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2018-10-01 Back to list

Kaunas as Tokyo, Moscow and… Itself

We sat down with the head of Kaunas Film Office, to discuss the recent international productions and the nearest future of the industry in Kaunas.

"I always say to Kaunasians who start to work in a production of a new film - you will swear, you won't sleep, you will get angry, but after seeing the result of your work in cinema, all of the hardships will be forgotten," laughs Aurelijus Silkinis, the head of Kaunas Film Office. He rushed to meet us almost immediately after the HBO TV show Chernobyl was filmed, straight from the location of an upcoming large project. 

The Chernobyl premiere is scheduled for the next autumn, and Kaunas played a role of Moscow in this film. But that's not unusual. Our city has already been Tokyo, Vienna, Norway and Italy in film, and it seems that these are not the last series. Especially if, as it is considered, the tax relief for filmmakers will be lowered - currently, it is 20 per cent. Good tax environment, comfortable locations and local professional employees are what we need for a film industry in Lithuania to grow.

As one of the busiest Lithuanian film producers in Lithuania, Lineta Mišeikytė - thanks to whom foreign companies are interested in our country - said once, Kaunas is a very convenient place for making historical films. Indeed, the city has plenty of architectural heritage and many undiscovered angles - it can play more than itself. But when it does that, the role is especially persuasive.

"When we filmed the protest scene in Emilija iš Laisvės alėjos (a Lithuanian film about 1970s, KGB and other horrible things), everybody cried," - claims A. Silkinis. He also adds a story told by one Kaunas resident who had actually participated in the real protest. The person told director Donatas Ulvydas, how the Soviet policemen washed their dirty hands in soda water machine that stood in Laisvės Avenue at the time. If you have seen the film, you know whether the script has been adjusted.

Things are more complicated when it comes to foreign projects (although there have been tears - German director Saskia Weisheit cried here. She was filming a documentary about Mercedez-Benz in 2012. She got emotional after seeing the interwar architecture in Kaunas and how close everything is in the city) - they are strictly defined by time, centimetres and other parameters. Fat contracts prohibit telling the juicy stories. Most of the time it is even forbidden to take pictures on the set because it would take too much precious time to deal with actors' agents. So far, there were no incidents; therefore, one production is quickly changed by another.

Behind the scenes: “Tokyo Trial” in the National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art. Photo by Artūras Bulota

Just after watching the Emmy-nominated historical miniseries Tokyo Trial on Netflix, we learned that HBO team is coming to Kaunas. But before that, a bit more about Tokyo of 1946, right after the WW2, when high-ranking officials of the Japanese Empire were on trial for war crimes.

"In addition to filmmakers, costume designers and other Lithuanian professionals, the film would not have received a nomination. It might not have been filmed even! And I have a reason to say that. It's a severe evaluation. It is hard to predict how many movies like that are filmed globally in a year - 1000? 3000? It's a wonderful feeling to be among the top four," said to the press Kęstutis Drazdauskas, producer and founder of Artbox film company. A. Silkinis and the foreign film professionals choosing our country couldn't agree more. Lithuanians are honest, and they really work well and hard. We can only add that it applies to more areas than the film industry.

Behind the scenes: “Tokyo Trial” in the National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art. Photo by Artūras Bulota

By the way, the images of the war-torn Tokyo were filmed ... in Didžiasalis. Of course, the additional rubble props were needed. And M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas served as a war crime tribunal.

And now - about the latest events. We could call it a misunderstanding that some Kaunas residents became restless and slightly offended after learning that the scenes of Chernobyl were filmed in their city. However, the creators of the show, who previously haven't provided much information said to the press that the scenes shot in Kaunas were not of Chernobyl, but of Moscow, where the first rescuers were taken to the hospital after the explosion.

Are there negative people who, for example, complain about the traffic because of the closed street during filming? "Maybe one in a hundred. It's enough to have a one-minute chat with some people, but it might take an hour to convince others about its benefits to the city," says the producer, generally happy about the benevolence of people. Both he and the foreign staff compliment those who have a direct impact on the speed of filming - those who control the street lighting and traffic. Of course, this smooth process is influenced by the fact that Kaunas Film Office is a municipal institution. But not only government institutions benefit from that. Hotels, eateries and other businesses earn money as well. Not to mention the museums or other objects that were chosen to serve as filming locations.

Behind the scenes: “Chernobyl” in Kaunas. Photo by Kaunas Film Office

One can say that one of the ways to revive, organise or at least emphasise the historical architecture is to let in the film crews in such buildings at least for a short time. For example, recently, Kaunas Central Bookstore and Officers’ club Ramovė were turned into Norwegian spots, where the action of the film based on Per Petterson's novel Out Stealing Horses is taking place.

Many Lithuanians - including the diaspora - are anxiously waiting for the premiere of the film based on Lithuanian-American Rūta Šepetys' novel Ashes in the Snow, which will take place on the 12th of October. Interestingly, younger Lithuanians, who worked on this project learned about the real scale and the outcome of the exile. After their shift, they would rush home to look for the information on the internet. Consequently - the viewers are not the only ones who learn.

Behind the scenes: “Ashes in the Snow” in Kaunas. Photos by Asta Martinonytė

There's also a different side to it. The internationally famous TV show Game of Thrones, among other places, was filmed in a spectacular Croatian resort of Dubrovnik. Now, it can be said, that this city suffers from popularity. Dozens of special tours are organised in Dubrovnik, and they are the reason why many foreign tourists visit Croatia. Yes, some of them come only because of the imaginary Game of Thrones, not Croatia itself, and that's why locals are rightly dismayed. Are Kaunas and Lithuania also at risk?

We can agree that Lithuanian landscape - with very few exceptions - is not that favourable for making of such films. But...in some cases, the city gains excellent benefits. For example, Japanese film Persona Non Grata about a diplomat Chiune Sugihara and the time he spent in Kaunas. Paradoxically, it was filmed in Poland, in 2013, i.e. before the tax mentioned above relief in Lithuania. But Japanese tourists, who travelled to cinemas in high numbers during the premiere weekend, are not flooding Poland. More and more of them visit Kaunas, and that can be confirmed by hotel owners, employees of Sugihara house and tour operators.

What's next? Only greater things. According to the foreign press, Helen Mirren's project about Catherine the Great should be filmed in Lithuania, including Kaunas, in October or November. You will not find such manors as in St. Petersburg in Lithuania; therefore, some of the scenes will be filmed in the "homeland." But as A. Silkinis says, Kaunas hasn't been entirely shot yet, so everything is in our hands: film and hospitality industries’ and, well, partly in the government officials’.

Kaunas Film Office

Article by Kotryna Lingienė and Kęstutis Lingys for Kaunas Full of Culture magazine

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