A Killer’s Attitude

It is claimed that a director’s second full-length feature film is a real test of his or her talent. Mira Fornay could scarcely have received a more resounding affirmation of her matching the promise of her début Foxes (2009) than the prestigious award for first and second films of young directors from the progressive Rotterdam Film Festival. This not only caused a local cultural sensation (it is the first victory at the Rotterdam IFF for Slovak cinema), but she also confirmed the direction of Slovak film as a (literal) “Central European tiger”.

Regarding its success in Rotterdam, the significant social topic and closed film form, nothing other can be predicted for the Slovak-Czech co-production My Dog Killer than a victorious advance through the festivals and acclaim from critical reflection. However, I believe that the real value of the film lies not in the A-list award, but in the qualities it brings to the trend it joins. For we are currently experiencing something which may not be particularly healthy but, for a theoretician and critic, is an inspirational phenomenon in Slovakia, when a socially-oriented auteurist film becomes the mainstream in cinematography.

Mira Fornay studied fiction directing at FAMU in Prague and she has more international experience than more recent débutants – graduates from the Film and Television Faculty at the Academy of Performing Arts, Zuzana Liová, Iveta Grófová and Mátyás Prikler. However, together with them she defines the currently quite clearly legible line of new social drama. Personalities profiled in detail with substantially different signatures have a number of things in common: the non-sentimental reflection of reality in a specific space-time in Central Europe, an emphasis on socially topical themes, collaboration with non-actors, inspiration from non-fiction procedures, consequential visual concept. With regard to racism, Martin Šulík’s Gypsy can be viewed in tandem with My Dog Killer. However, even though Gypsy is also based on reality and it is mostly non-actors playing in the film, the approach to the topic is different. It is not a film about the racial prejudices of the majority towards a minority, but an introspective immersion into the inner world of one member of the Roma community. Conversely, My Dog Killer is a deliberation on how racial intolerance – and the attitude to otherness in general – shapes us from the cradle to the grave.

Eighteen-year-old Marek is at the centre of the story. An ethereal, even androgynous, young man with a tough image: a shaved head, tattoos, a camouflage suit, combat-style boots. He lives on the Slovak-Moravian border with his alcoholic father. His mother has left them long ago. Marek and his father are under threat of repossession so they would like to sell their apartment and move to the vineyard. They just need his mother’s signature on the sale agreement. And so Marek has to confront his trauma: his mother who abandoned the family and bore a Roma “bastard”. He hides this shameful blemish from his shaved and tattooed friends who respect him thanks to his pit-bull Killer. Nomen omen: Killer really is a killer and the story cannot end other than tragically.

But Killer is a bit more than just a killer dog. It is Marek’s avatar, it represents the features the boy would like to have: strength, aggressiveness, combativeness. Marek wears the insignia of the adopted identity on his body: a tattooed letter K on his neck, the portrait of his dog on his shoulder blade. Killer is the determinant focus of his identity through which he both defines himself and affords him a sense of belonging. For it is apparent that Marek, and also the world he inhabits, are without a stable centre. His life was affected by the absence of a mother figure and father’s authority. Maybe that is the reason behind his ambivalence, the disjuncture between his physical appearance and his social image. The boy appears as timid rather than aggressive. A gang of skinheads took over the function of family and its boss symbolically assumed the role of his father (the fatherly connotations of this character are also referred to in the film by the celebration of his son’s birth). Families themselves in this environment seem to be dysfunctional: relations between partners are disrupted, relations between siblings ruined, children run away to street gangs. However, My Dog Killer is not a sociological film, hence we perceive the destroyed world as the background for the fate of an unusual anti-hero and not as its simple social determination.

We see that Marek is constantly in motion in the course of the film. He passes through the derelict environments of the industrial-commercial zone, residential quarter, pub or various transitional places: the motorway, the road, the station, by foot, motorbike or car. The other characters are also constantly on the move: the mother is looking for her younger son, she needs to place him somewhere, to agree with her brother who lives in a new house without even a pathway leading to it; Marek meets his gang in the changing room in the gym, at the garages, in the corridor of the concrete apartment building. His is a makeshift world: everything at home is packed and prepared for moving, although the accommodation is not yet prepared in the vineyard. He is unable to find any stable place, merely brief moments of rest as he is waiting for someone. But, even then, below the surface he is boiling. The camera breathes down his neck all the time, it submerges into his shaved, almost vulnerable skullcap. It is an invisible observer which, seemingly impassively but with growing tension, watches Marek’s non-expressive conduct and waits to discover how the unbalanced and ambivalent character will turn out. This character ambigui-ty is emphasised also by his grey clothing. He is entitled to the bright red colour of his T-shirt and boxing bag only during training, where he learns to transform his suppressed hatred and humiliation into aggressiveness. As he trains his dog Killer, he himself is trained. It is solely a matter of time before the released violence finds its object.

