In Spite of Co-Production: Surviving to Make Films in Lithuania

By Audrius Juzenas

ghetto-audrius-juzenas.jpgGhetto, 2006

Lithuania, my homeland, is a small country with three million inhabitants, 90% of them Lithuanians. Our country and cultural “market” is like the filling of a sandwich between the huge “markets” of Scandinavia, Russia, Poland and Germany. It means that it is very difficult to be unique and different at the same time, which raises Hamlet’s question: to be or not to be. And we artists, producers, even politicians feel the tightening hands of globalisation around our necks. Has the Government or even the Ministry of Culture any clear policy regarding national culture or diversity of cultural expressions? I would say not.

For example, with film, the State support for all Lithuanian cinematography every fiscal year is about 2 million euros. The budget for all applications considered every year by the Ministry of Culture is about 12 million euros. So filmmakers and artists try to “double” the money they receive from the State by developing projects for international co-production. International co-production sounds nice, but in reality co-production is a real black Hell for producers, film makers, artists and finances. It took me five long years to make my latest film, Ghetto (2006) as a European co-production. Five years is a catastrophe, a suicide, for any artist, investor, supporter or distributor.

filming-ghetto-audrius-juzenas.jpgFilming Ghetto

We started off with support from the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, and soon got partners in Holland, Germany, and Israel. It seemed all was going well, until we understood that it would be impossible to synchronise monies in time for the production schedule. The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture arrogantly tried to control all possible developments, constantly inventing procedures, but at the same time having no idea what was necessary for international co-production, or how it works in practice. The Dutch side soon promised money from foundations in the Netherlands, but the German side was too late for applications to the German Foundations, owing to the delays on the Lithuanian end and because of the endless paperwork required in Germany.

So we were forced to use the Lithuanian money and to wait for the German Foundations to decide later. By the time this came through though, the Dutch Foundation had changed the rules for co-production, and the funds which had been reserved had disappeared. God knows how, but we had found the right partners in Israel. However, they wanted to postpone film production for one year to correspond with their co-production process, and no-one would make an exception regardless of the fact the film was about the Holocaust. By this time it was clear that if we didn’t start production the Lithuanian money would go back to the State as would the German money. I was really frustrated. In all we had wasted three years on this project... without result.

ghetto-audrius-juzenas-3.jpgGhetto, 2006

So we had to start like kamikazes with a German partner from Hamburg. It was very hard, shortening the shooting schedule and with a large hole in the production budget. It was totally risky but we were hungry and angry. We somehow managed our way through the post-production, and the film was completed. Ghetto is based on a play first written in Hebrew and produced in Israel in 1984. It tells the true story of the Jewish Theatre that kept going in the Vilnius Ghetto throughout the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. The film was shown in many festivals, was nominated in Germany for best camera, best editing, best actors and best script and won the prize for best feature film in Lithuania in 2006. It was also nominated for the Russian Oscar-NIKA Award of 2006, and it got wide cinema distribution in Brazil, Mexico, The Netherlands, China, Korea, Germany, Lithuania and other countries. So all the co-production partners should be happy. But we saw none of the money from the film’s distribution. Then, one week after the cinema premiere in Germany, pirates stole the DVD copy from the lab in Cologne, and it was screened around the world.

So after all this, I’m very happy to be here at all, and not under a bridge or in prison. But what is clear is that we need an authoritative, international institution which can mediate or guide international co-productions through the international bureaucracy, and state-built barriers. Only with such radical change can international co-production become a powerful instrument for the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. Would this make the world a more peaceful and better place? I hope so.

This is a shortened version of a paper given in Essen in April 2007 at the conference hosted by the German UNESCO Commission in Germany, to celebrate the Convention for Cultural Diversity.

Audrius Juzenas is a film director based in Vilnius and Chair of the Lithuanian Cinema Council. Ghetto is part of a trilogy. The second part, Sugihara, is in development, and has been supported by the British Council and PAL, Performing Arts Labs.