so lively that early audiences believed that he must have taught insects to act. Starewitch is one of the best known Lithuanian directors, but, says Miskinyte, “[Before we made ‘The Bug Trainer,’] quite little was known about Starewitch in Lithuania…At least three more countries–Russia, Poland, and France–declared Starewitch their national filmmaker.” She adds, “My wish in making ‘The Bug Trainer’ was…to pay Lithuania’s tribute to the master.”

The final day of the festival includes three films that also bear special significance for Lithuania. Made by directors from Belgium, Latvia, and Estonia as part of a residency in Vilnius, they are short looks at the city from an outside perspective. “Vilnius is a location, or a character, in the films,” says Miskinyte. “This is the beauty of seeing our beloved town from the perspective of a foreigner.” These films represent a cross-cultural dialogue that the Sister Cities project aims to make what Ieva Dilyte calls a “beautiful tradition.”
Lithuanian Film Festival, January 21-26. Various times and venues. Free. (312)744-2172. chicagosistercities.com