Disease, Face, Country – 5 October

There are themes that we, as viewers, are generally not much in the mood for. They render us uneasy, disturb us, and highlight our own mortality. They require neither our civil attitude nor, in effect, our opinion. Solely acceptance. Maybe that is the reason why serious diseases, mostly with drastic treatment and not infrequently with a fatal end, do not very often make an appearance in auteur documentaries in Slovakia.

The fact that I have made use of the general notion of “disease” is actually very typical. Cancer, as one of the most frequent causes of death in the civilised world, but also as a temporary life-feature of many of those who have been cured, continues, in a certain respect, to be a taboo in Slovak society. The vagueness of the term “disease” not only bears witness to this fact, but also abets it.

Thereby, information about cancer research carried out in laboratories and pharmaceutical companies, about the affair of a hospital which recently came to light where the staff sold chemotherapeutics abroad which were intended for Slovak patients, but also reports about alternative and non-toxic methods of treating oncological diseases, leap out to confront us from all the mass media. But it is precisely this information that makes cancer somewhat matter-of-fact, sanitised, and removed from what the sick person has to undergo.

Few filmmakers venture across this border from the zone where the disease is rendered matter-offact and its treatment sanitised. Only a very few target the theme precisely, do not avert their gaze and, at the same time, sensitively accompany the diseased for as long as possible, sometimes to the very end, such as for instance the “thanatographic” documentaries Epilogue (2011) by Manno Lanssens or Farewell to Hollywood (2013) by Henry Corra.

In Slovakia, the photographer and director of photography, Martin Kollar, quite recently sought to sensitively capture the way in which a person with a tumour perceives and experiences this disease in his full-length documentary directing début 5 October – in the portrait of his brother who goes on a cycling tour lasting several months prior to the planned surgery.

However, 5 October is not thanatographic. It just follows a period of time: the period before the surgery. Hence, it captures a man who is still living the life of a healthy person and clinging on to life very much, even though he carries his tumour everywhere like a living knapsack. Little by little he plucks up the courage to live the life of a patient, according to the diary almost five months after being diagnosed. We don’t know why it takes him so long, we don’t even know for sure whether the tumour is malignant, we just learn from the diary that the surgery will increase the man’s chance of survival from eight percent to fifty percent.

In his film, Martin Kollar does not crush the social taboo of cancer. He does not speak about it, he does not name it; in this case, cancer is not the film’s theme. However, Kollar works with the most distinctive visual indices of the “fatal disease” in a targeted manner: he films his brother’s deformed face, the magnetic resonance examination, he adds a comment to the diary on the surgery with the survival prediction. But, at the same time, he also offers the audiences other, more significant indices, i.e. indices of the perception of the disease by the protagonist. They are two-fold: anxiety about the disease becoming matter-of-fact (and thus anxiety arising from its “treatment”, or fight against it) which is manifested in the initial hospital scene by the protagonist’s posture, and a certain mundanity of living life with a tumour that we see virtually in all the other scenes. These indices of the perception of the disease are the ones that determine the film’s theme: the perception of the surrounding world is rendered more acute, vigilant, almost zen-like; experiencing every moment as if it were the last.

Such a perception is typical for someone who, under the influence of the disease, is more urgently aware of his mortality than others would be. It is also typical for photographers (and artists in general) or philosophers. The author of the film, Martin Kollar, is, first of all, a photographer. Hence, the film offers a two-fold perception: it seeks to mediate the sensitivity of the protagonist through the sensitivity of the photographer.

The basic structure of 5 October consists of a minimalistic narrative about a healthy man with a tumour who is to be transformed into a patient. But the live body of the film is created mainly by photographic images of the countryside, more or less affected by civilisation. Kollar offers us beauty in its pure state, scenes of the country with a literally metaphysical extension – from aerial vortices on the surface of the sea through choreographies of a flock of migrating birds in the wind to the “Solaris-esque” weeds in the water. At the same time, he carefully takes notice of happy and sad encounters and collisions of nature with human activity – cows curious about the tent, a dead fox that ended as a bas-relief on the road, seagulls tearing French fries straight out of the hand, and the ground transformed into an artefact by the use of synthetic cloth. Kollar consistently juxtaposes nature with artificial elements: the river with the factory, the horizon with industrial buildings, the hill with a zig-zag road. Or he compares the degree of artificiality of two artificial things: a model of a highway and a “real” highway which, however, is controlled by a dummy worker waving his artificial hand.

