The Last Shift of Thomas Hisem is a short documentary by Jindřich Andrš about the eponymous worker’s last day of work before a coal mine is shut down for good. The film was recognized by the jury at the 21st Ji.hlava IDFF for its unique and authentic atmosphere. But it was only the first step for Andrš who stayed with Hisem for months to observe his attempt to become a computer programmer as the miner took a chance he and some of his friends got to retrain themselves. A New Shift is one of the three Czech projects participating in the training workshop Ex Oriente Film 2018.
The Last Shift of Thomas Hisem drew a lot of attention due to its special recognition by the Ji.hlava festival jury. That surely brought you some social capital.
It sure did. Yet I still consider competing at festivals to be only a necessary evil. First, I dislike the fact that even to get to the competition, you depend on the opinion of that institution's programmer whose choices often seem to be very unpredictable. The same movie can be rejected and not even screened at one festival and then go on to win another one. The Last Shift is a great example – we almost didn’t get into the program, it was a last-minute call after we were led to believe we shouldn’t count on it. And the prizes themselves aren’t any better. Or does anybody really think “the best film wins”? What does it even mean?
We live in a world where festivals and, especially, festival prizes are crucial for your future work, whether it be funding or distribution, and it’s quite problematic when you realize how random the process really is. Luckily, at least some institutions like the Czech Film Fund or even the IDF seem to be able to avoid this kind of thinking and their support and cooperation has deeper roots, based on professional reviews of the projects, not only a list of prizes.
It was your thesis film at the FAMU film school.
And the reactions from many teachers weren’t exactly great. For example, Head of Department, Professor Vachek said it was “too little.” He wanted the film to be a report about the political situation, he wanted me to comment on the billionaire Bakala and his business. It wasn’t enough to just observe the workers in their routine. But that’s what I’m always interested in – the impression of daily life. There’s a strong tendency at FAMU to voice political agenda and progressive activism but lately, more of us see the medium in a different way and we want to use it for other purposes. Now some of us want to tell stories in a way that resembles fiction films, we aspire to build characters with inner conflicts and observe their lives as a personal struggle. I myself care also about the subculture ethos I observe – not any political agenda.
If competing at festivals is a “necessary evil” to you, who is your audience? You still depend on festivals, don’t you?
By that I meant only the competition aspect of festivals, reactions from the audience is something I always look forward to. But I don’t want to make films for a ‘demanding audience’ – I want a story full of layers in which everyone can find a level of information interesting for them. I want strong characters and conflicts so I can be sure my mother won’t be bored and I want to incorporate a visual essay to add some deeper meaning for anybody who cares about it. It would be bad if a particular group of people wouldn’t find anything in it.
Will Professor Vachek be happy this time? Will you get at least a little political?
It still seems we won’t. And the reason is simply that politics is not a part of our protagonists’ lives. They view their situation as a consequence of the current market. They don’t even talk badly about their former boss Bakala who is a villain for so many other people. If you ask them why they lost their job, they will explain that the price of coal just plummeted – it’s as simple as that. They’re surprisingly rational about the whole thing and they don’t project politics into any of it. I decided to honor that sentiment and didn’t want to include something I didn’t find to be true.
Is it otherwise easy to find a story in it?
Very easy, in fact. The tagline “from miner to programmer” is strong on its own, Tomáš is a typical underdog who must overcome great obstacles and lack of trust from others – our crew included, at least at the beginning. We all expected him to fail and it often seemed that failure was near – which is good from the storytelling point of view, it brings conflict and suspense. Without spoiling the end, Tomáš is now trying to find his place in a company that hired him as a programmer and he works at a skyscraper in Ostrava. Once again, he struggles to fit in so the final shooting days are again full of potential. We also pay attention to people around him – a punker with green hair who becomes a real estate agent, and Tomáš’s best friend, a disabled retiree who goes back to high school. Those are also quite unique stories but we’re still not sure we should include them. We have one year to figure it out.
That's the time you have for editing?
We still have 12 days to shoot but then we should focus on the first rough cut. We have 70 hours of raw material so there are many paths to take. The core conflict is clear but the nuances can vary – it is still not fully decided what the film is going to be about.
Do you have a good editor?
I sure hope so. At some meetings I was advised to find someone experienced to guide me as a debutant but at this moment I still believe in Lukáš Janičík who I worked with on other school projects. We want to participate at the dok.incubator where we’re hoping to use some of their know-how to do the best we can.
Did cooperation between you and Mr. Hisem work? It must be hard to have a film crew behind you in a situation that demands so much energy and concentration.
