“May God help you, young girl, to wash the linen sheet.”
The village of Puvovocia, Lithuania is in the region called the Land Of Songs. Its voice, both solemn and playful, reaches from the past to sing to a contemporary world. Community rituals and the means of survival dramatically shift as village life becomes more obsolete and economically unviable. Aldona Watts, director of Land of Songs, has captured in her 60-minute film the rural lifestyle of the Mociutes (grandmothers), a clan of six village women that have maintained high spirits and a sacred respect for their traditions through a rich quilt of songs, some of indeterminate origins; songs that put Watt’s audience into a state of reverence and folkloric stupor. Through these lyrics and raw vocals, the film’s audience pauses and reflects on the brevity of Lithuania’s past at large, and how their war torn land, ravished by Soviet and Nazi rule, is inherently attached to their cultural identity.
The film, at 60 minutes, frames woven themes of daily ritual, celebration, war, death, and religion into this small, almost ghostly town. The sounds and visuals of pastoral landscapes round out the narrative, and leave the audience to ruminate on open pastures, forests, a broad river, and a lake that are ridden with a silent torment and a mystical, vibrant liveliness. Watts balances any romanticism and exoticism that might emerge from exploring a foreign context by letting the women of the village guide the narrative through dialogue. The five eighty- to ninety-year-old women are nearing death, and their past is riddled with stories and traditions that soon may reflect the end of an era. The film cannot but help illuminate an existential pondering on what is valued in an impermanent world.
The opening of the film is a slow ride down a river, the five women’s voices sing about folding linens. The scene then transitions as the song continues to the five traditionally dressed older women and one of their granddaughters singing the song, standing and facing the camera over a creek’s bridge. The song is intense, at one point transitioning from folding linens to, “You girl, don’t fall into the river,” with a focused close up shot on the precious blond young girl who is the one active family preserver of their song lineage. As the song ends, the women immediately engage in a humorous banter, scolding each other for performance mistakes. The mood lightens as they head back to the car with the young man who is their chauffeur. They joke of the lack of boys in the village. In one brief hand wave through the roof of the car to the camera’s point of view, the audience gets the first and only recognition of the camera’s presence, laying the stage for brief, intimate vignettes of each woman’s life.
The first intimate individual vignette is with Stase, who is singing about local flowers and her regretful marriage to a soldier. She is in her kitchen barefoot, cooking, while a cat nibbles on a dead mouse. The subtitles are delivered in tempo as Stase states, “When hard times fell, I never cried.” A visual pause lends to the weight of importance of her next comment “…I sang.”
The following vignettes of Marė, Marytė, Jonukė, Pranutė, and Stasė reveal a variety of daily rituals. One women hangs linens. One visits the graveyard. One forages mushrooms and gathers eggs from the coop. Another talks of marital life with her husband. They all reminisce the youthful liveliness of the village in past decades. Together, they sit around one large table, plucking feathers, or drinking moonshine.
The film goes into a decent amount of detail about the state of war in the region and its traumatic impact on the villages and the lifestyle. The men in the village explain the most about the Partisan movement against the Nazi military and about the pervading Soviet invasions surrounding each World War. The Partisan movement was a series of independents who chose to fight for their heritage, rather than forge allegiances with the Soviets or Nazis. Their life was dangerous and few survived. The dire circumstances reveal the importance religion in the village as a source of faith and hope. The women chant religious hymns together, not missing a beat.
Their old forest superstitions include a black ram that would appear whenever mass was held, and dark witches of the night that were thought to be shipped to Siberia by the Russians. But, as stated by the Mociutes’ themselves, “Back then, people were afraid of the devil. But… you should be afraid of people instead. The devil has always been man.”
The compelling visuals and personalities in the film lend it to be an informative piece that leaves the viewer wanting to know more about the content of their songs and the rituals of each. The film could easily be extended to a sequel, and I only hope that a compilation of the women’s songs will be preserved with historical anecdotes for each. The selective information of the film focuses on a micro vision of the village and its people, so it will inevitably leave viewers curious about the broader traditions and values of Lithuania as a whole.
The film recently received Honorable Mention at the 2015 Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York.