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A Place the Screens Call Their Own
Great places to visit make great film locations, right? Paris, Rome, even the plains of Africa.
And then there's Vilnius, Lithuania, and its lush rural surroundings.
This city, formerly Vilna, was famous as a renown spiritual center of Jewish study for centuries. It's now heading into the 21st century as a legitimate site for film production.
U.S. and European producers seem to be catching on to this charming northern European capitol.
Directors can have lights, cameras and action for less money with more authenticity.
Little Lithuania -- home to about 60,000 Jews before World War II, with today about 4,500 -- has suddenly become a destination for television and feature-film production.
Some high-quality British costume dramas, with luminaries like Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons, have been shot here. Other types of docudramas, seen on "The Learning Channel," for example, get made in Lithuania for half the price in the states.
Indeed, many films of special interest to Jewish audiences have been produced here, often by Jews. Hollywood's Fred Weintraub was the first major producer to arrive after the country's Soviet domination ended two decades ago. His "New Adventures of Robin Hood" (1997-98) for Turner TV launched the Hollywood connection.
For Baltic film companies, one place in Europe often stands in for another. Perhaps the most famous film shot here in recent years was "Defiance," which dramatized the story of Jewish partisans in the Belarus forest during World War II.
Actors, makeup artists, costumers, lighting technicians -- all local -- get work and awareness of what took place in their country. Crews are simply thrust into the history and reality of events, even in fictional presentations.
As line producer and production manager, Lineta Miseikyte claims that she learns "about the Holocaust from films more than textbooks."
A Catholic, like most Lithuanians, she has worked on several projects about Jewish subjects, including "Defiance."
She says that "you read history at home in a cozy environment, but on a film set, you really see it. We shot many stories" about the Holocaust, but "it is never enough."
Robertas Urbonas, production chief of Baltic Film Group, was a pioneer in working with American and European companies. Beneath a photograph of Chuck Norris, Urbonas told how he went to Hollywood to offer his company's services.
Many Jewish executives had family from this part of Eastern Europe. He thinks that nostalgia, along with good economics, helped motivate Hollywood to take up his invitation to make features and made-for-TV movies here.
To be fair, production has slowed in the last two years, suffering from the worldwide economic downturn.
Still, Urbonas and Miseikyte look for more opportunities on the horizon.
"I would love foreign filmmakers to come here," says Miseikyte. "Film is the best way to talk to many nations in a peaceful way. The line between life and film disappears, and film becomes life; life becomes film."