Emphasis on Current and Serious Problems

Six majority Slovak documentaries and two films with minority Slovak participation which were screened in local cinema distribution in 2013, plus about ten more films in the programme selection of our most important festivals, constitute the basis of this article. Straightaway, this initial list reveals that last year was rich in documentaries that were, moreover, afforded space and attention.

A thematic emphasis on serious and frequently highly topical social problems and, at the same time, a divergence from the poetics usually associated with contemporary Slovak documentaries is one of the main characteristics of last year’s production. Up to now, a certain imprecisely defined “artistry” has been the qualifying condition for the release of a documentary in the national cinema distribution. A remarkable example of the change came to Slovak cinemas so to speak from a foreign country: Crooks (Šmejdi) by Czech director Silvia Dymáková is a film without big artistic ambitions but with a great potential for success. Also, thanks to cinema release and organised screenings for seniors, the film managed to trigger a public discussion of unprecedented intensity and, it seems, it also managed to contribute to specific changes.

Within the dichotomy expressed by the English terms author-driven and issue-driven cinema, documentary film in our cinemas inclined inconspicuously towards the second type. Naturally, this classification only applies to a limited extent; however, in practice it usually determines the success of the film in the market, its communication, festival and distribution strategy. If we were to look more closely into the way that local filmmakers and distributors talk and write about their documentaries, in most cases we would encounter an emphasis on the “author’s nature” – whatever that may mean. But, in the changing distribution environment, it is consistently more important to have a tailor-made strategy for each film and in such a situation the theme becomes the key attribute. Currently, Filmtopia tests and improves this approach; it is actively seeking for an audience for its film Miner’s Bread (Banicky chlebiček) in the severely deprived areas in the Gemer region and in other districts with similar issues. In his documentary debut, Roman Fabian recycled his graduation film and returned to the people living in the region which became a victim of the postrevolution economic transformation. The distributor also worked primarily with the theme in the Velvet Terrorists (Zamatovi teroristi) – in this case it was the theme of anti-communist revolt. With the not altogether skilful manipulation within the PR campaign, this theme proved to be rathermore explosive than it had appeared at first sight. Out of last year’s production, this film made by Pavol Pekarčík, Ivan Ostrochovský and Peter Kerekes probably comes closest to fitting the formula of an auteurist documentary made the Slovak way. In the documentary, the filmmakers develop the poetics which has repeatedly proved successful at world film festivals and, following its successful start in Karlovy Vary, it appears that the formula will work once again, notwithstanding that, under a more critical examination, the film emerges as a not very convincing construct and it reeks of mannerism, apart from the third part which is the best of the three.

The release of the film in Karlovy Vary also opened the door to other foreign film festivals for Pavol Korec’s film Exhibits or Stories from the Castle (Exponáty alebo príbehy z kaštieľa). The group portrait of the inhabitants of the old people’s home located in the baroque chateau in Stupava was made by Formats Pro Media. For this company, it represented its first larger experience with a creative documentary and festivals. Their example shows that, with a little luck, international success is not an unattainable goal, even for inconspicuous projects without a big background.

Atelier.doc has been putting a lot of effort into establishing themselves at international festivals for a longer period of time and in a more systematic fashion, and last year brought them a breakthrough in this respect. The lingering success of Fragile Identity (Krehká identita, dir. Zuzana Piussi), a slapstick documentary about the mental condition of Slovak nationalism, which was screened for the first time at a festival in autumn 2012 and released in art house cinemas in January and, in particular, the excellent reception of Normalization (Kauza Cervanová) at festivals in Jihlava, Leipzig and in Warsaw, enhanced the position of the company among producers of documentaries with export potential. It is worth stating that, although both the films are closely linked with Slovak life and institutions, they proved to be attractive for international audiences also. Based on the response of mass media and social networks, these films are well received despite being highly subjective; this subjectivity appears to be overlooked by the audiences. Zuzana Piussi’s and Robert Kirchhoff’s works defy the classification used in the beginning of this article. Nonetheless, only those audiences equipped with an understanding of the local context are capable of deciphering the author’s licence more efficiently.

