On Thursday, September 7, Czech cinemas start showing the Červená feature film describing the remarkable fate of the world-famous singer, Soňa Červená. Director Olga Sommerová concludes her triptych of documentaries on women who have left an unforgettable trace in the Czech history: Marta Kubišová, Věra Čáslavská and Soňa Červená. The documentary was shown already at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and will tour more than 40 Czech towns in September.
You spent over 10 years with Soňa Červená, if I am not mistaken. What was the filming like in practical terms? Did you have some moments outlined that you wanted to show in your document, or did you film as possible during your regular visits?
I met Soňa twelve years ago when I was shooting My 20th century, where I touched the issue of the big history’s impact on the small history of three artists, Soňa Červená, Adriena Šimotová and Lenka Reinerová, how Nazism and communism affected their creative work and private lives alike. I kept in contact with Soňa (and Adriena, too) afterwards but the idea of filming the story of her life alone only came last year, out of the blue. In the meantime, I filmed Dancing into Solitude about Březina’s and Nekvasil’s documentary opera – about the process with Milada Horáková, Tomorrow There Will Be…, initiated by Soňa who played the lead role. I knew Soňa’s life story in detail, and my concept was similar to the first film. Moreover, I wanted to introduce a world-famous opera singer who was not to be mentioned even in whispers for thirty years in the communist Czechoslovakia. The film concept revolved around the private and professional milestones of Soňa’s life and career, chronologically arranged in the story of her life. I listened to all recordings available of Soňa’s roles. I browsed the Czech film archives and I was overjoyed to learn that the producer, Pavel Berčík, managed to get some film shots of Soňa’s international career from Germany – no one had ever seen them here. The 1960’s and 1970’s were not in favour of filming of opera and theatre performances and we never reached out to America where Soňa sang for eleven years. Soňa and I thought of the situations we would shoot, and I must say Soňa is a woman full of ideas, not only in relation to my film but she’s been like that all her life. She inspired foreign opera directors abroad and once she came back, she inspired local artists as well as the US director, Robert Wilson, to do the 1914 drama. During editing, my editor Jakub Hejna and I then built the dramatic shape which we believe any documentary must always possess.
You choose strong life stories; in the case of these three ladies, I dare say, also role models for a number of people. Do you choose your themes according to your internal feeling or the mission you wish to present to the audiences?
I have been fortunate in my career, or it was my will, to always film what I wish to express with all my passion and the conviction that it is necessary. I have always filmed (with the exception of two films about Mary the Thief) people I admired and considered true heroes. My triptych on brave Czech women, Věra Čáslavská, Marta Kubišová and Soňa Červená also resonated with my persistent theme, a warning of any – not just political – totality. My heroines decided they would not be manipulated and humbled; they paid for it but they earned self-respect, which is an irreplaceable value.
You also continue working with your daughter, director and camerawoman Olga Špátová. She never experienced a totalitarian regime. Your films bring a testimony of the hard times of normalisation to the young generation. How did this inter-generational dialogue go during your filmmaking?
Ever since she was a child, Olga watched archive shots I played at home during my film preparations. When she started filming with me, our first collaboration was My 20th Century, so she was taught history lessons on the go. She also watched my films I did not make with her as my director of photography because we do the dramaturgy of our films for each other in the work edit stage. I do hers, she does mine. On the 20th anniversary of the revolution, she started filming The Greatest Wish about her generation’s values, referring back to two films of the same name made by her father, Jan Špáta, during the Communist regime. The young heroes of her film were active citizens in favour of democracy, and I genuinely respect and appreciate such young people who have never experienced a totalitarian regime and yet get involved to promote democracy. At the same time, I know that living in freedom is natural for the young generation; they do not realise that it might be lost unexpectedly. There is the risk written about by a Polish dissident, Adam Michnik, that the liberated slaves who never had to fight for freedom and justice, are unaware of their price and ultimately will “freely” choose – just a new slave holder.
Did Soňa Červená inspire you personally during filming – by her life attitude, her opinions?
She inspired me with her positive attitude to everything she experiences. She does not forget the past but she only thinks about what is now, and looks forward to what will be. She inspired me with her discipline that she exhibits in her approach to each and every task in her profession as well as personal life. And also by the fact that when she undertakes to do something, she goes right for it and does it. When people ask her how come she is in such a good shape at her age of ninety-two, she says it is because her conscience is clear.
Your film are often dedicated to the theme and destiny of Nazi or Communist victims. As if an incessant urge to define yourself against lack of freedom and totalitarian regimes. May I be cheeky and ask what next project you are considering?
Yes, this is my theme about which I have made almost thirty films in the last twenty years. I am currently working on a film about the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS) established by the Charta signatories forty years ago to get the message about the repression applied by the Czechoslovak communist regime out via Radio Free Europe and Voice of America international broadcasting. Not only those they informed about; even the VONS members paid for their activities by many years of imprisonment. To me, they are heroes whose then-commitment tells our times that as soon as the rule of law turns into injustice, a civil rebellion is obligatory.
Thank you for the interview, and may your film attract a lot of viewers!