I Sought Something Poetic

Director Iveta Grófová made her début with the full-length feature film Made in Ash (Až do mesta Aš, 2012) which the Slovak Film and Television Academy selected as the national candidate for the Academy Awards. Her next film, the adaptation of the book Piata loď (She’s a Harbour) was an eagerly anticipated new film. It will receive its world première at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival. 

After auteur films, here you are with a free adaptation of the successful novel She’s a Harbour. However, you got to know the author of the book, Monika Kompaníková, thanks to a documentary.
– First I made a TV documentary about Monika entitled The Diary of Monika Kompaníková’s Cruise (Denník plavby Moniky Kompaníkovej). This project was initiated and produced by Petr Minařík, a book publisher. It was actually a road movie compiled from Monika Kompaníková’s book-reading tour. I got a very good feeling from our communication during the tour and I became enthusiastic about her book She’s a Harbour. It was just before the première of Made in Ash in Karlovy Vary in 2012 and without much further thought I decided to try to make a film based on this book.

What was your main trigger? She’s a Harbour is but also isn’t a book for children, which also makes it interesting.
– There were several reasons but, yes, there is this inherent contradiction that attracts me. It is an original game played with the reader and I hope, subsequently, also with the audience. The book has a very powerful emotional plot capable of readily drawing the readers in and not letting them go up to the very last lines. At the same time, I found many layers in it which were also a challenge for me. Because, on the one hand, we look at the moving story of two children who try to take care of babies as best as they can but, on the other hand, there is an inner tension, a concern for the lives of the babies, beneath all this. Balancing between the positive aspect and the inner tension, even fear drew me to the book.

Is it a true adaptation or did the book rather serve as a basis? How big is the shift in the film?
– The book has several time levels and it would be difficult to capture all of them in a single fulllength film. At the same time, it is based rather on what the main protagonist is undergoing internally than on marked twists in the story-line. This book was allegedly also used by students of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague as a screenwriting exercise. I saw this aspect, that of the demanding basis of the book, as something of an advantage right from the start, I took it as a challenge that I could bite into. In tandem with screenwriter Marek Leščák, we had long discussions as to how to encompass the whole thing. Several versions of the script were made, in one of which we even included a story that was not in the book at all. It was as if another story shedding light on the story had ended up in the book. It reflected what would have happened in the real world – the main protagonist would have probably been referred to a children’s diagnostic centre. Eventually, we scrapped this idea as social dimensions of this kind had already been adequately captured in Slovak films. We mostly focused on the story of ten-year-old Jarka and her younger friend Kristián and their little adventure. What they did was a childishly authentic attempt to put right the world of adults by pretending to be the family they would like to have. At the same time, I inclined more toward psychological themes; for instance, I consider the motif of transferring an emotional family trauma from one generation to another generation to be very strong and of significant interest. Jarka plucks up the courage to do something with it and she copes with family trauma in her own, highly original way. I also consulted the script with the experienced psychologist, Zlatica Bartíková.

Those are also reasons why the book and film are transferrable beyond the borders of Slovakia. It is not just a local theme.
– Yes, the theme of family relations from the perspective of children is quite universal; this premise is in there.

Like several other filmmakers, you also cast nonactors in most of the roles. The main role – little Jarka – was played by ten-year-old Vanessa from Bratislava who had absolutely no experience whatsoever with acting. It must be very demanding to direct children and you have to have your own methods of doing it.
– The most important thing was to find a really talented little girl. Her role required deeper psychology in the acting performance and, at the same time, I looked for a certain spark, a temperament within her to make the character of Jarka interesting for audiences. And I found this girl in Vanessa. The most difficult thing was motivating the children to make them want to shoot the film  and to make them enjoy it. Once something became routine to them, it wasn’t so easy to figure out how to continue effectively. Of course, making the child characters credible was a great challenge. We took a big chance because the main heroine really is in almost every shot and she has to carry the entire film. And we also know that adult audiences have difficulties in identifying with a child in the title role. I tried to do my best to avoid feeling somewhat embarrassed from the child-acting performance.