The indecipherability of Marek’s character is the key element of the effect Mira Fornay achieves by the de-psychologised and observatory narration. Marek is found in almost every shot, he defines the extent of our knowledge of the narration. However, the narration, adopting the method of a nouveau roman, is non-communicative and stubbornly adheres to only describing the exterior. The face with sharp features is impenetrable in the long shots of waiting. In other shots it is diverted off-camera. Marek confines his communication to terse sentences. The conversations of others are also very matter-of-fact. All information surfaces slowly and seemingly incidentally – in hints and silences.

The director has enhanced this effect by casting non-actors and by directed improvisation without clear and precise dialogue. As a consequence, the characters appear relaxed and the authentic stylisation is strengthened by the dialect as well as by the chronological narration, the absence of non-diegetic music and sounds, and by the realistic details of everyday life. The descriptive narrative strategy creates tension, raises questionsand thus enforces the emotional engagement of the viewer without having to identify with Marek. It stimulates the desire to understand him and to peer into his inner world. But, as it is hardly possible to understand racism, it leaves questions unanswered. Marek’s impenetrability creates the impression that his character may at any time become either humane or violent. And that this fateful tipping-point does not have to be a conscious decision. That is why Marek’s contact with his half-brother Lukáš is so full of discord. Marek detests him physically (he does not want to ride in a car with him, he unwittingly wipes the helmet that Lukáš held in his hands) but, on the other hand, he gets into a situation where he involuntarily defends him and his mother and he experiences further public humiliation. The viewer constantly anticipates that Lukáš’s interest will awake some emotion in Marek. Then the motivation to kidnap his brother and leave him to Killer is all the more unclear. Does Marek want to wreak revenge on his mother? To vent his anger for his humiliation? To boost his self-confidence? I assume that his deed is almost as instinctive as Killer’s biting and tearing reflex. It grows from the depths of his subconscious (symbolically, Marek begins to follow his mother and Lukáš in the underpass). Marek does not adopt a radical attitude, the murder of his brother is not planned, but rather a consequence of past actions. Just as, without thinking, he binds Lukáš with the rope Killer uses to train his murderous bite, he calmly pours wine into the demijohn while Killer gorges on Lukáš’s blood. He calls his mother to tell her that Lukáš is with him, then he hangs up. The awareness of deeds and their consequences is revealed only by the tears shed in the long semi-detail during the night-time motorbike ride. Together with the early prayer for the Roma scapegoat with which the mother, unknowingly, says goodbye to her son, these are the only emotionally tense moments of the film characterised by a discrete suppression of emotions.

The director has used a narrative strategy where the motivations of the main protagonist are concealed and no judgments are made. Fornay does not “tackle” the social problem with her film, she rather analyses the conditions in which the problem has emerged. She does not tell a tale about crime and punishment. After the story ended, Marek maybe started a new life, paid off all his debts, helped his father build the vineyard. All this with the awareness of what he had done. The circular structure of the storyline, which starts and ends with work in the vineyard, gives the story a closed dramaturgical frame, but at the same time it refers to the vicious circle of shame and hatred.

Who else other than the mother will miss a small Roma boy? Probably no one in a society immersed in racism. Fornay does not depict xenophobia as an attribute exclusive to skinheads but as the majority attitude of a variety of generations and social strata. Of those who vent their frustration for loafers and freeloaders in a pub from which Roma are banned because they steal. Of those who gain the respect of their adolescent peers by humiliating others. Of those who are daily massaged by TV newscasts showing marches of extremists and who boost their national pride by singing patriotic songs. Of those who, whilst listening to a brass band, reminisce about the old days under the affectionate supervision of pictures of saints and portraits of Jozef Tiso. Of those who build nouveau riche houses and think that they can steal from relatives who cause them shame. But also young Roma who do not want to learn to play the violin because they will not play at being a gypsy for anyone.

