VILNIUS - Breaking box office records in Lithuania may seem insignificant on the world stage, but it was certainly satisfying last month to see the Baltic region's latest celluloid endeavor "Loss" come top of the table in its opening weekend.
Watched by almost 14,000 people and raking in 55,500 euros in its first three days of release in Lithuania 's double the same opening weekend earnings as big-budget Hollywood no-brainer "D-War" 's this is the best ever result for a Lithuanian film. Now in week five, box office earnings are nearing 170,000 euros.
"Loss" is not, of course, an SFX-drenched disaster movie. The interweaving plot concerns the lives of six very different characters, revealing how a single event has connected them 's a freak car accident that occurs 25 years before the action takes place. Similarly cerebral, plot-heavy movies have done comparatively poorly in Lithuania, "Babel" (2006) earning a total of 49,000 euros, "21 Grams" (2003) 27,000 euros, and "Crash" (2004) a measly 18,000 euros.
An excuse, then, to wave the flag, bang the drum, and celebrate a rare triumph in Lithuanian film making? Not quite. The writer-director and the producer are both Latvian.
TV and film director Maris Martinsons has been living in Lithuania since 1991. A fluent Lithuanian speaker, he founded ARTeta, one of the country's first independent production companies, in 1994 following several years' employment at LTV, the state-run TV broadcaster.
He met fellow Latvian Linda Krukle on a holiday trip and soon persuaded her to move to Vilnius and run the production company for him while he concentrated on writing and directing. They now have two children 's the first Latvian citizens to be born and registered in Lithuania 's and they travel back to Riga once a month or so to see family and friends.
Today ARTeta has the biggest studio space for TV and film productions in the Baltic countries. Located in Tarande just outside Vilnius, it is about a minute's drive away from the highway to the Latvian capital.
"Loss," known locally by its Lithuanian title "Nereikalingi zmones," features local rock star Andrius Mamontovas in his first major screen role, together with a veritable role call of illustrious Lithuanian thespians. Mamontovas himself has played Hamlet in Eimuntas Nekrosius' atmospheric stage production in many cities around the world.
The action takes place in Lithuania and Ireland, with themes embracing big issues such as emigration, adoption, and alcoholism.
There are no English-language subtitles accompanying the film on its cinema release, but a DVD with English subtitles should appear this coming May. The first-ever CD soundtrack to a Lithuanian film, with music by Mamontovas, is also due to be released soon. The producers are negotiating separate cinema releases in Latvia and Estonia. For a movie made in one Baltic country to get a release in another is very rare indeed.
"The idea for 'Loss' came to me when I was at the Montreal World Film Festival, where our first film 'Anastasia' was screened in 2006's the first Lithuanian film to participate in 30 years of the festival's existence," Martinsons explains.
"Montreal is one of the worlds' most prestigious and controversial film festivals, picking up films by little-known directors from all over the world. This experience gave me the inspiration to create stories with more than one country involved and plots happening across borders. The Baltic states are so small and the world is so large."
Essentially, he says, "Loss" brings together into one story what initially seem to be separate stories, as in the idea of "six degrees of separation." If a person is one "step" away from each person he knows and two "steps" away from everyone who is an acquaintance of these acquaintances, then everyone in the world is no further than six steps away from anyone else.
"The car accident influences the destinies of six people. But although the accident has changed each of them, they still have the power to change their future. But most of the characters fail to do this. They lose their opportunity to change."
Martinsons wrote the script in a flurry of creativity over a few weeks. He and Krukle found the crew, cast the leading roles, and then flew to Ireland for the location scouting. Inspired by Ireland, they made a few changes to the script. By June, they were in post-production editing the film, and their second son was born the same month.
Is it any good?
Most Lithuanian critics have loved the film. The intricate plot lures you into its puzzle, and there are images that stay with you long after the final reel. But despite being the most successful Lithuanian film ever made, "Loss" is hardly going to sweep the board at Cannes. Perpetual jerky movements in the hand-held camerawork of director of photography Gints Berzins leave audiences in the front rows reeling from nausea. The usual Baltic sins of staginess and hammy acting occasionally crop up, and Mamontovas' clunky turn-of-the-eighties synths provide an awkward soundtrack.
Worst of all are a series of ludicrously artless product placements for airBaltic. Naturally, the airline tells Martinsons and Krukle that it is delighted with its latest "campaign" and will consider backing more film projects in the future.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers had little choice. Almost all producers in the Baltic countries apply in the first instance to their local ministry of culture for funding. "Loss," however, had to be made entirely through private funds.
Martinsons and Krukle feel a little uncomfortable that their fruitless efforts to obtain Lithuanian state funding may be because ARTeta is wrongly perceived to be a Latvian company. Another film project, "Fredericco," which tells Lithuania's legendary historical love story of Barbora Radvilaite and King Sigismund, has received some support from the European Union's MEDIA Plus program, but has so far been turned down by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.
"'Fredericco' is a huge production with crowd scenes and costumes," Krukle says. "It is in development, waiting for when the main roles can be cast. We are hoping that Gerard Depardieu will take a cameo role."
A movie that tells one of Lithuania's greatest love stories would clearly promote Lithuania and its capital. But there has so far been no interest from the public sector.
"Given the potential for wide distribution outside the country, this is a strange attitude," Krukle explains. "We have just resubmitted 'Fredericco' for state funding on the back of the success of 'Loss', but if no funds are forthcoming this time, we may have to think about changing the story and location."
Despite its faults, "Loss" is a step in the right direction for filmmaking in the Baltic States. It would certainly be a shame for Lithuania if further movie projects by such a promising production team, in which the company and crew are Lithuanian, whose stories are Lithuanian, and the company's money stays in Lithuania, are denied funding.