Helena Třeštíková is the first Czech director to get a retrospective at the DFA festival in Amsterdam. Třeštíková is well known for her long-time observations of ordinary people that can sometimes take decades to finish. Her work is mostly praised but also draws some criticism — and for the sake of discussion, this interview focused not only on her achievements but also on some of the more problematic aspects of her work.
Not so long ago, I wrote your profile for one outlet and I tried to describe your position in the Czech documentary landscape — briefly introducing your admirers but also your opponents. But my editor didn’t want to write about the negatives too much, so we had to reach some compromise. I believe you wouldn’t mind either way, in fact you yourself often bring up problematic aspects of your own work.
I sure do. I’ve heard criticism since a very young age because my mother was very strict. She always said: “I criticize you only because I love you and I care so much.” That’s the way I’m trying to read into ideas of my opponents. Unfortunately, I’ve found that criticism doesn’t always come with good intentions, so I can’t always submit to every bad thing I hear about myself. I must learn how to distinguish well-meant criticism from the angry kind but it’s still crucial to listen — and to know when to stand my ground and when to evolve.
Since I have started teaching at FAMU film school, I’ve met a lot of young progressive filmmakers who are quite strongly against my methods and find them too conservative and soft for their taste. But that’s fine. Before that I worked for television for a few years and I wasn’t close enough to any profound feedback — and that kind of emptiness was much worse for me than hearing something I didn’t like. I want and need to hear different opinions. I wish I could be sure young filmmakers are capable of the same.
Your films are going to be screened at IDFA to reach new people and new opinions. You are no stranger to presenting your films abroad — but never on such a scale. A selection of your films and films you deemed important will be screened at a major event. Is it a reason to be more nervous?
There’s always a reason to be nervous when you present your work to someone who doesn’t share the same vocabulary and encyclopedia, that’s why I’m so eager to hear what the audience has to say after the screening. But it seems, after all, that there’s a lot of universality in our lives. People abroad usually need only a few typical Czech phenomena explained, for example, our form of country lifestyle and weekend cottages. Not much else.
You like to talk about the intersection of ‘small’ and ‘big’ history. Everyday stories and system-changing events. But isn’t it a problem when I as a Czech viewer know all the events of our history but the viewer abroad knows at best about the fall of communism? And you don’t tend to overdo the exposition.
I believe the necessary core of facts is available in those films — especially in the case of Marriage Stories. You follow the families as they fight to get apartments in the 1980s, then as they start building businesses in the 90s and then, hopefully, reach some kind of stability in the new century — and it isn’t too difficult to grasp the environment of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic just from these clues.
I’ve never cared too much about the big history in this sense. I’ve always been fascinated that no matter what, people want to live normal, banal lives — and it is interesting to see them fighting for this normality. Non-Czech audiences will probably see my films in different ways — but that doesn’t necessary mean they will be wrong in their reading or that they won’t get the general picture.
I should also stress that when you make movies in this way — that is, when the material will be edited and released only several years later —, you might find you didn’t have the slightest idea what the ‘big history’ was going to be. This lack of immediate providence forces us to not even try to tell the big history in a complex way — because in the end, you’ll find you just weren’t there at some important moment or you weren’t aware you should aim your camera in that specific direction. It’s best to let the big history ‘spoil’ the everyday life without us trying to help it.
When you were making films in the 80s, did you feel the end of communism was near and did you try to collect some material to use after the end of censorship?
Oh no. I must admit, we were all convinced the regime was here to stay forever. The international world order seemed to be so permanent that it was unimaginable the Soviets would let us go. It was a euphoric shock for most of us when it fell apart in 1989, that’s why everyone was so happy, naïve and expected the fairy tale to begin. I myself started to feel some hope in the spring, maybe even in the summer that year — everything happened so fast! Before that, during the Palach week protests, where I almost got hit in the head by the police, they still seemed so strong! And Havel was in jail. How could it not be hopeless? We signed a petition for his release but we thought it to be a meaningless gesture. I expected them to fire me because my boss at Krátký film was the son of Miloš Jakeš — head of state. But before the process could potentially get through, the revolution came.
Along with the fall of communism came the fall of the state-run and -funded film industry. Things didn’t look too optimistic for many filmmakers.
We knew that a new era was coming, and that filmmaking would be very different even from a financial point of view. But there was no time for bad mood and as I’ve said we believed everything would be great from now on. And in the beginning, it really seemed that way. I, some other filmmakers and our friends from the sociology field founded the Film and Sociology institute, and we were able to get great funding — the Czechoslovak Television decided to give CZK 50 million, which was a lot of money, to independent filmmakers and our institute received 12 million — we were able to make over 40 films over the next two and a half years. We opened the taboo subjects of unemployment, the Roma people and the church that were censored in the past. For example, during communism I couldn’t film a church wedding but I decided to ignore this restriction and pretended I didn’t get the message. But now — no more games. We were free.
Today we remember those times as chaotic but in fact they were filled with pure optimism and it really felt like results were immediate. Unfortunately, it only lasted until commercial interests fully took the wheel. Our institute, for example, worked with TV Nova before its launch, and we thought it would be ‘our’ television for the sake of international education — they got their license especially for this purpose. But then they blocked us and built the biggest junk-channel for Dallas and Baywatch to be aired over and over again. That was a great disappointment. I realized what ‘free market’ would be all about.
Responsibility for almost all high-quality content now rests on the shoulders of the public Czech Television, especially when it comes to documentary co-production.
