For the last decade Lithuanian filmmaker and LGBTQ+ activist Romas Zabarauskas has been making provocative, genre-bending films underpinned by queer characters. His debut short Porno Melodrama, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, and his subsequent features We Will Riot and You Can’t Escape Lithuania/Nuo Lietuvos nepabegsi saw him tackle queer love, politics and resurgent nationalism. His collection of interviews Lithuania Comes Out: 99 LGBT+ Stories was first published in 2016, followed by a second interview book Friendly Stories.
Romas Zabarauskas’ latest feature The Lawyer/Advokatas is a tender, complex love story between a gay Lithuanian lawyer Marius (Eimutis Kvoščiauskas) and a bisexual Syrian refugee, Ali (Doğaç Yıldız) living in a camp in Serbia. The film was due to have its world premiere at last month’s BFI Flare London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently set for theatrical release in Lithuania this September, it is the country’s first mainstream feature to focus on a male same-sex romantic relationship. It’s also a rare example of a fictional film exploring the LGBTQ+ refugee experience in Europe and was partly shot on location at the Krnjača camp in Belgrade. While making the film, Romas partnered with the Lithuanian Red Cross and raised 5,300 EUR in donations to help refugees living in Lithuania.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke to Romas Zabarauskas about his extensive research for the film, shooting on location at a real refugee camp, trying to revitalise people’s fatigue of empathy towards refugees, the importance of screen diversity as a reflection of reality, LGBTQ+ life in Lithuania and his love for Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: The Lawyer marks your third feature film, before we get on to that specifically could you tell me a bit about how you got into filmmaking initially?
Romas Zabarauskas: “When I was a teenager I wanted to be an actor and I took acting classes, but soon enough I realised I preferred directing. I used to go to the library to watch arthouse movies from queer filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar, John Waters and Gregg Araki, which helped me to accept myself and to see the diversity of the world. Thinking about it now I’m surprised that all those films were in the library at that time in Lithuania. I don’t know how that came about. Maybe the library hadn’t watched those movies!”
What sort of age were you when you were watching these films at the library?
“I was around fourteen. I was born in 1990, the same year that Lithuania regained its independence. Actually we just commemorated thirty years since the restoration of independence on Match 11th. So I’m kind of child of independence.”
So you said that you were acting then found directing, how did you discover you preferred that?
“At the acting classes that I took we were encouraged to direct each other so that’s how I initially experimented with it. Then I did some amateur short films with my friends, which gradually became more and more professional. And then I made my first short during my studies. In terms of acting I had a unique experience as a featured extra in the French movie Colette, une femme libre which was shot in Lithuania. I played the son of Lambert Wilson’s character. Tragically, the lead actress Marie Trintignant was killed by her boyfriend Bertrand Cantat in a hotel in Vilnius, Lithuania. So my first experience of cinema was a very strange one. I was fascinated on the set, getting to see how everything worked. But then that happened. Everyone took flowers to the French embassy in Lithuania. It was very tragic.”
Just terrible, so sad. Going on to The Lawyer, what inspired your screenplay? What were some of the things on your mind as you set about writing it?
“Because I’m also an activist I’m always looking at how I can contribute to causes and definitely in Lithuania the situation with refugees is a difficult one. Lithuania is a small country of only about three million people and we don’t host many refugees, but regardless we are not welcoming and we are not doing a great job. Globally, I think there is a fatigue of empathy, people are overwhelmed and they want to stay out of wars and they like to see themselves as progressive, but how are people helping the situation? I think it’s important to think about how we can help because the Syrian war is still happening even today. I wish that my film would have lost its relevance, because I’ve been working on it for four years now, but unfortunately it hasn’t. So that was my motivation as a filmmaker and activist, to inspire more empathy and to give a new perspective. Regardless of it being a same-sex love story, it shows complex characters. We tried to show them not as heroes, not as victims but as human beings who are flawed, as a lot of us are in reality. When we freshen people’s empathy, hopefully we can start to think about how we can get involved to help the situation.”
“Also, from a more personal point of view, I lost my father four years ago in 2016. During my grief process I realised that I am still privileged in my grief, in that I have a supportive family and friends, and even society in a way, because we have all those rituals in place of how to deal with bereavement and support networks. And privilege is a topic that I’m interested in generally. I started to think about most refugees coming to safer countries who don’t even have the luxury to experience grief at all and most refugees have lost people who are very important to them; their family members or their friends. I feel that it shows how cruel that lack of empathy is. So that was another starting point. People are perceived as victims and then there is this category that we place people in and then we lose our understanding of their humanity. It’s very dangerous to do that I think.”
