Aistė Žegulytė • Director of Animus Animalis
“We all have this desire to look the beast right in the eye”
by Marta Bałaga
- Cineuropa talked to Lithuanian director Aistė Žegulytė about her debut feature-length documentary, Animus Animalis, winner of the Cineuropa Prize at the Vilnius Film Festival
Aistė Žegulytė’s Animus Animalis [+see also:
interview: Aistė Žegulytė
film profile], laying bare the curious world of hunters, deer farmers and even taxidermists working at a local museum, stuck in a state of continuous flux swinging between life and death, was awarded the Cineuropa Prize at the 2019 Vilnius Film Festival after being screened in the European Debut Competition. “It’s a genuine and unexpected discovery that makes us feel what life is like in the middle of death and what death is like in the middle of life,” argued the jury.
Cineuropa: There is a lot of humour in your film, usually very subtle and verging on the absurd. Is this particularly close to your own sensibility or just something you noticed after you’d started filming?
Aistė Žegulytė: It seems to me that I have carried the topic of the film in my heart ever since my childhood. When I was a little girl, I loved animals very much, and I was scared of death. By balancing absurdity and humour, I found an appropriate place for that relationship with beasts and the sorrow that I sometimes feel as a human being. I don’t think it’s my personal trait or a particular view of the world – it’s the result of the reality we live in.
It’s also a testament to the work of my cinematographer, Vytautas Katkus, as he managed to create an aesthetically absurd but also bitterly funny mood. He understood the conflicting feelings I wanted to convey. When you cannot believe the situation or the picture you see in front of your own eyes, that’s when the laughter comes – sometimes sincere and sometimes hopeless, as our life is one big tragicomedy. That’s what gives us some hope and a chance to survive.
The scene with someone asking the museum to stuff a badger, even though it’s still alive, is hilarious and upsetting in equal measure, showing just how indifferent people can be about life. Were you surprised by some of the events you witnessed?
Yes; making documentaries always surprises me. It surpasses all expectations, because it doesn’t really belong to us; it contains gifts that you can just take, find and discover. I am overwhelmed by the curiosity to look for these surprises, as they can help you find the meaning of creating and living – provided you have some patience, of course. For me, documentary is the art of intuition and waiting, of figuring out where you should go and how long you should wait.
I cannot point out any specific events and say they were the most surprising ones, but some of the strongest emotions I experienced were in the church [where a priest celebrated Mass surrounded by slaughtered animals] or when witnessing an unexpected operation on the doe and seeing girls dance at the taxidermy championship.
It’s a broad range of characters you are trying to cover, from taxidermists to hunters and so on. How did you decide which people to follow?
When shooting the movie, the characters themselves seemed to be making the storyline advance. The taxidermists invited me along for the hunt, and I clearly felt the need for that spark of life, for the living beast that would serve as a counterpoint to death: the simulacrum of life. Scenes such as the little bugs that eat the head of a marten, which became a philosophical metaphor of sorts, came to us later, during the editing process. It wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of time. With my editor, Mikas Žukauskas, we were often arguing and discussing every aspect of it, but I think that ultimately it helped us to make things clearer for the viewer and to understand what were the most important things to focus on.
You are not trying to judge anyone here, or say which path is right or which is wrong. Do you try to make films that leave that option open to others?
That’s true: I don’t want to judge anyone, because I don’t know how to, and I guess I just don’t have the right. All people are alike: we represent Homo sapiens, a species that contains both darkness and light. People are ambiguous. They have a conscience and a sense of empathy, and I would like this sense to be activated when they are watching the movie. I would love the audience to feel that they are also looking at the beast and that the beast is looking at them. I want them to stay with this feeling and even fall asleep with it, and maybe feel it again the next day.
Why do some people have this fascination with stuffing animals, taking life away just to recreate it as best they can? You show a taxidermy exhibition in your film, yet you decided not to talk to the people who visit it.
I didn’t ask them this question, but I tried to understand it. It seems to me that we all have it buried somewhere in our subconscious – this unexplained, archaic, primitive, hidden desire to look the beast right in the eye. And, by doing so, we want to own it and defeat it.
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