The Waiting Rooms of Palo Korec

After several films on various themes, the author has finally found himself in the theme of waiting or, sometimes, rather in the concept of the interact. Waiting for anything, from Godot to the right partner for tango argentino. Korec’s Exhibits or Stories from the Castle (Exponáty alebo príbehy z kaštieľa) are kneaded from the same sort of clay as Waiting Room (Čakáreň); however, the determination by senior age in the former foreshadows not only a different journey, but also a joint final destination. Just like Exhibits or Stories from the Castle, Waiting Room also builds on a concentrated unity of the space where all the destinies either meet or intersect, but the seven female protagonists represent a generational cross-section from teenage to old age – apart from the last one which is only waiting for death.

The protagonists of Waiting Room are not waiting for death but life seems to be passing through their fingers in various ways in the selected phase. It is spanned by the metaphorical keystone of a colourful ball. Right at the beginning a little girl is playing with the ball on the seashore, but when the ball falls into the water and the wind blows it along the shore, the girl just walks helplessly along. The water is shallow, the ball is driven within her reach, just dip her feet a bit and get the ball back. However, the girl does not pluck up the courage to make the step into the water and in no time the ball is far removed, the chance is missed. At the end of the movie a photo of the girl with the ball appears between the amassed junk, the stock-taking of a wasted life, now framed behind broken glass. The word kaput that the old cleaning lady uses to comment on one of the keepsakes that doesn’t work, does not relate solely to that. The touching, nostalgic friendship with a flock of pigeons with habits that she has learned to know so well over the years of co-existence, is just a balm on the lonely dance with the broom. In this life-phase you cannot await too much.

By contrast, the young skiver, very nearly a sexy young lady, has her life before her and it’s entirely up to her what she will make of it. As it seems, she doesn’t care and, with her stubborn attitude to her yielding, resigned mother, she is not a reflection of rebels without a cause (not even with a cause), she is just killing time, gently and with a half-childish charm, because she is fed up with the scheme her mother is pushing her into, but she really doesn’t know what she wants. Is killing time waiting? If so, what for? For chances are not thrown away here, this is a life at random, day by day, equipped with a skateboard which gives the illusion of having butterfly wings. This episode, brilliantly directed, shot and acted, can give one the shivers.

Another, actually the key protagonist – the city
and its main railway station – dominates the film right from the beginning. Their image as presented by Ján Meliš has dynamics and a changing, dense atmosphere, where familiar corners become illuminated with novelty and intimacy, and the
hustle and bustle within the station complex, a
part of everyday life, suddenly transforms it into
a social megamachine which by its never-ending flow appears to offer hundreds of possibilities and opportunities. Only if behind that vibration, the stopping and moving of trains, above the maze of tracks and the slow-moving wagons and engines, flattened by the telephoto lens, a railway signal (sometimes even two) wouldn’t catch the eye from time to time in the right corner; a signal which always shows red, thereby immediately denying what has been offered.

And so we follow, generation after generation, snatches from the lives of women of steadily increasing age and different attitudes who are, however, linked by one thing – they live alone in their women’s lot wherein men have no access, the protagonists do not relate to men even as potential partners and sons and, if there are any men, they have no place in their hearts for them. In today’s over-sexualised world this exclusion of men from the field of interest defies understanding and the motif of the tango, one of the most erotic of all dances, seems to endorse this obstacle to understanding. At first the tango appears only beneath the surface, in the form of hints, until it surfaces fully in the story of an elegant, attractive, nevertheless withdrawn clerk, in order to dominate in the end the whole field in a “Márquez-esque” scene which transforms the railway station waiting room into a semi-fairy-tale dance floor, a place where all those meet who have previously just passed each other by.

However, even this exclusion of men from the play paradoxically shows an opposite pole. The cynical gambler burdened down by life, who hangs around the station and kills time with the one-armed bandit, constantly calls back on her mobile phone to some place where she has a husband (or partner) and a crying baby from the life she rejected. Hence, into the existing bonds that she escaped from and with which she no longer wants to have anything in common. But now, after her escape, she shrinks to a wreck shaken by the waves of life in the waiting room where nothing really awaits her.

Her opposite pole represent two “women of sorrowful countenance” – the mother of a seriously retarded daughter drags around her prisoner’s
ball in a tidy little flat; she could put her away in
an institution but she doesn’t even think of it and, voluntarily and with full comprehension, carries her cross which defies any chance for a change. More, she even manages to find a space of escape from the treadmill with a cigarette, where her burden cannot follow her and where, after returning, she carries on creating opportunities for moments of contentment for the uneven pair.

