Sharunas Bartas

Sharunas Bartas

In an interview for the documentary Sharunas Bartas, An Army of One, Bartas recalls the one single event that made him want to be a filmmaker: on an expedition to the Siberian mountains he met an old shaman who welcomed him into his hut, motivated by the possibility of buying a rifle. The director has never told anyone what happened in that hut; all he has said about it is that it was life-changing and that he would not rest until he could give it expression. It is through film that he has found a way to refer to that which has no name, threading together a series of relationships and intense moments where the critical but insubstantial mystical experience can thrive.

Born in 1964 in Lithuania, Bartas graduated from film school with Tofolaria (1986), a documentary on the native peoples that inhabit the mountains of Siberia and that he made on a second expedition to the region. The Memory of the Day Passed By (Prańójusios dienos atminimui, 1990), released the same year Lithuania gained its independence from an already disintegrating Soviet Union, contains the codes of a city alienated from itself. Here, Bartas expresses a deep sense of disorientation and pessimism vis-à-vis the new order of things, a sentiment that was to become even more accentuated in Three Days (Trys dienos, 1992) and The Corridor (Koridorius, 1995).

Three Days is about four marginalized young people with no direction in life. These three films, shot against walls with peeling paint, in industrial complexes and interiors, are exercises in social archaeology, where the ruins reflect the geography of the characters’ psyches and a pressing need for transcendence. Birds taking flight, ochre light shining on faces, children playing with fire in a cathedral without a roof reminiscent of the monastery in Andrei Tarkovski’s Nostalgia, a conversation about death and the soul. “After the end comes light,” says an old man.

Few of Us (1996) reconnects with director’s initial preoccupations. Here, Bartas focuses on the forces of nature, to which civilization’s futureless children turn, only to find a desolation that ends up stoking their primitive impulses. From The Corridor and Few of Us to films like Seven Invisible Men (2005), the tension gradually mounts and suffering and despair find an escape valve in merrymaking, but these rare moments demand something be given back and this is when primal violence emerges. Few of Us marks a fascinating turning point in the director’s filmography: events in themselves take a backseat to the underlying metaphysical experience that culminates in Freedom (2000), in which a group of illegal immigrants wait out their final days at the mercy of a powerful geography, a limbo in which a sentence is executed, the end of the world, the unknown.

But before Freedom came A Casa (1997), an allegorical poem about the figure of the mother or home or country, ungraspable realities for someone like Bartas whose country has a history of violence. In Peace to Us in Our Dreams (2015), he draws us back like a magnet to the family nucleus, recreating in a luminous landscape with fugitive characters like in Few of Us, the same old conflicts, the fine line separating the surface and the material, and a mystery that begs to rise to the surface.

This retrospective of Bartas’ work, made possible with the support of the Lithuanian Film Center (LFC), gives us insight into the course post-Soviet cinema has taken, but while other directors focus on the more prosaic aspects of this world in crisis, Bartas is more interested in its loss of identity and faith. His is a cinema that can only be understood with the senses, experienced in the flesh.

Daniel D. Flórez