Director Olga Černovaitė explains her motivation for making ‘Butterfly City’, her film about the city of Visaginas, which screens at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
The city of Visaginas was created from nothing in the 1970s in order to service a powerful Soviet nuclear power station. Literally designed and shaped like the wings of a butterfly, it was intended to be a window of Soviet progress to the West. After USSR disintegration, however, EU membership meant Lithuania has to close the plant, the city’s main industry. At a time of growing geo-political tension, and in an ambiance of mutual mistrust, what future for the 25,000 Russian-speaking townspeople?
Ahead of its screening at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, director Olga Černovaitė explains her motivation for making Butterfly City, a portrayal of a city that is refusing to die along with its defunct power plant.
“I knew I had a story to make about this topic of identity, in Lithuania, where I grew up, but for a long time I couldn’t identify exactly what it was. In the end, it was right under my nose all along. As a child to Russian parents, I was born in Lithuania and raised as a very patriotic Lithuanian. But the question about identity became stronger as I grew older. Am I Russian? Am I Lithuanian? Later, after my daughter was born, I spoke Russian with her and taught her Russian songs.
“When researching the film I discovered that many of the people of Russian descent in Vilnius I was talking to turned out to be from Visaginas. Then I realised this was the place I had to go to and there everything came together. Originally, before I studied film, I had a scientific education, in chemistry, so in that way even the characters based at the power plant reflected my own personal history, just like other characters are also a kind of reflection of myself.
“I did not set out to make a political film, but in the process of making the film and with the recent political climate in the former USSR states, it became impossible to avoid it. So I tried to show the complexity of the problem. And perhaps even showing a more nuanced point of view. Lithuania was the first country to leave the Soviet Union and a lot has changed since then. Some people see it as a good things, some people not. The many voices in the debate can be heard in Visaginas.”
Talking about the role the power plant plays in Visaginas now, Olga says that “many people in Visaginas lost their jobs because of the power plant closing. When the power plant was still fully functioning, the town had 33,000 inhabitants, of whom 5,000 worked directly at the plant. Today the population is around 20,000 people; 2,000 work at the plant and this number is still decreasing. It is still is a big source of income for the people who still have jobs, as a lot of work goes into closing a power plant. Ironically, the people that are working on closing the plant are the children of the people that built it in the 1970s.
“If you look at people’s attitudes towards the plant, there is mainly pride, though. You could say the power plant symbolises the history of Lithuania and people’s attitudes towards it are as complex and diverse as people’s attitudes towards the USSR and the country’s independence.”
As for the future, “Visaginas is a city at a turning point,” according to Olga. “The closing of the power plant created a lot of uncertainty, but it also paves the way for a new future. Nowadays, the town is investing a lot in tourism sports, and other small and mid-size businesses. Looking at it from the outside, it may seem like a dying city, and maybe it was for a while, but with a very active young generation that shares a deeply rooted love for the city, what dominates is hope.”
Butterfly City screens at the 29th Galway Film Fleadh Friday, 14th July in the Cinemobile at 12:15
The 29th Galway Film Fleadh runs 11 – 16 July 2017