/ 5 October 2019

Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania

Do (Not) Stay with Me

Review of a documentary film Animus Animalis

I remember how, during my human anatomy lectures that took place in the prosectorium, I sought to avert my eyes, looking around or through the window. The uncovered muscle tissues or the inner organs put on display did not frighten me. Neither did the fact of death itself. But the sight of lifeless hands still made me feel nauseous. This missing life (inestimable, indiscernible, indescribable) would turn the object lying on that table into something alien, something which I could not in my mind attribute to the category of either things or humans. Aistė Žegulytė, together with her creative team, enters this space of untamed death (or just a body abandoned by life) with her debut documentary film, Animus Animalis. If one loses the initial fear of the dead that have previously lived and abandons the moral reproaches directed at oneself (to loathe the scenes of hunting in the film and wear leather shoes is always an act of hypocrisy), a much wider fabula of the film then is opened before the eyes.

Animus Animalis(in Lithuania the film has a second title, A Story about People, Beasts, and Things) bears two definitions in Latin – it is both the soul of an animal and the reasoning animal. Such a subtle play on words also hints at the film’s content – the director will not present a single answer, a single meaning, or a single interpretation – the viewers themselves will have to decide on the soul being discussed, who is characterised by reason and behind which epithet does the human form hide.

The film’s director Aistė Žegulytė and her team spent four years walking around forests, following taxidermists, hunters, deer breeders and other enthusiasts of animate and inanimate nature to finally give us Animus Animalis. This is a pure documentary work, where silent observation and an attentive gaze are more important than conversing with on-screen characters. However, the film does not lose this apparently simple yet increasingly rare ability among filmmakers to articulately narrate a story using camera-captured images, sound and editing.

Aistė Žegulytė doubtless grew up with the poetic documentary tradition of Lithuanian filmmakers (perhaps the film’s slow pace, silent observation and speaking in images is an influence of her previous teachers?), yet still she is a cosmopolitan director who speaks in a universal language, understood by a global audience. As I watched the film, I could not help but think of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s work. Like Seidl, Žegulytė (and I still find it hard to believe that she is a debutant) leads her audience into a strange and melancholic world that is full of ambivalence. This world is right beside us (it may exist both in Lithuania and Austria); no doubt arises as to the reality of its events, and yet we find it hard to believe that the things we see can happen in real life – at once everything is real and unreal. Lastly, the film creates a peculiar sense of unease: You may easily laugh, marvel, or loathe as you see the contradictions being created or the unmasking of man’s dark nature. Until you realise that all of these things – all of those visible opposites – exist inside you as well. But perhaps in a more subtle form.

Animus Animalisopens with images of nature. Somewhere in a forest lies a dead vole; to its transformation, so patiently and wonderfully captured by the creators – from the grey fur coating its head to its glossy white skull – we shall return soon. The worms writhing and gorging on the vole are an unpleasant sight for the eyes, but nevertheless a natural one. Such is nature – wild and marked by primitive instincts – and that is just the way it works. But we are soon transported from the natural food chain to hunting grounds – a band of hunters, wearing hats adorned with tricolour flags, are stalking their prey in a wintry forest. The evening will see its dissection in a domestic setting, followed by rivers of blood and cursing, and shortly we will be met with solemn faces and Mass dedicated to St. Hubert, held in a church adorned with skulls and wolf pelts. A hypocritical predatory sacrality of sorts. Precisely here the creators of this film hand over the key to their audience – we will juggle ambiguities and dichotomies from now on. But everything is so tactical that you must decide for yourself whether the contradictory editing decisions are the irony of the authors and their ploy with the audience or just an interpretation of your experiences.

Completely different to what could have been expected (especially comparing it with the hunters’ evening feast) is the ‘kingdom’ of the taxidermists, clean and sterile, established in a zoology museum. The peculiar mood of the sacrality of this space is even more emphasised through shots of a newly-stuffed bird being escorted through a long hallway: The mount is slowly, even solemnly carried to the second place of its eternal slumber. Until it is needed again in some other museum composition. The peaceful work of the taxidermists is disturbed only by a call from a potential client (there is no way to know whether this is just pure luck on behalf of the creators or the team’s move) asking them to stuff a badger tamed by their parents. ‘From a living animal’, the taxidermist sneers next to his colleague, who is at that time on the floor, stuffing something furry and dead.

‘The eye, the eye, the eye’, a dialogue echoes in a bright hall between another taxidermist and his child as the father meticulously glues an artificial eye into the socket of a finished animal. Here an ironic theme of the film emerges (besides the selection of the liveliest pose for a stuffed animal): This nothing-seeing glass eye has nothing in common with life, but… What would we think if all of the mounts remained ‘blind’?

The questions posed by the director unfold better with each little tale of the film (yet only the viewer is responsible for answering them) – why do we admire the illusion of reality so much? Is it at once a fear of death and of ending as well as a desire to control the things which do not and cannot depend on humans? The boundaries of reality and fantasy (and thus life and death) are erased by scenes that, it seems, could only be realised in a fiction film – the phantasmagoric hunt for stuffed crocodiles in an actual forest or the suddenly revived fox in a museum exposition.

And when you think nothing can surprise you anymore – the taxidermists’ contest is crowned by a danse macabreperformed by a cheerleading  team’s roes-winners (dead, but the most resembling live ones) and accompanied by ‘Stand By Me’. Oh, will we not miss living without taxidermy mounts (not necessarily those of animals)?

By Elena Jasiūnaitė, a film historian and critic. She graduated from Vilnius University with majors in History. She works in cultural press, writes film reviews, conversations with filmmakers and articles on film history topics, as well as cooperates with public authorities when implementing the projects of film education. Besides, together with her colleagues she actively cares for preservation of Lithuanian film heritage (restoration and digitalisation), exploration of film history, film and media education.

Translated by Markas Aurelijas Piesinas

Edited by Marius Burokas