Monday 22 June 2015

Young director challenges homophobia in Lithuania

Romas Zabarauskas interviewed by Andy Carling

Being gay is dangerous in many parts of Europe

The acceptance of homosexuality is a continuing challenge to many European nations. Although some have taken up equality, some still have views that will shock many people. It takes courage to take a stand and one young Lithuanian has turned to cinema as a tool in the fight for acceptance.
At just 23, Romas Zabarauskas is not only a young film director, but a brave man. His film, Porno Melodrama, filmed in 2011, has been shown in the European Parliament. “This was the first film to show a gay relationship. I also came out as gay at the time,” he says.
Noting that Lithuania passed a law that many saw as restricting homosexuality, under the guise of protecting minors, he adds “It’s ironic, because we are all shocked by Russia passing a similar law, but we did it first in 2011!”
He said that he made the film to test the law, “I was being openly provocative because I think its important to show that you’re not afraid because that’s what they want us to be.”
The film wasn’t banned and has been shown internationally. “This year, the law was used and the national television had an advert for Gay Pride by Lithuanian TV, even though it was nothing, not offensive.” This is not the end of the troubles, “We have many new homophobic initiatives that we don’t have time to react to everything.”
Is it hard to come out as gay in such a small country? “Yes! We are 3 million and it is hard and we don’t have many gay politicians or personalities, but recently it is getting better and we do have more and more celebrities supporting gay rights, and even that is brave in Lithuania.”
He praises his family, saying that their broadmindedness helped him. He says, “You create your own reality, so I surrounded myself with open minded people. Myself, I am strongly for people coming out, even when it is dangerous.”
Many European countries have been down a long road to acceptance of homosexuality, does he think that Lithuania will eventually follow? “Yes, of course. It’s encouraging what has changed” and he praises the LGBT activists before him “who have shown how to fight for rights, but still there are a lot of challenges.”
Optimism is a resilient ally for the film maker, “In Lithuania we were always thinking it was getting better and it was a matter of time, but I don’t feel that.”
He continues, “Paradoxically, we were progressing before we joined the EU because all the politicians were saying how open minded they were, but once we got there, they just didn’t care and they were as populist, cynical and homophobic as they wanted.”
He says that legislation changed, but he says listening to how people talk, “nothing has changed.”
Is he seeing support from outside Lithuania? “Of course there are different processes going on at the same time. As politicians get more hysterical, there are also positive signs as well, like the LGBT community is organising and things like You Tube are helping get the message out.”
He also welcomes increasing support from celebrities, who can provide a symbol and hope, for people who often feel very alone and isolated. “I think it’s very important. If you can change the public perception the politicians will follow.”
He elaborates, “They are not leaders, they are followers doing a very bad job.”
As a film director, how is this affecting him? “I receive a lot of homophobic reactions that have no relation to my films at all, but I also receive a lot of support as well. 
But it inspires him. “I’m in a strange situation because my passion is making films. But I also want to be socially aware and sometimes I’m caught between being an activist and an artist, but that’s OK. I believe art should be political too.”
His films are involved with many issues, such as identity, sexuality, racism and corruption. “I would add that my films are not educational, they are provocative and eal with these subjects in crazy ways as their titles suggest!”
He is not just a gay director, but he says, “I’m not afraid to be defined by my sexuality. I’m grateful that I have experienced that I have had. There are some artists who deal with these subjects but try to backtrack away from sexual identities. I wouldn’t do that because it’s part of who I am. Everything I have experienced has been difficult but it made me.”
Making film commercially must be difficult in a small country? “That’s true. I got funding for both of my films from our Culture Ministry, which shows that not all of our country is homophobic. I also did crowd funding campaigns; that’s how I did it.”
It’s difficult, but I’m doing things independently. I’ve got a script for a bigger film and one for another small film, depending on how funding goes!” And Lithuania, “I am proud of our culture and our little country, especially when I go abroad.”

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