Just as he is seeking out visual contrasts and analogies in the visible world, he raises them inconspicuously with regard to his brother’s disease. Just as the country accepts the interventions of human activity, so also the protagonist is plucking up the courage to accept the interventions of medicine in his body.

The metaphors used by Martin Kollar (or his brother) with regard to the disease, are not military metaphors of fight against a malign enemy attacking, deploying his forces on the main front, or even in concealed positions, or the need to bombard the enemy with gamma rays or to destroy him with chemical weapons, as Susan Sontag pointed out in her book Illness as Metaphor (1977). He does not even use the metaphors of secret services hunting down enemies within their own lines which medicine uses today, for instance when describing oncological immunotherapy. Instead, there are natural metaphors of growth and decline, metaphors of the changing face of the countryside, metaphors of expectation or symbiosis – according to the drawing in the diary, quite literally pregnancy! Hence, metaphors in which the tumour is perceived as part of the body and the disease as part of the life of the affected person. Susan Sontag writes that the militant terminology of permanent threat and calls to “combat” the patients’ disease necessarily exhaust the patients just as war wears down the entire country. Kollar’s metaphors of gestation, growth and subsequent “C-section” are, conversely, signs of acceptance of the disease and a fortifying for the encounter with civilisation, for the encounter with medicine which, as he is well aware, could destroy the country of his body or could also rescue it before ruin. And all that despite their biological inadequacy and the disconcerting natural scene where Kollar’s brother, a small figure in green, wanders through the hilly forest and half terrified, half resolute, finally looks into the camera.

5 October is an exceptional film in a number of aspects. Not only is it the work of a photographer with a unique eye but it also ushers in a paradigm shift in the perception of diseases as it emphasises the perception of the patient who lives with the disease more than dying from it. This inconspicuous change in orientation, this focus on the acceptance of the disease as a part of life – a part that has got out of control like a river out of its channel – is for me just as important as the transformation of the protagonist from a shaggy cyclist with a Marxist beard to a charismatic man in a hat.

The text was originally published as a blog on the web portal of the International Documentary Film Festival in Jihlava, Jihlava www.dokrevue.cz.

Martin Kollar (1971, Žilina)
He studied Cinematography at the Film and Television Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. He issued a number of photographic publications (for instance Nothing Special, Cahier, Field Trip). He worked as director of photography on, for instance, 66 Seasons (66 sezón, 2003), Cooking History (Ako sa varia dejiny, 2009), Velvet Terrorists (Zamatoví teroristi, 2013) and on Ivan Ostrochovský’s film Koza (2015) which won the national Sun in a Net award and special Camera 2015 award in the feature film category. 5 October is his directing début. Its mid-length version received its world première last year at the 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam. 

5 October (5 October, Slovakia/Czech Republic, 2016) _DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY, SCRIPT, DIRECTED BY: Martin Kollar _EDITED BY: Alexandra Gojdičová, Marek Šulík _MUSIC: Michal Novinski _CAST: Ján Kollár, Vladimír Kollár, Barbora Katriňáková, Ján Doboš _LENGHT: 61 min.

Mária Ferenčuhová


A Hole in the Head, a Film about Memories

Human memory acts as a processing instrument for retaining experience. It consists of recollections, something similar to rumours in the brain. It is not a very precise instrument. But it remains important, even though it often displays a tendency to create its own fictitious worlds of the past. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (L. P. Hartley) A Hole in the Head (Diera v hlave) is about memories. Concentrated memories of the Roma Holocaust, the mass murder which took on monstrous dimensions during World War 2 into almost indescribable cruelty.

