Excitement of Documentary Unpredictability

After the successful start at the Karlovy Vary IFF, where Velvet Terrorists won the FEDEORA Award in July 2013, three Slovak documentary filmmakers are getting an international première of their film. The project, prepared initially by Palo Pekarčík and Ivan Ostrochovský, who were later joined by Peter Kerekes, will be presented at the 64th Berlin IFF in the International Forum of New Cinema, also known in brief as just “Forum”. We talked to the three directors – Pekarčík, Ostrochovský, Kerekes – about how the film came to be made and what it means for its makers.

The protagonists of Velvet Terrorists are three different men who were convicted of terrorism during the communist regime. Is the film about something else for each of you or do you have a unified view?

– Peter Kerekes: Each of us definitely perceives it differently. For instance, I was extremely interested in the form. We probably managed to achieve it in the story about Vladimír Hučín – I wanted to capture the excitement of documentary unpredictability together with the aesthetics of a feature film. I was fascinated by the form that can be used to capture this theme.

– Ivan Ostrochovský: All three protagonists have strong stories which can be either ruined or enhanced by the way in which they are filmed. That’s what our discussion was about: how to “sell” the moment of futile sacrifice. We also spent a long time talking about romantic motifs – Slovak films in general deal a lot with love, emotional motifs – and the fatalism of the pointless sacrifice, the pathos we were brought up with, is what we tend to react to. However, it was important to figure out how to engage with pathos so as to avoid making a pathetic film, but rather a film about pathos. One way was to use humour but we had to think about how to ration it.

Do you perceive Velvet Terrorists as a comic or tragic film? Documentary or rather fiction?

– I. O.: As this film is a full-length début for Palo and me, everyone perceives Velvet Terrorists through Peter’s works. And suddenly he is different. Prior to this film, his characters used to stand about in long shots and talk. He didn’t make the film by putting shots together like pieces of a puzzle. Velvet Terrorists is a different type of narrative, much more structured than a feature film.

– P. K.: And, paradoxically, this is probably the most documentary film of all those that have been made here over a long period of time. In particular, when we made the films about Fero and Stano, we placed the cameras, usually two, around them, a situation was devised and they talked for an hour. Then we selected only a part of this. They were only given minimal instructions. That is how films about nature are made. There is one basic requirement – that the animals don’t run away – this was given by the take of the camera and microphones; they knew that they would sit here and it would take place here.

– I. O.: Moreover, Velvet Terrorists doesn’t look like a Slovak documentary, even in visual terms. For instance, the camera was often mounted on a tripod, travels were made… Slovak documentaries are usually made off the cuff. This film has a composition, a devised image, it didn’t go down the traditional route: “I’ll film him wherever I catch him”. We even went location-hunting before we started shooting. As we had enough money and time, we could make the film the way films should be made, in my view, and we could think everything over  thoroughly.

– P. K.: The subsequent procedure was also interesting – when we made the sequences with Stano and Vladimír, first we shot a lot of situations without dialogue, without any interaction. Stano worked at a construction site, Vladimír and Iva trained. But this way they got used to the presence of the camera and when we started filming interviews and interactions between them, they no longer bothered themselves with what we were doing.

– I. O.: For that, I always use my favourite example from director Tomáš Hulík – he trained a beaver for his documentary about nature, but that still doesn’t make it a feature film.

Who invented the situations in which the characters move freely?

– P. K.: A large part of the situations is based on their lives or stories. For instance, every day Stano gets to work by car with his four friends. He sits in the pub every day and drinks beer, he catches fish – all these are real situations. We wanted to raise a number of questions and we tried to move them on to the theme of women, but we also shot them when we had no idea what Stano was talking to his friends about. And ultimately, these turned out to be the best scenes. Of course, some of the scenes were staged. In Stano’s case, it was the scene where he says he’s going off to look for a girlfriend. In Hučín’s case, that he’s looking for a female terrorist.