Monika Kompaníková is a visual artist and you originally studied animation at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. Hence, if we speak about specific visual treatments, weren’t you tempted to also use elements of animated film?
– After Made in Ash I was looking in particular for something nice and artistic. And Monika has that on every page of the book. I didn’t have to stick to the locations that are described in the book to the last pebble in the road but, in the end, I shot the film primarily in the same places, because they were the most photogenic. And as for animated elements, I explicitly forbade myself these. Essentially, I rescued the inter-genre film Made in Ash with animation, because working with authentic people was very lively, a lot had happened during the filmmaking and I needed to find a way out to make the film work as a whole. Animation linked everything together. Little Harbour (Piata loď) is a pure feature film and I think it doesn’t need animated elements.

So you started with animated film, then you switched to documentary at the Academy of Performing Arts and now you’ve made a feature film. What took you away from animated reality to the real one?
– I think that I searched for myself for three years at the Animation Department of the Film and Television Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts. This also concerns themes that I would like to bring. And I found them in documentary film. Paradoxically, then I was again attracted to animated film which I combined with documentary. If I were now to find a theme requiring animated form, I would try to create an animated film.

What kind of director are you when you make a documentary?
– I’m not the kind of director who captivates everyone around them with their charisma when making a documentary. I tend to allow others to express themselves, to show what they’re made of, and to feel natural. Even though I seek out non-comfortable authentic situations for whatever reasons, I don’t exactly feel like a fish in water in them. But when I know that those people trust me and devote all their time to me, then it works.

Who formed you mostly in the beginning?
– It was Dušan Hanák in the Documentary Department. It was very important for me to be in his class. I felt support and it moved me forward. Film is a thing of total importance for him and it was good to work in such an atmosphere, especially in a period when you are just trying to do something and it is not quite clear whether it will be good for anything.

Before last year’s Documentary Film Festival in Jihlava we talked with Andrea Slováková about the fact that female documentary filmmakers are the ones who go into dangerous, controversial or conflict issues; at least that was what the festival programme showed. Are women more courageous?
– I am surprised that the boys at the school who had such predispositions did not find the courage to get into bolder projects. They even moved away from documentary and turned to commercials or TV series. I think the reason for this lies in their motivation. That is because the conditions are not ideal. I even had a semi-mafia story from the Czech- German border as work in progress, but ultimately only a short film for the Slovakia 2.0 (Slovensko 2.0) project was made. As if there was always something in the air. When I started working on Made in Ash Slovak films irritated me because they seemed to me to be removed from reality. There was a wave of lyrical realism at that time and I wanted to disrupt it, to make my film in an absolutely different way. Paradoxically, other films made in this way followed after my film. Now, they are the waves. Now we are going to have more films with a child hero. Of course, this is also related to the number of films made in our country – three films made about children are enough to have this fact pointed out. 

Documentary filmmakers reach for feature elements if, for instance, they need to solve a certain ethical conflict because they can afford to go much further in a feature film. Is that how you felt it too?
 – I thought it would be like that but it wasn’t. It is precisely working with children, even if in a feature film, that has a lot of borderline moments. Moral conflicts are linked with work with children, about how to communicate with them, how to motivate them, when to be strict and when to be a friend. It is also about experience. Maybe I was sometimes unnecessarily soft, I should learn to be more uncompromising in some matters. Paradoxically, it was rather Little Harbour that strengthened me, not Made in Ash. I think that I’m not so tender-hearted any longer (laughter).

Documentary filmmakers from Generation 90 frequently help each other at various levels. For instance, Ivan Ostrochovský and Robert Kirchhoff helped you, while, at the same time, you keep on working with Marek Leščák…
– I am certainly grateful to this generation for taking me in. I learned a lot. And now I invite the younger generation to join in collaboration too. Little Harbour was made in my production company to which I devote a lot of my time. I’ve been able to capitalise on what I’ve learned from others.

Iveta Grófová (1980, Trenčín)
She studied at the Animation Department and Documentary Department at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. Initially she made short documentaries: At Least That Way (Aspoň že tak, 2003), The Politics of Quality (Politika kvality, 2005), Goodbye Party (Nazdar partička, 2005), Guest Workers (Gastarbeiteri, 2007) or the short animated film There Were 11 of Us (Bolo nás 11, 2004). In 2012, she made her full-length début with Made in Ash which received its international première at the IFF Karlovy Vary – it opened the East of the West section at the festival. In 2014, she participated in the omnibus film project Slovakia 2.0 for which she made the short film Discofight (Discoboj).

Mariana Jaremková
PHOTO: Miro Nôta