And you wanted to show that through your two lead characters. Could you tell us a bit about the title character the lawyer, Marius played by Eimutis Kvoščiauskas.
“I’m an outsider to this topic of Syrian war and to being a bisexual refugee, and so is the lawyer, he’s also an outsider. As I said, my starting point was my grief process, so that’s what happens to the lawyer character. I tried to place the lawyer character very much within the LGBTQ community. I feel like sometimes in gay movies, the queer characters are often shown in a vacuum, without any context. Often it’s two gay men who fall in love with each other, but they don’t have any gay friends or go to gay clubs, so it’s almost not really gay somehow! Certainly there are different experiences, but I feel that for a lot of LGBTQ people it’s actually very important to be part of the LGBTQ community and it is one of the defining features of our identity, so I wanted to not shy away from that and to show him in that context. That’s why at the beginning of the film we dedicate quite a bit of time to that. I wanted to show some flaws in him and those later being challenged by the new experience he has, his belief in some stereotypes is challenged. I didn’t want to idolise any of the characters, I wanted to show their flaws and their darker sides.”
“The other lead character Ali, played by Doğaç Yıldız, is a bisexual refugee, so the expectation is that he must be struggling with accepting his sexuality or he must be suffering because others don’t accept him because of his sexuality. But actually that’s not always the case, there are different facets to every human being whatever situation they’re in. I wanted to challenge some of the viewer’s expectations. So those were the starting points, but I built up the screenplay from there with a lot of research.”
Tell us about some of the research that you did and what you found most useful as you set about writing?
“That was what I liked the most about the process. When I spoke with a few gay Syrian refugees and with some refugees at the Krnjača camp in Serbia.”
How did you get in touch with them?
“I had a Syrian classmate who’s a journalist. She consulted on the script for me and she connected me with some gay Syrian refugees who I talked to via Skype. But for the camp, I actually went there as part of my research. I pretended to be a journalist when I went there because it was the easiest or at least the fastest way to get access. I interviewed a few people there and then later we came back to the Krnjača camp in Serbia and we actually shot some of the film there. The scenes that you see at a camp in the movie were shot in that real camp. I was surprised that they allowed us to do that. They didn’t charge any money for that, but we did pay the refugees who volunteered to participate as extras in one scene and we only shot a couple of hours there, so I hope we didn’t disturb anyone too much. I’m happy that the people in the camp we dealt with believed in our message, which they demonstrated by allowing us to shoot there.”
“When you research, you find the nuances and there are so many. That’s what I love about doing research and about art itself. It helped to inform me and to see those contradictions that are oftentimes lost. And of course I read some books as well and also went to Beirut in Lebanon to meet the LGBT organisation Helem. I didn’t go to Syria, but Lebanon is a neighbouring country, and I wanted to learn more about the experiences of LGBT people in a similar region.”
“Often, when I was giving interviews myself as an activist about Lithuania, Western journalists wanted to portray me as a victim and to only talk about the worst experiences that I’d had in Lithuania. In those situations I would feel that it’d didn’t represent the full picture, because despite the challenges that we have in Lithuania—for example we don’t have any same-sex partnership recognition, or the right to adopt, or healthcare for trans people and education—so there are plenty of challenges, but at the same time we have queer culture here, we have drag shows, theatre, books, films and we have a vibrant community. So I feel like that’s also very much part of our reality as well. And of course that’s totally different from the subject of my film, but I wanted to use the same approach. I didn’t want to victimise either character. I wanted to show more nuance and to represent their realities in a more complex way.”
The lawyer says at one point that as a gay man in Lithuania life is hard for him, so he starts with that limited perspective of seeing himself as a victim. I didn’t know much about LGBTQ+ life in Lithuania before watching your film, so the dinner party scene at the beginning which suggests a pretty vibrant LGBTQ community did take me by surprise to some extent and intrigued me. You could set that same scene in any major city where LGBTQ people are accepted couldn’t you?
“Yes, I agree, but it is the reality here. Also the lawyer is certainly privileged, which we challenge later in the movie. But we see that he is quite rich and of course when you have money you can live a different life. But at the same time, it is a reality for some people in Lithuania and it’s becoming so for a lot more people, even those who are less privileged, because people are becoming more and more open. But of course this is not to say that there aren’t any problems in Lithuania.”
