DocPoint’s retrospective guest is Czech filmmaker Helena Třeštíková. Award-winning director observes and films her protagonists for years, sometimes decades. The documentarist’s style of filmmaking – which has become a trademark of hers – reveals that neither individuals nor societies always learn from the past.
The Czech Republic was still communist Czechoslovakia, when Helena Třeštíková, having graduated from the famous Prague Film School, met Ivana and Václav. The budding director did not yet know that she would observe and film these newlyweds for a period of 35 years.
A Marriage Story is a a film about one marriage, but also an exceptional hands-on depiction of a system that shifted into a “you can do it” fantasy, a world hailing the freedom of money and of the individual.
During the span of Třeštíková‘s career, during which she has directed more than 50 films, communism has been replaced by capitalism, but the new system has not been able to eliminate social problems.
“My time lapse method, as I call it, has always been simply to observe what life brings along. And it does not always bring what we want,” says Třeštíková over the phone in a joyful manner that momentarily takes a laconic turn.
Alongside married couples, the director quickly became increasingly interested in life in the margins of society. She filmed René, a young man in and out of prison, for 20 years; Katka, a heroin addict, for 13 years, and Mallory, who had managed to kick her drug addiction, for 12 years.
“The wonderful and also difficult part of this kind of filmmaking is that I do not know how it will end, or even if the protagonist will be among us for very long,” she says.
Třeštíková watches the captured material once the long shooting period has come to an end. She usually has approximately 20 times more material compared to the amount used in the final version of a film.
“From all this material, I try to compile a story that the protagonist could accept as the truth. I do not want to glorify, but I also don’t want to judge. And of course I choose my protagonists carefully: they are all very open, authentic and intelligent.”
Prisoners of the past
Through her warm gaze, Třeštíková manages not only to look at lives led on the edge of society but also display the cold repetition of history. Her films do not include a lesson or illusion that individuals are always able to change the course of their lives.
On the contrary: the ambitious long-term documentaries show people repeating the same patterns year after year, time after time.
The multi-awarded documentarist’s films thus show how an individual’s past – especially a marginalized individual’s – cumulates into memories and fears which tend to multiply in new, often even worse choices. Individuals also face incomprehensible, unjust structures. Homeless ex-heroinist Mallory, for example, says that she finds it more difficult to face these structures without the escape granted by heroin.
Třeštíková´s protagonists also speak of the numbing effect of the absurd everyday.
“What would I do outside?” asks Rene at the beginning of yet another prison sentence in 1991. ” I do not want to work furiously just to be able to buy a rug.”
Not unlike individuals, societies also move in circles. Třeštíková compares the current atmosphere of her homeland to the time before the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
“The essence of this moment will become clear to us much later. But I do feel that there is a lack of ideas, of wishes. There is a sense of emptiness and a lack of meaning,” she says.
“Perhaps in the future, this moment will look like a dark moment, a sad but passing time. Or maybe… maybe the opposite. Time will tell. Time writes a truthful story.”
Helena Třeštíková in Helsinki from Jan 29 to Feb 2. Her retrospective includes the films René, Katka, Mallory, Doomed Beauty and A Marriage Story. Masterclass in Kino Regina on Thursday Jan 31 at 10–12 (in Czech and English).