'We can talk about anything, there are no taboos'

Isaac director Jurgis Matulevicius on the challenges and politics of his debut film

by Amber Wilkinson

Jurgis Matulevicius: 'The camerawork and lighting are very important to me and I spent a lot of time on that'
Jurgis Matulevicius: 'The camerawork and lighting are very important to me and I spent a lot of time on that' Photo: Courtesy of Tallinn Black Nights
The present is haunted by the past in Jurgis Matulevicius' smart and complex debut film, that mixes Cold War elements and soul-searching with a love triangle plotline and psychological thriller. It centres on a trio of of characters, film director Gediminas (Dainius Gavenonis), his old friend Andrius (Aleksas Kazanavicius) and Andrius' wife Elena (Severija Janusauskaite), whose lives are tied up to a lesser or greater degree with the death of a Jewish man, Isaac, in the Lietukis Garage Massacre. The film is adapted from a short story by  Antanas Skema, a Lithuanian author whose stream of consciousness approach you can feel in the fluidity of Isaac's narrative.

When we caught up with Matulevicius in Tallinn - where his film screened in the First Feature Competition - he talked about adapting the work.

"For my first feature I really wanted to have a strong story and I thought that maybe I will use somebody's short story. I really took only the main theme from it - the killing and then the guilt. I played with it, the detective story element was my invention of the period. We tried a little bit to deconstruct history and show it from our point of view. It's 60 years ago. I don't remember these times but I created it through films and books and the stories of my parents and grandparents, but somehow, we tried to put all the Soviet era in this film."

Andrius is the main character and increasingly plagued with guilt. He doesn't even escape the spectre of death in his day-to-day life as his work involves photographing the dead bodies which crop up repeatedly through the film with little explanation.

"I tried to put a little bit of a surrealistic point of view in his life," says Matulevicius. "His job is a forensic photographer and he works for the Soviets. So he's taking orders. But the part with death - I just wanted to create this feeling of guilt and these images of the past. I wanted to make the images stronger with his job. It became a mix of his real job and his psychology."

The Soviet regime that came after the Nazis is also held up for scrutiny in the film - as the threat of violence remains constant even though the later regime may be less overt.

Matulevicius adds: "They were under one regime - the Nazis giving orders - and in the Soviet regime, we see the same guy just taking orders again from another aggressor. That's the saddest part in my main character's life. He can't be free in any way because he's a coward and he was always just taking orders."

The film opens with an audacious scene, depicting the chaos of the massacre itself. The writer/director says that his DoP Narvydas Naujalis needed three assistants to capture the single take and it took them a day to shoot. He added: "All the film and every scene was shot in one shot. For this particular scene, there were 250 people and burning cars, horses, motorcyles... some pigs. We rehearsed for two days with the camera and then I had five of my friends - directors from my Academy - who helped.

Jurgis Matulevicius: 'In the film, the Soviets are not heroes, but the Lithuanians aren't heroes either'
Jurgis Matulevicius: 'In the film, the Soviets are not heroes, but the Lithuanians aren't heroes either' Photo: Courtesy of Tallinn Black Nights

"The camerawork and lighting are very important to me and I spent a lot of time on that. With this film, I needed to put as little lighting as I could because I wanted to shoot everywhere - 360. I really liked the gimbal camera. I also really like the DoP - after 10 takes, he forgets what he is supposed to do and just dances with the actors and that's when we start shooting really. The main thing if you want to get these images, is rehearsals. I invite the DoP because we're old friends and we're trying to do something. Exchange of ideas. This form of creating, you couldn't use that in a Hollywood production. Here we had time to contemplate things and it shows.

"I wanted to show this one killing that changed the main character's whole life. Sometimes I'm thinking that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and he was young and afraid. He was in the middle of this war psychosis, when everybody tries to save themselves, so I think that's why I showed only the aftermath of dead bodies, they surround him like dead souls."

Unusually, the film moves from monochrome to colour and back again - a decision that Matulevicius made as the film was in pre-production.

He explained: "I made five short films and four in monochrome and one in colour. I planned to shoot this film in monochrome but when we were doing set design of the main character's flat and we were taking pictures, I really loved the colours and I thought, 'We should really shoot in colour.' But we had already started to shoot in monochrome. So, then I needed to think somehow of a way that I could go to colour - so I thought to play in some way on the main character's life. The past takes place in Andres' mind, so I go to monochrome. When Elana  - his wife - starts working on the film and a new career, we go to colour and then we go back again. I think I succeeded in that because we were rewriting the script all the time while shooting. So new ideas were coming."

Matulevicius says that one of his favourite aspects of filmmaking is scouting for the locations - and hunting down objects to be in the films.

