Jan Gebert is a Czech documentary filmmaker, known mostly for Stone Games (Hra o kámen, 2012). His latest documentary feature When the War Comes (Až přijde válka, 2018) takes viewers to an ordinary Slovak landscape where a group of young men trains to defend Slovakia from perceived foreign threats, especially refugees. Peter, the group’s leader, is an archaeology student and the protagonist of this documentary film exploring the roots of extremism and the reasons for why a group of young men decides to take up arms and train for war in the woods.
Lately, there has been quite a trend of documentary films on people who could be called extremists. Why did you decide to tackle this topic?
In fact I don't believe I did. I didn't try to show extremists, I tried to show ordinary, everyday people just as those around us now, in this coffee shop. They live their normal, middleclass lives, and next to it they do something which would have been labeled extremism ten years ago. Surely, there are films about extremists but I don't care about those. What I do care about is the fact that something extreme has become the norm and is associated with people who have no intention to act in an ‘extremist’ way. They are regular workers, officials, scientists... This movie is not about me infiltrating a group of stereotypical antisystem activists. All those guys are really just... normal in their private lives. And that is the heart of the problem. What we see today could have happened eighty years ago in the 1930s. And that’s terrifying.
Then why did you choose to follow these young men as they try to build a militia? It is tempting to dismiss them simply as a bunch of losers. Will viewers really think of them as regular guys or just stupid extremist kids?
Unfortunately, we couldn't spend that much time with them outside the group, to show they are for the most part people like you and me. And their young age is important for another reason – I was trying to capture the mechanism by which an older generation sends signals to children and young adults about norms and acceptable behavior. Their reaction to what is presented to them makes sense. I was fascinated by the silence that surrounds them. Nobody tells them to stop, to think about their behavior. Neither the parents, nor the police. Everybody seems to view them as a sort of leisure club. Leftist intellectuals on television are no authority for these kids, they need somebody in their life to intervene but nobody does. I think the passivity of our society is a message of its own.
Is it passivity or is it intention?
I’m afraid that all around us we can see that most people in Central Europe openly praise authoritarian approach to politics. It is important to say that the leader of these kids, our ‘hero’, does have politics in mind. In the film we can see him at first publicly denying it, but later admitting it before a friend. And why wouldn’t he? If you look at the last election results, we can see people tend to choose politicians with this kind of views more often now than ever before. His extreme ideas became socially acceptable and his opinions are now just another mainstream program, another possibility.
You speak about the passivity of their surroundings but your method requires that you don't personally interact with them either. Which, of course, is a valid way of looking for the truth. But was it hard for you not to interact?
The film is confrontation in itself. It does not need voiceover or my argument with the protagonists. It wasn’t necessary to try to confront them or to convince them to do anything, they interact with each other enough. One time I had an idea to shoot the guys during one of their tactical meetings. And there, out of the blue, our protagonist said he would abolish elections. I really didn't expect him to say something like that. And he said it like it was nothing. There was no need to push them. In a way, they pushed themselves further than I could have imagined. They mirror the state of our society as they build their little totalitarian system.
You mentioned their spontaneity. I was fascinated by the way these twenty-year-old men control themselves, how consciously they talk about the media and their public image. There is not much naiveté in it.
That’s true. They’re very open to media, realizing how useful they can be to their cause. In the end that is one of the reasons they allowed us to film them. They’re aware of the power of media. And that is the reason I in particular like moments when they break their act. I tried to capture as many of these little glimpses as I could. Also, what they consider normal behavior might still look very scary to people from the outside.
How much time did you spend with them?
50 days altogether.
You must’ve had more than a hundred hours of film. This must be one of the films born in the editing room.
We spent a lot of time in the editing room. The main storyline was quite clear at the time of the shoot but it was still hard to put it all together, mainly because it was impossible to direct the guys. The other protagonist, a fifteen-year-old boy nicknamed The Killer, was relatively easy to talk to, I could ask him to play with his dog and he did it. But Peter, our main protagonist, didn’t let us tell him what to do. He did enough by himself but it makes things a little more difficult for the editing process.
Did he try to direct you?
He didn't let us see everything. As I’ve said, I was interested in his life outside the group, mainly in school, but there weren’t many chances. That made it difficult because the contrast is really important, it is the main point of the movie and the scariest part – how normal and extreme they are at the same time! But Peter was really cautious about his private life, there were only a few chances to see him studying archaeology, for example – yes, that’s what he does. Not some military school but archaeology.
What is the dynamics between you and your editor?
I’m in constant dialogue with Jana Vlčková. It is necessary to agree on an ideal goal and then try to reach it. It is important to use other people’s talent in the right way. Technically, I could edit a movie myself but it would never be as good as one made with a competent editor.
How straightforward was the editing process and to what degree was it necessary to intentionally highlight specific topics and motifs?
The film is episodic, scenes are separated and don’t constitute a fluid experience. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end but the scenes are quite monolithic, which was our intention - to show large solid scenes that speak for themselves. It made the whole editing process lengthier though and it wasn’t easy to create a rhythm and it took time to create a functional exposition. We had the scenes of important events but to put them together was quite a task.
You decided not to use voiceover, not to enter the film – which are some of the easy ways when a documentary needs to be put together.
Yes, I believe this would be the best solution. We carefully chose the situations to chain them into a story I needed to tell. It is up to viewers to draw their own conclusions from the story. I can’t tell people what to think – I can show them enough to think for themselves. Viewers’ own takeaway is the best one.
Have your protagonists seen the film?
Yes. They reacted as if it was a comedy, as if it was something really funny. It was a strange experience for me to sit there with them. They were amused. Later they got more serious and pointed out two moments they didn’t like but in the end they found no manipulation on my part. They simply can’t see the unpleasant message which I and probably most people see in the film. They want to be seen like this. It feels neutral to them. I’m quite curious about the debate once the film’s been released. I hope it won’t discourage them because I’d like to include them in the debate about and I want them to receive critical feedback from society. This is actually something that can make a difference.
You talk about your unbiased approach and its specific meaning to you. But do you want the movie to pass on your agenda, or is neutrality a good thing?
I wanted to capture the situation as I see it in the most complex way possible. It is not neutral at all. I did it as critical as I could by revealing this serious problem in its context. It is a film on the rise of fascism and I structured it that way. That is my comment, that is my statement I tell the viewers.
What about viewers who see nothing wrong with the group’s actions?
There will be some people like that, probably a lot of people like that. That’s why we plan to add debates to every screening that takes place in the region.
Your film is co-produced by HBO. Was it as useful as filmmakers claim it to be?
It really was. We had 50 days of shooting in the neighboring country – that is not a matter of course. And the brand is great at pitch sessions.
You’re not a FAMU graduate or teacher, which makes you a bit of an outsider in Czech documentary filmmaking. Is it harder to produce documentaries outside this group?
Not anymore, I’ve already managed to find my way. But now I’m glad I’ve made it through the back door.
The young men in your movie have an institution of their own. It seems to me that at the beginning they are openly childish, that they are really just kids playing soldiers. But in the course of the film, this sense of ‘kids’ play’ gives way to something else.
I am glad we managed to convey this feeling – that’s why the movie is edited mostly in a chronological way. I could see this change, this leap towards something like an Orwellian society. Later in the movie, they start labeling others with numbers instead of names. That’s the beginning of something sinister.