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Audrius Stonys and Visual Immediacy

Lithuanian filmmaker Audrius Stonys (1966) got involved in film a year before the collapse of the Soviet bloc. With the sensitivity and ambition of a young artist, he watched the world swept by change, as new issues emerged to take up the spotlight, as history and regimes crumbled and became reconfigured. Stonys himself admits that it was out of spite to the concerns of the time that he took interest in personal stories.


Along with defining his thematic direction, Stonys also settled on a method he has been following ever since. Feeling that language has lost its credit as a trustworthy medium because it was used to spread lies, propaganda and demagogy in the past regime, he decided to turn away from language and speak through images. He continues to look for beauty in things around him, patiently fixing his eye on seemingly meaningless and plain sceneries to discover their potential. At the same time, his films keep their particular flow without getting stalled in fragmented monotony.

As a producer and director, Stonys has made sixteen films, many of which won numerous honours at international festivals, e.g., Audience Award at Visions du réel, Grand Prix at the Split Film Festival, and other awards in Bornholm, Neu Brandenburg, Oberhausen, Bilbao and San Francisco. In 1992 his Earth of the Blind received the Felix Award for Best European Documentary Film. The film deftly combines three narrative lines - a cow going for slaughter, a trip up a hill and a ride back down in a wheelchair, and stories of blind people. The eyes of a cow become partners of human eyes, a typical moment in Stonys's work. Animals share their fate with people and both find mutual harmony and understanding. Even if they cannot find it, it does not mean that their destinies are any different, they simply do not understand each other.

The same motif can also be traced in, for instance, I Walked Through Fire, You Were With Me (2010) and Ramin (2011). While each has a different topic, the method and focus on an individual remain the same. The director builds his films gradually; in I Walked Through Fire, You Were With Me and in The Bell (2007), the viewers do get an aid in the form of titles but in the first case they are not comprehensive and appear only later on. I Walked Through Fire opens with some wedding footage, clearly a home video complete with naive transition effects and elevator music. The scene abruptly ends and the picture quality and use of music change as well - we see a house engulfed in flames. We don't know where we are, whose house it is, how come the filmmaker is there, or what it has to do with the wedding. Then a title reads that Zifrina and Evaldas Krauleidziai lost their house to fire. A neighbour offers his farmhouse as a temporary home in exchange for maintenance.

The filmmaker dwells on every fragment that makes up the whole with such meticulousness that each becomes independent, acquiring its own emotional and aesthetic quality. Any narrative and precepts emerge only in the background and remain concealed by particulars and details. The viewer's interpretation is dictated by the filmmaker as we are forced to reconstruct the whole from the same moments that captivated the author. Spoken language is scarce and words sound in fragments, isolated in much the same way as the images. And still, words are able to create context, for instance, from a single sentence we find out that the opening footage came from a wedding DVD that by chance was not destroyed in the fire. Stonys is selective in his focus, choosing not to answer some obvious questions. For example, instead of probing into how the couple copes in the new place, he only watches them from afar as they work but the central shot belongs to a sow nursing piglets. Stonys still manages to make the story slowly come to life without resorting to sheer formalism. A close-up of dirty hands hints at hard work at a long-barren farm, and a long seemingly pointless breakfast scene serves to delicately describe the couple's relationship. The motif of motherhood and family runs throughout the film, pertaining both to animals and humans. Despair and sadness are most concentrated in the shots of the burning and burned down house that keep reappearing black-and-white in slow motion. Family scenes in colour in turn offer hope that stems from determination and togetherness, reinforced in the final shots of the house being rebuilt. Stonys plays them backwards, suggesting that things really can be mended, balance and the past state of things can be restored.

All of the above - focus on detail, black-and-white archive footage, sparing use of words, as well as parallels between people and animals - can be found in Ramin. Ramin is a former Greco-Roman wrestling champion who long time ago won eight matches in under a minute. Today he is a single old man with a shadow of loneliness hanging over him. It is clear that Stonys is neither an asker, activist nor an analyst; he is an observer. That is why images and shots outnumber words and cuts. As in I Walked Through Fire, the lyrical and emotional tone of the film is disrupted by odd moments that call for a different type of emotive response and keep the viewer alert and curious. For example, Ramin shows musicians with a ram who play crammed in a small car; in I Walked Through Fire we see poultry scalded with an iron. Stonys also has an uncanny ability to spot and create sharp visual jokes.