Katarína Mišíková

My Dog Killer (Môj pes Killer, Slovakia/Czech Republic, 2013) _directed and script by: Mira Fornay _director of photography: Tomáš Sysel _edited by: Hedvika Hansalová _cast: Adam Mihál, Irena Bendová, Libor Filo, Marián Kuruc, Mária Fornayová and others.

Mira Fornay
(1977, Bratislava)
She completed her studies in directing at the Prague FAMU with her short film Small Untold Secrets (Malá nesdělení, 2002) which was shown at several film festivals around the world, including the Rotterdam IFF, and received awards, for instance, at the Festival of East European Cinema in Cottbus. Fornay also studied at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, UK. Her full-length debut Foxes (Líštičky, 2009) competed in the International Critic’s Week section at the Venice Film Festival. Her current film My Dog Killer won the Hivos Tiger Award at this year’s Rotterdam IFF.



Thanks? Fine?

The full-length feature début of Mátyás Prikler Fine, Thanks is a social drama with minimalistic elements which captures the world during the economic crisis. The film is actually made up of three stories and it is not clear why they are joined in a single film – their topics, narration and, in part, their styles also differ. What they do have in common is a bleak atmosphere and emptiness in various senses of the word. However, the film exhibits a peculiarity which defies classification, making it impossible to liken it to role models, thus rendering it all the more comprehensible why it was screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

Fine, Thanks is based on a short film Thanks, Fine which was also well received, thanks to its participation in the Cinéfondation section at the Cannes IFF. This short film was supplemented by two further stories and became part of the “big” film with almost no changes. One of the new stories follows on directly from the original film, it features the same family (or part of it) and develops what one of the characters previously mentioned only briefly. Even the point of demarcation disappears and one story segues smoothly into the next. This makes the dissimilarity of the initial story all the more marked, since it follows a different family and it is fairly loosely connected to the other stories. The final, approximately twenty-minute, scene is a sort of epilogue. This is where we learn what links these families; nevertheless, the scene moves forward especially with the last story.

The main characters of the film are the members of two families. The film concentrates almost exclusively on the relations within the family, which appears to be a closed world. With the exception of one character, we know practically nothing about their lives outside of the family. If the characters are influenced by their environment, there are no specific cases, but rather symptoms of the times. The loss of the job of one of the characters is quite typical; however, it is not dealt with any further in the story and we can only assume whether it somehow affects subsequent events, and the same character accusing his wife of adultery is also typical. However, the character immediately rejects the accusation because he realises that the problem lies “within” the family and not beyond it.

The film’s most marked feature is probably its bleakness. This is caused by the greyness of the concrete apartment buildings, the dusk, or by over-emphasising empty spaces. Even the daytime shots from a new house in the first part of the film impart an impression of cold. The prolongation of shots beyond the framework necessary to capture the action is a simple and effective means, leaving aside the fact that there is no action in the shots and the acting is, in most of the cases, low-key and reduced to basic emotions, especially anger.

This, inter alia, leads to a feeling of alienation. It is a traditional modernist topic, but the film does not speak about “some” present time because this present time is clearly defined at the beginning by the economic crisis. The crisis remains in the background all the time but it is not the topic of the film. The crisis defines the environment in which the characters exist and thus, more or less directly, affects their lives. The impact of the crisis is shown in the dismissal of staff, the need to save money and, last but not least, in the press conference of Prime Minister Robert Fico.

We feel the crisis most strongly in the first part of the film. Entrepreneur Miroslav is in the fore-ground and we watch how he faces up to, or does not face, the crisis over the course of a single day – he has employed his brother and tasked him with dismissing staff, we see a meeting, but also a tennis match or an argument with his apparently mentally unstable wife. This story does not have any action, it is composed of short situations without causal links, hence it is sort of a glance at life. We are left to assume whether the individual situations are unique or if this is everyday routine.

The illusion of daily routine is important because we do not incorporate the behaviour of the characters into the structure of the story (there is no story), but we understand it as a sign of the time. We do not have to know a lot about the characters, we do not have to know their psychology in detail, it is quite sufficient just to see hints of their mutual relations. The film does not need to document the time any further, as it uses the formal means or mise-en-scène already referred to. The filming through glass or the reflection in glass, possibly with an object in the foreground, is particularly marked, as it enhances the feeling of distance and creates sort of a barrier, invokes an impression of alienation.

