We talked to Slovak filmmaker Peter Kerekes about his latest film107 Mothers, awarded at Venice Film Festival for the best script, and his earlier works 66 Seasons, Cooking History and Velvet Terrorists.
Few years ago, you mentioned that documentary is always supposed to be a dialogue. I like the idea, but what does it mean to you?
This is the main thing that hasn’t changed for me throughout all these years. I come from an interesting background: I studied fiction films at university [at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava] and there was this strict division between documentaries and fiction. We had two different departments and obviously, they didn’t like each other [laughter]. Still, I was lucky enough to have encountered a very good professor and he was very free. He allowed me to graduate with three documentaries and I have never made a fiction film in my life – until now.
This quote about the dialogue, it’s actually not my own quote. It was something that my cinematographer said to me. It was about the kind of people who take a shower in the morning and then go on to make a testimony about “the truth” in the world. They know what they want to say, so they are making very sophisticated, but still propaganda films. When I say I love dialogue, it means I really don’t know what should be the message of my film. I am driven by the curiosity.
If we would go back to some of my films, such as 2009 Cooking History, it’s really a very complex story. If someone was to write it’s a pacifist film, it’s not true. If someone was to write it’s a film that celebrates the army and the military, it’s also not true. There are so many different situations and I was curious to see how human beings go about solving them. I would ask them the same questions and always get different answers. Sometimes you have to be a pacifist, because you are a member of some dictator’s army, but sometimes you have to grab a gun and fight for your homeland.
How did you learn to have this kind of dialogue with your protagonists? It’s always tricky, trying to make people comfortable enough to share something special with you.
I also teach, and that’s what I try to tell my students: the most important thing is to adapt the form of your films to your physicality.
What does it mean?
I weigh 107 kg. I am a big guy and I am not able to make observational films. I was dreaming of it once and I even made some attempts, trying to be this fly on the wall, but instead, I was just this massive piece of furniture standing in the corner. It sounds like a joke, but it’s really the case.
This is my personality: I just love talking to people, very different kinds of people. I just cannot be silent! It’s the same when I am making a documentary or when I am travelling by train. Which is why I really think this is something that’s very hard to learn. It’s possible to copy a lot of technical things, but this need to find out more needs to be inside of you already. For me, as teacher, that was the most important thing I have learnt. I can’t force my students to be dialogue-based directors, just like me. I have to accept their personalities too. Everyone should use their body language to create their own film language.
When we were talking about your last film in Venice, 107 Mothers about women living and working in a Ukrainian prison, you mentioned that you were talking to them also between takes – you would have coffee and cigarettes. Do you think it’s important, sharing such moments also off camera?
For me, it’s absolutely necessary. There is no border – or a very thin border – between life and filming. I am still in touch with the prisoners, we are still talking. Part of these conversations is in the movie and the other part isn’t, but hey – that’s life. Still, this relationship between me and them is very important; we needed to establish such a close bond. With Cooking History, there were several military cooks that I just couldn’t agree with ideologically – like the Croatian nationalist for example. But we became good friends anyway, because it’s always about mutual respect. I was open with him and he knew I wasn’t always admiring what he had to say, but it was a fair, open dialogue that continued long after we completed filming.
Do these relationships ever end? It’s a difficult subject for many documentary filmmakers: “How do I ‘abandon’ these people?” And what’s the right way to do it?
Some of my films were about Second World War veterans, so they simply died [laughter].
With Velvet Terrorists [about terrorist acts conducted in the period of “normalisation” in former Czechoslovakia], at first it was all very intense. Then, it gradually faded out, just like with many friendships.
Speaking of that film, you seem to enjoy little details a lot. In 107 Mothers, you show the women painting the soles of their shoes red, making their very own “Louboutins”. In Velvet Terrorists, I noticed cans of beer just about everywhere, telling their own separate story.
I am obsessed with these details. Sometimes I think I am forcing myself to tell a “normal” story just to have them in the film.
In documentaries, you are already talking about all these so-called “big things”. In Cooking History, it was about surviving the war or helping your friends on the minefields. But once I started to move towards fiction, or at least half-fiction, like in Velvet Terrorists and 107 Mothers, I realised I care about these details even more, all these tiny gestures.
In Velvet Terrorists, there is one scene that’s especially important to me. It’s a film done by three directors [with Ivan Ostrochovský and Pavol Pekarcik] and it was very, very complicated to make it together. There were so many moments when I just wanted to leave. To say: “Ok guys, I will just be the producer.” But there was one moment when I fell in love with the film. When Vladimir [Vladimir Hucin] and the young woman he has recruited to train test a lie detector, she is asking him if he is training somebody to be a terrorist. He says yes. She asks if it’s a woman. He says yes. She asks: “Are you in love with her?” Because she is in love with him. And then she just makes this loud gulping noise. It’s not a statement, just a silent moment of this hidden affection. It made me want to stay.
