Romas Lileikis is not your typical president. He wears jeans, grows a beard, and when giving a talk at a symposium last Sunday, he was joined not by buttoned-down politicians but poets, artists, curators and an audience mostly made up of college students who came to see one of his two films in the New Taipei City Film Festival (新北市電影節) taking place now in Banciao District (板橋區).
And yes, the president is also a filmmaker. He composes music too, and always uses the language of a poet when speaking of the Republic of Uzupis he helped to create 17 years ago.
“Uzupis is based on paradoxes. Why? Because without paradoxes, the world is flat,” Lileikis says.
BIRTH OF A REPUBLIC
Situated in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Uzupis — which means beyond the river — is an ancient district that remained cut off from the city’s old town until the first bridges were built across the Vilnia River in the 16th century, a time when its inhabitants were mostly Jewish. By the end of the two world wars, most of the district’s population had vanished, having been exterminated or exiled. Houses left empty were later taken over by “the lowest elements of the society.”
In 1990s, a small influx of artists, writers and other bohemian types came to search for cheap property and a nonconformist lifestyle in the then run-down neighborhood. At first, they were met with suspicion from the long-time dwellers in what was considered the most criminal part of the town.
“It was a dangerous place to be after dark with men carrying knives. They looked at us from far, far away,” Lileikis recalls.
Because of the city council’s chronic neglect, a sense of destruction and decay pervaded the area until Uzupis’ eccentric newcomers decided that the only way to “overcome death is through creativity.” Thus on April Fool’s Day in 1997, the Republic of Uzupis was born.
The founding of the micro-nation occurred in the aftermath of Lithuania’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. It was a time when the country was trying to rediscover its national identity and rid itself of the Soviet Union’s “ideological control.” In the cultural sphere, the newly found freedom and fledging democratic movement were often contested, imaged and played out with devices like absurdity, irony and humor. For example, in 1995, a group of Lithuanian artists and intellectuals erected a statue of American musical iconoclast and anti-establishment figure Frank Zappa in Vilnius, with the support from creative professionals living in the bohemian quarter of Uzupis.
“It was a time when we tried to find lots of solutions because the values were changing. You must understand your way of living to form your way of thinking. What does it mean to be independent? It is a huge responsibility,” Lileikis says.
The solution for Lileikis and others was to create a nation that is “open to the world” and whose core value is responsibility that comes with freedom. Citizenship to the republic is not limited to its 7,000 residents but also extends to those who share the spiritual ideas, values and beliefs of Uzupis.
“There is no need for any kind of confirmation, paperwork or stamp [to become a citizen]. It’s simply enough to say ‘I am,’” the president asserts.
Judging by appearance, Uzupis has all the attributes of a nation. There is a national anthem, a government with several ministers, four flags — one for each season — and a constitution co-written by Lileikis.