The second one is probably a teacher in retirement age with a big heart, about which her son doesn’t care, so she gives it whole away at a desolate Roma settlement, bustling about with children (and adults) not in a waiting room, but on a blind track of vegetating and idling. Experience tells her she cannot achieve a lot there, but these frolicking, uncontrollable kids look forward to seeing her and the ageing woman will return again tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow... But now, after a shift far away from civilisation, she sits at her computer and sends out a call into the unknown depths of the web: I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, but I love... sex. Hence, she yearns for something that her body and soul obviously lack for years, but haven’t given up on yet. She is the only one who, even though aging, has found the courage to dip her feet and reach for the ball.

Nothing like that reflects the story of a pretty woman in her thirties who could immediately play a look-alike of Barbra Streisand in her younger days and who now earns her living as a waitress, without any interest, and, with interest, makes bizarre photographic creations with her friend as a model. In the virtual waiting room, maybe she is the one who is closest to bring the waiting to some effect – or pushing her way to it – but the continuous delineation of the theme does not allow one to look behind the horizon of the etudes ripped out of time. Like when a reflector rips a section of space out of darkness and leaves all that is surrounding only suspected, invisible to the eye.

Nevertheless Waiting Room is not in the least a so-called tunnel movie where much would take place in the dark. The exteriors (even the night scenes) mostly glow with colours, the panoramas emphasise rather the beauty of views of the city; the shots of residential houses and larger complexes do not slant towards the aesthetics of ugliness which turned out to be so expressive and functional in some movies by Dušan Hanák. In a nutshell, the image of the external environs in Waiting Room rather demonstrates that this socially layered city is worth living in. Although the precisely shaded atmosphere of the interiors
does aptly characterise their inhabitants, we do not find any external depressing factor either. Hence, the forms of waiting or idling grow from the mind-sets of the protagonists rather than from so-called objective circumstances out of their reach. This is what distinguishes this rich and manifold mosaic from the basic axiom of social dramas where the misfortune is usually derived from the living conditions, whereby the resulting image of the protagonists mostly, at least in part, shifts to the position of victims.

Thus, Waiting Room presents a silent, empathic, but not at all uncritical tribute to womanhood in
the variety of its rather passive, traditional forms and generational sequence. This way the author put aside the type of ambitious, modern woman who actively creates space for her self-realisation. Thus, a beautifully melancholic and not specially enjoyable, but incomplete group portrait emerges, where each character plays her unmistakable part in a purely female orchestra which ultimately results in a semi-dream-like tango. But you still need two to tango...

With its poetics, Waiting Room belongs to a productive and profuse stream where the fiction is
so evidently inspired by unshaped, immediate reality that the makers almost have no choice but to reach out for non-actors who model the characters drawn for them and tailor-made for them under the baton of master so plastically as could hardly be achieved by creative acting. This life-giving stream was initiated by the Generation 90 of Slovak documentary filmmakers and it obviously enthrals the younger generations too.

Palo Korec, who joined the stream with his Exhibits or Stories from the Castle, played a lucky hand shifting the line between fiction and non-fiction a bit closer to fiction, as he sensed his gift to inspire non-actors to original spontaneity. The gift to let them
put themselves in the shoes of their alter ego and to adapt to it so much that their creations on the verge of non-creations grew together into a coherent whole, exceeding the account of the etudes.

With his film Waiting Room the director moved this line even closer towards fiction. The individual episodes are filled with the aura of real lives imbued with a prevailing passiveness, withdrawnness, resignation, or even sometimes depression. None of this a priori precludes a big heart, but the author as poet juxtaposes those interacts at the generational station of life where he caught up with his heroines with the slowly increasing undercurrent of tango until he whispers in the magical oratorio of the finale, where the lonely destinies finally join in a common experience, that, after all, it probably is worth dipping one’s feet for the ball the wind is just about to blow away. At least in a song or fairy tale which do not exclude the possibility of reaching for the impossible.

(collaboration on the translation: Pavel Branko, Vladimír Branko)

Palo Korec (1958, Partizánske)
He started out as a camera assistant in the Slovak Television in Bratislava. After graduating from
the Philosophical Faculty of Comenius University in Bratislava he worked as assistant director and production assistant. He studied Film and Television Directing at the Academy of Performing Arts. In 1991-1992 he was awarded a scholarship at F.E.M.I.S Paris. He made several documentaries and feature films; three years ago his full-length documentary Exhibits or Stories from the Castle (Exponáty alebo príbehy z kaštieľa) was in cinema distribution, and last year Waiting Room, which had its première at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival.

Waiting Room (Čakáreň, Slovakia, 2015) _SCRIPT AND DIRECTED BY: Palo Korec _ DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Ján Meliš _ EDITED BY: Peter Kordač _MUSIC: Ľubica Malachovská Čekovská _CAST: Zuzana Smékalová, Monika Neksová, Barbara Slamková, Zuzana Kmeťová, Timea Husveth, Regina Husveth, Sára Miklášová, Theodor Durmik, Miška Melišová _LENGTH: 72 min.

Pavel Branko
PHOTO: association of Slovak Film Clubs