Scanorama premiere. Gentle director

Gediminas Kukta
2021 November 17 d.

All through the film I was thinking, what is my relationship with the military? It’s like: I'm a pacifist, and anything to do with militarism, all kinds of weapons, military uniforms, bare shaved heads and the drill of bodies makes me, to put it mildly, dispiriting, but what would I do if – spit three times – I suddenly had to pick up a gun and go and defend my country, which, I assure you, I love dearly, and if I do, it would take more than just words to prove it; what I would do if I had to, it is even uneasy to think about it, point a gun at someone, shoot. It's not that simple... By the way, one of the characters in the film, a girl serving in the army, is also thinking about this. But it's not about her/them yet. 

So – I'm sitting at the premiere, pondering an existential question, and I start thinking, what is the relationship of the director, Marija Stonytė, with all of this? From what angle does she want to show me, the viewer, the army, serving in it? From the good side? The bad one? From some other side? But if it is from the good side, then does that mean that she might even be in favour of conscription? And if she is, then what is wrong with this? And if it is from the bad side, she looks like some weeper, for all I know. As, by the way, do I, because I did not want to go to the military service, although, to be honest, nobody would have taken me anyway: I was a student, and I had a crooked septum.

And so, thinking like this, my mind went back to the beginning. To the black screen with the title, which clearly indicates that the protagonists volunteered for military service. Nobody forced them. So this is not a documentary about compulsory military service and how it, shall we say, changes people's destinies. This is not some festival film from Israel. "Gentle Warriors" escapes from the debates, scandals and all the hype that surrounded this topic a few years ago. The director simply shows Agnė, Karina and Gintarė spending nine months in a world dominated by men, as it has been for many years.

At first, the girls are full of enthusiasm, everything looks cool. Agnė counts down the days on the calendar until her service. Karina claims that serving in the army will definitely be more interesting than working as an accountant or cashier at Maxima (supermarket chain). And Gintarė, talking to her friends, reveals that she would like to wear military boots even at her wedding. In other words, they look different from their peers, and their decision is atypical and bold. 

Then come the drills, the guns, the camouflage, the heavy rucksacks, the physical tasks, the adrenaline, all kinds of bang-bang and tra-ta-ta. Undeniably there is a certain charm to all that. No, I'm not talking about guns (I've held some, fired, thank you, I didn't like it), I’m talking about the comradery, the taste for adventure, a beautiful winter forest, even if behind all that there are more serious things – learning how to defend and attack, the staging of dangerous situations. You would never experience anything like that scribbling critical texts from morning to night, well, unless you really piss off some filmmaker...

True, at times it even seems that the director over-romanticises military service, and it would be enough to put the logo of the Lithuanian Armed Forces in the corner of the screen and it would make a great publicity stunt for the military draft campaign, but fortunately, she uses humour and distance just in time. The latter was also mentioned by the director on the night of the première, when she said that there were moments when she wanted to be close to the main characters and establish a closer relationship with them, but at the same time she tried to keep her distance.

Overall, this question of proximity and distance was obviously not only in the author's mind. Not only theoretically. It is also apparent on the visual plane. So to speak, it has descended to the practical level. Right from the beginning of the film, the bird's-eye view of the snow-covered drill ground with columns of marching soldiers is replaced by close-ups of a girl's hair and ladybirds crawling over the gun so up close that we can almost hear their legs shuffling. And so it goes throughout the film, from a wide shot to a close-up. From watching from afar to being up close. It's as if the director is constantly measuring how close she can and wants to get to the characters.

This manoeuvring can be seen as a doubt, which eventually turned into a directorial stance, or as an avoidance of making a more decisive stylistic and thematic statement. A certain sleekness, which, by the way, many debutants have to deal with, and this should not sound as criticism. This is just what happens to those who are taking the first steps.

However, I must admit that I wondered why, having chosen to talk about young girls in a male-dominated environment, in other words, as if she was trying to reflect on, and perhaps even break down the stereotype of what is still considered masculine and what is feminine in our society, Stonytė introduces into the narrative the aforementioned ladybirds, swallows and tits (birds) – what is gentle, fragile and beautiful – and juxtaposes them with the girls?

Are the heroines of the film really as fragile as the director seems to want to show us through these symbols? Here, one of the serving heroines' friends says point blank that she feels alien in a woman's body and is not even going to act and talk about some lofty matters in front of the camera. Now that's a good nerve, I thought, why doesn't the director grab it and continues braiding the girls' hair – both literally and metaphorically?

Or maybe this "soft net" that the director seems to be putting on her characters in advance is some sort of irony? Perhaps even the title is ironic, referring to human gentleness in general, so to speak, not determined by gender? After all, it is warriors who are gentle, not just female warriors.

And what about the ending of the film? Is the director telling us about the girls' personal defeats? Karina ends up in a shopping centre after her service and looks like a pure embodiment of the proverb "don't muddy the water..."; Agnė works in a café, and Gintarė, although she stays in the military, is assigned to boring jobs. The music in minor key in these scenes seems to suggest exactly such point of view of the director. The heroines, who wanted adventure and surprises, end up in a place where everything turns out to be much more unpredictable than in the army, as Karina tells on the camera. Which is Life.

The director's conclusion is interesting, even if I internally disagree that arranging goods on the shelves or pouring coffee for Vilnius hipsters is somehow a worse job than that one – for the Motherland. 

And the mere fact that I tried to understand, but didn't necessarily fully grasp the ideas the director was formulating, or maybe I just didn't want to agree with them, in other words, the mere fact that I didn't remain indifferent, and even got a bit annoyed, something that is rarely the case when watching most other debut films, is apparently proof enough (first of all for myself) that "Gentle Warriors" is a noteworthy debut.