Diversity, both formal and semantic, is the basis of A Hole in the Head. Various characters and bizarre figures reminisce. Roma living on rubbish tips. Roma women lecturing in universities, wealthy Roma in garish palaces. French, Czechs, Serbians, Croatians, Poles, Slovaks, Germans. It is a trip across contemporary Europe, starting quite merrily and in a carnival manner, but gradually becoming more and more horrible and morbid. More and more impressive and emotionally urgent. You will not be bored. Thereby, in essence, it resembles a standard documentary with “talking heads”, the expressive component of the film sometimes creates this feeling. But it is not like that, because there are many formal peculiarities here. These are almost surreal scenes and shots which have no actual part to play in a documentary as traditionally understood. They are uncompromisingly present here and elevate the entire basic structure to the level of some sort of essay without comments which begins to express itself by way of image from time to time in order to disrupt the usual course of the narrative, its continuity and linearity. This results in a curious atmosphere and an interesting formal harmony.

It is a jigsaw puzzle made up of events in time, various changes from the initial state to the final state which happen in the accounts of the individual figures. And there are not that many of them. Everything starts in France; it didn’t have to be that way, but the logic of this beginning becomes clear in the end then, via the Czech Republic and Serbia, we return to France, then we go through Poland and Croatia and again France, Germany, then Slovakia and again Poland, Croatia, Poland and France… The characters do not change, each remains in their own country, each one tells another story which gradually builds, approaches its high point and in the end the stories intertwine like a plait of hair, they are menacingly and dangerously similar, and gradually they are transformed into one single story. The individual parts/memories do not tie up chronologically, they tie up by stories, they skip and leap-frog over each other. It turns out that each country had Roma concentration camps, that local police forces collaborated everywhere, that the murderers used almost identical methods… Or not? Isn’t it so that, after many years, a kind of collective Roma memory of the Holocaust has emerged, that the stories wander and migrate in memories and that other memories accrue to them constantly? Even the Roma themselves sometimes doubt the stories: he couldn’t have remembered that, it couldn’t have been like that… But it doesn’t matter precisely how it happened, because it just did happen, unfortunately. The characters in this film are not fictitious constructs like in feature films, these are carefully selected people whose memories make sense. And it is not just a rough version of the sense, it is as precise and sharp as a sword. Even though it doesn’t always have to be flawless and perfect. Because memories may well be rumours of the brain, but first they act as an interpretation. And, in the case of this film, it is a trustworthy interpretation, without pathos, without loftiness and nonsensical ceremoniousness. That is very important, this getting rid of the platitudes and clichés which often agglomerate around this theme in the common mainstream. The horrific recollections of a woman with a hole in her head, a man in a wheelchair and others carry the film on their own, they do not need any stylised aids. Work with the sound has been adapted to this; it is brilliant and it merits a separate study of its own. Consequentially depathetised music and sound effects which sometimes fade away in the next frame, strange, logically non-motivated music expressions of characters directly in the shot, all that gives the film, from its initial parts and then suddenly right before the end, a certain circus, gypsy tone and dimension of a circus tent where we probably feel good but we know that something is not quite in order.

The feelings of vigilance and danger mix with exotically merry explosiveness, sad melancholy and gloomy abhorrence.

Of course, the Roma Holocaust, more specifically the memory of it, is the main motif of the film. Mapping out and examining this relatively unknown part of the history of our reality. There are several, miscellaneous secondary motifs of significance, from problems with the current police in France through the issue of identity in Serbia (Bill Clinton was a Roma!) to a pig farm in the Czech Republic. The referential link to reality is very strong here, even intensive, thanks to the obvious earnestness and frankness of the characters. That is why scenes which are evidently staged or initiated also work.

There are several good definitions of a documentary, one of them, for instance, formulated by Bill Nichols: “A documentary is a film form which concerns itself with real events and situations. It depicts specific people (social actors) who introduce themselves in stories expressing a credible point of view or perspective of the lives, situations and events under consideration. The stories are formed by the opinion or view of the lived world directly from a clear position on the part of the filmmaker who, instead of creating a fictional allegory, sticks to known facts.” A documentary is simply such a film which records or reconstructs events that actually happened. If this is true, and in my view it definitely is, then A Hole in the Head is an exemplary documentary. However, it also has something more.

