Jūratė Samulionytė and Vilma Samulionytė. Photo Gytis Skudzinkas

Jūratė Samulionytė and Vilma Samulionytė. Photo Gytis Skudzinkas

Interviews A language to heal

The documentary film Liebe Oma, Guten Tag! What we leave behind (2017) by sisters Jūratė and Vilma Samulionytė tackles persistent silences within one family in Lithuania in a telling way for how sensitive the past is in the Baltic and East European context.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:4 pp 44-49
Published on balticworlds.com on February 12, 2021

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Its’ painful episodes are regularly left unspoken within families, real reasons and courses of events remain uncovered, sometimes to protect family member at other moments to make space for daily life to continue. Three generations later part of these stories seem to have disappeared, yet the untold haunt the family. The Samulionytė sisters show how unexpressed emotions and unshared feelings continued to have their own life — how affectively and sometimes unknowingly they continued to shape lives of people.

At the heart of Samulionytės’ film lies the taboo of suicide and the filmmakers search for a language with which to brake the taboos and start talking about it honestly and transparently. Their quest unfolds to the viewer in the course of the film and gradually brings about new silences within the family, that involve the chaos and uncertainties of war, fleeing from deportations and the Soviet Occupation, a love story of their grandmother and braking down of communication within the family during the Cold War. It took 5 years to finalize the film. Their work is a fascinating example of how shared difficult and traumatic family stories can lead to important local discussions. We held this conversation online after having recently met each other for a dinner in Vilnius. Vilma and Jūratė shared with me how they unexpectedly came to the subject of suicide after already having started the film. We also talked about the difficulties they encountered opening the subject within their family, how their mother coped with making the film in which she was drawn in by her daughters, their choices negotiating the narrative both locally and transnationally and the responses that their film has received.

Margaret Tali: Can you tell me about the starting points for this documentary?

Vilma Samulionytė: In the village Bajoraičiai where our grandmother was born, there was a small German cemetery in the middle of the field on the border. When you go to this cemetery you are more or less followed by the border police. It’s completely abandoned but not closed yet, because 25 years has to pass from the last burial for it to close. One far relative told us that probably our great grandfather is buried there. From time to time when passing we used to bring flowers there. One day when I was there with Jūratė I told it would be interesting to make a photography project and research into our family history, because we didn’t know much about our grandmother’s German heritage, nobody talks about that. But Jūratė was the one who took the first real step.


Jūratė Samulionytė: When I was thinking about a new project, one of the ideas was to write a screenplay based on our grandmother’s story for a feature film. When presenting it to the producer, she was very interested. I even got support but in the course of writing the script, I understood that I knew very little. The information is based on small bits and it’s impossible to put a story together — our relatives don’t know enough, our mother cannot tell it properly… I also talked to Vilma, who is older and remembers more and the idea of doing a documentary came up. Since Vilma had this idea before, we decided that it could go together and during the documentary she can also make a photography project.


VS: We didn’t plan that we would be in the film. When a very intense conversation with our mom started the cameraman didn’t know where to put the camera and started to film us. There were many moments that we didn’t plan and as they happened we went with the flow.


JS: The film was at that point a lot of different topics but not at all about suicide. We knew that its difficult to our mom and we didn’t want to go there.

MT: Something that your film brings to the fore very clearly is the way difficult and traumatic memories have been silenced within families. It speaks about a broader problem in the whole of Eastern Europe, because this silence makes these memories inaccessible in the long run. In your film you show how this makes them inaccessible to you when starting to ask questions about what exactly happened with your grandma during and after the war. Could you tell more about how this silencing works and what its effects are? 

VS: In Danutė Gailienė’s book What did they do to us she talks that the amount of traumas in this area are directly related to the amount of suicides. In the Soviet Union including Lithuania nobody was counting suicides and she makes the connection that it was directly related to the experience of our area. When I came across her term ‘pact of silence’, I realized this is what is happening. When we asked our mother what happened to our grandmother and what did she tell about the war, she didn’t want to tell and she never talked about it. As a child I remember grandmother told some things, but these are bits of memories and I could not rely on them. We came to the conclusion that our grandmother was not talking, our mom was not asking, they both were coping silently and we are the third generation daring to ask questions, but there is no one to answer …  Sometimes we just don’t get into these kinds of conversations.

JS: That was an important discovery for us, that oh my god, we are part of it as well! We were afraid to ask, we didn’t know some things and nobody talked. Nobody asked and nobody answered. As we come from a different time, we started to break ‘the pact of silence’.

VS: We were also insiders because there was suicides in our family too — our grandmother and our father — so somehow we were opening up. In the beginning when starting the film we were children of our mom, who could tell us: you don’t understand things. And suddenly after experiencing our father’s suicide and making the decision to talk, not to lie about it, we came on the same experience level with our mom. We were not children any more, but we had to make decisions in the same situation. Lots of discoveries!

