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On Screen: Artūras Barysas

Image: Rimgaudas Karvelis in Akivaizdu, bet neįtikėtina, 1982

Restored short films 1972-82
Artūras Barysas (Director)
Art-Film / LRT Mediateka 2022

Artūras Barysas was a filmmaker and vocalist who, along with his group Ir Visa Tai Kas Yra Gražu Yra Gražu, had a profound influence on the Lithuanian underground. Known to friends as Baras, he co-founded the band with guitarist Artūras Šlipavičius in 1987. Their early post punk recordings are a maelstrom of anarchic energy that resonated with Lithuanians living under the Soviet regime in the late 1980s. As a frontman, Barysas was magnetic, modelling himself after singers like Captain Beefheart. He continued performing with the band on and off until his death in 2005.

As a film director, Barysas was most prolific in the 1970s and early 80s. Being a member of the Lithuanian Amateur Filmmakers Union gave him access to equipment and relative freedom from communist censorship. Despite his myopia, Baras created dozens of shorts and almost always cast himself in a leading role, employing others to operate the camera.

Films like Anekdotas apie metrą (Anecdote About The Meter, 1976), in which Baras orders a metre’s worth of coffee, or Esė (Essay, 1981), which shows a young couple indulging in western contraband, have a prankster-like quality evocative of Fluxus happenings and softly critique the absurd rigidity of Soviet society. Other films such as Romas, Renata, Rimas (1977) and Taina (1974) are more lyrical, but maintain an aura of subversive irony.

Baras often shot with natural light and had his actors improvise, adding a sense of realism to the scenes. Akivaizdu, bet neįtikėtina (Obvious, But Unbelievable, 1982) is shot in a cafeteria – complete with bemused onlookers – and shows two men from different social circles dining at the same table. This homogeneous setting acts as a backdrop for their mutual prejudices. Those men, Barysas suggests, are no different from the utilitarian uniformity of the Soviet system that both feeds and confines them. 

Barysas is sometimes compared to the Lithuanian-American filmmaker Jonas Mekas, but Mekas documented everyday life in a diaristic fashion. Barysas, inspired though he was by quotidian experiences, constructed works of narrative fiction. One exception is Mes (We, 1980). It depicts WWII veterans taking part in a Victory Day parade. The restored footage is accompanied by a series of descending drones. Šarūnas Nakas’s eerie music shifts the emotional resonance into one of foreboding, negating the film’s original ‘patriotic’ soundtrack. Stylistically, Mes doesn’t deviate far from other propaganda documentaries from this time. The ambiguity around its message allowed Mes to be interpreted as ironic by Barysas’s contemporaries and sincere by the amateur filmmakers union.

In his personal life, Barysas was sometimes a contentious figure. He was plagued by years of alcoholism and abusive to his partner and their son. Barysas’s volatile nature is apparent in some of his films, too. Intelektuali Popiete (Intellectual Afternoon, 1982) sees Baras attend a zoo and taunt the animals. Du kart du (2×2, 1972) is a tale of classroom rebellion that descends into adolescent misogyny. A misbehaving student, tasked by his female teacher to solve a basic maths problem, fantasises about abducting and cooking her. In Sniegas (The Snow, 1978) Baras’s character attacks his female companion in an argument. The film closes with a distressed toddler struggling to make its way through deep snow. A metaphor for life’s unrelenting challenges, perhaps, but was it necessary to exploit a crying child to make this point?

Although Baras’s films were screened during his lifetime – at festivals or underground events – they were never distributed widely. Some have been lost, while others are beyond repair. Fifteen surviving 16mm prints have been digitised and published online by the Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT. The original soundtracks were often collaged from Baras’s own record collection, which made licensing improbable. 

The project’s producers, Robertas Kundrotas and Dovydas Bluvšteinas, commissioned twelve contemporary Lithuanian composers to create music for the films, culminating in the Baras LP (Zona Records, 2022). The all-male cast includes established practitioners like Gintas K and Oorchach who navigate industrial beats and black ambiences, while others like Arturas Bumšteinas and Haruspic (Artūras Šlipavičius’s duo with saxophonist Vytautas Labutis) take a lighter approach that is perhaps closer aligned to Barysas’s original vision. 

Tas saldus žodis… (That Sweet Word…, 1977) shows Barysas scaling a gate in a vain bid for freedom. This one-minute short encapsulates the late director’s struggle to survive amid hostile restrictions imposed by an occupying regime. Despite his problematic personal life, Baras was a genuine auteur. His films deserve wider recognition as they offer alternative vignettes into Lithuanian life during the Soviet era and, being dialogue free, easily transcend linguistic barriers.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, Nov 2022

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