Romas Zabarauskas’s new film, THE LAWYER (ADVOKATAS), was due to have its World Premiere at the sadly cancelled BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. With gentle humour, heartbreaking understatement, and realistically flawed characters, THE LAWYER shows the intersectionality of human rights issues through the universal prism of isolated people coming together to help each other.
Marius (Eimutis Kvoščiauskas) is, in his own words, “an old poof in homophobic Lithuania”. He’s a corporate lawyer and an old-fashioned gay man who feels confronted by the contemporary world: he’s surrounded by avant-garde art that he does not understand, a gay scene moving away from the homonormativity that he’s comfortable with, and the ethics of a younger generation at odds with his career. One night, on an online cam site, Marius meets Ali (Doğaç Yildiz), a bisexual Syian refugee stuck in Belgrade, and decides to move outside his comfort zone to help his new connection.
Eimutis Kvoščiauskas gives an intriguingly understated central performance as Marius. Despite his privilege, Marius is a good man and Kvoščiauskas portrays this from the start through his warmth and his gentle good humour. At the core of the film is his journey of discovering the realities of systems that aren’t built to work for vulnerable people: as Ali puts it, “You can’t get help from a lawyer when the only things that work aren’t legal.”
Marius is forced to confront his own privilege and his complicity in systems that need a lot of improvement. Zabarauskas draws the characters in THE LAWYER as flawed and complex and all the more real for that. In an early scene, Marius is taken aback by the anti-corporate ethics espoused by his dinner party guest, Pranas (Danilas Pavilionis), and reacts with transphobic shock when Pranas reveals that he is a trans man. Through hearing Ali’sstory and seeing the hardship of Syrian refugees however, Marius is able to circle back to viewing Pranas with empathy and understanding the marginalisation that Pranas has faced compared to himself.
Zabarauskas also represents the complexity of human rights issues and the intersectionality of these issues. To make a film that sensitively represents the complexity of the issues, Zabarauskas consulted with Syrian gay refugees and Syian journalists and advocacy groups. As a bisexual man, Ali pretends to be gay to get help from aid networks focused on gayness rather than bisexuality. Marius tells Ali that he needs to keep the political out of the personal and, to make his case to the UN, needs to focus on discrimination and human rights rather than criticism of the Assad regime. Even the UN and the aid networks trying to help refugees are painted as complex and flawed.
The film draws a stark contrast between the comfort of Marius’ privileged life in Lithuania and the hardship of refugees in Serbia. We see Marius’ cosy, upscale hotel room in central Belgrade against Ali’s refugee camp so far outside the city and so disdained that a taxi driver won’t drive Marius the full distance. There’s raw emotion in Ali’s voice when he’s in Marius’ hotel room and has showered, dined on room service, and realises that he’s comfortable. From his position of privilege, Marius tells him we need to leave our comfort zones occasionally. Ali soberly tells him—and the audience — ”Never leave your comfort zone if you don’t need to.”
Romas Zabarauskas describes himself as both a filmmaker and an activist: his films support and further this social activism by pushing issues into the mainstream and highlighting the complexity of people’s lived experience. THE LAWYER wonderfully represents the intersectionality of the various issues that it deals with and deftly ties together issues of LGBT refugees, transgender people in Eastern Europe, and gay men in homophobic countries. Zabarauskas brings these seemingly disparate issues together through a universal prism: through understanding them as issues of loneliness and isolation and by bringing people together to help each other. By helping people across borders, across sexualities, across genders, THE LAWYER tells us that we can challenge oppressive systems, use our privilege to help others, and improve the world for marginalised people.