MT: Generational differences in dealing with trauma are very well opened up in your film.

VS: We tried. With our mom we went from big shutdown and no, to okay maybe. And then to okay, we can talk about it and nobody is going to judge us and somehow the taboo disappeared. For mom it was a very painful experience and she had no one to share it with. With Jūratė we had each other — we are quite open with each other and, I think, that our therapy is to talk. We check with each other and often either disagree or agree, but we don’t close to boil in our own juice. Mom had disagreements with our father, grandfather had his own opinions, we were small and it was very difficult for her. Just to calmly grieve is something that she couldn’t have.


JS: Even with the closest relatives within the family, they didn’t talk about it. They decided to tell everyone it [grandmother’s suicide — MT] was a heartattack and it became a total taboo, closed somewhere deep. When we decided to do the film, our mother said yes, I’m happy that you’re doing it, but not this topic, don’t touch it! She was really scared that somebody can hurt her and open a secret that is sacred for her. When we started this opened a process of dealing with this topic for our mother too.


VS: When we were filming we had an excuse to talk. We have a camera, we have a story and we can talk easily. After a year we realized we didn’t mention a word about suicide ourselves. So we had lots of barriers in ourselves also, which we really didn’t recognize. After a while our editor was asking: what are you talking about, what is ‘it’?


JS: This was because it wasn’t used in our family either and although we were open, we also could not even articulate the word ‘suicide’. When doing some shots we worked on it and agreed in advance, we have to say the word ‘suicide’ very clearly.

MT: Your search of a language that this example brings to the fore is something very interesting. You show that in fact we need a language first in order to start speaking… When I was in Lithuania recently I learned that the country has the highest suicide rates in whole Europe and although many people have personal experiences with it either through family or friends, it’s still not acknowledged and openly discussed. So in this context your search of language also seems culturally very important. Why do you think its been so difficult to start talking about suicide?

VS: People imagine that talking is a casual talk, but it doesn’t have to be. I think the topic is so stigmatized that, oh my god, suicide means an automatic shutdown. There is no relax. We showed our film to two very different groups of people, including psychiatrists who deal with difficult subjects in their work they said like this is amazing, this is progress and so on. Then we showed it to the community of relatives who has experienced suicide. When we came there we just talked and talked and they were just looking at us and listening. There was not so much talking going on, except the girl who organized it.


JS: So it means its not so easy to talk. I think it’s very much about the historical background. Because in the Soviet times officially suicide didn’t exist and also in Christian religion suicide is the biggest sin, so all the families who experienced this felt guilt. As an outcome you needed to hide it because it was shameful. There was no information how to deal with it and talking about it was a bad shameful thing.


VS: I’m not so sure what the practice was during the Soviet time, but before the war if someone committed suicide they would be buried behind the fence of the cemetery, which is a big-big disgrace for the family and that’s what happened with our great grandfather too as we see in the film. Our grandmother’s father kind-of made a decision after getting ill and having problems with moving that he was a burden for the family. He killed himself leaving behind his wife with five children and big depts. Our mother says that life of the family changed completely because girls had to quit school and go to work in order to pay the debts back. This was a big shame for the family, that was given on to our mother.


JS: Our mother was herself afraid for what seemed like a chain of suicides in the family, since her grandfather committed suicide as well as her mother.

MT: There’s an ethical side to opening someone’s sensitive sides up in public too and lets be honest some scenes with your mother are very confrontational. You show in the film that you watch it first with your mother, how else did you deal with ethical issues?  

JS: It was a matter of discussion with Vilma many times. Especially during the editing of the film. We tried to be “sharp” and honest in telling the story, but always ethical in our way of understanding.

MT: The topic of grieving already came up, but with the experience of having done this documentary I wonder what your thoughts are about the role of women in grieving?

VS: We thought about grieving as a must have. You have to grieve, otherwise you are not fully letting go. With the suicide there are the so-called triplets: silence, secret and shame. The three sisters that don’t let one calmly grieve, you need to get rid of all of them in order to say good-bye to your relatives. In case of suicide it’s harder because you might blame yourself in some things. Women are more emotional, open and tend to talk more … In certain areas of Lithuania women would do a crying session  …


JS: In one Lithuanian area there are grieving songs (raudos), chanting very loud and long [imitates the singing], and this is done by women only in funerals. I think that this singing is also a way to grieve, because it’s hard to give on to your emotions, but during this process it becomes easier. These old traditions have something deeper in them.