Like I Walked Through Fire, Ramin includes black-and-white retrospective shots that look back into the past, in slow motion accompanied with a lyrical score. Beneath the surface, Ramin is permeated with an unarticulated unease and sadness that spill over to the viewer. The most likely response might be a bittersweet smile. The tone and structure most resemble a melodrama - the old wrestler complains that it's his birthday but nobody will visit him. But suddenly a group former wrestling students shows up to spend the day with him. Stonys sets up an even greater emotional rollercoaster by juxtaposing the birthday celebration filled with male bonding and patriotic pride, with a meowing kitten trapped in fencing. The cat serves as the image of an overlooked lonely being caught up in fate with no way out. Ramin sets out to find Sveta, a woman he used to know a long time ago. His questions sound as hollow as the cat's cry.

Stonys avoids big social themes and instead works with universal motifs. In original and distinct stories of ordinary people, in the everyday routine and the flow of time, Stonys uncovers universal truths without being literal. The same thematic and formal approach can be traced throughout his work and makes up his distinct filmmaking style.

There are, however, some films in which Stonys tries to change up his methods. That is the case of Uku Ukai (2006) which captures old people in situations and activities charged with varying levels of energy. Thanks to Stonys's observation, the protagonists become aesthetic objects worthy our gaze, just like everything else that catches the inquisitive yet compassionate eye of the filmmaker's camera. There is little dialogue in the film. The joint laughter therapy is a bizarre addition, which is part funny and part scary (as any forced laughter would be). There is no story and the film is rather a philosophical contemplation on old age. Without a narrative to facilitate the transfer of meaning, the viewer is left to project her own conclusions onto the film.

Despite his proclaimed distrust of words, Stonys sometimes cannot avoid using titles to explain the story. It is most noticeable in The Bell (2007) in which titles announce that the film will be about a church bell that ended up on the bottom of a lake during the Swedish-Lithuanian war three hundred years ago. It is a fairly verbal film; members of the expedition discuss their expectations, predictions and dreams. Images, on the other hand, become conventional portrayals of the verbal act, and of situations in which the protagonists speak. Stonys even turns into an interviewer. Yet man is again the focus of the film, and man's desire to discover, retrieve and to touch the bell. Black-and-white material is used again, this time to compare young people in the past and now. Stonys is interested in the life around the lake - the music festival that regularly takes place here, as well as a snowball fight that used to take place here. People share various legends about the lake and the bell; their stories differ from person to person, generation to generation, and family to family. There are also some who have never heard of it. Stonys asks about the bell, tries to make people talk but he is not as skilled with words as he is with images. Whenever he returns to his strong suit, for example, when he follows the movement and air bubbles underwater, he again creates a peculiar kind of intensity and beauty.

With an almost childlike immediacy, Stonys often stops to gaze at whatever has caught his attention as if forgetting the purpose of his visit, and herein lies the greatest power of his filmmaking. Moreover, observational method and the concept of inner freedom make each of the films mostly about Stonys himself.

Written by Kateřina Surmanová

Audrius Stonys - Directing filmography: Open the Door to Him Who Comes (1989); Baltic Way (1990, co-directed with Arunas Matelis); Earth of the Blind (1992); Apostle of Ruins (1993); Antigravitation (1995); Flying over the Blue Field (1996); Harbour (1998); Fedia. Three Minutes After the Big Bang (1999); 510 Seconds of Silence (2000); Alone (2001); The Last Car (2002); Countdown (2004); Uku Ukai (2006); The Bell (2007); Four Steps (2008); I Walked Through Fire, You Were With Me (2010); Ramin (2011).

This text was first published in October 2011 in IDF's Industry Reel #2. On October 29, 2011, Audrius Stonys held a master class as part of our Industry Programme in Jihlava.

photo: Ramin (dir. Audrius Stonys, Georgia / Latvia 2011)