Pensioner Béla is the main protagonist of the second story – even though the characters surrounding him are active and their activities only “touch” on him. Béla has lost his wife and, as his children consider him incapable of living on his own, they place him in an old people’s home. We never learn how far he is capable of taking care of himself. The film leaves many situations like this unclarified. Instead of explaining, it leaves room for various ways of understanding the situation. However, this is a double-edged sword, as this ignorance can result in our misunderstanding the motivation of the characters. In the case of Béla’s state of health, the impulsive action of his son Atilla may seem to be hardly comprehensible, hence barely believable.

An interesting change has occurred in comparison with the original short film. If we do not take the initial scenes introducing the main characters into consideration, the first scene of Béla’s story was incorporated in the first part of the film. It is a scene in which he argues with his wife over money, while they watch the previously mentioned press conference of Prime Minister Fico on TV. The crisis also lurks in the background of this story, but the film does not deal with it anymore – what is going on has, I dare say, nothing to do with the crisis (if we discount the possibility that Béla’s children placed him in the old people’s home solely to get hold of his apartment and other things). Even thanks to this “relocation” of the scene, the crisis “remained” in the first part of the film. The crisis can be sensed in the second story also, but it virtually does not affect it in any way. Moreover, there is just one scene in the entire film which is incorporated into another story in this way, which also means that, while Attila and Béla were present in the first part, Miroslav and his family disappear from the film for over an hour.

Even though the second story has more “action” and the causal links between the scenes are clearer, it still strives to place everyday routine in the foreground. Although a fundamental event did happen resulting in a conflict, the film largely shows situations which do not directly impinge upon the story: Béla’s loneliness, clearing out the apartment, the wake that did not turn out well. The scene where the family tries to get on the ship where the wake is to be held is particularly interesting. Actually, it has no relevance for the story and it does not develop the characters; instead it rather serves to define the period: the family booked the ship but they cannot get on board because a film crew is working there. The scene says a lot about the values of society; albeit, it has nothing to do with the crisis.

Attila and his family are the main protagonists of the last story. This time it is about a marriage crisis. Again we have no idea why the crisis occurred but we are fobbed off with learning that the spouses just “get on each other’s nerves” after all those years of marriage and they take advantage of their children in their fight. Then, in one scene the son starts to “torture” his sister; however, it seems as if this is occurring for the first time. The viewer may ask whether this inclination of the son had not shown before, whether it suddenly (let us say, under the influence of his parents) occurred to him that he could exert his (male) dominance over his sister.

If we don’t take into account the grey concrete apartment buildings and everything related to them, the picture of the times mentioned so many times already is missing from the third story and the story does not have to be related to our present time in any way. For instance, Attila lost his job in the first part of the film (which is the only link between the stories for a long time), he mentions in the second part that he has a job and, in the third part, his job or its loss no longer figures, not even implicitly. The psychology of the characters is much more readily comprehensible and the shots made through glass or from “behind” it, in my view, lose their strength. We do not see everyday moments but, instead, situations creating a dramatic bridge. It is essentially a conventional story about a family crisis.

Thus, the film moves from everyday routine, symptomatic situations and de-dramatisation to a causally told story without any clear anchoring in time. I think that this disunity of the stories is the film’s greatest weakness. Another question that arises is whether such a film would not be better served with using non-actors and unknown faces. However, the film, especially the first part, demonstrates the considerable talent of the filmmakers; from this perspective, the film is one of the most promising Slovak débuts of the past few years.

Tomáš Hudák

Fine, Thanks (Ďakujem, dobre, Slovakia, 2013) _idea and script by: Marek Leščák, Mátyás Prikler _directed by: Mátyás Prikler _director of photography: Peter Balcar, Milan Balog _edited by: Maroš Šlapeta, Zuzana Cséplő _cast: Attila Mokos, Miroslav Krobot, Béla Várady, Vladimír Obšil, Zuzana Mauréry, Jana Oľhová and others.

Mátyás Prikler
(1982, Bratislava)
He graduated from the Film and Television Directing Department at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava and in 2005/2006 he studied at the Theatre and Film University in Budapest. His diploma mid-length film Thanks, Fine (2009) won several awards and was screened in the Cinéfondation section at the Cannes IFF. His full-length feature début Fine, Thanks (2013) was screened in the Bright Future section at the Rotterdam IFF.