From Exotification to Understanding

The films that we designated as documentaries in 2017 had a common theme: they go from what we term “exotification” to allowing us to understand each other.

If we exotify a certain group of people, their activities or traits in film, it means that we view them as something unknown, mysterious, as something meriting our interest. There are many exotifying films which managed either to completely astonish or to totally horrify. Lessons of Darkness (Lektionen in Finsternis, 1992, dir. Werner Herzog) compelled us to be mesmerizingly paralysed while viewing the process of human destruction, the films Animal Love (Tierische Liebe, 1996) and In the Basement (Im Keller, 2014, both dir. Ulrich Seidl) pinned us to our seats when we saw the socially tabooed manifestations of affection between humans and animals or just between humans. A certain degree of exotification in everyday life is even necessary: to be able to look at common and everyday objects as at things with a secret or a question makes it possible for us not to succumb to scepticism, emptiness or boredom. G. K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy that to see something repeatedly (for instance, brightly-coloured fallen leaves, the first snow, flowers in bloom) but to consistently view it with amazement is one of the greatest challenges of adult life (because everything is new for children and it is not difficult for them to be amazed). To summarise and underline: exotification is not necessarily a negative phenomenon.

However, and this is equally important, there is one fundamental “but” here. When exotifying, an abyss appears in the film. The abyss between them and us. Some sort of irresolvable differend (Lyotard) between two groups of people when one group (filmmakers via film and the audience) has the right to attribute to another group of people (protagonists) traits reducing their individuality without them having the possibility to do anything about it: the audience can talk, discuss and think, but the representation of the protagonists in film is final, it is irrevocable, it is as it is. This dispute brought such varied films in 2017 as Grey Lizard Conspiracy (Sprisahanie šedej rasy, dir. Maroš Berák) and the mid-length film Hotel Sunrise (Hotel Úsvit, dir. Mária Rumanová). In both cases, we enter stories of strangers – them – as filmmakers and the audience and they differ from us. The former try to communicate with a UFO, they send light signals in a hexadecimal code from a small village and on the global scale of the even smaller Slovakia to the night sky, and believe in the dominance of lizards who look like people without emotions. These latter gamble on slot machines, do not pay alimonies, are on the run from the law, watch soap operas, try to lose weight and hope that they will capture the interest of the love of their life by spending a few minutes with her in one room and not doing anything at all. In both cases we approach them from the perspective of their difference, we take part in an excursion to a sort of imaginary human zoo – and maybe we even mean well – but we are simply not able to understand them. In the first case we casually realise that the UFO is just a hobby and proxy problem (maybe it plays a role similar to that of collecting stamps or match boxes, maybe not), but the film reduces its protagonists just to the UFO, and that is why we do not know how it actually is. In the second case we watch human suffering and hopelessness, ensuing from the seemingly irresolvable life situation; however, we are the ones who attribute this hopelessness and irresolvability to the protagonists: simply because we cannot imagine living their lives, being able to feel love, hope, a lust for love, passion, ordinary joy or amusement in their situation, in their living rooms, in their city. But what about them? I do not wish to require understanding from films that do not demand this from themselves. However, we have to ask: what do the films in question demand from us? Astonishment? Pity?

Films that exert the requirement of understanding but are unable to meet this requirement put us in a different situation: A Hole in the Head (Diera v hlave, dir. Robert Kirchhoff ), The Lust for Power (Mečiar, dir. Tereza Nvotová), or the minority co-production Červená (dir. Olga Sommerová).

A Hole in the Head primarily represents the Roma Holocaust, wherein the stories of the individual protagonists merely play an instrumental role. They do not serve to allow us to watch the influence of the Holocaust on their lives or to understand the protagonists themselves as human beings who have experienced a traumatic event. In effect, it is quite the reverse: the stories of the protagonists serve as an illustration of the Holocaust; the film’s dramaturgy does not follow the inner logic of their stories, but sequences various segments of their accounts so as to create an imaginary mosaic of the Roma Holocaust. The individual accounts are accumulating in the mosaic, but they link to each other rather by their emotional tone, which makes it impossible to create a picture of the event, to understand the causes or express the implications for the lives of the protagonists. Hence, the film constantly manifests just one solitary clear message: it is an atrocity. However, we are less able to understand what this atrocity meant for the particular lives of particular people who experienced it and who survived it. The urgency of the message presented is hence lost by its being constantly repeated.

