“When you’re close to death, you laugh at its face” – An Interview with Marija Kavtaradze

Summer Survivors, directed by Marija Kavtaradze was one of the most notable films of 2018. The film was part of the line up in the “Discoveries” section of the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival this year. In an era when under-representation of mental health and lack of awareness is rampant, the film stands as an important drama for the uninitiated and a powerful commentary on the finer moments that are found within the graph of mental illness, as noted in our review. More people are suffering from mental health issues at present than ever before, as shown by research, which makes movies like Summer Survivors crucial due to their honest depiction of the harsh realities of psychological disorders.

We reached out to the director herself to talk a bit more about the film. Ms Kavtaradze, who is a big fan of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman (for obvious reasons ) took some time off her schedule to answer a few questions.

How difficult was it to execute a concept like that of Summer Survivors, incorporating a mostly taboo subject like mental health into a more traditionally happy setting of a road trip?

I think that road trip really helped me to get a brighter view on this subject – I wanted to talk about mental health and the hospitals, but also I felt a need to escape “the usual” setting that you could expect in a film like this.
I felt like actually travelling with my characters when I was writing a script and that was a pure pleasure for me.

There was a pronounced presence of humour in Summer Survivors. Was it always your intention to present this morbid narrative with a comical treatment or did it just happen organically while penning the script?

I think it was a really organic approach. I couldn’t imagine telling this story without a humour, because I believe that always when you are close to death, you laugh at its face.
I realised really strongly that laughter and humour are the only weapons we have when it comes to suffering.

How did you discover your three lead actors Indre, Paulius and Gelmine and what was it like working with them on Summer Survivors?

I knew them all before starting to write and I told them that I want them to be in this film while still working on the script. I knew they can create these characters as they are great and sensitive actors that I really love.
Working with them was a pure pleasure. They work differently in some ways but at the same time, you can feel that they are a team. They are great partners to each other. They would always support and help each other out. I have worked with them before and knew them pretty well before starting to work on Summer Survivors. What I love the most about working with them is that they are not only great in acting, but you can also feel that they are part of the whole team. I do believe that they are the heart of this film.

Cinema, as a whole, historically lacks nuanced and thoughtful representation of mental illnesses. How do you feel regarding this issue and was it a major drive in making Summer Survivors?

It was one of the reasons I wanted to make it. I do often feel when watching films with characters who have a mental illness that it just there to “add” more interesting part of them. I am tired of both – romantic or scary portraits of these characters. I often miss simple people who you can see on screen, who are not defined by their illnesses.
However, there are some great characters and depictions of mental illness in film and television that I love like Frank, The End Of The Tour, Silver Linings Playbook, Infinite Polar Bear and also TV series’ like Taking over the Asylum, BoJack Horseman.

Marija Kavtaradze
A scene from Summer Survivors (Credits: Heretic Outreach)

Tell us about some of your primary influences in cinema who have shaped your creative style in filmmaking.

I grew up with American films mostly, both – good and bad. Anything I could rent from a video store. I always loved watching films and later in my teen years I discovered that there are more in cinema – European films, festivals, independent cinema, and I keep discovering more every day.
I believe that directors I love are my biggest influence, even if I wasn’t thinking about all of them or trying to work in their style and manners while working on this film, I guess that love for them can find their way to show in my films.
Some of my favourite directors are Krzysztof Kieslowski, Hal Hartley, Joachim Trier, Antonio Campos, Sofia Coppola.

Europe houses giants of cinema like France, Britain, Germany, Poland etc. But seldom do we see Lithuanian cinema in the limelight, except for the usual mentions of Šarūnas Bartas and Jonas Mekas. Tell us more about where Lithuanian cinema stands at present and how you see it evolving in the future.

I was happy to hear how at TIFF, great programmer Andrei Tanasescu while presenting our film was mentioning that a year before another Lithuanian debut feature “Miracle”(Egle Vertelyte) was in the same programme.
It’s nice to see how Lithuanian films are starting to travel and Lithuania can be seen in the cinema map more and more. I think it’s a work of many people – directors, producers, Lithuanian Film Centre. It doesn’t seem like a surprise anymore. This year we had Lithuanian films in Locarno, Karlovy Vary, Venice, Toronto, coming up in Tallinn, Leipzig and more, Lithuanian co-productions in San Sebastian and Locarno as well.
I’m really proud that Lithuanian films are interesting for the world and can be seen in great festivals.

Thank you so much for taking some time out of your schedule to talk to us. Can you tell us a bit about any future projects you might be working on that we can look forward to?

I’m working on a few projects as a screenwriter and getting ready to start working on my second script.

Featured Image Credit: Vismante Ruzgaite

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Jack of many trades, but a master of none. A businessman by profession, but a chef by heart, Dipanjan has his hands dirty with photography and photoshop. He would spend all his day sleeping if he could, and makes the same resolution of losing weight every year(but to no avail) . Also has two daughters, which are actually dogs, but sshhh we don’t tell him that.

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