31 May, 2011

Finding Sambūris

A couple years ago, i tried to win a travel internship with STA travel, blogging and vlogging a trip around the world. I worked with what i had handy to home; for the first round video, buddy Ryan took me out for my first spin on a snowmobile. In retrospect, in a pool of hyperactive younger folks, the video would have fared better had we shot me gleefully squeezing the throttle, put me in front of the camera - but that's not where i am most comfortable. 

At any rate, another friend (thanks Emin!) helped me jump the gun on a second-round submission just in case mine was among the twenty selected. We walked Boston, along the way meeting friends who gave me challenges. Silly ones, of course, like eating octopus or doing a Turkish soccer chant, things any world traveler should be capable of, right? Josie - a globetrotting Kiwi i met on that trip, who stood in Harvard Square and devilishly challenged me to do a split - somehow keeps popping into my life. And it is to her i owe this current project. 

Six weeks ago or so, she posted something on my facebook: World Nomads documentary video scholarship contest. The prize, a trip to northern Australia and mentorship from National Geographic filmmaker Trent O'Donnell. The challenge: a three-minute video themed "local encounters". Good luck. 


Despite all the traveling i did in 2010, i had no footage to work with. No new nifty narratives nagged at my thoughts. I was at a loss, until at the New England Folk Festival i did an unscheduled stint as a stage hand. The young dancers of Sambūris - Boston's Lithuanian dance ensemble - had an energy that captured my imagination. The more i thought about them, the more i wondered how this dance, how these costumes and traditions fit into the rest of their lives. It triggered bigger questions about the relevance of folk traditions and about growing up with a strong ethnic identity in America. Aha! Documentary subject found. The group's leader, Ruta Mackunis, gladly replied my inquiries, and i scrambled to film their final rehearsal and performance before the summer hiatus.

Now, the most interesting things unfold outside the frame. While i was in Boston shooting the micro-doc, i couchsurfed with a fellow whose childhood had revolved around the same sort of ethnic activities: Ukranian folk dance, Ukranian school, Unkranian Boy Scout. We discussed the differences in how various immigrant groups maintain and express ethnic identity in the U.S. today. Through conversation it became apparent how waves of immigration and their sociohistorical context, particularly the pressures on an ethnic group before emigration, and the race relations they face upon arrival, shape that expression. Some communities arrived diffusely; others, planning to stay only temporarily, at times recruited by corporate interests as imported labor, formed tight nuclei of their native culture. Caught between annexation by the Soviet Union and invasion by Nazi Germany, Lithuanians, i learned, fought hard to keep their language and culture from being erased. Perhaps it was that mid 20th-century struggle which positioned the culture to persist so strongly in diaspora. 

Sofia and Marius, the two dancers who became interview subjects, added another dimension to the experience. Have your non-Lithuanian friends seen you in costume? i asked. They live parallel lives, as Sofia put it, but Lithuanian identity is central to them, a matter of pride despite its "nerdy" aspects. It's not confined to weekends, to scouting or church or Lithuanian school. It shows up wherever yellow, green, and red do - even the cards left in your hand playing Uno. 

It's a sad fact, though: the best moments always happen when the camera is off. Marius confessed he eats the purple and orange Skittles first. Sofia reflected on her service trip to Lithuania, echoing something my couchsurfing host expressed: after being steeped in tradition outside the homeland, seeing how little of it remained inside the homeland came as a little shock, a disconnect. "We got there, and i found myself thinking, 'Why aren't you as into your culture as we are?'"  Our unfolding encounter brought up a deeper and more interesting idea: how “Lithuanianized” these youth are compared to their peers in an increasingly Americanized homeland. 

With all this attention to maintaining and transmitting the tradition, i asked Sofia, do you see yourself marrying a Lithuanian guy? Yes, she answered. Every four years, during Šokių Šventė, two thousand dancers from around the globe - Lithuania, and communities in the U.S., Canada, and Australia - converge, filling a stadium with the swirl of traditional costumes. It's great fun, she said, with everybody staying in the same hotels - and added, "we all joke we've seen our husbands before, we just don't know who they are." 

In 2012, the dancers of Sambūris don't have to travel far. Boston will host the 14th Šokių Šventė.


Meanwhile, the three minute doc is in the can. It's online here - please share, "like", and "tweet" up a storm! More info on the scholarship contest at worldnomads.com.