Lithuania’s Enfant Terrible: Romas Zabarauskas is bending the rules of filmmaking and the world is here to watch5 min read
From the Berlinale debut of his short film Porno Melodrama in 2011 to his third feature, The Lawyer last year, Romas Zabarauskas has made a name for himself as a successful filmmaker and queer social actor, not only in his native Lithuania but across the world. Lossi 36 sits down with the acclaimed director to talk about his movies, activism and what inspires him.
A self-proclaimed enfant terrible of the Baltics, Zabarauskas’s decade long career has put diversity on the agenda in Lithuanian filmmaking, delivering genre-bending films and reflecting on the (im)possibility of meaningful political action. His latest movie, The Lawyer tells the story of an upscale Lithuanian lawyer who falls in love with a Syrian refugee living at a Serbian refugee camp. Just like Zabarauska’s previous movies, this relationship drama skillfully manoeuvres themes like class and privileges, sexuality and locality.
Could you tell me a bit about your background?
In 2012, I graduated with a degree in film from the Paris 8 University. During my studies, I also spent a year at Hunter College in New York. Studying in Paris and New York gave me an international perspective on filmmaking, but I was always focused on making films in Lithuania, as this was the context I knew best. That being said, I’m very humbled and proud knowing that I succeeded in building a global audience despite working in such a tiny European country.
You’ve been active as a filmmaker for a decade. In your movies, you often appear to be playing around with themes like class, race, privilege and sexuality. Could you elaborate on what these themes mean to you?
I am gay; I also consider myself a privileged person, as I grew up in an open-minded middle-class family. I’m interested in exploring modern political reality through my personal experiences. I feel that I can be more authentic this way.
Romas Zabarauskas / Arcana Femina, 2021
You’ve previously taken part in social action against homophobia, what is the situation like today in Lithuania with regards to homophobia?
It was a difficult year for the LGBT+ community in Lithuania. In all honesty, we became one of the scapegoats of the pandemic. In Lithuania, the anti-vaxxer movement is deeply connected with homophobic, traditionalist and nativist point-of-views.
This year, we failed to pass a widely discussed partnership law, which would have finally given at least partial recognition of same-sex couples. We are also behind in terms of sexual education, as well as recognizing transgender people.
In 2020, we elected a member of parliament who is openly gay – Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius – and the ruling coalition does seem less bigoted than the previous ones. Whether they will actually succeed in making our country fairer for everyone remains to be seen.
You don’t want to call yourself an activist, could you elaborate on why that is?
I always felt like I’m just doing what everyone should do in my situation. I think everyone should be an active citizen, and so I am. I was never part of a political party or human rights organization. I just publicly shared my story of being gay. Ten years ago in Lithuania, this was a lot more unusual than it is today.
I have also coordinated various initiatives, like publishing a book called Lithuania Comes Out: 99 LGBT+ Stories (2016, 2018). If people want to call me an activist because of this, that is fine by me. I just feel like sometimes people want to brand me as an activist because they’re not really interested in getting involved. So once they perceive what I do as a separate identity, they think that it is okay for them to be less active as they don’t share this particular identity. Whereas I think it’s actually not a choice but a moral imperative to do as much good as you can.
What inspires you in your work and social action?
I guess I believe that if life has some kind of meaning, we are not really capable of understanding it. And it is important to have fun while we are at it – and help others to have fun. That’s my motivation for creating art and being an active citizen.
It has been an eventful year for you, could you tell me about some of the highlights?
2021 was truly wild for me. I presented The Lawyer in 10 cities all over the world. Last month I was in Tel Aviv, where I showcased all my filmography – one short and three features. This was my first-ever retrospective, which was featured at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
In October, I received the Harvey Milk Foundation LGBTQ Champion Award in Florida, directly from the hands of Harvey Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk. The Lawyer has continued to travel, now counting 32 festival screenings – including 7 openings, centrepiece or closing ceremonies – and is being distributed across the world. The French distributor Optimale even dubbed it to French and re-released my previous film You Can’t Escape Lithuania.
I never travelled as much for work as I did this year – and during a global pandemic. How it all makes sense, I have no idea. I hope it’s only the very beginning and that I’ll be able to grow as an artist and continue to share stories with audiences across the world.
What happens next year?
Currently, I’m waiting for the funding replies for my new film: The Activist. Let’s see what happens!