He added: "When I'm in the location, I start to imagine everything I wrote completely differently. The main thing is to get a very good location. And, of course, we have many films shot in Vilnius or Kaunus, in the old towns and it was really difficult to find a location that nobody was shooting. Now we have these projects of Netflix coming and raping our locations. We shot this film in the centre and around Kaunus. It's a mix of different cities but I wanted to make my Lithuanian Soviet city of the Sixties.

"The main problem of nowadays in terms of locations is plastic windows and it's really difficult to cover them. So when you find a location with old wooden windows, it's amazing. Then we took ideas from it. You have this old, round glass and then you think I need more of this, so you go to abandoned buildings and take this glass and then you put it in your location. With the linoleum as well. Me and my set designer, we have this thing that we like to go to abandoned buildings and scout them, take some photos and maybe take some stuff from it, like old chairs. We were just driving around Vilnius and just collecting stuff. I found so many things in the trash. Like this mirror with the lamps in the bathroom where Andres shaves his beard - I found it in the trash near my home. So lots of things we find and use. This technique I learned while I was working with Sharunas Bartas on his films - because he did the same when he was young."

Jurgis Matulevicius: 'The past takes place in Andres' mind, so I go to monochrome. When Elana  - his wife - starts working on the film and a new career, we go to colour and then we go back again'
Jurgis Matulevicius: 'The past takes place in Andres' mind, so I go to monochrome. When Elana  - his wife - starts working on the film and a new career, we go to colour and then we go back again' Photo: Courtesy of Tallinn Black Nights

Turning to the political element of the film, he says that it depends on a person's viewpoint, adding that he believes Putin still has his hand on the Russians and that some are afraid because of this.

He added: "In the film, the Soviets are not heroes, but the Lithuanians aren't heroes either. You can talk about things in two ways. They were heroes of course and they were murderers and oppressors - and you choose your way. This group just didn't want to be involved in political things. Maybe they meant by it, in any politics. For some people, you forget things, you put them in a drawer somehow and never talk about it. I think that's the way of older people of my country. We, the younger generation, should find these things, this piece of paper and read it and interpret it. It's new times, we can talk about anything and there are no taboos."

In addition to the three main characters, there is also a KGB investigator, who becomes so obsessed with the case of the garage massacre he loses sight of the danger investigating it might represent. Matulevicius says he drew on real life accounts to help develop the character.

He said: "This real case of this garage massacre was reopened in the 1960s and somewhere in the archives I read about this Lithuanian KGB investigator. He wasn't working on this case but on some other Jewish cases and he wanted to get this Wiesenthal Award, so I kind of based this character on him. I chose the actor Martynas Nedzinskas and then I wrote the script for him. He's a very good Lithuanian theatre actor, who acts in most of the plays by Lithanian theatre director Oskaras Koršunovas, who is really well known across the world. And he played this psychotic part in Chekhov's The Seagull - and I really like him. I asked him one question: 'Do you speak Russian?' And he told me: ;Yes.; And he didn't speak Russian. I had these lines for him. He learned it but it was his first film on the big screen and he was so nervous all the time - but we used this for the character. It was a compilation of acting and feeling really nervous. He was trembling. I really liked it and I used it for him and against him in different situations and we got along really well.

Jurgis Matulevicius: 'When I'm in the location, I start to imagine everything I wrote completely differently'
Jurgis Matulevicius: 'When I'm in the location, I start to imagine everything I wrote completely differently' Photo: Courtesy of Tallinn Black Nights

"We have a lot of good actors in Lithuania and we have a lot of good DoPs in Lithuania - these two schools are very strong. The thing we don't have is scriptwriters - and it's very difficult to be a one-man orchestra because some things you know better and other things are not so good. I really like to work before a film with people - working with them as people not as characters. I become friends with them, we talk, we rehearse, we eat, we drink. With the main character, I made a film with him when he was playing an interrogator who is interrogating himself, so that was like the beginning of this feature film - the short film Interrogator."

The film has taken such a long time to get an international premiere that Matulevicius has almost finished his next project, a short documentary called The Golden Flask that lasts about 30 minutes. He said: "The documentary is about four people who live in this apartment which was given to them by the county and they have no passports, no insurance, nothing. And they're drinking mouthwash. The film is called The Golden Flask because the drink is golden. They drink that and there are two brothers and their girlfriends, in their fifties and one of the brothers - if he didn't drink, he would be a good priest and his brother, he's a painter, and he paints the portrait of God. The women are very earthy. It's a story about one night in their flat. I was an observer and I filmed it myself because the flat is so small. My friend was pulling focus and doing sound. It has the same power as Isaac has because, these people, I couldn't write like this. It's like poetry."

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