Great Ambitions, More Modest Results

After five years of the Slovak Audiovisual Fund being in operation, one might say that documentary films for cinemas have made a highly satisfactory beginning. Compared with 2012, when there were only four full-length documentaries in the conventional cinema distribution, in 2013, there were eight screened in cinemas and a year later as many as twelve. Last year, the distribution companies released precisely ten documentaries in cinemas. After the five years of joy from the rise of Slovak film it is probably about time to ask what last year’s documentaries have actually delivered and whether all of them match up to the dimensions of the big screen on which they are so ambitiously screened.

Last year’s distributed films very quickly confirmed the trend set in 2014. Portraits of personalities, artists or well-known public figures formed the dominant genre in 2015 also. Martin Šulík made the documentary Milan Čorba, a cultured, professional but, nonetheless, personal portrait of the late costume designer and scenographer. Alena Čermáková made a sensitive and civil portrait of the cherished Roman Catholic priest and philanthropist, Anton Srholec, bearing his name, Anton Srholec. And finally, Matej Mináč made the film Through the Eyes of the Photographer (Očami fotografky),
a portrait of his mother Zuzana Mináčová. All these films have the same starting point: they pay tribute to the person portrayed. They seek to honour this person’s memory and highlight the non-pretentious but at the same time greater qualities of this person’s work (Milan Čorba), to pay homage to him on the occasion of his 85th birthday (Anton Srholec) or to tell her powerful human story and at the same time present her art (Through the Eyes of the Photographer). All of these films have a sympathetic protagonist who, in part, carries the film on their shoulders. While, in Milan Čorba, Šulík predominantly uses archive materials and the many testimonies of his colleagues, loved ones or friends, and made the film with aesthetic sensitivity and refinement, which was also typical of the personality portrayed, Alena Čermáková is somewhat peripatetic, conversational and reportorial. The author enters the arena of the film right at the beginning (and, subsequently, there is too much of her present there) and she reveals that several years of friendship tie her to the protagonist. Within this type of personal communication, the many diverse attitudes of Srholec are revealed, his sense of humour, but also his feeling of loneliness. Matej Mináč, probably the biggest Slovak recycler of his own themes and materials, chose a totally different approach. His mother-and-son relationship stepped aside slightly and, by applying docudrama procedures he sought to emphasise the melodramatic line of child-love and the rescue of the protagonist’s life during the Holocaust. Despite all this, I regard as strongest the documentary line of his film, which captures the protagonist’s talent, humour, gratitude and steadfast will to live.

To a certain degree, all three films historicise and place the protagonists within the context of the period. Whilst, in doing so, they sometimes efface potentially problematic places, they are either harmonic and non-conflicting (Milan Čorba), or they have a problem with their length (Anton Srholec), pace and narration method (Through the Eyes of the Photographer).

Another documentary portrait released in 2015 is Rytmus: A Dream from the Block (Rytmus: Sídliskový sen) by Miro Drobný. Despite this being a portrait of the rapper Patrik Vrbovský, alias Rytmus, hence potentially a musical film, Rytmus: A Dream from the Block can be placed rather in the category of celebrity portraits of the type of the documentary 38. Moreover, as regards the genre, it varies between being a fan film and a social success story about a half-Roma who is searching for his identity, whereby the musical entreés become secondary. Here too, the dramaturgical and narrative shortcomings – the fabricated character of the line of ethnic origin or the staggering triple ending – are largely counterbalanced by the humour of the protagonist and his rapper common sense. Despite its weaknesses, I welcome Rytmus: A Dream from the Block to Slovak cinemas – it has the chance to attract into the cinemas even those who would not otherwise go to see a Slovak film.

A somewhat different case pertains for Anna Grusková’s film Return to the Burning House (Návrat do horiaceho domu). It is a historical portrait of Haviva Reik, a representative of the Jewish resistance who returned to her native Slovakia from Palestine in order to engage in the Slovak National Uprising and, after it was suppressed, she also died here. Despite the creative solution of using voice-over and despite the painstaking work with archive materials and many photographic sources, the film proceeds at too moderate a pace, so it seems to be too long on the screen and its television length suits it better.

In addition to the portraits of Slovak personalities, in 2015 three films were also released in cinemas which forsook the Slovak present or past to examine the world beyond
our country’s borders. In Suri Pavol Barabáš went to Ethiopia to visit the natural Suri tribe threatened by the global economy and the mining of minerals. The film is divided into two parts – the first is an adrenaline expedition of
five adventurers who raft an almost impassable terrain, kill dozens of tsetse flies on their own bodies and escape from a herd of hippos, while the second part is a rather superficial ethnography and an attempt to capture the unique combat ritual of the tribe they visited. This part of the film is strongly endowed with anti-globalisation ecological-ethnological slogans in both the commentary and the image. However, the unbalanced dramaturgy makes the film
look rather like an amateurish hybrid than an adventure ethnographic ecofilm.