The Lust for Power explicitly sets the requirement of understanding: the protagonist of the film, Tereza Nvotová, wanted to understand her childhood affected by her parents’ engaged approach in the times of Vladimír Mečiar’s government. And to understand herself, she tried to understand Mečiar himself. The ferocity and the ambition to penetrate deep into his thinking, to unmask him – and maybe even uncover illegal facts as David Frost did in his interview with Richard Nixon – are almost palpable in the film’s introduction. All the greater, then, is the inner tension that the film creates in itself because the historical line depicts Mečiar’s rise and fall – how he swore at journalists, shouted, sought to depose the president and fully met our concept of an anti-hero of dramatic art, arousing the opposition of a democratic society (see last year’s film Kidnapping/Únos, dir. Mariana Čengel Solčanská); however, the contemporary line depicts Mečiar as a disarmingly charming, somewhat tired old man spurned by society who welcomes you with flowers, grills sausages with you and who meant everything well. Regardless of how it was “in reality”, whatever relationship dynamics developed between the film crew and the respondent, who stylised himself into what role while making the film, etc.; the film itself is incapable of fulfilling its ambition to go “beneath” and in its inner inconsistency (or accompanying commentary beyond the image) even arouses feelings of disappointment, resignation or failure (which makes it almost too severe on itself).

Then, in contrast with The Professional Foreigner (Profesionálna cudzinka, dir. Anna Grusková), Červená makes it possible to clearly outline the contours of what understanding in fi lm permits. Both films thematise the lives of their protagonists in emigration, they are not critical toward the protagonists (they do not question their accounts, do not make a problem of them) and both are equally lionising (they view the protagonists as authorities, the perspective of the film is subordinated to them, it is not on an equal footing). Despite all this, Červená asks a fundamental question – potentially explosive and controversial: how is it possible that the protagonist loved theatre and singing so much that she did not care about being separated from her husband, about the rise of the communists to power or the tragic death (or politically motivated murder) of her mother? The film does not provide an answer to this question, the protagonist is able to enumerate her life successes without giving us to understand why they are so important to her – and hence also for us. Conversely, The Professional Foreigner penetrates the depths and allows us to get through to the protagonist. That is because it transfers the extremely intense and, for the protagonist, unpleasantly revealing sense of “guilt” at leaving Czechoslovakia at the time (in her view) of its greatest distress, which subsequently motivated her to become involved as a journalist and activist in places of conflict all over the world. This deconstruction of the protagonist’s motivation enables us, as viewers, to identify with her, to understand what she has gone through, what she has experienced, what it has meant for her, and so, together with her, we can enter our own unforgettable observations (Adler), in a catharsis realise their impact on our life, and if we choose – continue without them.

A catharsis is also the determining experience in the case of Addicted to Altitude (Vábenie výšok, dir. Pavol Barabáš) – well, provided that we agree to the intoxicating game against deadlines which could seem too mainstream to some (we constantly have to ask whether the protagonists will manage to get here or there without being killed by the cold, lack of oxygen or mutual animosity). However, the film stands out in particular for its deconstruction of the group dynamics between Czechoslovak mountaineers, their struggle for power and primacy and enables us to understand the role of leadership in directing them, achieving success, but also in overcoming a trauma (tragic death of close friends), or in coping with envy and jealousy.

But, with regard to the theme of understanding, in particular, Heavy Heart (Ťažká duša, dir. Marek Šulík) is unique as it creates a common space for dialogue between us and the Roma minority living in Slovakia – as it allows us to build on what we have in common as human beings and not on what differentiates us. However, paradoxically, I do not think that the film’s main theme – mournful songs and the ensuing emotions – is the key to mutual understanding, but rather the themes that open with them. The death of a loved one, separation from family, trying to win the love and affection of a parent are general themes and they allow us to be equal partners in the conversation – just as the film Black White (Čierna a biela, 2014, dir. Samuel Jaško) did previously with the theme of the emotional adoption of a child and Koza (2015, dir. Ivan Ostrochovský) with a sporting theme. But, at the same time, Heavy Heart is different – by openly drawing attention to its limits (that some of the protagonists are “playing” for money and that we are often more interested in their songs than they are) and by being very elegant in its humility (the seven chapters provide a rhythm for the narrative and create a transparent structure without the needless eff ort to combine everything into a single coherent story), and in this way it actually does not demand anything – but it gives us a lot.

— text: Marek Urban —