Originally published during BFI Flare 2020
Life drifts by for an affluent gay corporate lawyer Marius (Eimutis Kvoščiauskas), his time spent hosting dinner parties, enjoying art and chasing young lovers. One day, Marius’ estranged father dies. Mourning turns to love as the lawyer finds an unexpected connection with a sex-cam worker Ali (Doğaç Yildiz) – a bisexual Syrian refugee stuck in Belgrade. THE LAWYER is the first Lithuanian feature film focusing on a male same-sex romantic relationship and one of the very few fiction films about the LGBTQ+ refugee experience in Europe.
Hey Romas, it's great to talk with you, how are things going?
Hey there! Oh, just the usual: panic, stress and anxiety.
What does it mean to you for The Lawyer to have its World Premiere at BFI Flare?
It’s great for a couple of different reasons. First of all, it’s the biggest LGBT+ film event in Europe – a great place to start sharing our message and vision.
On the other hand, London is truly special for a lot of Lithuanians. I have so many friends and colleagues who emigrated to London, both for work and for a better life, including LGBT+ people looking to be respected and equal.
For our film, we had a few Lithuanian actors fly in from London: Aiste Dirziute, Aiste Gramantaite and Simonas Mozura. Production manager Ieva Cerniauskaite left just before our shoot for a new job in a London production company. Our lead actor Eimutis Kvosciauskas once worked in London for an entire summer to pay for his acting studies in Vilnius. He's now often selling out Lithuanian shows across the UK, but it will be his first time premiering for a truly London audience.
For all these reasons, a world premiere in London is truly symbolic for us. We're all excited and proud!
What did you think when you got told that both screenings had sold out?
I noticed that they sold out an hour after public booking launched, as I was getting ready to promote them on my social media. At first I actually thought it’s a bug in the BFI Flare website. So I contacted the guest coordinator and she said that no, they are really sold out! I’m really happy and honoured to say the least!
Why do you think The Lawyer has connected with the BFI Flare audience so much?
I’ll tell you a secret if you don’t tell anyone, OK? When we were looking for a sales agent, one agent, who didn’t even watch the film in its entirety, said there are no prospects for the film. He said no one cares about the refugee subject and the film is not sexual enough to attract a gay audience.
Well, I respectfully disagree. I think that viewers, no matter their sexual orientation, are moved by meaning. And the tender connection between two very different people we are showcasing hopefully sends a meaningful message. I’m not trying to lecture anyone with my film, just offering a new perspective on an important topic. And while doing that, we made extra effort to show the two characters not as victims or heroes, but as flawed human beings. That’s how most of us are when we’re off social media, right? I think people relate to that.
PS - in the end we did find a sales agency WIDE who saw our potential for what it is, so the story has a happy ending.
The Lawyer is also the first Lithuanian feature film to focus on a male same-sex romantic relationship, did this add any extra pressure on your or your team?
I don’t think so. I felt pressure to be sensitive to the context of the refugee crisis because just as the main character of our film, I’m an outsider to it. For that reason, I did a lot of research. I consulted with Syrian journalist Anmar Hijazi, interviewed gay refugees on Skype, met with refugees at the Krnjaca camp in Belgrade, Serbia, traveled to talk with LGBT+ organisation HELEM in Beirut, Lebanon.
As for the love story, I didn’t feel that much pressure.
There was a moment at the Oscars when a journalist asked Jennifer Lawrence whether she worries that she’s peaking too soon. She replied, “Well now I am!” So yeah, maybe I should feel the pressure. Should I?
You've just launched a fundraising campaign in partnership with the Red Cross that will assist LGBTQ+ refugees in Lithuania, how did this come about?
Activism is another side of my work, so I’m always thinking about making things better beyond just raising awareness. Once the Syrian refugee crisis started, I thought about what would be meaningful ways to help out.
So at the end of last year, I partnered with Red Cross and raised 5300 EUR to help LGBT+ and other most vulnerable refugees in Lithuania. We’re about to launch a new fundraiser to raise 10.000EUR to continue our support – you can follow the updates on our social media. This time, our lead actor Eimutis Kvosciauskas will become the ambassador for the cause. On his own, he also started to volunteer at Red Cross last year, to help welcome the families that already have asylum to stay in Lithuania. I’m also working behind the scenes to lobby for some sustainable, even institutional changes. Sometimes my outsider perspective helps build a few bridges. But it’s still in progress, so I can’t share much yet.
