LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2014 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 60, No.3 - Fall 2014
Editor of this issue: Daiva Litvinskaitė
Ekskursantė [The Excursionist]. Directed by Audrius Juzėnas. With Anastasija Marčenkaitė, Raisa Ryazanova, and Sergei Garmash. CineMark, 2013. Russian and Lithuanian with English subtitles.
Ekskursantė is a historical drama and a road movie. It depicts the unexpected return of an eleven-year-old deportee to Siberia, Marija (Anastasija Marčenkaitė), who escapes from a transport train and travels nearly four thousand miles back to Lithuania. The film opens with Marija dropping rye seeds through the floor of a cattle car en route to Siberia. These will guide her back home, as in the fairy tale. When her pregnant mother dies, a woman sneaks Marija off the train. She tells her to head west, where the sun sets, back to Lithuania. The rest of the movie traces her adventures home.
In Altai, a sympathetic Orthodox grandmother, Nadia (international Russian film star Raisa Ryazanova), saves the young traveler with her boundless motherly love. Marija's Roman Catholic rosary becomes her compass and also the threat of her undoing. Marija becomes Masha, with a Russian head scarf. Along the way, she learns a crucial life lesson, given the times: lie to save yourself. Marija tells people that she was left behind on an excursion, hence the title of the movie.
On her journey, Marija encounters criminals, soldiers, police, conductors, and ordinary people. At one point, she ends up in an indoctrination boarding school for children of Soviet state enemies.[The Russian children wear red kerchiefs with their Pioneer uniforms. Their motto is In the name of Lenin and Stalin, be prepared! with the response Always prepared!] There she befriends a Volga German boy who, like Marija, is taunted for being a "fascist." Marija seeks a common bond of friendship with him, but he wants to be "like the others." They plan an escape, but the boy betrays Marija. and rapes her. Her first age-appropriate friendship and, perhaps, infatuation backfires on her
A smiling pilot flies Marija on the next leg of her journey to Orsha, Byelorussia, to his sister Polina (Alyona Ivchenko). Marija tries very hard to befriend Polina's handicapped and unsociable daughter, Lena, and eventually succeeds. The girls develop a genuine, almost sisterly friendship (note that Marija's mother died pregnant with her second child). Lena's father is an NKVD major, Doncov (Russian film star Sergei Garmash). He discovers her secret, yet hides it as long as he can.
In the last segment of her trip, a Soviet army truck filled with soldiers returns Marija to Lithuania. A Lithuanian bell tower with a folkloric solar cross symbolizes her return, but her greatest dangers are yet to come. An exile on the train had asked Marija to contact his sister. The encounter is suspicious: the sister had betrayed her brother and is ready to betray Marija as well.
Marija next finds herself in a village market. A red placard with an ideological Soviet slogan hangs from the belfry; an accordion plays the Soviet anthem - Lithuania does not seem like home. Yet Marija is blissfully ignorant of her surroundings: she smiles as she eats a sweet roll she has purchased. The pale luminescence makes the sequence dream-like, but it is real. Suddenly, Lithuanian KGB collaborators dump the corpses of several partisans in the square; everyone disperses, except Marija, who cries out. The agents arrest and interrogate her to find out whom she recognizes. She pretends to be Masha, a lost excursionist, speaking only Russian. Doncov saves her one last time via a phone call.
Finally, Marija returns to her parent's abandoned farmhouse. She is home, but not for long. Soon enough, collaborators with machine guns arrive. She prepares to be deported again. She collects handfuls of rye grain for her long trip.
Ekskursantė is the first Lithuanian non-documentary film about Soviet deportations. The plot is loosely based on a 1989 report from Komjaunimo tiesa - the Lithuanian version of Komsomolskaya Pravda (Komsomol Truth) - about a nine-year-old deportee who escaped from a train in the Ural Mountains and walked home to Lithuania over the course of several years. The story is nearly unimaginable; it is reminiscent of Slawomir Rawicz's 1956 allegedly historical novel The Long Walk (and 2010 movie The Way Back with Lithuanian associate producer Marius Markevičius), describing prisoners who escape the Gulag and their 4,000-mile walk across Siberia and Mongolia to India.