This film, although focusing on a rather local story, proved to be rather universal. Is it ever a concern of yours? Whether the story will be understood?
No. I am very, very selfish. I am doing it because I love it.
It’s similar with my wife [animator Katarína Kerekesová]. When we are out, having coffee together, so many times we don’t event talk – we just observe other people. “Look how they eat, how they look at each other.” We are interested in capturing these moments of everyday life – she in animation, me in documentary. That’s the most important thing: to capture it all and then sometimes to transform, to put inside of a bigger story. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t, but I always need to follow my own personal interests.
When you decide to focus on something that’s close to your personal life, like with 66 Seasons about a swimming pool in your hometown Košice, does it make it harder in some way?
To be honest, all my films are very personal. Maybe it’s not something that always jumps at you right away at first sight, but even my graduation film, The Legends and Morytates of Ladomirova, was personal. Even though I had nothing to do with a Ruthenian village on the border with Poland. I was wondering how you live through the “big history”. How does it influence you? To make a film about my own family, I had to go to this remote village. I was solving my own problems there.
When I made 66 Seasons, it was personal because it’s about my family and I am also there, but it came very naturally. I am always thinking about myself when making these films, up until the point when I made 107 Mothers. They deal with topics that are basically “my” topics: that have to do with me, my family or the importance of resistance. With Velvet Terrorists, my father was a director in a Communist Czechoslovakian television. He had to collaborate with the regime, but he was a wonderful person and maybe that’s why I wanted to make a film about guys who were anti-Communist terrorists? To be honest, even 107 Mothers, which is an all-female film, shows an important part of my world. I have a wife and two daughters, too, but it would be complicated to make a film just about them. It’s easier to go to Ukraine instead.
When you were making 66 Seasons, I heard that you “wrote” the film before you actually made it. Is it sometimes you do quite often, or was it an exceptional case?
It’s a bit funny thinking about it now, after we have received the award for best script at Venice Film Festival with my latest film. On 107 Mothers, we had maybe two pages of text – that was the script. On 66 Seasons, everything was written down.
I did it at a particular moment, when I had no chance of financing this movie. It was a complicated time in Slovakia. So instead of complaining, I just wrote down my ideal film. After all, if you can’t make it, you write it.
Later, the situation changed, but it still helped me a lot. What ended up in the finished film wasn’t identical, I kept maybe 30%, but the ideas were nearly the same. People said different things and there were different situations, because reality surprises you all the time. But because I was so well prepared, I knew what I wanted to talk about – even despite its rather complicated structure. And also, because I wrote it all down, I was free to improvise. I had the film in my head already.
That’s why I love to write all these applications for grants – it actually makes you think. Writing is thinking. I don’t know any director who just lies on his sofa, saying: “Ok, now I will think about my movie for two hours.” When you are writing, it’s like you talk to yourself. You are your first critic. So maybe it’s good for me that I don’t have unlimited budget? I have learnt to look at these application forms and see a gift, a gift allowing you to really think about your film, its message and the tools you might want to use later on. Bureaucracy can make you very creative.
Do you ever wonder if people are going to watch documentaries and whether there is a future for them? I saw a Polish film called The Balcony Movie where the director was standing on his own balcony and talking to people. You have to adapt to whatever limitations you might encounter.
That’s the beauty of documentary – you are adapting all the time. Paweł Łoziński’s film you have mentioned is a version of Viktor Kossakovsky’s Hush!, in which he was just looking out of his window. All the obstacles are just gifts from God that can make the film so much better. They are moving it forward.
It’s not a rule, but when you are making fiction films, you can’t really “adapt” to reality or completely change your plans every day. You have to stick to your vision. Documentary is much more fluid. I still remember this beautiful situation from 66 Seasons, when at the beginning of the film my grandmother stepped out of her role and just looked at the camera, asking: “And now what should I say?”
The scene you just mentioned, some people would just deem it as a mistake, to be cut later on. How do you decide which is the right thing to do?
I realise it only now, talking to you, but most of my films were done in foreign languages. I decided whether the scenes stayed or not based on their emotional value. Very often, you can feel it even if you don’t understand the language.
With 66 Seasons, I speak Hungarian and Slovak, but my editor doesn’t. He didn’t know exactly what my grandmother was saying but he saw it in her eyes. He knew it was important. My next movie is an Italian movie about an Italian woman and I don’t understand a word [laughter]. The emotions, the expressions and gestures – that’s what’s important and that’s what I will be paying attention to.
This is what you have to do as a documentary maker, I guess – you have to look. But are you able to “switch it off” in your life, ever? And do you remember how it first started?