The image itself does not carry any specific meaning, it acquires meaning only when we see it in context. The expressive component of A Hole in the Head works accurately within this premise. The visual context is very important here, hardly anything is extraneous. Big visual plans, big shots are being worked with here to a great extent. In no cases are these some intimate accounts of figures sitting in semi-close-up in front of a library. At times the entire documentary resembles a big film, the compositions fill out the entire screen. It is a cinema film. The big introductory shots of places, small figures in huge meadows, journeys through a deserted forest, monstrous constructions and frequent trains or railways, all these are interconnected and these individual elements play the role of supporting the testimony of the whole brought about by the puzzle of the memories of the individual characters. Even though the film is based on diversity, it is structured in such a way that the result reveals a certain unique compactness. The dramaturgy, editing composition and consequential timing of shots of the right length provide this, even if not altogether fully realised. In the third quarter, the film becomes monotonous and displays a certain redundancy of expression. But the conclusion, I mean the last three relatively short episodes (Poland, France, Serbia), sets things right, the pace and the rhythm are back.

Two visual motifs are remarkable, although the first one cannot even be called a motif, because if it could, it would be disjointed and incomplete. The individual countries are characterised by animals in the introductory episodes – it is not quite a metaphor, the motif of animals is based on quite specific contexts. The first episode dedicated to France has horses, the Czech episode has pigs and the Serbian one chickens. But later and in other countries animals are not used any more. However, all the more mesmerising is the second visual motif which gives the film a comprehensive atmosphere and of which, when watching the film for the first time without quite being focused, the viewer might even be unaware. It is snow. It is present from the beginning to the end, the frost is there, subconsciously getting under our skin. Thousands of snowflakes fall onto the slow-flowing river, they fall on the extensive forlorn fields, the snow-covered trees in the forest, the characters carry umbrellas protecting themselves from the falling wet snow, the snow-covered commemorative plaques that need to be cleaned of snow, the dangerous snow at monuments that people can slip on. It is not happy snow, Christmas snow, it is not a beautiful countryside covered with dense white flakes. Something of the country always shows up and protrudes through the extremely thin snow cover, either mud, grey stones, a dump or vilely smoking factory chimneys. Shots with snow are used in the film also as punctuation marks – they would be fine even on their own, thus a fascinating short experimental film would have been made.

Well, fine, in the end we return from the snow to A Hole in the Head, not quite an ordinary full-length documentary about what the Roma survived (if they survived at all) over the course of World War 2 and to the fact that no one actually knows very much about it. It is an auteur work; director and screenwriter Robert Kirchhoff made this comment about the film: “A Hole in the Head as a physical scar and scar on our historical consciousness.”

Robert Kirchhoff (1968, Nitra)
He studied Documentary Film and Dramaturgy at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. He established the atelier.doc production company mainly focusing on documentary and TV films. He made, for instance, Hey, You Slovaks! (Hej, Slováci!, 2002), Normalization (Kauza Cervanová, 2013) – the national Sun in a Net award for Best Documentary, Steam on the River (Para nad riekou, 2015, co-director: F. Remunda) and he also took part in several TV projects. He worked as producer/co-producer on Blind Loves (Slepé lásky, 2008), Disease of the Third Power (Nemoc tretej moci, 2011) and Made in Ash (Až do mesta Aš, 2012).

A Hole in the Head (Diera v hlave, Slovakia/Czech Republic, 2016) _SCRIPT AND DIRECTED BY: Robert Kirchhoff _DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Juraj Chlpík _EDITED BY: Jan Daňhel _CAST: Raymond Gurême, Fata Dedić, Nadir Dedić, Toti Dedić, Ladislav Welward, Ján Konček, Krystyna Gil, Karol Parno Gierliński, Rita Prigmore, Philomena Franz and others _LENGHT: 90 min.

