Cinema Femme is a proud media partner of The Calvert Journal Film Festival, that ran from October 18 -31. The festival gives us a unique perspective by elevating the diverse cinematic voices from the New East through the lens of local independent filmmakers. The New East includes Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. I was fortunate to stream Lithuanian filmmaker Elena Rožukaitė’s short film, “The Old Man”, a story about a woman named Vaiva who takes a job as a nurse for an older disabled man in a remote Lithuanian town.
“The Old Man” is a work of art, almost like a piece of fine art, the kind that you can appreciate one frame at a time. Each is worthy of being placed on your wall. I told Elena this, especially her final shot, which we discussed. I was surprised to hear that this was her first film. I was blown away by this, as her talent is immense in every frame. I’m so grateful for Elena’s film, and The Calvert Journal Film Festival for showcasing it. For our interview, she walks me through her journey in making this film. As English is Elena Rožukaitė’s second language, I have paraphrased our conversation and have inserted her quotes for the purposes of clarity.
“The Old Man” was an assignment during her third year at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater. The assignment was to make a short film based on a novel by a Lithuanian author. “Lithuanian literature is pretty poetic. I found a younger Lithuanian writer Vaiva Rykštaitė, and in her novel Costume Drama she had one character featured in different short stories. One of the stories worked very well, as part of the novel, and that is the one I chose.” I asked her if she stayed close to the author’s story, or did she deviate and take more liberties in the adaption. Elena mentioned she did deviate, and the author was not happy at first with the liberties she took, but then came to the conclusion that it was her work, and her work of art. She concluded, “I think the adaptation transformed a lot.”
When I followed up to ask what was the main aspect of the story that inspired the work, she said, “I think what stayed with me from the book was this weird friendship that came between the girl and the old man. He is disgusting at first to her, but she reaches a place, a philosophy, that is similar to the old man. The philosophy is that the outside world can be beautiful, but it is not so true or sincere, not like the old man, who is ugly, but he is real at the same time. That feeling was very clear in the book, and I wanted to put it in the film. From the book, I was also inspired to try something brave and disgusting.”
I loved the two actors’ performances in the film. I asked Elena how she found them. “I met Severina Špakovska, the girl, at my second year of school. We knew each other pretty well, as I’ve worked with her before as an actress.” At first for the role of the woman, Elena wanted someone who looked more Lithuanian with blonde hair. Her teacher pushed her in another direction to choose a non-traditional Lithuanian actress for the role, someone like Severina, who is Karaim. “Once she was in my mind, I couldn’t think of any other woman for this role. Then I wrote a second draft, and we started working together.”
And what about the “old man”? “Algirdas Latėnas is a very famous actor in Lithuania. He is legendary and one of the best. He teaches acting at our film school. I sent him the script, he read it, and he was like ‘of course.’ I’m very grateful to the actors, especially Algirdas Latėnas, because there were a few other actors that I offered that role before him, but at their age they didn’t want to look old or ugly. I’m really grateful for him coming into this role and getting out of his comfort zone.”
I asked Elena to talk about a pivotal scene in the film. Vaiva loses her cell phone, because the Old Man stole it, an act which sparks chaos, as she takes away his comfort object, the TV remote.
“That scene was not in the book at all. It came to my mind on the second draft. I wrote the first draft, and I was thinking a lot about how I could make Vaiva explode.” Elena wanted to bring more suffering to her character, and bring her to a breaking point. She explains why that scene was so pivotal and why it connected the two characters: “The cell phone represents the boyfriend to her. The only friend of the old man is the TV, and his remote control. And her only friend is her boyfriend, which is actually her phone. He takes her phone because he wants her attention. To get back at him, she takes his remote control. And that’s why they are similar people. They are mirroring each other because she has the phone, and he has the remote. They have their own safe spaces, like their own fantasy worlds, and once you take these things away from them, they are out of their comfort zone.”
Elena talked to me about how they shot the scene: “It was super funny. We shot it for half a shooting day, which is 6 hours in Lithuania. We got a lot of material from it. They were improvising so much. The actors were also getting more free during the scene by letting themselves go into the character. All the takes were super cool because they were all a bit different.”
They didn’t think it was going to work. “The evening before the shooting day, Jonas, the Director of Photography, said, ‘I have no idea how we are going to shoot this scene, do you?'” But what made it work was the actors’ and crew’s familiarity with the material, as well as the improvising. “The scene worked out because we were just improvising with the camera, and we adapted to the movements of the actors. They led the scene. However, the editing of this scene was like editing another short film. We had like 40 cuts. The DOP, myself, and the actors were very familiar with the script and what the film was about. That is why we could improvise a lot on set.”
The last shot of the short is my favorite, and a masterpiece in my opinion. I asked Elena to go in depth on how that scene came to be, and why it was so special: “We all knew on set that was the best shot of the film,” she said. “Even the actors agreed. When we were shooting this scene, the whole scene, we were quite moved by it. All the crew was calm, and the energy was the same on set as what it is in the shot. I feel it’s because something very true was happening there. We also made the shot before when she walks to the window, and you walk with her, and then you get a slight zoom on her. Again, we improvised with the scene and we just got this idea to end it like that.”
I asked Elena, “What do you hope people see in your film?” Her response: “That is a great question, but a really tough question. Mostly, I hope they see themselves, or some parts of themselves.”
As for what’s coming up next for her, she responded, “Now I am in post-production on my second work. This short also just consists of one location, two actors and a dog. It’s a story about the beginning of the ending of first love.” I look forward to seeing what’s next for Elena, and so grateful to The Calvert Journal Film Festival for bringing this filmmaker and film to my attention.