There’s also an interesting exploration of masculinity as a theme that runs through the film. Marius doesn’t realise that the young man at his house at the dinner party is trans until he tells him he is and he has some preconceptions about what it means to be a trans male. The loss of Marius’ father from whom he was estranged makes you think of identity and masculinity to some degree as well. The art exhibition that’s going on is focused on masculinity and then later the lawyer and Ali have that discussion about who is weak and who is the stronger one don’t they?
“Those things are definitely there and it’s so nice that you noticed them. I always think about homophobia within the context of misogyny and sexism because really people are homophobic because it challenges their notion of masculinity that they have. And so it is a film about these two men and that theme of masculinity just naturally found its way into the film, even though it isn’t the main theme, it’s reflected because it’s part of the reality of those two characters. I think there’s a lot of space to analyse that. There’s maybe something deeper there that I would leave to critics to examine and explore.”
And in terms of talking about what it’s like for LGBTQ people in your country, I wondered what the reality of trying to raise money to make a gay related film in Lithuania is and I know you already have a distribution plan for the film. This is your third feature, so you have a proven track record now as a filmmaker, but give us an insight into that aspect of the process.
“It’s the first film that I’ve made where I received a production grant from the Lithuanian Film Centre, but for all my previous films I have also received some public support in terms of the distribution or the premiere, but smaller things like that. It’s a very complex question. I started early, and my debut short Porno Melodrama was screened at the Berlinale in the Panorama Section, so that was an achievement that was hard for anyone to ignore in a way. But at the same time it put a lot of pressure on my shoulders in Lithuania. I didn’t want to shy away from my own sexuality, so I came out as gay at the premiere and I kind of became the gay celebrity overnight, because it was so rare for people to be out in Lithuania. That was in 2011. Now things have changed and a lot of people are open.”
“I feel like my films were scrutinised a lot more because of the attention I received from the media and the subjects that I spoke about. I self-produced my films, including the new one, establishing my own company and little by little I’ve proved myself capable. So with this third film, maybe the jury was like ‘OK, we have to give it to him because he keeps making these movies by himself!’ I did crowdfunding campaigns for my earlier movies. I hope I can continue making films and I hope I will still be able to get some public support.”
“In Lithuania at the same time I as making The Lawyer there were a couple of other LGBTQ films being made as well like for example, The Summer of Sangailė or Sangailės vasara as it’s called in Lithuanian, that was a really successful movie. It’s a love story about two teenage girls. It was a Lithuanian and French co-production that won the World Cinema Directing Award at Sundance. Aiste Dirziute who plays one of the two teenagers in that film has a cameo role in The Lawyer as a secretary in the law film at the beginning of the film.”
“I can’t complain and I am thankful for the support that I’ve received. There are many people at the Lithuanian Film Centre who are really rooting for this film now as well. The plan is to release the film in cinemas in September in Lithuania, but of course now everything is up in the air because of COVID-19. And of course homophobia still exists in Lithuania in the film industry as with everywhere else. I think what we saw with the #MeToo movement is that it uncovered the sexism that is so pervasive in our industry, and it’s not just about people who do these things, but it’s about the people who stay silent as well. It was a moment where we were able to reflect upon our own responsibility, including myself. So of course there is a lot of room for improvement. In the film industry in general I think it’s actually difficult when you want to work on difficult subjects and diversity is involved. With all the talk there is currently about diversity we shouldn’t think that it somehow makes things easier, it’s still very difficult actually.”
There aren’t many films that feature bisexual characters, I think it’s something that is underrepresented on screen and you have two prominent bisexual characters in The Lawyer; Linas, the trans man at the beginning of the film and then one of your two lead characters, Ali.
“In my movies there are often bisexual characters and yes in this movie there are two. For me, it’s just another facet of their personalities really. It’s not a plot device in this movie. I like to think about diversity when making my movies and because it takes such a long time to make a movie, why not include more different characters. It represents the reality of the world we live in. Sometimes people speak about diversity as if it’s something additional, but it’s not, it’s just reality.”
Tell us about the actor who plays Pranas, the trans character in the film.
“He is a trans actor, Danilas Pavilionis and I was very happy to collaborate with him. I wrote the role with him in mind, because as an activist I published this book called Lithuania Comes Out 99 LGBT Stories and I interviewed him for that book. Then I also published Friendly Stories including not only LGBT stories, but different people discussing their various identities that might make their lives more difficult. It was very natural, he’s actually a nurse, but I knew that he was interested in and passionate about films, and he was working as an extra. So I invited him for a casting and it went well. It was very important for me, it had to be a trans actor playing the role.”