Vs: In Samogitia the funeral lasts three days and they would sing this whole time. When you would get in there at that point you could not get out for three days [laughs] … When we were children it was very normal to have long funerals, now its done in one day. According to the old tradition it used to be one year in which people heal. You don’t go to any festivities and wear black. Our mom kept that while she was grieving, but we didn’t and I don’t know people nowadays who would do that.


[We talk further about the taboo of seeing men cry in public and how this has changed somewhat too. Vilma promises to ask her partner about it later.]

MT: In your film, it seems to me, you deal with the memory of your grandmother in a way that is orientated to the future rather than the past. This has something to do with the atmosphere of your film as well, which despite the heavy subjects is light and the story itself gives hope in a way. Can you talk a little more about this atmosphere in relation to telling the story?

JS: From the very beginning on we didn’t want to make a dark film. We had discussions with our producer that overall it should be light and fresh and the cinematographer was involved too. For instance, we were shooting a lot during the summer.


VS: We started to talk about the past in the film, but then the film turned out about us. The present and if we fix our thoughts, the way we want to live then we think about the future. It’s in a way about clearing our system of all these old taboos and unspoken things and hidden grey areas, so in a way it is projecting on the future. All these discoveries are to make the future a little more light.


JS: Actually we also have our little conversation in the film in which we agree to call each other when it’s hard, its also kind of giving hope.

MT: What do you think was the influence of the fact that you had a German producer on the story itself?

VS: They have their own take on the Second World War. For us some facts were completely new. For instance, with refugee camps, they were like “oh come on this is so boring everybody knows that!”


JS: In Germany they had a lot of documentaries about it, but we didn’t have that. At the same time it was the other way around too, because they didn’t know much about what happened with Germans in Lithuania. That’s why, for instance, we included a map, because otherwise it was too difficult for Germans to understand how people moved. They said that nobody knows much about Lithuania, so we had to be very clear. We also had a composer from Germany. And we had two editors — the last cut was made by the German editor. It was very powerful, because she went very deep into the story. She was pushing us a lot and the way the film looks like now was thanks to the input of this editor.

MT: Lets also talk about the response your film has received.

JS: We tried to participate in film screenings and have discussions because we felt it’s important. We met many people who were moved or left after the film crying or they said thank you, or ‘oh-my-god in my family there are similar stories too’… We felt a lot of solidarity and the fact that people felt thankful was nice and strange too, because its not after every film that people feel thankful.


VS: In Germany the audience was a little different, because they had all personal experiences with that. I would also like to mention how our mom reacted. Even before the premier she was like: But girls how will we go there right now and you will talk about the issues — what will all those people think! And we were like, but mom after 5 years you are still thinking about that! That’s it, the film is done! After people watched the film they felt that they knew our mom and came to thank her and say: you are such a brave woman! They were congratulating us and also our mom… After the premier she slept in my house and in the morning she said: Vilma what a great premier it was! Those people who came to talk to us were so nice! It was completely the opposite reaction as she had expected.


JS: When the film was shown in our hometown, then she didn’t come.

MT: What a brave decision though to hold it there!

VS: The cultural centre invited us, and when we told our mother, she said as we started with this lets do it until the end! Although she didn’t come to that presentation, she still let us do it. So it might be brave, but its also a part of the process of healing. A sign of it.

Another thing is that although we hoped to present it in bigger documentary festivals too, it somehow didn’t happen. In Germany it was received quite well in smaller festivals, like Lübeck and Kassel. We were a bit surprised, because in Lithuania we received a lot of good feedback even from very critical critics.


VS: Although the film didn’t go to the traditional festivals, it had a different travelling story with smaller festivals, community screenings, scientists asked for copies to show it to students and we came to your summer school in Kūldiga [“Communicating Difficult Pasts” organized by Margaret Tali and Ieva Astahovska], so it travelled a bit different compared to a usual film.

MT: During the film you continue to work on this material in the format of photography too Vilma. Photos as opposed to film are silent, how did your exhibition “Pact of Silence” and artist book add to the film? 

VS: I think in the exhibition people could come closer to this archival and visual material used in the film, read, look as long as they’d like. The editor and authors decided how long to show pictures or archival images in the film. The book “Pact of Silence” is a limited edition box set with memory maps, image book, letters, pictures and text book. It is like a small journey into a personal story from pre-war time till today. People who wanted to know more about the story would go and see the film. So there were some people, who went to the film after seeing the book or the exhibition. ≈




  1. Danutė Gailienė, Ką jie mums padarė: Lietuvos gyvenimas traumų psichologijos žvilgsniu [What Did they Do To Us: Life of Lithuania Through the Trauma Psychology Lens] (Vilnius: Tyto Alba, 2008).
  • by Margaret Tali

    Mobilitas plus postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Current research deals with the complex memories of WWII in the Baltic States in practices of contemporary art and documentary film.

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