Martin Ciel


About the Queen of Local Power

Even if, despite their much-appreciated efforts, domestic filmmakers have, to date, not been altogether successful in their feature expeditions into the communist period, it is wholly understandable that the well-proven Czech creative team of Jan Hřebejk and Petr Jarchovský should have grasped the topic of the past in their film The Teacher (Učiteľka) made in a Slovak majority production. 

Hřebejk’s valued directing craftsmanship was able to deal well with Jarchovský’s sophisticated script set in the last decade of our joint “Czechoslovak Socialist Republic” and to avail itself of its federal potential. The film memory or return awakens the interface of identical perceptions of the socialist past by both the states making up the federal republic.

History is tarnished in the film by means of a model situation depicting the practices of those in power and the increase in resistance against them. It does not show any dissident activities, images of heroes or victims (except for the daughter of the Kučera family who are the first to revolt) or any demonised likeness of the former totalitarian regime. Everything is set in deep quotidian mundanity, the banality of the regime; the filmmakers have modelled the mannerism of the power applied on this basis, in particular in the distinctive area of education and training. The protection of the children against their teacher – a “queen” of the local power with a Party background – reveals the main principles by which the parents abide – taking advantage of personal benefits as against highlighting the social responsibility entailed in the teacher’s position. The position afforded by the state and used to develop private power depicts the tentacles of social evil in the character of the teacher, as well as in the psychologically authentic semblance of the frustration of a childless and prematurely widowed woman and the charm of her manipulative games.

It is no coincidence that opposition towards this main protagonist develops mainly in those who are unable to play these “games” – an insignificant accountant, the gruff and boorish sports coach and the ailing astrophysicist. The wonderful scene showing the accountant Kučera’s attempt to smuggle the teacher’s cakes onto a plane is an example. The encounter with one’s own inability to craftily integrate within the mutual “assistance” service evokes a sense of humiliation in the above three heroes and activates their inner resistance. It is an important psychological motive, a mental turning point in their ascent towards their reclaiming their own dignity. The role of the former regime features only marginally but, essentially, the film is a social image of its stability strengthened by the historical role of monopoly power. Not even the teacher’s superiors can intervene and act in order to protect the students against the arbitrary behaviour of their subordinate, because the “higher power” of the totalitarian diktat and the concomitant fear it imbues are omnipresent.

The image of the different behaviours pertaining outside and at home evokes the rule of double-standard manners. At school, the accountant Kučera offers to drive the teacher in his car, whilst in private he rails vehemently against her practices. The images of enforced and accepted subservience are not linked solely to the experience with the past regime, even though it was a big help. The filmmakers perceive them as being a living psycho-social phenomenon. The contrived ending to the film depicts the character of the teacher as being fully adapted to the new conditions and prepared to again search for grounds for a mutually advantageous business arrangement (the parents pandering to the teacher in return for good school grades for their children). Despite the fact that, nowadays, the weak economic functioning of the former regime, which established the “community” system of its substitute servicing, somewhat caricatured in the film, is no longer a problem, the hydra of conformism and unwarranted advantages remains a temptation which is directed personally straight at the audiences at the end of the film.

The inner conflict of the story about the general acceptance of injustice culminates in the fight to turn the core of those who are in favour of punishing the teacher into a majority that can no longer be overlooked. Figuratively, the mechanism of the making good of society by means of individual actions is captured here. In the film, the men-fathers are the first ones to revolt against the beneficial loyalty. The wives-mothers follow them only after trying unsuccessfully to exert pressure on their husbands to make them change their attitudes and not to expose their children to the teacher’s revenge. However, the two women in the position of the teacher’s superiors are in a well-constructed contrast in “gender” terms; they clandestinely join forces with the rebels to find support for sanctioning their perfidious subordinate. The image of this fight comes from the bottom, from the dark corners of the privacy of the apartment, where one can act openly, having been suffocated by the inability to do so in public. Awarding school grades as a counter-value for services, not for knowledge, however, not only vitiates the grading regime, but eventually also one’s own productiveness. Quite typically, the majority support for the teacher disintegrates only after statistical data are revealed which disclose the real “benefits” of her grading of students. The transformation of the minority into a majority is bridged by a metaphorical ellipsis and a lightly stylised image of characters emerging from the darkness in the depths of the shot to sign a protest petition. This is crowned by the film disclosing the necessity to block individual acts when eliminating despicability. Even though its renewed attack is permanently imminent.