More successful and, from the conceptual and dramaturgical aspect, also a more professionally mastered film is Colours of Sand (Farby piesku) by Ladislav Kaboš. The film follows the story of a Slovak nurse, the widow of a Libyan physician, a progressive Muslim, against the backdrop of the war conflict in Libya. Kaboš managed to make a film which is not primarily a war documentary, even though it includes authentic shots from the front lines of the Libyan insurgents. It is rather a film about the dual identity of one woman, about the European values which were not in any way weakened for this woman in deciding to convert to Islam and, at the same time, it is a film about family, home, understanding and love.

The third film does not belong to the war documentary genre, either, even though its title may lead one to think so. 5th Regiment – Mission Afghanistan (5. pluk – Misia Afganistan) is, first and foremost, a promotional film aimed at improving the reputation of the Slovak soldiers serving in elite troops in Afghanistan. The filmmakers tried to give the film a spectacular audiovisual form but it never quite struck home. The excessive use of music, the repetitive shots from the field and, in particular, the bombastic commentary, interminably disparaging the intelligences of audiences by questions such as “Who would master such a job?”, “What do we really know about the situation in Afghanistan?” without providing more detailed visual or verbal answers, transform the film in an irritating and superficial promotional video that renders the soldiers a disservice.

Essentially, only two films released in Slovak cinemas in 2015 can be categorised as auteur and creative documentaries that usually
need the big screen and a screening room immersed in darkness to play out and to have their full effect. The first of them, So Far, So Close (Tak ďaleko, tak blízko) made by Jaro Vojtek in 2014, was originally made to order but, due to the author’s approach, the short educational film originally planned grew into a sensitive chronological portrait of four young autistic people and their closest relatives. Despite the seemingly simple construction, So Far, So Close has an exceptionally well-thought-out structure. Moreover, it copes very efficiently with the editing and the musical accompaniment. It even seeks to reveal the uncommunicative protagonists more closely through emotions, which Vojtek senses in them but which he himself often has to induce by way of the film equipment. Thus, Vojtek’s main asset is rendering the audience susceptible to the persons portrayed. Hence, the major details of the protagonists’ faces cease to be
an impenetrable façade of otherness and they become the gateway into an intimacy that would otherwise have remained hidden.

The second film, the staged documentary Waiting Room (Čakáreň) by Palo Korec can essentially be regarded as an auteur and creative documentary in its concept only. According to the filmmakers, the film was supposed to be “a documentary mosaic of
life which at times grows even into a cruel sociological probe into the current world. Its over-arching structure was to create something like a “seven ages of woman” against the backdrop of the environment in which the protagonists of the film live, work or just waste their time. Waiting was supposed to act as a metaphor of the woman’s life and the waiting room at the main railway station in Bratislava its metonymy. However, both the poles remained empty, as Korec was not able to occupy them with his conceptualised “staged observation”. The protagonists of his film are mere pawns, stereotypes of women, not characters. The director shows them in reducing sections, in sterile artificial situations and, even if he lets them speak, they are allowed to express themselves only on a partial phenomenon; therefore, they seem superficial – even though superficiality is here rather a directing method, not a quality of the women. The ambitiousness of the filmmaker was evident in this case; however, it was probably greater than his directing abilities.

In most countries, documentaries in cinema distribution are not to be taken for granted at
all. But here it was documentaries that, for a
long time, rescued the reputation of Slovak cinema. However, they were other types of documentaries. They were able to fulfil their own ambitions and to hold the attention of demanding audiences. Today, documentaries make up a half of the domestic distribution titles. This relatively high proportion is also contingent on the fact that support for full-length projects from public funds depends, inter alia, on the interest expressed by the distributor. And so, films with a strong viewer potential (the above-mentioned celebrity portraits) as well as films that lack this potential get onto the cinema screens. Whereby the primary objective of the latter films is to extend our knowledge of current events in society, of
our own history or cultural values; in other countries such films would be broadcast only on TV or, in the more deserving cases, screened at festivals. Not all of such films released in 2015 were deficient. But even those that were the more successful are still a bit smaller than the screens in Slovak cinemas.

This work was supported by the Research and Development Support Agency on the basis of Contractno.APVV-0797-12.

Mária Ferenčuhová
So Far, So Close (Tak ďaleko, tak blízko), PHOTO: AH Production