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DOK LEIPZIG 2019

Review: Exemplary Behaviour

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- The winning film of DOK Leipzig's International Competition is an oddly original documentary about guilt, forgiveness and social justice, focusing on two inmates sentenced to life

Review: Exemplary Behaviour

Exemplary Behaviour has just won DOK Leipzig's International Competition (see the news). Its co-director, and the person who started the film, Audrius Mickevičius, passed away before it was finished, and he bequeathed it to philosopher Nerijus Milerius, who first served as script consultant, so that he could complete it. The starting point for the project was Mickevičius' own grief for his brother, who was killed by two men, and the confusing mass of emotions and ideas that came out of the murder, especially after one of the killers admitted full responsibility, was sentenced to ten years and was released after five for exemplary behaviour.

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The film opens with Mickevičius' voice-over describing these facts, and we get to see the horrible photo of his brother's obliterated face, which helps us relate to his anger. The director's hypnotic voice drifts in and out throughout the film, as we are privy to his various philosophical and poetic reflections on his conflicting feelings, sometimes accompanied by footage of him talking to the film crew or prison staff.

Soon, we meet two prisoners sentenced to life in Lukiškės Prison, Rimas Alekna and Rolandas Čerapokas. In one of the film's several mesmerising scenes, the camera of Valdas Jarutis and Audrius Kemežys follows Rolandas, starting with a shot of him smiling behind the window in the door of his cell, and pulling back as a guard opens the door and brings him out through the prison corridors, through the yard and into the carpentry workshop, where we find Rimas skilfully completing yet another model of a motorcycle.

Rolandas and Rimas tell us about their emotions and experiences, while French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, a former prisoner himself, provides ideas that range from the insightful to the oddly obvious. His musings on the toxicity of guilt would fall into the former category, while the latter includes his thoughts on the transformative experiences of many inmates versus the aspect of prison as “crime school” for young criminals or, bafflingly, the ethics of letting offenders acquire skills such as carpentry.

The liveliest part of the picture concerns Rolandas' marriage to another prisoner, Ingrida Čerapokienė, sentenced to 13 years for murder. They exchange tender letters and ruminate on the idea of having children, despite the fact that they are allowed just a few hours a month together. While Ingrida already has five kids, Rolandas expresses his endearingly naïve hopes for the future, and one can’t help but feel for this man, who comes across as essentially good at heart.

The strangeness of the film's slow tempo and darkly melancholy tone is offset by visuals such as a scene showing a group of inmates setting up the Christmas tree in the prison yard, or a long segment in which the camera circles around what looks like a model of the Lukiškės before editor Ema Konstantinova cuts to a monumental image of one of the building's walls lined with barbed wire. Although the film's colour palette is broad, the overall image leaves the impression that gunmetal grey is the predominant hue.

This is not the only transcendental quality that Exemplary Behaviour possesses, and while it is sometimes not fully coherent in its ideas, it is a work of extraordinary poetics and aesthetics, and has numerous ambiguous layers that are impossible to penetrate with sheer common sense, requiring the viewer to let go and give in to the more oneiric side.

Exemplary Behaviour is a co-production by Lithuania's Era Film, Bulgaria's Agitprop, Slovenia's Casablanca Film Production and Italy's Stefilm.

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