Egle Vertelyte is a Lithuanian screenwriter and director. After studying History at the Vilnius University, she attended the European Film College in Denmark, where she made her first short films. After finishing her studies, she came back to Lithuania where she worked with Studio Nominum, helping to develop various media projects. During that time, she has also directed the TV show “25th frame” that was broadcast on the Lithuanian National Television. In 2009, Egle moved to Mongolia, where she worked as an assistant at the National Mongolian University and lectured on Visual Anthropology, did a volunteering job at several non-governmental organizations and filmed her documentary “UB LAMA”. She later got her M.A. in Screenwriting from the National Film and Television School in the U.K. and worked for the daily newspaper “Respublika” as a special correspondent. Egle wrote the shorts “Robomax” (2013) and “Romantic Delusions of the Bird (2014). “Miracle” is her debut feature that premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Vilnius Film Festival, where she was a member of the European Debut Competition Jury.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Egle Vertelyte: I was very inspired by storytelling since was a child and I saw my first art-house films by Emir Kusturica. It was amazing to me how he talks about reality, using a completely different magical language. However, when I decided to try and get into the Academy in Lithuania, there was no course that year and I went on to study History, which was another of my interests. I came back to Cinema four years later after graduating in History and studying Art Criticism. However, I never studied at the Lithuanian Academy – I did my Film Studies in Denmark and my M.A. in Screenwriting in England –and I never studied Film Directing, which is what I have always wanted.
What inspired Miracle? Why a pig farm?
E.V.: I heard and remembered a lot of stories from the beginning of the ‘90s that I found inspiring. One of them was a story about a woman who used to be an atheist during Soviet times, but when the communist era ended, she was the one who sat in the first row of the Church. I was always interested in whether these people started to believe or if it was out of purely pragmatic reasons. The pig farm also came naturally from the very beginning, when I started writing in 2008. Traditionally, pork has always been an important ingredient in Lithuanian cuisine. Similarly, in Soviet times, pig farms played a pivotal part in the structure of collective farms. Even now, if you come to Lithuania and visit the countryside, you’ll still be able to see a lot of abandoned pig farms. Therefore, I have chosen the pig farm as a strong symbol of a Lithuanian village, but it was important to me that this symbol be deeply rooted in reality. Through the story of one pig farm, I wanted to show what happened to the village and the system, and how an abrupt social/economic change unfolded as the dramatic, but at the same time, comic life story of a strong woman and the people around her. The old system is a pig — Irena raised it and then she had to bury it with her own hands.
The once-powerful Irena is not respected anymore by her peers. Is this due to gender conflict or power-play?
E.V.: It is due to power-play. Irena loses her power because the power is in the hands of those who know how to earn money and readapt. Gender conflict was not very big during Soviet times and you could find a lot of women who worked in leading positions. However, the difference is that, at home, the situation was usually not as equal as in the work place – women were not only working hard, but they were also doing the majority of things in the household.
You are a screenwriter. What made you want to direct this particular film, which is your debut? Did you like it?
E.V.: I work as a screenwriter and earn my living from it. However, I am not new to directing. I directed several shorts as a student, and a documentary film, UB Lama, that I directed, showed me that directing is also something I would really like to pursue. I would like to direct more and more in the future because it gives me the possibility to be in charge of the film from the very beginning to the very end. It is a bigger responsibility, however, but also a possibility to learn about your writing and to tell the story the way you want to tell it. Also, writing is a very lonely process and being on set is like a reward for all those days of suffering.
I am really happy about the fact that the fiction and documentary films that Lithuanian women make are heard both locally and internationally. We have strong female voices!
What is your opinion on the current situation of women in film? What is it like in Lithuania?
E.V.: In general, we have more and more emerging female directors. However, still few of them get to make fiction feature films. The biggest percentage of women directors still work in documentaries and short films where the budget is not as high and the risk is smaller. Also, we lack women cinematographers, composers and editors. I am really happy about the fact that the fiction and documentary films that Lithuanian women make are heard both locally and internationally. We have strong female voices!
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
E.V.: It depends on the moment. At the moment, I am interested in the work of Věra Chytilová and the Indian director, Rima Das, I recently discovered. Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola is the film I saw many times and I have always loved it!
How would you characterize your filmmaking style?
E.V.: I am still looking for myself and I wouldn’t feel comfortable characterizing myself. I think that once you decide who you are, you stop changing and evolving. However, I can say that at the moment I like character-driven stories with a bit of humor and weirdness.
What was the best advice you were given?
E.V.: It was probably “fake it till you make it”. A lot of women that I know have a strong imposter syndrome; you feel you don’t know enough, you are not good enough, you are not ready. That’s how I felt during the first days on the set. I was scared and I just tried to fake it and keep standing on my feet. However, after a few days, things changed and I started to feel much more self-confident in what I was doing.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
E.V.: Yes, I am. I like strong leading female characters in my stories. However, I don’t like when films are constructed only to transmit political messages. A humanistic and existential point of view is the most interesting to me. Humanity is full of paradoxes. For example, a character can seem to be an extreme feminist, but she discovers that what makes her truly happy is breastfeeding her child and cooking dinner for her husband. These kinds of inner human conflicts are interesting to me.
What are your next projects?
E.V.: At the moment, I am developing two projects that I am planning to direct myself. One of them is about a young artist from Lithuania who goes to New York to do a very ambitious art project – to revive one of the most playful art movements in art history, Fluxus. However, being overly ambitious, she doesn’t know how to play herself. And the one is a coming of age story set in my home town, Šiauliai, that also takes place in the ‘90s. It is a story based on the adaptation of a very popular book in Lithuania that was also translated into other languages, Pietinia kronikas (Chronicle of Pietinis), written by Rimantas Kmita. It is the coming of age story of a teenage boy. From being a rugby player and street boy, he finds a new identity as a writer.
I wrote several interesting screenplays for other directors. One of them will be the debut film of the Lithuanian female film director, Irma Puzauskaite, called 9th Step about an ex-alcoholic man who has to take care of his teenage daughter and while trying to rebuild a relationship with her, he has to deal with her best friend to whom his daughter seems overly attached.
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Vilnius Film Festival – Kino Pavasaris.