Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best and most intellectually rigorous documentarians working with archive footage around, so it was no surprise when Mr. Landsbergis, his chronicle of the emotionally charged events leading up to the Baltic state of Lithuania taking back its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, came away from IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, with the top award. What comes as a deeper shock is just how urgently resonant the film has come to be in Europe again in the last weeks, as Russia has invaded Ukraine in what many fear may be only the beginning of a push by Putin to sew the Soviet Union back together under the Kremlin’s yoke.
Scenes of unexpectedly fierce citizen resistance as Russian tanks roll into Vilnius and troops fire on civilians are echoed by the dogged refusals to surrender to greater military might we see on the news out of Ukraine today. «They thought they could easily oust us», says Vytautas Landsbergis, a leading figure of Lithuania’s pro-independence movement, of Russia’s efforts to neutralise resistance, in the documentary. He was the nation’s first Head of Parliament after it declared independence. In an extensive interview, inter-spliced with ample footage of the dramatic struggle as it played out in parliamentary institutions and civic space, he recalls how it all came to pass. Loznitsa already demonstrated with Maidan (2014), his observational record of Ukraine’s uprising against its Putin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, his skill at capturing the shifts in public mood as revolution builds on the ground, and he achieves a portrait of the public pulse and rhythms of revolution again in Mr. Landsbergis. Clocking in at more than four hours, it is unhurried and takes a wide lens, letting events play out at length so we are able to immerse ourselves in their spirit and details.
Landsbergis, interviewed in a garden on a balmy summer’s day at the age of eighty-eight, cuts a self-possessed but matter-of-fact and wryly unassuming figure as he patiently describes past events. His lack of strident flashiness is not only refreshing when it comes to the image-driven world of global power-brokering but underscores that he never, at least as he tells it now, had a burning desire to become a politician. Instead, he came, like many anti-Kremlin dissidents (we recall, too, the Czech Republic’s playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel), from the world of the arts and was a music professor before entering politics. His goal was to be «just a normal person», he says, «to stay out of trouble, and not end up in Siberia». But under occupation, of course, and a dictatorial regime, living with basic dignity is a right denied to citizens — and it is one he grew determined to fight for. He was one of the founders of Sajudis. This organisation spearheaded Lithuania’s independence struggle in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and helped the small Baltic nation become the first Soviet republic to break away. At first buoyed by the rhetoric of increased openness of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Independence activists grew bolder in holding public demonstrations in support of independence.
What comes as a deeper shock is just how urgently resonant the film has come to be in Europe again in the last weeks
The thorough and deep-ranging documentary chronicle takes us into the meetings and assemblies of political debate and maneuvering, from Sajudis gatherings in Vilnius to Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union conferences in Moscow, where Gorbachev’s reforms were meant to be hashed out in a manner that kept the Kremlin on top of changes to the union. The mood of the film heats up, as dissent in Lithuania grows louder in the streets, despite increasingly drastic efforts to quash it from Moscow that ramp up from the dropping of propaganda pamphlets to include the cutting off of oil and gas supplies in an economic blockade (an attempt to subdue the state that Landsbergis was keen to term «economic violence» due to the harm it inflicted upon the general population.) We see a Soviet military parade in Vilnius in November 1990, designed as a symbolic demonstration of Kremlin might, greeted with loud cries of «Occupiers!» from gathered crowds. Citizens tried for peaceful protest tactics, and their tendency to join together in song led to the restoration of independence to the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia at the end of the Cold war being dubbed the Singing Revolution (the Baltic way, whereby around two million people joined hands, spanning more than four hundred miles through the three states, became another iconic image of peaceful solidarity.) But the Kremlin was not willing to concede independence without some violence (in the tragic «Bloody Sunday» of January 1991, troops killed fourteen civilians and injured scores of others.) The tense gathering in which male civilians are sworn in immediately as soldiers of the Lithuanian Republic, ready to risk their lives fighting for the country’s freedom, after troops demonstrate their readiness to shoot to kill, is a taut and crucial moment in which the painful limits of pacifism, when confronted with an aggressive neighbour who refuses to negotiate on non-violent terms, are made all too clear. «The hopes for a better world are extinguished if you surrender», claims Landsbergis. And it is impossible not to feel swayed by his conviction.