Guest Blogger Allen Mondell directed the documentary A Fair to Remember with his wife, Cynthia Salzman Mondell. Allen is currently touring the film in Lithuania as part of the American Documentary Showcase sponsored by the State Department. He will be blogging for Art&Seek about his experiences; here is his fourth report from the road:
I’m writing this the night before the Great State Fair of Texas 2009 begins in Dallas. One of the introductory comments I make to the audience watching A Fair to Remember is that during the three weeks of the Fair as many people will pass though its gates as live in Lithuania – 3 million. It usually gets some laughs and a few smiles. My day began with an experience that had nothing to do with candy apples or North America’s tallest Ferris Wheel – a visit to the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum.
It’s a beautiful facility located in the Old Town of Vilnius. A variety of exhibits (the Lithuanians call them ‘expositions’) recount the history of Jewish life in Vilnius and Lithuania before World War II with paintings and crafts. It flourished. The exhibits also provide personal accounts of the Genocide at the same time recognizing the many efforts of non-Jews to save the lives of their Jewish friends and neighbors.
One of our guides who spoke English was a costume designer, a Jewish woman who was born in Lithuania in 1945 and chose to remain in the country at the end of another difficult period in its history – independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. She mentioned that at that time there were about 12,000 Jews living in Lithuania. More than half left during the next few years. She and her painter brother were represented in the museum with their art.
In the afternoon, the American Embassy van drove us to Kaunas, a Lithuanian city 60 miles from Vilnius with a population of 350,000. Vilnius has just over a half million. I was excited to visit Kaunas because it’s where my grandparents on my mother’s side lived before emigrating to Baltimore in the early 1900s. Naively, I was expecting a rural village with the archetypal wood homes and synagogues that I had seen in pictures.
Their Kaunas has changed dramatically, to state the obvious. I wanted to relate to it more than I did, to connect in an emotional way. It was too modern for that, although it still retained the charm of an older city. Before the early evening screening to a group of students, we visited another museum totally devoted to Lithuania’s most famous artist, Mikalojus Cirulionis. He is a symbolist painter born in 1875 who died soon after the turn of the century. I found his imagery fascinating even though I didn’t understand much of the symbolism.
The screening was held in a small theater on a local university campus attended by about 50 students. I stayed during the showing to get reactions. Not much – some laughter but no foot tapping to the music of Brave Combo. This was the most challenging audience I’ve faced following a showing of the film. Once again, a reminder a the allegedly more reserved Lithuanian students. I asked them about comparable experiences here in Lithuania or in Europe, what they liked about the film, what they didn’t understand. No response. By the end of the evening – Why was a film like this included in the Documentary Showcase? The questioner was not angry, just curious. I explained that the other 29 films and ours were painting a picture of American life and the diversity of documentary filmmaking – about social issues, about politics, about environmental issues, about disabilities, Sputnik and Big Tex.
Tomorrow I’m off to another screening with university students in Vilnius and then an evening meeting with a union of Lithuanian filmmakers. All this just hours before the grand opening of this year’s Fair.