When this will end, when the curiosity will end, I will only continue to teach and stop filming. I really believe that.
As for my humble beginnings, I grew up in a filmmaker family. It was during the Communist times and we had a chance to watch a lot of Hungarian television. They would show all these forbidden films coming from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, so I basically grew up with Sergei Parajanov, Tengiz Abuladze, Yuri Ilyenko. Ilyenko made this wonderful movie, The White Bird Marked with Black, and you could say that I have made three films on a similar topic: The Legends and Morytates of Ladomirova, 66 Seasons and Cooking History. Only the background is changing.
When I found out that I am interested in reality, and had a chance to make a documentary, I decided to set it in this lunatic asylum. It was not very modern and I was working there for three or so weeks prior to shooting, just to see how the people behaved. I thought that once I would bring the camera, I would be this fly on the wall – after all, I thought I knew this environment already. It was a very small crew, just three people, but of course it was all very new. We couldn’t film anything – people were just standing in front of the camera, staring. We had only five days and I had to deliver a film, so we started to re-enact reality. I asked people to act out everything they did the first time I saw them. Of course, it’s nothing original, it’s a known filmmaking technique. But it was probably the first time when I thought to myself: “Ok, this is how we can make a film.” When the people are “acting” themselves and I recreate certain images from my memory.
It sounds like a game!
All my films could be viewed as a game, with people in front of my camera. I mean, they have to enjoy it. If they don’t enjoy it, I don’t film. If they don’t like the interview, I stop. It’s super simple: if their eyes are shining, if you see there is something there, it means that it’s working.
Some filmmakers I know actually enjoy this kind of resistance, somewhat perversely, but your films are indeed very warm. There is humour there, which can be quite surprising at times – like in 107 Mothers. Did you decide to be kind to all the people you show?
I don’t think it’s possible to be kind by choice. It’s a part of who I am, my personality. I just like to talk to people. I often make films with my Czech colleagues, like my co-producer on 107 Mothers Filip Remunda, and sometimes I am quite envious of their approach. They are tough guys, but I just can’t do it. As I said before: my film language is mirroring my body language. I can’t be a tough guy, not even in my everyday life.
Do you still get excited by documentaries as a viewer? Or did you get a bit tired and that’s what slowly drove you to fiction?
I am an obsessive viewer and of course I am more interested in documentaries. I just think they tend to employ a much more creative language. There is poetry there. Actually, I am just looking at my bookshelf right now – half of my books are about history and half is poetry. With the films that I love, it’s exactly the same.
Velvet Terrorists was nearly a fiction film, now I am taking one step further – fiction is coming up to my neck. Next, I would like to work with Polish author Witold Szabłowski on a film based on his book Dancing Bears. True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny. It will be a historical movie, so it will mark another change, but I would still like to work with real people. I am going slow.
To so many people, documentary still means “talking heads”, some archive footage. Is that frustrating to you? Do you think that some filmmakers are getting too scared of experimenting?
People are scared to step out of it, yes, and unfortunately many films about very engaging topics are made like this. I still think that for me, the films I love the most, for example [Piotr Stasik’s] Opera about Poland or Boris Mitić’s In Praise of Nothing, they don’t use “talking heads”. It’s just pure cinema. But how to introduce them to the wider audience, I have no idea.
I feel that the modern technologies, or powerful streamers like Netflix or HBO, are all working on offering you the exact same content. It’s really hard to get out of the bubble these days, it’s hard to be surprised. You can see it happening everywhere, in literature and music too, and it concerns me. They always recommend something similar to what you already know and culture is based on being surprised. That was the beauty of growing up in times when there was nothing on television – you watched something you didn’t want to watch. And who knows? It could have been very inspiring. I just don’t get it. If you like documentaries by Michael Moore, does it mean you have to watch them until you die? This is the road to hell. It takes courage to find something new. It’s almost as if this freedom of choice was resulting in digital slavery instead.
Documentaries which become overwhelmingly popular, like in the case of Moore and his Fahrenheit 11/9 for example, are often very much in your face. The message is clear and so are the filmmaker’s intentions.
It’s the same as with fiction – you watch a western or a James Bond movie and you know who is good and who’s bad. It will always be like this in the mainstream media. It’s already a huge success if you manage to do something that’s not entirely black and white and it makes some money at the box-office. Looking at where we are heading, I don’t know if it will be possible in the future. I certainly dream of it.
I always compare documentary films to books. You have bestsellers and you have the not so popular books, and then you have poetry. For me, a good documentary will be always like poetry. And without poetry, our civilisation will die.
The interview is part of series of talks with European documentary filmmakers marking 20 years of the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague.
Cover photo © Daily 2021 Venezia News