CINEMAS - The survival of Cinema Paradiso

  • 2008-02-06
  • By Howard Jarvis

CINE-ALTERNATIVE: European films like "Adam's Apples" have won a large cult audience in Vilnius thanks to the Skalvija Cinema.

Set your starry eyes toward the silver screen: this week, The Baltic Times looks into the cinema industry throughout the region. Since the early 20th century, Baltic residents have slowly warmed up to theatre-going and the numbers of attendees have only just started to reach new highs. With expanding audiences comes new challenges, both for audiences and behind the booths.

VILNIUS - For representatives of a niche in the market that seems constantly under threat of annihilation by mushrooming multiplexes and the global dominance of Hollywood, the people running the last surviving independent cinema in Vilnius, the Skalvija, are in a surprisingly buoyant mood.

The Skalvija screens a lively mix of mainly European films that serve as a comforting alternative to the pounding American fare dished up at Forum Cinemas' two multiplexes in the city, and has nurtured an audience of mainly young people tired of numbing CGI effects, flat comedies and predictable thrillers.

But the Skalvija is lucky. The income it gets from ticket admissions is modest, even when the 100-seat auditorium is full, but the cinema is owned by the city municipality, which means it can count on regular subsidies. It also applies regularly for funding from the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture for specific projects such as educational programs and festivals.

Located on Gostauto Street close to the National Opera and Ballet Theater, directly facing the Neris River, the Skalvija sits on prime real estate that many a property developer would love to get his hands on. It will probably be sold off sooner or later. But if that happens, the Skalvija has a secret weapon that should enable it to live on in another location: its faithful audience.

When the Lietuva Cinema closed in Vilnius in 2005, it provoked a wave of small but vocal demonstrations and petitions. These failed to stop the renovation of the building into luxury apartments, but they did serve as a warning to the authorities that should a similar fate befall the Skalvija all hell will break loose.

"It is ironic that the closure of the Lietuva, unfortunate though that was, has become a kind of guarantee against the closure of the Skalvija," agrees Sonata Zalneraviciute, a program coordinator who has been working at the Skalvija for more than 10 years.

"But that's not the main point. The Lietuva was bigger, with around 1,000 seats to fill. It had to screen more commercial movies and operated on a bigger budget than we do. Our size also contributes to our survival."
One more factor on the Skalvija's side is 2009, the year Vilnius becomes European City of Culture. The city government, Zalneraviciute says, is very interested in screening European movies through next year here at the Skalvija.

M2 Invest, the company that is redeveloping the Lietuva property, has tried to compensate for that cinema's closure by striking up a partnership with the Skalvija that has provided technical and other cinema equipment. It has also pledged that the tradition of what it calls a "non-commercial cinema" at the Lietuva location will continue once the property reemerges from the construction curtains.

Zalneraviciute confirms that this could, in fact, be the new location of a reborn Skalvija if the current building on Gostauto goes under the hammer. Other space would presumably be found for the makeshift studios of two of Lithuania's promising film directors, the ascetic and introspective Sarunas Bartas and award-winning documentary filmmaker Arunas Matelis, which exist elsewhere in the same building.

The schedules that Zalneraviciute and her colleagues compile each week are a joy to read for any film buff. This week a festival of French films is underway, including Christophe Honore's "Les Chansons d'Amour" and Pascale Ferran's devastating 2007 version of "Lady Chatterley."

Also coming to the screen for the first time in Lithuania is "I Served the King of England," a new film by Jiri Menzel whose 1967 feature "Closely Watched Trains" was a key work of the Czech New Wave. As often happens, this will be accompanied by screenings of earlier films by the same director.

Local distributors such as Acme, a Lithuanian company that supplies 30 percent of movies shown in the Baltic region, feed the Skalvija with European films. However, in 2007, the Skalvija began a new tactic, to buy the license to distribute films itself, mostly keeping them inhouse. It has carefully chosen six films so far, including the Danish jet-black comedy "Adam's Apples," Miranda July's "Me and You and Everyone We Know" and Joachim Trier's "Reprise," each of which have screened to packed halls on a regular basis over the last few months.

The success of these films, Zalneraviciute says, comes from a rapidly accumulating reputation in mostly artistic circles in Vilnius built up through enthusiastic word-of-mouth recommendations. Many people are coming to see them for the fifth or sixth time.

All of which keeps Sonata Zalneraviciute, her co-workers and the Skalvija's audiences happy and fulfilled. Chances are that this little cinema, which dares to forge its own path in a tight market, will live on, whether in its present location or elsewhere in the city center.