Also, Adam Oľha started in Jihlava in 2012 with his full-length debut New Life of a Family Album (Nový život). The Audience Award signalled that he has succeeded in making an accessible, communicative film which is capable of addressing a broad audience. In Slovakia, rumour had it that popular actress Jana Oľhová would unveil her private life in the documentary, which helped to promote the film. New Life of a Family Album made good use of all these trumps in its domestic cinema distribution and, at the same time, the film travelled around world festivals quite successfully, as it gained some advantage from the fashionable wave of “family” documentaries using amateur films and home videos. Another Czecho-Slovak documentary co-production features in the catalogue of the Association of Slovak Film Clubs. Director Olga Špátová picked up the project titled The Greatest Wish (Najväčšie prianie) of her father Jan Špáta by making a film with the same name. In the early 1960s and late 1980s, Špáta recorded the desires and dreams of two revolution generations by carrying out a survey. In the third of these films, Špátová seeks in vain for a similarly obvious and easily graspable historical conflict. Its absence results in the respondents not having much in common.

Débuting Tomáš Krupa did not conceal his ambition to provide an account of his generation, either. However, GRADUATES/Freedom Is Not for Free (ABSOLVENTI/Sloboda nie je zadarmo) emerges as unrelated portraits of three of the director’s friends from university. Hence, the representativeness of such a selection is questionable, to say the least. Krupa gives preference to style over method; as director, he surrenders totally to the self-pitying unison of the accounts of his protagonists without reflecting on it in any way. What a pity. The unemployment of young people is undoubtedly a theme which deserves a more effective treatment – in fact, it currently affects almost the whole of Europe.

Several remarkable Slovak documentaries found their way to the screen thanks to local festivals. Most of them were screened at festivals in the first half of the year at Febiofest and at the Art Film Fest. Cinematik Piešťany continued in 2013 also with the tradition of a separate competition section where new documentaries were naturally concentrated. Several of them were not released into cinema distribution: Kampaneros – Peter Važan’s film made at meetings of political parties prior to the last parliamentary elections. Director Adam Hanuljak returned to the protagonists of his earlier documentary in the sparse but impressive film About Young Parents 2 (O mladých rodičoch 2). In The History Lesson (Hodina dejepisu) Dušan Trančík deals with the issue of teaching national history on the Slovak and Hungarian sides of the Danube. The casual discussions of secondary school students which derive from the different interpretations of the Treaty of Trianon constitute the focus of this film. The discussions unveil deeply rooted myths and prejudices but also a furtive strengthening of the transnational European identity. Travelogues were represented in the Cinematik competition by Forgotten Dubois – Undiscovered Beauty (Zabudnutý Dubois – Neobjavená kráska) by director Miroslav Béreš and The Enticed by Heights (Posadnutí horami) by Pavol Barabáš. Another documentary by Barabáš Footprints on the Ridge (Stopy na hrebeni) also comes from the Tales of the Tatras (Príbehy tatranských štítov) series. It was shown at the Bratislava IFF. The portrait of screenwriter and poet James Ragan entitled Flowers and Roots (Kvety a korene) was screened at the Made in Slovakia Section at the same festival; it was made by Dodo Banyák. Pavol Korec also presented his film Propeler (Propeler – hľadanie strateného času) at the Bratislava IFF. The final premieres of the previous year took place at the One World Festival. One of the films screened was Judge Me and Prove Me (Súď ma a skúšaj) by Ivica Kušíková about the elimination of female religious orders in the 1950s which ultimately won in the Slovak competition.

The Internet as a new distribution channel increases in significance from year to year. Piano is the platform in most frequent use in our country for the online distribution of documentaries. It gives users access, for a single down-payment, to premium content of newscast portals. In particular, the daily SME and magazine .týždeň give space to Slovak films on their websites. Last year, for instance, GRADUATES/Freedom Is Not for Free, Kampaneros, the short portrait of musician Andrej Šeban entitled Časozber (tv.sme.sk) or films produced by Artileria – New Life of a Family Album, Osadné, Other Worlds (Iné svety), Blind Loves (Slepé lásky) (filmy.tyzden.sk), were brought to audiences in this way. As for international audiences, the DAFilms platform remains the one that is strategically most important. It is characterised by a “more choosy” curator approach to creation of the catalogue and focuses on users from amongst film professionals. For instance, Filmtopia recently began a collaboration with DAFilms. At present, the company offers Bells of Happiness (Zvonky šťastia) and Miner’s Bread via this service.

It seems that 2014 will be similarly prolific. The anticipated full-length debuts by Miro Remo and Vladislava Plančíková, but also many projects in progress made by renowned authors, appear to be promising.

Pavel Smejkal