– I. O.: We needed to recount their experiences and feelings somehow. If Stano were to talk about prison whilst seated at his kitchen table, no one would want to watch that. Accordingly, we helped it out a bit: we invented the scene where he paints his cell, but how he did it turned it into a wonderful scene. The outcome always depends on the protagonists.

The development of the project took years. Did your original intention change over the course of time?

– I. O.: For a long time we agonised over what the documentary should be about at all. As we started with Fero Bednár, first of all we emphasised his family, sons, his wife. But then Peter brought up the story of the girlfriend who left Fero and so we agreed that the story about Stano would also be about women. And so this structure was also logically used for Vladimír’s story. When it was only Palo and me in the project, we just knew that we wanted to tell the stories of these three terrorists.

– P. K.: (laughing) One of Ivan’s original ideas was to make a film about the former terrorist-training in Czechoslovakia and he came up with the idea that we would, in parallel, undergo terrorist-training in Palestine, meanwhile filming ourselves during the training. Since I didn’t want to look like a coward, I pretended it was an interesting idea (laughing). I’m pleased to say he thought better of it.

– I. O.: Another idea was that the protagonists would actually prepare for the assassinations. Of course, they wouldn’t carry them out, but the preparation would be real. We wanted to create a bridge between the past and the present and show, in real time, what they experienced previously. We even tried out several such real situations.

– Palo Pekarčík: For instance, Stano used to go and “observe” the President. At some state ceremony, in a café or even at the Peace Marathon – he stood quite close to him and observed him. It was nice to see how the cameras of all the media filmed the head of the state – only one was aimed at a weird-looking guy somewhere alongside.

How would you characterise your protagonists?

– P. K.: They are convinced idealists who didn’t do what they did to gain some personal profit but in the conviction that they would change society for the better. However, they don’t use terrorist methods nowadays, because they can influence public opinion in a different way.

– I. O.: They were very young at that time. They were twenty-three or twenty-four years old. They let themselves be ruled by their hearts, they were hot-headed. The incoming information was also quite different at that time – in my view, an ordinary citizen stood no chance of assessing the situation realistically.

Was there a difference in the way they acted in front of the camera and in normal life, when the camera was not rolling? Did they stylise themselves in some way?

– I. O.: Actually, they stylised themselves automatically even without the presence of the camera. After all, we were strangers to them. Moreover, they knew that we were going to make a film about them.

– P. P.: Exactly. They knew that we could make use of any hesitation to get to their more intimate core. Maybe, with the exception of Stano. He let us into his “intimate space” and so he let the audiences in also.

– P. K.: That’s why we invented the terrorist for Vladimír Hučín. So many news films have been made about him, he knows what the “camera looks like”, and how to work with it: he talks only after everything has been set up, he talks in complete sentences, he controls himself to a great extent. After a few initial interviews, we knew it was going to be impossible to make a documentary about this man, that he would always be declaiming something. That’s why we needed to invent some situations – and then Ivan came with the idea of finding a girl for him whom he was supposed to train. I thought it was total bullshit (laughing). But on one occasion we visited Hučín at home and he welcomed us wearing an apron with a cloth in his hand – he was just wiping the ficus. And that’s a scene as if cut from Léon. Then I said to Ivan: “OK, I apologise, you were right” (laughing).

– I. O.: Actually we resolved two problems in this way: how to work with Hučín and, at the same time, we got the theme of a woman into the story, just as in the cases of Fero and Stano. Moreover, the theme of recruitment had been present for a long time. One of the initial ideas was to announce an audition for terrorists – the main protagonists. That was supposed to be the beginning of the film.

– P. K.: And we even filmed it. It was a real audition at which we would – so to speak – have chosen our three terrorists. We filmed in television for two full days – people came to us and aired their problems. The announcement stated that we were looking for people who were dissatisfied with the current situation in society and who would be willing to change it in any way – even by violence. And a very odd group of people turned up…

What was most difficult to do with the protagonists?

