Arunas Matelis, one of Lithuania’s most original documentary directors, takes a personal, playful approach to filmmaking.

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

1258110915zeme DOX marks the release of his latest masterly film Before Flying Back to the Earth by drawing a portrait.

This article is written by a very good friend of Arunas Matelis. I know him and his lovely family very well and they in turn characterize me as “The Man from Legoland” whenever they go to Denmark. I have stayed in touch with Matelis ever since I first met him in the early 1990s on the island of Bornholm at the Balticum Film & TV Festival. I know that DOX’s editor dislikes this gonzo-kind of introductory confession but this was done to warn you about the friendly tone being used to write about a filmmaker with his own personal style and integrity.

The first film by Arunas Matelis I ever saw was Ten Minutes before the Flight of Icarus. It was made in 1990 just before the changes that led to the collapse of the USSR and the founding of Lithuania’s independence. The 10-minute film reflects this transition perfectly in its meditative rhythm and powerful, metaphoric language. It was an important film that was later called the manifesto of a young generation of Lithuanian filmmakers (other names are Audrius Stonys, Valdas Navasaitis, Vytas Landsbergis) who during the ’90s cultivated the short, poetic documentary film shot on 35mm.

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Ten Minutes before the Flight of Icarus

If this film at that time could be interpreted as a statement of the time showing people waiting for something to happen, today it is a film about the location of the shooting, the Republic of Uzupis, a special part of the old town of Vilnius. According to Matelis himself, the film changed Uzupis completely as he was the first to bring in the camera. It became an attraction for local and international filmmakers to come and shoot their film in the Republic. Uzupis became a bit like Denmark’s Christiania-maybe even more Bohemian than this ‘free town’-and a republic was officially declared. To illustrate the spirit, its first honourable citizen was Dalai Lama. Matelis himself was appointed Minister of Migration and Changes!

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Self-Portrait 1993

From this film on Matelis continued to make short films, such as Self-Portrait (1993), From Unfinished Tales of Jerusalem (1996) and First Farewell to Paradise (1998)-Jerusalem being the most extroverted with its stunningly beautiful images of Lithuania. He also produced films for Audrius Stonys, his close friend and documentary companion. The two made Flight over Lithuania or 510 Seconds of Silence for the Expo exhibition in Hannover in 2000. This 10-minute film is a technical triumph and a commercial success that reveals the other side of Matelis, a clever businessman, who always looks for non-mainstream solutions. 17,000 copies have been sold so far through video shops and supermarkets.

The cost of the film was heavily discussed publicly but the general impression was, of course, that a more beautiful piece of promotion for Lithuania could not be done in 510 seconds!

A couple of years later Matelis was publicly accused of besmirching his country’s good name!

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Sunday. The Gospel to Lift-man Albertas

The reason was the production of (another loooong title from the director) Sunday:The Gospel to Lift-man Albertas, a film that in a way marks his return to the film style he used for ‘Icarus’. A lift operator waits and waits for the lift in the basement of a hospital. Not much happens. A metaphor of life, a mythological interpretation of everyday life or a criticism of Lithuanian hospitals and living conditions? The latter was the public reaction. The film was selected for Cannes and other prestigious festival-while (some) politicians were trying to stop the film at the same time, because it could damage Lithuania’s image! They failed. And the film was nominated as Best Lithuanian Film of the Year.

In real life, Matelis and his family had moved from Uzupis to the forest in the meantime. After a long, tiresome period for the family, in which the youngest daughter underwent eight months of hospital treatment for leukaemia, Matelis decided that he wanted to make a film about children in a hospital ward like the one he got to know. From being a playful filmmaker, usually challenging the viewer with surprising sequences open to interpretation (some would call them experimental), Arunas Matelis wished to make a clear, poetic and positive statement about children’s lives under circumstances like this.

He knew what he wanted but he also knew that he needed help from outside to finance the film. He joined the Discovery Campus in 2001, got his film project developed and established German and Danish contacts who could help him as co-producers. Several dropped out, but two stood by him: Gerd Haag from the German production company Tag/Traum and Doris Hepp from ZDF/Arte. They deserve to be credited for a film that will travel the world.

Matelis’s own involvement in the illness of his daughter made him want to help the hospital and the children involved. He, his family and his film colleagues made a big effort to collect money for the general conditions of the hospital, for the renovation of the facilities in the children’s ward, to buy medicine for the children, etc. Much was collected through a charity concert. Matelis put all his energy and promotional talent into this humane effort. Now it is time for him to be valued as the unique filmmaker he is.

Box:

Filmography of Arunas Matelis:

Before Flying Back to the Earth (52 min.) 2005
Sunday: The Gospel to Lift-man Albertas (19 min.) 2003
Flight over Lithuania or 510 Seconds of Silence (10 min.) 2000, co-directed with A. Stonys.
The Diary of Forced Emigration (20 min.) 1999
First Farewell to Paradise (15 min.) 1998
From Unfinished Tales of Jerusalem (26 min.) 1996
Self-portrait (10 min.) 1993
Ten Minutes before the Flight of Icarus (10 min.) 1991
Baltic Way (10 min.) 1989, co-directed with A. Stonys.
Giants of Pelesa (10 min.) 1989


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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