It worked surprisingly well. I was happy to find that conflicts of Tomáš and his friends may seem fiction-like but their behavior before the camera isn’t stylized in any way. They don’t pretend anything they wouldn’t do in real life – there are no other layers of fakeness because of the camera, which is something quite rare and hard to achieve for those who try. When we shoot, for example, with the management of the company Tomáš works for, we can easily spot how businessmen try to play a part before us. Sometimes we had to point out that we could clearly tell they were being over-correct and over-polite and it seemed unnatural. We had to ask them to try not to be so aware of us. I don’t blame them, it’s really hard to be ‘normal’ before the camera and I can’t do it myself. That's why it’s so special to watch Tomáš as it seems natural to him and I believe his ‘act’ remains authentic, in fact it’s no ‘act’. One would be tempted to explain it with some kind of naiveté but I know him and his friends not to be naive people. So I don’t know why it is they’re so natural.
Even though they weren't influenced by the camera, the situations probably were. You’ve mentioned the managers were acting a bit. Do you think Mr. Hisem’s bosses might have been easier on him? More patient? More willing to overlook his mistakes? Could it be easier for him to succeed at work interviews thanks to you?
I think the influence was only cosmetic – it was in the communication, not in the decision making. From another point of view, you can see our presence as a negative influence for Tomáš – companies could think it is too risky to hire a man in this situation with a film crew watching his every step. If it turned out that he couldn’t do his job well, it would be hard to fire him – it would cast bad light on the management and turn the company into a villain. Some other companies involved with retrained miners avoided media because they were afraid the program would eventually fail and there would be unfitting and unfireable people to deal with. So, I believe those who agreed to let us in were motivated to do as rational and standard decisions as possible – to be sure that if Tomáš fails, their conscience is clean and they can proceed without feeling any pressure.
I can tell you and Mr. Hisem became friends. Are you able to keep your distance as a filmmaker? Or is it not your goal?
I always feel conflict between me as a director and me as a human being but that is unavoidable in observation that takes some time. Especially, when you follow somebody for two years and he has to overcome the biggest challenges of his life. I came to the conclusion that during the shoot it’s okay to embrace empathy and use your intuition to make choices. The time to step back and form some distance comes only in the editing room. That’s why an editor is so essential. He’s the one without personal stakes to tell me what the material really is about.
That’s why I always say the ‘truth’ of the documentary film comes from the edit. When I started making films, I tried to look for the truth on the set – I wanted it to be obvious in the situations as I filmed them. Later I found out that no matter what, the meaning is born after all of this – in the editing room. And there’s no way to overcome it and believe in some inherent truth of reality that is apparent.
How do you avoid it turning into a caricature? I’m afraid the story can end up being some kind of a ‘fish-out-of-water’ comedy. The story of a hillbilly who becomes ‘one of us’.
I am well aware of that and I want to make sure the film is about more than that. There must be humor as Tomáš and his friends have a great sense of humor but I don't want to make them the punchline. It should be a positive story about people willing to change their entire lives, which is often something quite scary and hard to imagine. They’re not supposed to be some funny curiosity. Luckily, it turned out that Tomáš is no hillbilly – he’s able to fit into his new job. Today, he talks in a different way than he did in the mine but he isn’t a ‘new man’. He doesn’t have to be – the miner is not too different from the programmer after all.
Personally, I’ve overcome my prejudice. Many of us who live in Prague, vote for progressive parties and live quite comfortable lives often think about rural voters of Miloš Zeman as unimaginably evil, stupid people that can’t be reached – just as in the US in the case of Trump supporters. Now I know that their world makes sense in a way and I’d be happy if more viewers came to the same conclusion. Maybe we will play with this in editing – to start with the caricature just to reject it.
Can you imagine that after editing, Mr. Hisem might really hate your interpretation and demand some big changes?
This hypothetical scenario is always a possibility and it’s hard to plan for it – you don’t even want to think about it. After all that time and all those friendly encounters, you don’t want to believe that something like that could happen. But in my case, I’ve felt self-awareness and even fear of rejection – I’ve shown Tomáš some fragments, always afraid he wouldn’t like it. Especially with The Last Shift. Up until now, it’s been okay and my fears unfounded.
It wouldn’t feel right to have an observation film the protagonists don’t agree with. It would be uncomfortable because it’s somebody else’s life you bring before other people. That's why I use an authorization process with all of my protagonists.
Of course, there are things I feel to be the truth and I believe it’s necessary to include them in the film – and I would argue about them. I don’t know how that would go because we’ve had no conflicts so far. But I’d rather cut scenes that would be harmful to people. And not just people – institutions as well.
I guess that must be resolved in some contract already.
Surprisingly, all companies were very restrained in their demands and signed quite generous contracts that don’t interfere with our freedom too much. My own ethic is stronger than official rules – I wouldn't want to think I betrayed their trust. I still feel obliged to expose any kind of unhealthy working conditions should I find any evidence because it’s related to our topic and in fact it’s the reason we are filming at all.