– I. O.: Intimate scenes where the character reveals something sensitive. For instance, when Iva asks Hučín questions while he is attached to the polygraph. Or when Iva is suspended, crying and you can see her belly. It took us two months to talk her into it. It was not about her belly or the tattoo on it, but about the fact that we had found a sensitive spot of hers.

– P. K.: Or to persuade Fero Bednár to call his ex-girlfriend.

– P. P.: Or rather to persuade him to take the clothes off the mannequin… (laughing) He was grumbling all the way through about how weird he would look.

You are the directors, but also the producers of the film. Did you make a virtue out of necessity or does it give you a certain creative freedom?

– P. K.: In the case of a documentary, the financial structure often adapts to what has to be filmed. When we produce the films ourselves, we are able to make flexible decisions. To have a producer standing over us and to constantly have to explain to him why we made this or that decision – that would slow us down terribly.

– I. O.: We agreed that we would contribute the same share to the project, but it was Peter who applied for the funds – it was clear that he had the most experience and best reputation as producer.

It was probably quite a complicated process for you – getting used to each other.

– P. K.: When we started writing the script, I felt physically sick. I’m used to a monogamous relationship with my colleagues. And suddenly two guys come along who don’t understand you. Naturally, I assume that they’re at fault, not me (laughing). On the other hand, I felt that I needed to move on. I really didn’t want to make something like Cooking Terrorists[1], I wanted to deviate from what I had done before. Palo and Ivan were good partners for that. It was dreadful collaborating with them, but it was good (laughing).

– I. O.: Peter  clearly doesn’t understand the meaning of the concept “monogamous relationship”. Palo and I had a monogamous relationship up to the Velvet Terrorists (laughing). But sure. Palo and I probably experienced the same. We were used to one another and we didn’t even need to talk when we were making the film. Then Peter invaded into our silence and he just started to talk and talk. We all found it difficult to learn to listen, explain and make compromises. Peter really enjoys making films, he loves the turmoil and working with a larger film crew. I suffer in such situations, I have migraines and I throw up. I never even show up without first having four shots of Becherovka. Nevertheless, it was a great experience.

What about possible future joint projects?

– P. K.: We are preparing a film about censorship and censors together with Ivan. The idea stems from the experience of cinematographer Martin Kollár at a Saudi airport – he was leafing through a magazine and it turned out that all revealing curves of world-famous top models had been covered up by hand using a black marker. We started thinking about the people who earn their living “dressing up” women in this way. We would like to find such “guardians” of morals all over the world.

[1] An allusion to his film Cooking History (Ako sa varia dejiny).

Katarína Tomková



The Czechoslovak New Wave Was Special

Last year a new publication of the Slovak Film Institute, Best of Slovak Film (1921 – 1991), was launched first at Art Film Fest in Trenčianske Teplice and subsequently at the Karlovy Vary IFF. It was published in English and it contains information on the thirty-five most significant films in the history of Slovak cinema. The texts were written by English film historian and critic Peter Hames who works as the programme advisor of the London Film Festival.

You dedicate yourself to Slovak and Czech cinema not just in articles and publications but also in organising film screenings and festivals. What makes these cinemas so attractive to you?

– I first became interested in Czech and Slovak films in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the time of the Czechoslovak New Wave. I was convinced that this was a more sustained and varied movement than similar movements in Western Europe, including the French “Nouvelle Vague”. When I had the opportunity to write a book on the subject, it led to a continuing interest.

Which period of Slovak cinema do you consider the most interesting and why?

– Well, the answer to that is predictable – the 1960s. The work of Dušan Hanák, Juraj Jakubisko and Elo Havetta was particularly striking, even if politics prevented their works from making the international impact that they should have had. But, looking back over the whole decade, the work of Uher, Barabáš and Solan suggests strong developments throughout the period – to say nothing of Kadár’s work at Barrandov.

