Toys with Polish, Russian and Belarusian Eyes
An Interview with Lithuanian filmmaker Lina Luzyte about her documentary project Belarusian Toys
by Hana Rezková
How do you choose your approach? Rationally, intuitively...
Toys is my first feature documentary film and I have to admit all my decisions were based simply on my intuition. I had no concept, you know the story, I was passing a train station where I saw the people selling colorful toys, that struck me and the image was a trigger for the whole film. Then I went there for a five-day research and everything started to change – selling of the toys directly to the trains got banned and I had to start shooting immediately. The country, the people's lifestyle dictated the way I started shooting the film. I was given the approach by the situation and I had no concept in advance. Well I had thoughts about having the toys depicted as a kind of commodity – like drugs – produced illegally and sold illegally, I was thinking about following these commodity chains being moved around the city with scenes of money being handed over under the table and eventually depicting the toys leaving by train. It proved to be impossible. I abandoned this idea soon after understanding the situation around me. I only listened to my surroundings, the film is in a way not directed by me.
You might be underrating your own intuition a little. The fact that you are shooting and editing intuitively doesn't mean you are not fully in control… The long travelling shot following the girl on the street is not any coincidence. Without bringing any new information, it moves the film to an entirely new dimension. You might not be rationally aware of that but it is your choice and it has an important role in the film. The opening scene in Social Network is no coincidence either.
Well, I agree that the girl's walking is very important but at that time I was shooting everything, I had no idea how the situation might evolve. I liked the girl a lot as she was very important for the whole system – she was a messenger delivering material. My idea at the time was to construct the film from separate parts – somebody cuts the material, someone else cuts the bodies, another person stuffs them. And the girl was supposed to be the messenger who travels and connects everyone. In the editing she became very precious to me. It is as if only a mentally handicapped person could live in this country and walk free on the street without any fear. Others get arrested or have to sit at home, hide and then drink in case they would like to feel some freedom. But maybe I know what you mean….when I saw the material with some distance, this particular shot, this material blossomed, it struck me. But it took me a year and a half to recognize it, for months I felt I had nothing in my hands.
Every year we get a significant number of East European docs depicting remote countryside in a very nostalgic tone based on the myth of lost paradise. You are on the contrary concise in form and tone, avoiding any sign of cliché.
I don't like the sentimentalism attached to the past. I do have some sentiments connected with the Soviet era but that was my childhood so that is a rather personal bond. Attaching the sentimental echo to images seems like pure manipulation. We live now and the Belarusian reality is what I'm interested in. It condenses both the present and the past anyway.
How big was your crew? How did you function among and with the people?
We were basically living with the people. Getting up at three in the morning which is when the toy business starts. We spent about two weeks at the train station. It was just two of us, I had a D.O.P. I abandoned the only technical decision made in advance. I was certain the best way to shoot such film was with a hand-held camera. Before leaving for Belarus, I was talking to Sharunas Bartas and he made me take a tripod with me and shoot part of the shots from a stable position. The emblematic scene with the policemen walking towards the crowd gained a lot from that suggestion.
Looking past the harsh reality, the toys are bright signs of activity. They are in a way a gift to the image – to the film. Colourful flags waving for contribution, at the same time traces of childhood. All these connotations are more than evident while watching the material, but how did you perceive them on the spot while shooting? Were all these images and their possible readings already evident on the spot?
Actually yes. When I was passing the town, what caught my sight was an image - a face of a man holding a crocodile next to his head. Both faces next to each other. The man's face was really sad and the crocodile was very beautiful. At that moment I understood that the toys would be the key element, not only visually but also on the level of meaning. The process was actually the opposite. While I was there I stopped distinguishing them from the rest of the reality. They weren't standing out anymore. And in the editing room I realized that they have very sad eyes. One of my protagonists told me that there are Polish eyes, German eyes, Russian eyes, and Belarusian eyes. All the eyes have eyelashes leaning towards both left and right. Only the Belarusian eyes have eyelashes directed to one side only.
What is your key for the editing? And when did you find it?
I received a lot of advice throughout the process, but the most precious was Jean-Pierre Rehm's [Director of FIDMarseille, tutor at Ex Oriente Film workshop in March 2011, Ed. Note] who suggested that I shouldn't focus on the big events, or to expect them, search for them. Before, I kept hoping for moments when the police would be arresting someone or anything like that. His reading was that the tragedy is not between the people and the police, but between the people and their lives. Their biggest tragedy is not that the police might arrest them for selling the toys, but that they have to make the toys endlessly. Which I totally agreed with but perhaps wasn't brave enough to go just for that. After that I went back to Lithuania and started editing the whole scenes. One long scene with this family, another one with another family. And slowly I started to edit them, linking them together… One flows into the next.
Having seen the rough cut, it seems that if you do have to make the film shorter, then instead of shortening any particular scene, it would be better to remove whole scenes entirely... That would work better to keep the rhythm of the narrative and the composition.
That is the main idea. I probably shouldn't say this but in the film, nothing really happens and it is the core of it. And that can only be represented in duration. So that is what I have been doing, cutting a lot of my dear scenes out.
At the moment there is only one scene in the material where the realistic (diegetic) music leaks to another scene where it loses its connection with its source - the radio (and becomes extra-diegetic). Such jump out of the purely observational style takes the viewers in a very mature and masterful way to a totally different level. You used this in the very last sequence and for me it was what I would call an elliptic adventure. Something to hope for if it comes in the right doses. Will you edit any other scenes in the same way?
I want to keep it in the film and I don't want to use anything like that in any other place in the structure of the film. For me it is not the end of the film, in a way it is a sort of continuation – in a condensed way it says a lot about the perpetuity of the situation. And in a symbolic way, the stupid music leaves its image and comments on the system in Belarus where people with its sounds have to do their meaning with less actions. At the beginning it was just a feeling. What happens if I extend the music. Now I see it differently.
You are not there yet. Still editing. What are your biggest doubts?
The biggest doubts I have are actually about the last scene with the music we talked about. I don't want to just wrap up the film. It is very different from the rest. I'm very sensitive towards to the people and I don't want to sound as if I was done with them by showing a kind of disrespect. But maybe I just need some more time to understand my own intuition. And I have doubts about the title.
This text was first published in October 2011 in IDF's Industry Reel #1.
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Igrushki , Belarus, Lithuania, 52 min, HD, Personal View, Portrait, Social Issues, Society
Toys captures the life in the small town of Zhlobin, Belarus, sometimes nicknamed the "town of fairytales". The locals have come up with a business idea to make and sell plush toys. There are tons of toys in the town and they are everywhere: in the streets, markets, train station. And they no longer amaze anyone – they seem to have been living with the people of Zhlobin for ages. An exotic sight for a passerby, this is actually a poor, wild and utterly unprofitable business for the locals. The film tells five stories of ordinary people of Zhlobin. They are all making toys, selling them, having chats, drinks, making toys again, singing, fighting and...making toys again. Nothing extraordinary takes place in the film, just like in the life of Zhlobin. Everything is seemingly stalled, absurd, yet at the same time, such is the reality that one cannot escape. Nor is anybody trying to. It is the way it is. That is Zhlobin. That is Belarus.