A Lithuanian film director, Gytis Lukšas, started to work on a movie version of the Lithuanian story when it was first published in 1989. However, deportees, historians, politicians, and the Lithuanian public were still steeped in making sense of this emotionally charged historic period, and the times were not favorable for a dramatic movie on the topic. After two decades, screenplay author Pranas Morkus returned to the subject. He brought director Audrius Juzėnas (Vilnius Ghetto, 2006) on board. By then, the elder generation that had experienced deportations had largely passed away. The youngest generation had grown up and matured in a free and independent Lithuania. This painful period of Lithuanian history had moved from individual consciousness to national memory. The passage of time provided the emotional distance needed for a dramatic approach to the events. The film was produced over the last four years; filming took just forty days.
Nature scenes, classical music and Marija's dreams frame the individual narrative scenes of the movie. The exceptional camera work (Ramūnas Greičius's cinematography, editing by Paulius Zavadskis) reflects the Lithuanian tradition of nature cinematography. The camera guides the viewers from natural panoramas into the scenarios. Due to budgetary constraints, the Siberian, Russian, and Belarusian scenes were all shot in Vilnius and environs, especially the Green Lakes region. Film technique and computer graphics transformed Lithuanian landscapes into Siberian winters and taigas.
The various J. S. Bach musical selections bring a tranquil sense to the transitions of scene. In contrast, the Soviet national anthem is played three times. It is hardly noticeable at first, except that Marija pays attention to it at a train station. The second time, it becomes a conspicuous ideological tool at the children's school. The third time, it is ironically played on an accordion in a Lithuanian village, where it calls attention to the estrangement that has transpired in Lithuania under Soviet rule, together with other incongruent elements in the same scene.
Lithuanian media have critiqued the movie for its montage: it builds conflicts and develops rising tension, but then releases them too quickly. There is a Russian expression, regarding iconography, sladki, "sweet." The movie does sometimes verge on the saccharine. On the other hand, Russian media have praised the film for its moderation in portraying this most sorrowful period of the recent past. Russians are still struggling to come to terms with the Stalinist period.
The characters are neither scoundrels nor heroes. People are ethical, trying to navigate through challenging, mind-boggling circumstances. They seek to help others, but also need to protect themselves. Many Russians are friendly and try to help Marija/Masha, while others suspect her. But Marija manages to find human compassion and help almost anywhere she turns. This occasionally seems fantastic, beyond what can normally be expected. Back home, Lithuanians more often than not threaten Marija. Her fellow countrymen are suspect, untrustworthy, and Soviet agents.
Marija matures psychologically throughout the movie. Her character unites all the scenes in the cinematic narration. She starts as a mama's child in need of adult comfort and guidance. As a preteen, she matures quickly. She moves from pure trust to a burgeoning adolescent relationship with a suspect adult world. Whom can she trust? Marija's optimistic character displays a down-to-earth faith in the goodness of human nature.
As Marija is a child-hero, the film is marketed for children and young adolescents (rated N-7, above 7 years of age, by the Lithuanian film ratings board). The 110-minute film is beautiful, interesting and well worth seeing. The cooperative efforts of director Audrius Juzėnas, screenplay author Pranas Morkus, and actress Anastasija Marčenkaitė have created an intriguing work of cinematographic art. The film premiered in Lithuania and Russia with favorable reviews. Warner Brothers are the Western distributors. The North American premiere took place at the 2014 European Union Film Festival in Chicago, with support from the Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania. The movie examines the bleakest period of the Soviet Lithuanian era from an artistic perspective, without the burden of textbook histories. It portrays lush scenery and a psychologically grounded humanity. Look for the movie at local art houses in United States, Canadian and European cities.