Motherland is one of the films available free to download during December from ArteKino Film Festival. I’ve seen films set in Lithuania as a location (see The Adoption (Spain-Lithuania 2015)) but I don’t think I’ve seen a film made as a Lithuanian project before. Writer-director Thomas Vengris is the son of Lithuanian migrants to the US and the film was jointly funded by companies in Latvia, Germany and Greece as well as a Lithuanian company and Eurimages funding. The story also reflects an interest in Lithuanian identity as perceived in a global  (i.e. European and American) context.

Viktorija (Severija Janusauskaite) and her son Kovas (Matas Metlevski) arrive in Lithuania from the US in Summer 1992, only two years after Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union. For 12 year-old Kovas, who was born in the US, this is a summer holiday during which he hopes to discover something of the country his mother fled 20 years ago as well as simply enjoying a new experience. For Viktorija, however, this is much more. She has recently divorced Kovas’ father, David and at first her intentions aren’t clear to Kovas. She is at a turning point and Lithuania represents both the past and a possible future.

Thomas and Viktorija in Vilnius – the composition emphasises that they each look at their surroundings in a different way.

Mother and son spend a couple of days with Viktorija’s sister in Vilnius and Viktorija investigates the legal situation re her family’s land, bequeathed to her by her father but which has lain abandoned for many years. An old boyfriend of hers, Romas, arrives to help her and eventually Viktorija and Kovas accompany him to look at the land. They stay with Romas and his daughter Marija who is roughly the same age as Kovas or possibly a year or two older. But ‘recovering’ the land is not straightforward and leads Mother and son into a series of ‘adventures’. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but it is obvious someone might be living there. 

Kovas joins Romas in a sauna, tastes vodka and joins a shooting match.

The title ‘Motherland’ is interesting because of its double meaning. In terms of a national identity, Lithuania is ‘the motherland’, but for Kovas it is literally his mother’s land that is central to the story whether it describes this unknown country he is visiting (about which he knows little, except what his mother has told him) or the physical land that his mother hopes to recover. The story is told from the perspective of Kovas – told quite literally at times via a voiceover by Kovas in English. This also means that although it is Viktorija whose attempt to reclaim the family land is the driver of the narrative, there is also a form of ‘coming of age’ story for Kovas, one with only a few of the familiar conventions. I’ve read a couple of comments suggesting that we don’t know enough about Kovas and that we learn more about Viktorija. I find this a little puzzling since we learn most through what Kovas sees. Perhaps this impression comes because Matas Metlevski has no prior professional film experience and was discovered in Kansas via a search across Lithuanian-American communities. By contrast Severija Janusauskaite is an award-winning actor working in Russian cinema. Both are very good but perhaps convey their feelings in different ways.

Marija teaches Kovas how to drive.

The developing relationship between Kovas and Marija is well handled. Life in rural Lithuania in 1992 is portrayed as still fairly traditional for the region and we see a ‘solstice festival’. This is to some extent familiar from Swedish films, reminding us that Lithuania has a long history during which the state grew to a large territory as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 16th – 18th century before coming under Russian domination. National identity is a complex matter in this region. The Baltic states have relatively small populations of low density, with borders difficult to defend and the threat of invasion from East and West, as well as across the sea from Scandinavia. The Cinema’Scope images are well-used to portray the grey Soviet housing blocks of Vilnius as well as the beautiful landscapes of forests, grasslands and lakes. The film was shot by Audrius Kemezys, the celebrated Lithuanian cinematographer who died soon after completing the shoot. The film is dedicated to him.

Uncertainty is really the name of the game, so it isn’t surprising that the film has an ‘open ending’. Even so I found this optimistic since it does look as if Kovas and Viktorija have learned something about each other and that whatever happens next they should be able to face it together. Thomas Vengris has suggested that one of his aims was to make a film that would be seen outside Lithuania (which currently produces 20+ films each year) and which might enable a wide range of audiences to consider the difficulties faced by people trying to build their lives after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a struggle to rediscover/build a new identity. For many of the people of the newly independent states this might mean migration, ‘capitalist’ reconstruction, EU membership etc., but the identity question remains.

I enjoyed the film and learned a lot. I hope it eventually gets some form of distribution in the UK and it’s well worth catching as part of this free festival offer.