This brief but powerful documentary consists of snippets of filmmaker Giedrė Beinoriūtė’s interviews with twelve Lithuanian children. The film begins with a deaf girl, Ruta, telling a story in sign language about a flower turning to face the sun. (Although the children’s first names are listed during the credits, few of the children are referred to by name during the interviews.) One of the other exceptions is fidgety Jonas, who tells Beinoriūtė: “I don’t have to be in TV or movies or something else. I just have to be seen by somebody, even it it’s just an old man in the street.”
Like Jonas, most of the children provided remarkably candid and complex responses during their interview. Beinoriūtė stands off screen as she conducts the interviews; her simultaneous presence and absence places the entire focus on the children, while also reminding the viewer of the discursive, interview-based style of the documentary, with its minimalist presentation.
The social context within which the documentary was produced bears discussion. Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors, is a country marked by relatively high suicide and divorce rates, as well as negative population growth. Having grown up against this troubled backdrop, the children provide their thoughts on, as the title suggests, topics like love, death, religion, and human nature.
In addition, many of the children in the documentary had been, or were currently, in foster care. According to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of the estimated 408,425 U.S. children in foster care in 2010, about 15% of them were living in either institutions or group homes. By contrast, based on data from Statistics Lithuania, there were approximately 10,716 Lithuanian children living in foster care in 2012, of whom—if my calculations are correct—43% lived in institutional settings. Beinoriūtė talks to a few boys who live in such an institution. One of them describes running away from home because he didn’t like his foster father. Beinoriūtė asks him: “What’s so exciting about running?” He replies: “If you escape, then you’re free.” These boys describe their bleak childhoods in heartrending detail; one older boy describes being beaten with firewood by his parents, and when asked if they’re still alive, he responds: “How should I know?” Beinoriūtė then asks him if he loves anybody. He replies, simply, “Who’s there to love?”
A few of the children present more positive outlooks. Ruta, for instance, generally seems like a genuinely happy and enthusiastic child, telling Beinoriūtė that “My world is beautiful,” though she does admit that “Sometimes people do bad things.” An older blind girl, fond of writing poetry, says “of course” she believes in God: “I believe he exists and he exists. At least for me he exists.” One of the other children disagrees with the idea that forming attachments with people inevitably ends in disappointment: “If you don’t get attached to anybody, you spend your whole life as a loner.”
While they watch the film, viewers who grew up in a U.S. setting might find themselves strangely reminded of the American TV show Kids Say the Darnedest Things. (At least, that was the connection I drew.) Obviously, Conversations is much more, well, serious. But like that rather less poignant TV show, this documentary’s appeal comes from the precocious responses of its stars, ordinary children who are somehow also extraordinary.
Hollow City (Angola, 2004)