Understanding the Value of Freedom

A timeless message in a new film

The Jump (Šuolis) is a documentary directed by Giedrė Žickytė, streamed online for Canadians in the European Union Film Festival  November 23-24. It tells the story of a Lithuanian sailor, Simas Kudirka, who jumped from a Soviet vessel onto an American Coast Guard boat in 1970 in a frantic bid to escape the USSR. Although it happened many years ago, the message of the value of freedom will never lose relevance.

After he jumped, US official did not accept his request for asylum and did not prevent the Soviets from brutally beating and arresting Kudirka. The incident hit the front pages of the press, and the Lithuanian diaspora rushed to his defense through demonstrations, letters and petitions to the US authorities. World awareness of the reality of the Soviet regime increased, yet Kudirka was nevertheless sent to a remote prison camp, where he would have been forgotten but for a few Lithuanians who continued to pick through his documentation. They found out that his mother was actually born in New York, and therefore he had a claim to American citizenship. After numerous appeals by Lithuanians to senators and congressmen, and the intervention of then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Kudirka was released and left the Soviet Union with his family in November, 1974. He lived in New York and later in Santa Monica, California, finally returning to Lithuania in 2002.

The film is truly compelling, all the more so – but not only – if you had participated in the appeals and demonstrations held in many Lithuanian communities in the diaspora at the time. It is espcially moving to witness his moment of truth, when the two vessels were side by side, and sailors began greeting each other. It happened when the Americans tossed some American magazines onto the Russian ship Litva, and two Soviet crewmen swiped some and hid them in their coats. He overheard the Soviet officers saying “those two will never go to sea again”. \On hearing that, he said “inside I blew up… In the instant they picked up those magazines, their lives melted into mine and mine melted into meaninglessness… We were trapped on a floating jail. The idea of jumping to the American ship flashed into my  mind out of nowhere.”

For viewers, the film succeeds in creating a relationship with the Simas Kudirka man we had only read about. Hearing his voice speaking in the Lithuanian vernacular, seeing him gamely reenact the actual jump,  and looking into his warm, intense eyes as he narrates the story, we feel we know him. Because of this, the film is elevated to a level of excellence few documentaries achieve. Simas himself is ultimately a vivid yet natural star, bringing his own story to life in this film.

The quality of the English subtitles were a pleasant surprise. Equally important in carrying the documentary to success by the wealth of meticulous research behind the fascinating newspaper and video clips, interviews with eye witnesses, activists who worked on his behalf, and even old neighbours. All of which were smoothly woven together in a refined, cohesive and memorable visual chronicle, ending with a touching vignette of Simas raising an American flag at his new home in Lithuania. By then, we were watching an old friend on an ordinary morning.

The film, created in 2020, was  screened in a multitude of international festivals, and awarded best documentary feature at the Warsaw Film Festival. It won the Special Jury Award and the Audience Award at the this year’s Salem Festival, the Herz Frank Best Director Award at ArtDoc Fest, the Audience Award at the DOCVILLE International Film Festival, the Audience Award at the Port Jefferson Film Festival, and the Grand Prix at the EBS International Documentary Festival. It was approved by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to contend for an Oscar for best foreign documentary, however according to the latest online reports it was unseated by another Lithuanian film, Izaokas (Isaac).

The online streaming of The Jump was accompanied by an interview with  director Giedrė Žickytė, who provided delightful insights into the making of the film, and showed her passion for the story – with regrets that some of the information discovered had to be excluded. The interviewer accurately noted that how rare it is to see a documentary employing so much archival material to be so dynamic. Žickytė is not a newcomer – some of her previous films are How We Played the Revolution (2011), Master and Tatyana (2014), and I’m Not From Here (2016), and

Among comments we have read was this one from the head of the jury committee selecting for submission to the Oscars: “It is a masterfully created documentary about an extraordinary act of courage by an ordinary person. It is undoubtedly one of the most striking recent films in Lithuanian cinema.” On Facebook, Aušra Karka of Toronto shared: “The film is excellent, riveting, emotional, charming, nostalgic. If you get a chance to watch it, you won’t be disappointed.”

Hopefully those who didn‘t catch it this week will be able to find it again at some point. It will be streaming in the US next week. For information see https://www.facebook.com/thejumpdocumentary. The Simas Kudirka incident was also portrayed in the docudrama The Defection of Simas Kudirka,  released in 1978 (starriing Alan Arkin), and the book Day of Shame by Algis Rukšėnas, published 1973.                

                        Ramūnė Jonaitis