In The Teacher parents teach their children by way of their own deeds. Hence, a drive to conform is inherited and any thwarting of this drive appears initially impossible. A representative of the oldest generation, raised before the totalitarian regime, typically presents himself with rhetoric about social good, good manners and the role of the school. The conviction of the other characters – the “communist” generation of parents – of the correctness of their attitudes does not have any ideological form. The resistance against the abuse of the teacher’s post grows into open confrontation only after tragedy in the family; it is not the result of conscious (dissident) opposition against evil and injustice.

Unlike the Hostage (Rukojemník), in The Teacher the parents are the hostages of their children as they are trying to achieve good grades for them. However, both films have one thing in common, i.e. the final evasion into a sentimental position, which is something of a let-down in The Teacher, esecially in the cheap scene where the astrophysicist says good-bye to his son at the airport.

The imagery of quotidian drabness and mundanity in the film will be familiar to the audiences. The symbiosis of stereotype and breakage created an attractive epic-dramatic ritual in The Teacher which the filmmakers mastered this time without any superfluous situation descriptions and with a striking emotional charge. The director’s narrative is comprehensible, illustrative, fulfilled in acting terms, dynamic, efficiently rhythmised by the skilful editing. The linear unity of place and time is enterprisingly split by semantic rather than by chronological retrospectives. Accordingly, we quickly become acquainted with many characters. We get to know their motivation in tandem with the developing story without ever becoming even briefly impatient with the cumbersome or descriptive story.

The ability to adjust the acting performances in such a large number of characters points to Jan Hřebejk’s directing privilege, but Zuzana Mauréry confirmed her reputable standard by her disciplined, guarded profiling of the main protagonist. Ondřej Malý, Attila Mokos, Éva Bandor and Judita Hansman also performed the volume of their roles in equally standard quality, whilst the precise Ina Marojevič- Gogálová in the role of the principal should also not be overlooked. Csongor Kassai as Kučera did not surprise with his excellent performance.

This skilfully well-mastered film, however, falls somewhat short of being a masterpiece. If some reviews reproach it for having something of a televisual format, this does not mean that the story’s being located mostly “between four walls” is viewed as an impediment. Time probably played a more important role, as insufficient time was allotted to prepare the film in cinema-directing terms. The accelerated model nature of some scenes sometimes overruns their completeness and depth, the identification of the topic with its staging is sometimes replaced by instant realism. Thus, despite our being grateful for The Teacher, Walking Too Fast (Pouta) by Radim Špaček still reigns over the image of the 1980s in Czechoslovakia.

Jan Hřebejk (1967, Praha)
He studied at the Screenwriting and Dramaturgy Department of the Film and TV Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and has collaborated with screenwriter Peter Jarchovský since he was a student. He made his début on the silver screen with the musical Big Beat (Šakalí léta, 1993) which won four Czech Lion Awards from the Czech Film and Television Academy. Other successful films include: Cosy Dens (Pelíšky, 1999), Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat, 2000), Pupendo (2003), Up and Down (Horem pádem, 2004), Beauty in Trouble (Kráska v nesnázích, 2006), Kawasaki’s Rose (Kawasakiho růže, 2009) and Innocence (Nevinnost, 2011).

The Teacher (Učiteľka, Slovakia/Czech Republic, 2016) _DIRECTED BY: Jan Hřebejk _SCRIPT BY: Petr Jarchovský _DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Martin Žiaran _EDITED BY: Vladimír Barák _MUSIC: Michal Novinski _CAST: Zuzana Mauréry, Csongor Kassai, Zuzana Konečná, Peter Bebjak, Martin Havelka, Éva Bandor, Tamara Fischer and others _LENGHT: 102 min.

Eva Vženteková
PHOTO: Forum Film