While watching the movies you are writing about in Best Of Slovak Film, what did you recall retrospectively? Did you experience some intensive acquaintance?

– I recalled my first visit to the Slovak Film Archive in 1973, when I was allowed to see Uher’s The Sun in a Net (Slnko v sieti). I knew it was something special when my translator asked me to explain what was happening! Also, Hanák’s Pictures of the Old World (Obrazy starého sveta) stood out as one of the best documentaries I’ve seen anywhere.

In your book you only mention films up to 1991. How do you see Slovak cinema after this period? Did you find some inspiring movies post-1991?

– The problems of sustaining feature production in the post-1989 period are both well-known and inevitable. I think the last three years have seen really significant films by Zuzana Liová, Iveta Grófová and Mira Fornay. The fact that they are all writer-directors and all female is perhaps a sign of the times – not that it’s easy to get such personal and apparently non-commercial projects off the ground. It’s more a question of the desire to tell stories and communicate experience.

In recent years some people have claimed that Slovak documentary film-making is more expressive and of higher quality than the making of features. Do you agree?

– In general, I think that’s true – but it’s the case in the Czech Republic also and elsewhere. It’s a pity that so few documentaries really make it commercially. However, I think the multiple awards for Lehotský’s Blind Loves (Slepé lásky) were no accident – nor were the festival screenings of Marko Škop’s Osadné and Other Worlds (Iné svety).

Seven years ago you told that Slovak cinema is neither very well-known nor widely presented in Great Britain. Seven years is not a long period, but still, have you noticed any shift or progress in the way Slovak films are presented in Britain or in the quality and publicity of their presentation?

– Some of the titles I’ve mentioned – Osadné, Blind Loves – as well as The House (Dom), Made in Ash (Až do mesta Aš), and Fornay’s Foxes (Líštičky) – have made it into festivals and attracted the attention of informed audiences. And, of course, Bathory reached wider audiences through television and DVD release. The most significant development in terms of attracting wider critical attention will, I hope, be Second Run’s DVD releases of The Sun in a Net, The Dragon’s Return (Drak sa vracia)‚ Pictures of the Old World and Birdies, Orphans and Fools (Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni).

The Czech film publicist, Jan Lukeš, told that in the present time we cannot expect a big global success for Czech or Slovak cinema, because the world is interested in other, more conflicted regions. Do you agree with him?

– I think the world inevitably takes an interest in current political situations which generate socio-political interest, but I think that there are other factors as well. Film festival programmers tend to be attracted by what is aesthetically novel or different – in other words by “auteur” cinema. Central Europe is not excluded – think of Béla Tarr and Jan Švankmajer. Their films may not reach large audiences, but they’ve provoked interest and debate throughout the world. There’s also the matter of fashion. The Romanian New Wave is undoubtedly a reality but, without the backing of Cannes and the French critics, it could easily have passed without being properly noticed. It took years for Tarr and Švankmajer to gain recognition and even Kieślowski was not fully recognised until he made The Decalogue (Dekalog).

Supply is one thing, demand is another – are Britons interested in small cinemas from Eastern Europe, e.g. from Slovakia? Are they willing to discover unknown territories?

– I may have said this before. I don’t think British audiences are primarily interested in the country of origin – although, inevitably, it is English language films that they have the principal opportunity of viewing. When it comes to foreign language cinema, there may be a market for French films, but audiences are primarily concerned with the film’s intrinsic interest – its subject, story, and critical reputation. In this sense, it probably doesn’t much matter whether the film is Slovak, Czech, Polish, Argentinian or Japanese. So yes, they will venture into unknown territories if the film looks interesting. I think the situation is basically the same in all European countries – there’s mainstream cinema (mainly American), films produced in the country itself, and a smaller market for films in other languages.

Daniel Bernát, Miro Ulman