I’m interested in what you have to say about the intimacy that we have with people who we meet online as shown in the film. There’s the video chat room where Marius first meets Ali. He then talks to him on the phone about his father dying, even though they are relative strangers. The trans character, Pranas, says that when he came out he found support online which helped to save his life. And when the lawyer is in the hotel in Serbia he arranges a hookup through an app and they start kissing immediately, as soon as the guy gets through the door, which felt very realistic.
“I think that’s part of LGBTQ culture. It’s more difficult for queer people to meet each other in real life whereas straight people meet each other all the time everywhere. Though I know it’s difficult for you to empathise with that living in New York!”
Yes! At the gym for instance it’s very rare to meet anyone straight!
“I’m sure! But as I say, it’s part of the culture and I didn’t want to shy away from placing those characters in that culture. That’s why I thought it was interesting and there aren’t only positive things about it. I think it’s interesting how the film resonates with the circumstances we all now find ourselves in. The main character is grieving the death of his father, an older person in his family and he isolates himself in his home and he finds a connection online and rethinks his life. It’s the situation that a lot of people are in now, they’ve stopped their usual lives a little bit and have a moment to rethink what they’re doing and also we are using these online communication tools to still connect with other people.”
Let’s talk about the look of the film and the cinematography. I was interested when you used a bit of black and white for a scene in the film which you go back to a few times. And I like the use of red light and blue light that comes in at various significant points in the film.
“It was a very important creative collaboration with my cinematographe Narvydas Naujalis and my production designer Giedre Valeisaite. They were really helpful in crystallising that vision for the film. It’s about those contrasts between blue and red, that game in between those two colours. People might notice that the first part of the film is a little bit more blue when he is in Vilnius and then the Belgrade part is a little bit more red. And there are contrasts within those contexts as well. Choosing that colour palette was important, then trying to replicate it to create the mood and represent their emotional state. I am interested in the balance between simplicity and artificiality. Some of the dialogue is cut in such a simple way. My editor, Ieva Veiveryte, kind of hated me for that because it’s so unoriginal. It’s just back and forth, but I think it works just great. That’s what a lot of people love about cinema, close-ups, and I do too because then you get to experience those emotions and you really get caught up in the dialogue as if you were there, or even closer than in real life, it’s kind of amazing. We didn’t unnecessarily try to create something new, but we did contrast that with some wider shots to give it more space to breathe.”
“As for the black and white section, I decided to do it based on that scene. I just thought it looked better in black and white, so really so why not?! Actually, that decision was very controversial in our team. People had strong opinions about that. Some people were truly against it and some people thought it was super cool. I thought that if I make the decision then people will keep asking about it and I can’t just say ‘well, it’s just because I wanted it to be like that!’ But we have to keep that drive when we make a movie to experiment and break some rules at least, because sometimes there’s a lot of pressure to do things “the right way”, but I think a lot great movies experimented with things.”
Tell us about the LGBTQ+ film, TV series, book, piece of music, play or artwork that’s really resonated with you over the years or a current obsession, and what you love about it.
“My favourite film of all time is All That Heaven Allows by Douglas Sirk. It’s not technically a gay movie, but it is in some ways and it has inspired so many queer filmmakers. It’s a love story between a privileged widow played Jane Wyman and her gardener played by Rock Hudson. It’s a story that was then reworked in the contemporary German society of the early 1970s by Rainer Werner Fassbinder for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, with the older German lady and the immigrant Ali. So maybe my film The Lawyer also takes some of its inspiration from there too. That movie for me is the best queer movie. And there’s the scene where she asks something like ‘and do you want me to be a man?’ And Rock Hudson’s character says ‘only in that one way.’ So maybe it was intended to be more queer than meets the eye.”
“And going back to those films I watched at the library, I think I was most impressed with John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. My mind was blown! It seemed so radical and out there and queer and so shocking and I loved it because it felt so free! I miss those kinds of films today, but maybe it’s OK, times have changed and that’s good also, I don’t want to be too nostalgic!”
The Lawyer was due to have its world premiere at last month’s BFI Flare London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival and is scheduled for a theatrical release in Lithuania in September 2020. Take a moment to sign up to this document to be notified when there is news about The Lawyer being available in your region.