The Evening with Czech Docs will involve a preview screening of the feature film, Mamma from Prison. The observational documentary is mapping the phenomenon of motherhood in the prison environment. We used the opportunity and asked the director, Veronika Jonášová, about the details from the making of a sequence to her preceding film, In Prison With Mom.
“A better person through motherhood” is the motto of your documentary. If you should view is as a fact rather than a motto, would you attach your signature? Are your lead characters better persons thanks to the prison term spent with their children?
I am convinced mother’s love is one of the strongest emotions a woman can experience. And I believe it is a huge motivation to change one’s life. One of our characters, Adriana, had a strong addition to hard drugs for a few years; the majority of drug addicts never make it out of this stage. She quit practically cold turkey just because her children. She says this sentence in the film: “If one is not changed by children, nothing will ever change him or her.” I would sign that. A prison for mothers with children is important mainly because the relationships between the mothers and the children are not torn apart. The lives of all my characters were improved by this type of prison sentence. Even Bara who, unfortunately, did not make is and ended up behind bars again. This is a project which delivers results – for instance the lowest level of recidivism within the framework of the Czech prison system.
What do you think is the strongest point of the film – where do you see its importance and place amongst contemporary Czech documentaries?
The film is unique by us being the only ones in a pan-European context to shoot a documentary in such a prison ward. No one ever researched the influence of spending time in prison on the children’s later life. In my opinion, the power of the documentary is in the fact we tried to approach it honestly and give the most authentic reflection of the stories of people we followed for a long time. I never manipulated the characters, and I do not imply any opinions for the audience. That we won the characters’ trust and they forgot all about the camera so they ultimately took no notice of it, is what I consider a success.
Do you support the opinion that it is good for the children themselves if they stay with their mothers in prison wards like Světlá nad Sázavou? There must be a number of studies as well as specialist opinions. What does a director who was so close to the mothers and children for a long time over the observational filmmaking actually think?
It is unambiguously beneficial for the children to be with their mothers. The children are well off there. Just imagine the fact that the mother’s only job description is looking after and taking care of their children all day long. I believe many children here are better off than outside prison. I found it interesting that some women only learnt to properly look after and develop their children here. I will never forget the mother who told me that she only learnt to play with her child and read to him in prison. Her parents never played with her during her childhood, and she did not know it. The ward is designed for young children up to the age of 3, when they do not notice that they are not at home; they only perceive their mothers’ presence. It is many times better than for the children to be institutionalised.
The film In Prison With Mom was screened in 2014. What was the viewers’ feedback and what more is offered by the loose sequel, Mamma from Prison? Or did you possibly intend to make an observational documentary in sequels from the very beginning?
In Prison With Mom is a journalistic film, which was made under completely different conditions. My director of photography, Jarmila Štuková, and I even used a different technique. We filmed In Prison With Mom over a year and the film had 26 minutes. Editing took me 4 days. With this film, I spent almost three months in the editing room and I believe we will offer our audience a different, more film-like experience. I received nice response to In Prison With Mom, and the theme captivated journalists, too. I was surprised by how many people saw the film. Personally, I was not quite happy with the result. 26 minutes is a short film, and I believed the material had more potential and that we could do a documentary for cinema with it. Basically right after the shooting of In Prison With Mom ended, I kept observing the girls in prison at my own expense, while I was negotiating with the producer and then waiting for a grant. Jarmila, the director of photography, shot the film with her own equipment and for free for a long time; this made it possible for us to continue.
How difficult is the dramaturge of an observational documentary? From several years’ distance, how has your original intention with this topic changed?
Dramaturgy is a complex thing. With a documentary, you can plan something and then it does not happen, because something else happens. In my case, basically nothing went to the original plan. But I was lucky with my team of brilliant people. Jan Gogola helped with dramaturgy all through the shooting, and in the editing room I even consulted with Helena Třeštíková which made me very happy. Jakub Hejna helped me the most; he put the film together in the editing room and I consider him a wonderful dramaturg.
Could you describe your work team in more detail? What was its makeup when you starting shooting, and how did it expand during your work?
The entire film was shot within a close team with Jarmila Štuková. I only hired other cameramen exceptionally. For a long time, I organised everything myself, including production work. After about a year, Nutprodukce and Pavla Janoušková Kubečková started looking after the film; she arranged my contact with the editor, Jakub Hejna. I was generally very lucky with my film team. For instance I am really happy that in Czech TV, the film is coming together with Ivana Pauerová in the Production Team of Alena Müllerová whom I like personally, and whose projects I admire as well. Katka Šafaříková was a great help in terms of production.
Observational documentaries always present interesting life stories. Are you still in contact with all the women, and are you possibly still prepared to take the camera and record the shifts in their lives?
We are still in contact. I am happy to have got in touch even with Bara who refused to film for a long time, and went back to prison again. I even exchange letters with Bara, and have the other girls on Facebook so we know about each other and message each other. Last time I shot the B-roll footage for my film with Bara. One of our characters is having another child in the autumn, which should also be recorded I think. But now I want a break from shooting; I will be happy to pick it up again after a longer period. In the future, I would like to restart filming, I am for instance really interested in further developments of the children whom I really know from babies. However, it depends on whether our characters will agree, and whether the State Cinematography Fund will support us again. For the time being, the girls have promised they would go for it, so we will see.