VILNIUS - Are there any bright days for a child with leukemia? A parent facing that ultimate horror, must have asked themselves that question, at least a few times. And with his documentary "Flying Back to the Earth," director Arunas Matelis proves there can be sunny days even in the hospital ward. For eight months, Matelis stood by his daughter as she successfully battled leukemia on the third floor of the Vilnius Pediatric Hospital.
Two years later, he came back with a camera to chronicle the everyday life and dreams of children here. The kids went along with everything pretty easily.
"By deciding to make this film, I chose to speak about the experiences of these children," he says, adding that the patients spoke very carefully about their experience.
There is even an unwritten rule that no one ever mentions their illness by name.
Think of the 52-minute, black-and-white documentary as a love story between the figures onscreen and the audience. Last year, it won the Golden Dove at the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Films, for, in the words of the jury, "embrac[ing] life in the face of death, with dignity, integrity and respect."
After that, Matelis received the National Culture and Art Award, the highest arts award in Lithuania. And most recently, "Flying Back to the Earth" made the list of 61 films eligible to be nominated in the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film category. The top five films will be announced in January.
"This is one of the first times when a documentary is competing with feature films in the category," says Matelis.
It's also the closest a Lithuanian film has ever come to winning an Academy Award.
Meditations on life and death
Some might say it is not ethical to use children to gain compassion, but this film is not about compassion. It could be better described as meditation where the gurus are the children. It is difficult to resist following the dreams that carry the young patients past mundane procedures, past cabbage soup, past cement walls to the world of hope and childish innocence. The children laugh, play games, and build new friendships.
The film's first critics were the actual children and their parents.
"It was interesting to see their reactions," Matelis says. "The children laughed while their parents shed tears."
If you didn't think of the nature of leukemia while watching the film, you'd want to laugh too. It is easy to forget about the cancer when you hear the children talking about their future plans and living in the moment. Despite the grim fact that many of the young patients face death, they carry incredible strength and are able to live a normal life in the ward.
In order to make the film, Matelis had to go back to the hospital and experience the feelings and horrors that he suffered through with his own child's illness. "To decide to take such a step, you first have to know if you are mature enough not only to film in such a place, but to live in that moment."
It took Matelis two years after his child's recovery to return to the hospital. The documentary, which took 18 months to make, not once shoots beyond the ward's 12 square meters. In the end, Matelis had filmed 50 hours of footage, which he managed to squeeze into an hour.
Aleksandras Savinas, the head of the oncohematological department where the film was shot, has been working in the ward for years. He says he never regretted letting Matelis and his camera capture life there.
Throughout the film it's clear the director befriended these children. They trust him with their little secrets and big dreams. "The filming process was personal and full of friendship," Matelis says. "These children became an important part of my life."
"Lithuania has found a weapon against cancer," says a leading specialist at the Japanese National Cancer Centre, Atsushi Makimoto. The film inspired Japanese businessmen and artists to improve a similar hospital in Kaunas. People from the Netherlands and the U.S.A. have also been inspired by the film to give to the cause
"Since the time the film has been finished, the department has changed a little bit," Savinas says. "We received much help and charity."
Rima Alsauskaite, a nurse who appears in the film, says that because the filming was a long process, the young patients and the staff got used to the camera. "The children liked playing with the camera. It was their new toy," she says.
Alsauskaite has been working in the department for 12 years. Watching the film revives a lot of memories for her. Shooting the film in black and white and the general environment of the film make it, she ways, "a little bit oppressive."
She adds, "But it is truly emotional."