What I can say though is that I recommend all readers to pause and think for a moment what can they do to make things better. Depending on our situation, perhaps we can chip in and donate, maybe volunteer, or maybe use our influence to lobby for change.
How much of the LGBTQ+ refugee situation in Lithuania did you know about before you started to write The Lawyer?
Lithuania is a small country of 3 million people, and unfortunately we only welcome hundreds of refugees. While I’m trying to help the situation locally with my activism, my film is actually focused on a more global context, so I focused my research on that. The story plays out between Vilnius and Belgrade, and it’s there that we explore the situation of the refugee character, Ali. I knew a thing or two about Serbia due to circumstances in my personal life that I unfortunately can’t disclose. But when developing my film, I learned so much more. I have some experience in journalism, so I love interviewing people, researching and then using all of that as insights for the script.
Can you tell me a little bit about The Lawyer, how did this film come about?
November 18 in 2016, my previous film premiered in Lithuania. November 19, I got a call from my brother: bad news. My father died from a heart attack. I was in total shock. My parents are divorced. We weren’t meeting weekly, but we were still close. I loved to discuss my films with him, he always had an interesting perspective. He felt unwell so didn’t attend the premiere, but bought a ticket to come to a screening next day. Unfortunately, it was too late…
It was the first time I lost someone so close. I had to pause and rethink everything. And one conclusion that I finally came up with was perhaps unexpected. I realised that I’m still privileged in my grieving, supported by the family, friends and even the society.
Meanwhile, people who come to safer countries like mine and are escaping war, whose families or friends are murdered, don’t even have the luxury to grief. What does it say about our society if we constantly fail to connect and feel empathy with people in similar situations?
So that, coupled with my activist mindset, was a starting point.
"I think the film will continue to affect all crew and cast once they actually see it."
How much has making this film affected you and the crew?
There was really great energy on set. I introduced a memo for all crew and cast members to prevent sexual harassment, reacting to the issues rightfully brought up by the #MeToo movement. It established a respectful and friendly work environment for everyone. In terms of the film’s subject, I also think it touched some hearts, like our lead actor Eimutis Kvosciauskas who started to volunteer at the Red Cross. I actually only learned about his decision already after I connected with the Red Cross to partner with them myself.
I think the film will continue to affect all crew and cast once they actually see it. For now we kept it secret from everyone, saving it for the premiere.
How important is it for you to be able to combine your filmmaking background and activism on a film like this?
When making a film, I’m giving myself full creative freedom. I don’t want to lecture or educate anyone. I want to show flawed people and look for nuance in difficult political subjects. And outside of the film, I like to contribute to causes more directly. Whether that would be very focused messages or campaigns, or even lobbying behind the scenes. So it’s a bit of an idiosyncratic approach, but it does make sense to me. My filmmaking and activism are separate things, and they complement each other.
Since making The Lawyer what would you say have been some of the most important lessons you've taken away from this experience?
I think the important lesson is that, as in many fields, there is a lot of potential for change when it comes to the refugee crisis. But we need to really get involved.
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
I would say it was challenging to shoot in the real refugee camp of Krnjaca in Serbia. I’m actually still surprised that they allowed us to do so, and for free! I’m grateful that they believed in our message. And equally grateful to the refugees who volunteered to be part of the shoot (for an agreed compensation). We only shot there for a couple of hours, but it was challenging, as of course, we were in someone’s home. At the same time, many younger kids enjoyed watching our process, curiously watching the monitor by my side. So perhaps we didn’t disturb too much. And in the end, it does serve a good cause, as I think it will challenge some stereotypes as to how a refugee camp would look like. In our film, it doesn’t look one way or another – it’s just real, as it is.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes. I played with dolls as a kid and was fascinated by theatre. I wanted to be an actor at first, but soon realised I prefer telling others what to do. Not so great for my boyfriend, but acceptable on a film set!
Any advice to offer a fellow filmmaker?
The film industry is very complex, so at first, it’s important to think of what kind of content you want to produce. And once you decide it, or try yourself at it and like, then keep working on that. Network, ask for help, share your ideas and don’t miss any opportunities out there that can help you reach your goal.
Do you think filmmakers should take more risks with projects that they decide to make?
I think it might be risky not to take risks.
What are you currently working on?
I’m developing a new feature, but I can’t disclose much yet.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from The Lawyer?
I hope they will refreshen their sense of empathy.
And my final note for the reader: whatever you expect of The Lawyer after reading this interview, it will actually be completely different. Try and see.