And lately it has been under terrible pressure from some new-era authoritarian politicians in power. Czech Television tries to do so much at once it’s very easy just to look for mistakes but we can’t afford to lose it. I don’t even want to imagine what would happen if these men find a way to control public television. It fills me with anxiety.
How did your work find its way to the other side of Czech borders?
The most important moment was when I started to cooperate with the producers at Negativ. After the institute ended, I worked mostly for Czech TV – not the best international distributor. And it so happened that Katka ended up in the 2009 IDFA competition. And after one successful film, it’s easier to promote the next. And then it’s even easier with the third one...and so on.
In your book, which is mostly for your students, you claim that activism and observation as methods don't go together. I suspect many people would disagree.
I should elaborate. I mean the specific Czech kind of activism I know my students at FAMU favor. Out of this context, this theory might seem rush. But I’m not comfortable with the type of activism when the filmmaker himself steps before the camera and declares all the topics, problems and the solutions that are explicitly coded in his film. That’s basically the opposite of my concept of observation where the filmmaker should be invisible, quietly watching and then editing the film with as little agenda as possible. If they observe a family who seem happy — edit it that way. If they observe a woman falling into drugs, follow it. Look for topics, don’t insert your own. Of course, I don’t want to say we shouldn’t discuss politics, on the contrary — but an observation film should be the basis for this discussion, not the discussion itself. It is necessary to stay as neutral as possible just because the discussion is so much more meaningful — it is rooted in more unbiased data. I know I’m talking about unreachable ideals but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reach them. And I’m not even saying activism in documentary is wrong, I just believe it must stay out of observation.
There’s a big conflict right in your method — you aim to edit “as truthfully and honestly as possible” but you also care about “your people”. For example, you wrote that you deleted scenes that showed Katka participating in the making and dealing of drugs — so she would be safe from the police. That means the truth in your film could be “fuller” but you decided to step back.
I really don’t believe I’m entitled to make somebody’s life worse because of my film — and in the end, I committed a crime myself by not immediately informing the police. I wrote about this only after a few years when those events were too old to be persecuted. I know it’s controversial, believe me, but as a filmmaker who convinced a human being to be invited into their life, I must make decisions like these.
I guess this is hard to swallow for many. Contradictions and ethical issues in your work get resolved by your intuition — by your own authority. You don’t have a strict set of rules, you “do what you believe is right”.
You can’t just apply a set of rules to every individual life. And trust me — I don’t think all of my decisions are the best I could make, that’s inevitably illusory when you make each of these choices separately. I do have doubts — I have them all the time. And I’m not saying it to sound noble — it is not always practical and it is always hard. But in the end, I must embrace the doubts, stand my ground and try to do the best. But not hurting anybody is something you could take almost as a strict rule.
It might be misleading to label you as a controversial filmmaker in this interview — these discussions take place mostly in academic papers. But in the end, you are undeniably one of the most respected Czech filmmakers. And, more importantly, you have a gift of reaching university graduates just as factory workers and everyone between, which is very rare.
It’s true that a friend of mine at Czech TV told me my films have high ratings but also a great ratio of satisfied viewers. People on the street sometimes stop me and have very nice things to say to me. That feels so strange because documentary filmmakers usually aren’t widely known.
Yet you are one of the most well-known Czech public figures.
It turned out that way although I really tried to stay invisible. On the other hand, I’m never shy and when I’m asked to give an interview, I usually agree — I feel it’s necessary to promote work of so many people.
Ten years ago, you even agreed to become the culture minister and ended up resigning after only a few days. No need to go into the politics but has this ever haunted you in your filmmaking career? Have there been any repercussions?
Oh... Don't even mention it! That’s probably the greatest mistake I’ve ever made. I miscalculated the whole situation. First, I thought it wasn’t a big deal — the cabinet was meant to stay in only for six more months, so I thought I could do a few good things and then go on. In the end, the pressure to do things against my conscience was so swift and strong, I knew it had to end before it really started. I resigned on Friday and I felt so ashamed! The whole weekend I was afraid what would happen when I had to meet people again. Would they hate me? Would they ever take me seriously again? But I was surprised — I met with support and people usually took it the way I see it now — I was probably a little too naïve for real politics, it was a mistake but it was over. By the way, the cabinet didn’t fall after six months and I was happy because I wanted to edit one of my films.
Your work is quite unique in Czech cinema but that doesn’t mean you have no followers. Nothing Like Before by Klára Tasovská a Lukáš Kokeš premiered at IDFA last year and Bye Bye Children's Home by Hana Ludvíková, produced by your daughter Hana Třeštíková, also enjoyed critical acclaim. Both of these films are influenced by you.
And I’m happy to see it. Coincidentally, I saw Lukáš just today. I wanted to talk him into some other long-term observation project. But he’s not up to it now. I don’t blame him. This kind of filmmaking is hard and you can’t anticipate the outcome.
I’d like to see you work with people like that. Lukáš and Klára are great with the camera.
I know what you mean — my films often don’t look very good. I know it and my editors, especially, know it. They never forget to remind me that the footage I give them can be really ugly, that they miss continuity and so on. I can’t blame my cameramen either — I always insist they are quick and never interrupt our situations. They have no time to frame, to change the lens — and the movies look accordingly. Also, don’t forget the films combine footage collected over a number of years, they are the work of multiple cameramen — it’s necessary to use invisible style. Due to all that, they lose something but they gain in other ways and for me it’s worth it. Thankfully, we have filmmakers like Klára and Lukáš to offer an alternative. Their films are so great to watch just because the camera is so good! So we all have something. And that’s how it should be.