Director Romas Zabarauskas on breaking boundaries in Baltic film in a decade of queer cinema

Baltic cinema may be more liberal than many of its industry counterparts, but some topics still remain difficult to broach. Almost 10 years after coming out at his debut premiere, Romas Zabarauskas describes filming his latest movie, featuring the first gay love scene between two men in Lithuanian cinema.

20 March 2020

Back in 2011, when Lithuanian filmmaker Romas Zabarauskas came out as gay during the premiere of his debut short, Porno Melodrama, he became a media celebrity overnight. “It was so rare for LGBTQ people to speak about themselves openly back then,” he says.

Nine years and two feature films later, and Zabarauskas has released The Lawyer: the first Baltic production to explore the theme of male homosexual love. The story, penned by the director himself, follows the life of a wealthy corporate lawyer, Marius (Eimutis Kvosciauskas), who spends his days teasing friends and chasing young lovers. When Marius’ estranged father dies, however, he instead finds himself establishing an unexpected connection with a sex-cam worker, Ali (Turkey’s Doğaç Yıldız), a Syrian man stuck in a refugee camp in Belgrade.

Doğaç Yıldız in The Lawyer.

Filled with rich eloquent silences and precious moments of authenticity, and supported by the two lead actors’ intense performances, the movie, produced by Vilnius-based outfit Naratyvas and backed by the Lithuanian Film Centre, had been due to screen at the British Film Institute’s Flare festival, before its cancellation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Zabarauskas’ other work enjoyed performances at Berlin, Moscow, and Bushwick film festivals.

In many ways, Lithuania stands out in the region for its representation of the LGBTQ community on screen. Alante Kavaite’s The Summer of Sangailė portrayed a powerful love story of two teenage girls. Other films, including Zabarauskas’, feature lesbian, gay, or bisexual characters.

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But male homosexual love — and perhaps particularly the gay sex scene that appears in The Lawyer — remains somewhat taboo in Baltic cinema. “Films in our region are normally produced either by investment, expecting commercial profit, or by national film funding,” says Zabarauskas. “These are often two opposite sides of the industry. However, they are both part of the same society that suffers from sexist and homophobic culture.” That the film got made, he says, is a sign of changing times. “Since society is rapidly changing, so are the decision-makers, who are starting to value more diverse voices in cinema.”

But The Lawyer isn’t just a vehicle for queer representation on screen. The film uses LGBTQ love to explore deeper issues more, delving into the dynamics of privilege and relationships. A love story between a privileged Westerner and a handsome lover from “the East” is a dangerous trope, Zabarauskas admits. He wanted to turn it on its head. “I know that it can be disheartening from my own experience, because often Eastern European characters are portrayed as ‘exotic lovers,’” he says. “Internationally, Eastern Europe is patronised as poor, and that poverty is then marketed into a distinctive style. Fashion designers Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia popularised the post-Soviet normcore look, going as far as to brand the Soviet hammer and sickle symbol. I’m fascinated by it, I’m equally disturbed. I don’t feel empowered by such theatrics, considering them to be dangerously naive or disingenuous.”

In The Lawyer, we follow an Eastern European lawyer who is in a privileged position and falls in love with his own version of ‘someone from the East’: a Syrian refugee.” Throughout the film, the cultural clash constantly challenges both characters’ views and prejudices, until their relationship becomes an authentic, intimate search for love, free from stereotypes and social pressures.

This organic development blooms from the director’s extensive research and his finely-tuned script, with Zabarauskas’ former classmate, Syrian journalist Anmar Hijazi, and story editor Marc David Jacobs working to iron out the fine details. During his research process, the director also travelled to Lebanon and met with Helem (“dream” in Arabic), the first LGBTQ advocacy group in the Arab world, as well as interviewing gay Syrian gay refugees online and speaking to residents at the Krnjaca Asylum Center in Belgrade.

“If an average Lithuanian film is perceived as ‘apolitical’, its artistry isn’t doubted. But since I do have clear progressive political goals, my integrity is often questioned: is it art or politics?”

Zabarauskas is keen to stress that the film’s production was a team effort. “I always encourage my team to bring their own best ideas to the table. Director of photography Narvydas Naujalis and production designer Giedre Valeisaite contributed a lot crafting the visual style of The Lawyer. I shared my inspirations — film noir, Classical Hollywood cinema, the contrasting worlds of the two lead characters — and they grounded it, finding the right artistic solutions,” he says. “Costume designer Lukas Juodis picked the clothes from some of the best up-and-coming Lithuanian designers. Our composer, Ieva Marija Baranauskaite, was inspired to create a very specific, atmospheric, retro feel, and our supervising sound editor Vytis Puronas helped seamlessly work it into the film’s soundtrack. Editor Ieva Veiveryte made me dramatically rethink the film’s beginning and end.”

Eimutis Kvosciauskas and Doğaç Yıldız in The Lawyer

But Zabarauskas admits that thanks to his outspoken campaigning, both he and the film are scrutinised more closely than usual on the Baltic film circuit, where the political value of his artwork is perceived as more controversial.

“If an average Lithuanian film is perceived as ‘apolitical’, its artistry isn’t doubted. But since I do have clear progressive political goals, my integrity is often questioned: is it art or politics, or maybe I’m just doing it for self promotion?,” he says. “Well, it’s art, and it is political, because all art is political; and if you want to get the message across, you need to promote it, so I don’t see any contradictions. If people strongly disagree with me, perhaps it has less to do with my sexual orientation and more with my overall stance,” he said.

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But for now, that extra scrutiny is something that Zabarauskas is more than willing to take.

This director is currently developing his new feature and drafting other projects, including a treatment for an international gay thriller series. His campaign work also continues, with the birth of the #MeToo movement in 2017 acting as a particular turning point. Zabarauskas joined the European Film Academy as a director, and the Independent Producers Association of Lithuania as a producer last autumn.

“I saw that co-operation is needed to bring more sustainable changes. I think that the Lithuanian Film Centre should introduce measures to ensure gender equality on set and on screen. I’m helping to push for a few things behind the scenes, and, while it takes time, the body should be credited for taking some measures: funding research, publishing expert recommendations, and organising courses on sexual harassment,” he says.

Ultimately, he says, these changes won’t just create a better environment for the minority groups tasked by society with pushing for progress, but will make a better industry for artists across the board.

“It’s important to understand that respect and diversity within the industry are not optional additions, but instead crucial to fostering great talent,” he says. “Some people think that diversity is some kind of cherry on an otherwise perfect cake. There is no cake. We’re talking about the main meal here, and diversity is a huge part of it.”

For more information on when The Lawyer will be released in your region, click here.

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