Breaking into the world of filmmaking is never an easy prospect.
And when you are a queer filmmaker who wants to focus on LGBTQ subjects, and lives in a traditional, Catholic, former Soviet Eastern European country, the bar to success is set pretty high.
Romas Zabarauskas’ career proves that with grit, determination — and, as he says, “no bitterness” — it is possible to create your own path on the international stage.
The 32-year-old producer and director — currently in production of his first English-language feature, “The Writer,” the second in a trilogy of films examining gay relationships — says being in the public spotlight as a queer filmmaker is a “complex issue.”
“In Lithuania, the reality of my country is complex; on the one hand, here I am engaged to my fiancé Kornelijus, but we cannot get married because Lithuania does not recognize same-sex partnerships, but on the other hand, I am here in Berlin for the Producers Showcase, funded by the Lithuanian Film Centre,” he said.
His latest film, “The Lawyer,” which tells the story of a gay advocate’s relationship with a Syrian web-cam performer and the first of a planned trilogy, received public funding in Lithuania.
Zabarauskas said his big break came at the Berlinale in 2011, when he premiered his first film, a 30-minute short, “Porno Melodrama.”The film had its Lithuanian premier a month later at Kinopavasaris, the national film festival in Vilnius, where he came out as gay.
“There were very few ‘out’ people in Lithuanian then, and I was the subject of a lot of media attention,” he recalled. “I became the poster boy for queer activism in the country. Now Lithuanian society is more open.”
The attention attracted support from public and private funds, and crowdfunding, which enabled him to make his first feature in 2013, “We Will Riot.” Although the film’s lead character was straight, there was a queer sub-plot and the film explored issues of otherness.
With another feature under his belt in 2016, “You Can’t Escape Lithuania,” Zabarauskas felt ready to dive deeper into the identity and gender issues that had been such a major part of his life, and generated the backing for “The Laywer.”
“I had to cut a lot of corners and find my own way,” Zabarauskas, who graduated from film school in Paris, said. “That is why I became my own producer, because it was difficult then to create queer-themed movies and to be in creative control and communicating the message.”
He added that while one may express any bitterness in overcoming challenges in private, it is best never to reveal this publicly.
The second film in the trilogy, “The Writer”explores the relationship between two men who move to Lithuania after serving in the Soviet Army in the 1980s but eventually split up, with one moving to New York. It has just finished exterior shooting in Brooklyn. It will be followed by “The Activist,” which is the story of a man who infiltrates a neo-Nazi group to find the murderer of his boyfriend.
Zabarauskas — whose films have been showcased more than 30 festivals — said he is open to broadening his scope beyond a focus on queer storylines. “Overall, I am interested in the theme of how much choice we have in our lives, or culture, and circumstances.”