Playing it unsafe – Helena Třeštíková’s long-term observation

1. 7. 2019

Author: Martin Šrajer

With her documentary series Marriage Stories (1987) and films, such as René (2008), Katka (2009) and Private Universe (2011), filmmaker Helena Třeštíková belongs, both locally and internationally, among the major proponents of long-term observation.

Early long-term observational documentaries were made many years before the first Czech ones, e.g., the still unfinished series Up (UK) that started in 1964 with Paul Almond’s documentary Seven Up! (1964). From 1961 to 2007, Winfried and Barbara Junge made The Children of Golzow in (East) Germany, a film with the longest production period. Třeštíková did not watch the latter project until 1989. It was the first time she saw the long-term observation method in a foreign film. It is apparent that her films Water of Life (1972), Miracle (1975) and Marriage Stories did not draw on other films applying the same method but on period longitudinal sociology projects conducted by Czechoslovak researchers.

Třeštíková’s long-term observational documentaries enjoy a largely positive public and critical reception. Among Czech documentary theatrical releases, her films always rank near the top and get high viewer ratings on television. They also collect awards at local and international festivals (e.g., the Prix ARTE for René) and, with the exception of Vojta Lavička: Nahoru a dolů (2013), they have fairly high scores in the Czech-Slovak film database. One of the reasons for the success of Třeštíková’s long-term observational films is their structure that follows the general principles of narrative features, which is something often picked up by distributors promoting Třeštíková’s work. For instance, the official synopsis for Marcela (2006) described the film as “an experiment in which documentary filmmakers approach a story in the same way we see in fiction films.” 

It is no surprise then that one of the chapters in Třeštíková’s book Časosběrný dokumentární film [Long-term Observational Documentary Film, 2015] is entitled “Long-term Observation as a Story”. Třeštíková bases her concept on similar principles as fiction filmmakers. She also admits that her documentaries accommodate our need to place all disparate fragments of our everyday experience into a logically coherent, causally linked whole, preferably with a satisfying conclusion. As Třeštíková writes in her book, she views long-term observational documentary as a different path to achieve the same goal pursued by literary or film fiction, i.e., “a more general commentary on life and the time we live in.”

Třeštíková’s deliberate effort to satisfy the audience’s need for straightforward stories may be one of the reasons for the lasting popularity of her films. However, it would be misleading to view her focus on storytelling as creative laziness. It is never easy to find the right balance between narrative elements and concern for truth which should be honored by the filmmaker to earn the protagonist’s trust. This is also clear in Třeštíková’s book in which she repeatedly discusses the complex connections between recorded facts and the way they are narrated, thereby suggesting that finding a unifying subject can be incredibly difficult. It is the central theme that really determines the shape and rhythm of a documentary film, seemingly created by merely recording actual events. 

Marcela (2006), René (2008), Katka (2009) and Mallory (2015) follow the changing lives of their respective protagonists and all information is reduced to that purpose. Unlike in traditional documentaries, we hear everything directly from the protagonists, with no additional commentary from talking heads, the protagonists’ family and friends. As opposed to documentaries that follow a broader subject rather than the life of a single individual, the chronotope in Třeštíková’s long-term observational portraits is less fragmented. In order to respect the tacit agreement between the filmmaker and the viewer, events are usually presented chronologically. Though there are still huge gaps to fill in between the shots compared to fiction film, all events point in the same direction, with no flashbacks or new pieces of information the protagonists did not know about at the time.

Whenever necessary, Třeštíková conveys important information using on-screen text instead of voice-over. It is another way in which Třeštíková tries to make her films as meaningful and accessible as possible. Třeštíková systematically uses TV news footage to show historical context. Ideally, it is the protagonists themselves who watch TV news on camera. Třeštíková admits that she cannot always directly shoot the situation she has in mind. That is where the editing process comes in, for instance, by supplying additional archive footage. This method is widely used in Private Universe that is based on the clash of “big” and “small” history.  

A key condition to Třeštíková’s long-term observation is having an equal relationship with the protagonists, even as it sometimes grows into an informal friendship off-screen. Třeštíková believes that long-term projects would not be possible without the ability to forge equal dialogue. Although the director sides with the protagonists, she is rarely seen or heard in her films. She abandons her narrator role, which we sometimes become aware of when questions get asked from behind the camera, only if forced by circumstance (e.g., a controversial scene in Marcela when the camera keeps rolling even after the protagonist fainted during the internment of the urn with her daughter’s ashes.

One of the conditions to having a better viewing experience with fiction films is our identification with the characters. Some of Třeštíková’s documentaries accommodate this need for empathy as they capture everyday problems of regular people. Elements of uniqueness are largely eliminated, e.g., the couples featured in Marriage Stories resemble each other both during communism and later as they bitterly reflect on their (un)fulfilled dreams. With the exception of Private Universe, Třeštíková’s documentaries stay in the Czech territory, close to the world of local viewers and do not have to waste time explaining historical and political facts. Moreover, Marcela showed that viewer empathy can turn into action. After seeing the film about Marcela’s unhappy life, many people sent money to help her.  

The issue of ethics in long-term observational films should be discussed in greater detail. If a documentary filmmaker wants to be fair and include only footage approved by the protagonists, viewers could then accuse them of being too impartial, unconcerned about controversial topics. In René, Katka and Mallory, Třeštíková was able to avoid this pitfall by broaching the issues of crime, addiction and social system through her struggling protagonists. In Katka, however, her approach veered to the opposite extreme. She faced criticism for being too callous when she did not stop the camera even with Katka high on drugs. This brings us back to the relationship between the filmmaker and the protagonist. If it is supposed to be a truly equal relationship, then the filmmaker carries as much responsibility for what they show as does the protagonist for what they reveal about themselves. In exchange for their time dedicated to the filmmaker, the protagonist enjoys the filmmaker’s sympathetic perspective. 

Like fiction films that are able to encapsulate a span of time, long-term observational documentaries also stretch out to many years. The inevitable passage of time becomes one of the topics; time becomes one of the main protagonists and co-authors in this format. The fact that these films are shot over many years increases the likelihood of dramatic events. Alternately, time can be used to point out the unchanging principles of human nature vis-a-vis the changing social demands. The passage of time alone is no guarantee of a compelling documentary. It is necessary to find the key to unlock the protagonist, structure the narrative around specific motifs (e.g., water in Katka), and to create the right rhythm, for instance, by highlighting repetition in the protagonists’ statements.   

Třeštíková’s documentaries remain attractive and accessible to viewers because they follow a chronological structure; they seem straightforward and the situations they depict are often familiar; they focus on a small number of protagonists, universal subjects, and viewers do not need to know anything beyond the film to understand it. All of this may be the inherent value of long-term observation. Yet it could also be the product of Třeštíková’s remarkable observation talent and patience during the editing process. Both skills shine all the more if we consider how easily one could replicate the same playing field in a fiction film. Třeštíková’s often cited line that “Long-term observation is playing it unsafe” in fact means that one has to really master the game in order to increase the chance of winning.

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