Film Resistance Against Oblivion

17. 12. 2019

Author: Martin Svoboda

Director Vera Lacková and producer Jan Bodnár are making the documentary film How I Became a Partisan (Ako som sa stala partizánkou) about Roma resistance fighters during World War II. Trying to revive historical memory, the film also fights prejudice and stereotypes many people unwittingly succumb to.

Is it difficult to work with a topic that’s so personal?
It’s definitely personal. We’ve always shared my great-grandfather’s stories in my family and I gave a promise to my grandmother that I’d help keep his legacy as well as the legacy of Roma resistance alive. My grandma passed away last year so I feel especially motivated and determined to make this film. In a way, it’s a kind of a mission for me. I don’t consider that a creative disadvantage, though. I believe that the personal connection helps me to fully concentrate and deliver my best work. Which is not to say that I let emotions get the better of me and want to be sentimental about one of my ancestors – the film deals with four other stories, anyway.

I guess it’s a lot less personal story for you, Mr Bodnár.
I’ve known Vera for a long time and we’ve always discussed this story. I actually found out about Roma resistance fighters from her. That’s who it became personal. I want to do my share in bringing this topic to light. As far as the emotions, I think that Vera is certainly more closely connected to the story, on the other hand, one can’t help but feel sympathy when you hear about it. Our film should ensure that these events are not forgotten and can be shared with younger generations. That’s why our tagline is ‘Film resistance against oblivion’. It’s an important social issue of European relevance, which is attractive for me as a producer as well as on a purely human level.

So in your case, the director doesn’t just focus on the emotional and creative side of things, while the producer keeps his distance and has his feet firmly on the ground? How is your creative collaboration?
I should note that I’m a co-producer as well so I’m not cut off from this aspect of the project. Being also the director then gives me a greater freedom and control over my decisions. I think Jan is fine with that. He helps me to fully express myself.
Bodnár: The whole project is set up for Vera to have as comfortable a position as possible so everybody else is trying to make her job easier. We should also mention script editor Jan Gogola and co-producer Jarmila Poláková who have been with us since the beginning and help us pick the right path forward. All members of our crew have their say in where the project’s going but, of course, we respect Vera as the director and the unifying force.

What about other influences – the influence of organizations that have contributed to the project and might want to exert some control over it? How much is the film affected by this kind of negotiations?
Sure, every institution enters the process in some way or other, we’ve received support from the Czech TV, Slovakia’s RTVS, funds and so on. Each contract affects the project a bit. For example, we deal with who should be hired for specific jobs or with the length of the film, so that we have a cinema version as well as a 52-minute TV version.
Lacková: I don’t necessarily view the process as something negative. Each negotiation may help us uncover some flaws and improve the final outcome. But we don’t work with an external production company. Initially, that was our plan but it was suggested to us we should take it up on our own and it seems we’re doing quite well.
Bodnár: We should still mention some of the companies that have been involved, for instance, Film & Sociologie has helped us a lot.

What languages are spoken in the film?
Roma, Czech, English and also German because I live in Vienna and parts of the film have been shot in Graz.
Bodnár: Since the very beginning, we have been working with the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership. Our Austrian partner’s involvement has been crucial in negotiations with other institutions and once you find a partner like that, it’s definitely much easier to get other potential partners onboard.

How do you make the TV cut? Does it hold the same amount of material or do you have to lose particular elements or a storyline?
We want it to contain all of the material, so it’s an editing challenge we have to tackle a month from now. We have an excellent editor, though – Hana Dvořáčková – who has just had two films, Dunaj of Consciousness and Kiruna - A Brand New World, at the Ji.hlava IDFF...

What pitching events have you attended so far?
As observers, we have attended the Ex Oriente Film and the East Doc Platform. Last year, Vera was selected for the IDFAcademy and I presented the project at the goEast festival in Wiesbaden. Together, we attended the Ace Training Days and Works in Progress at Febiofest. Our major pitching session is at the end of this year’s Ex Oriente Film among the selected projects.

GoEast is interesting in that it highlights East European identity of its projects. What’s your experience?
I often feel that various sales agents or festival representatives don’t consider our story sufficiently international. They think it’s too Slovak or Czech. But Roma resistance fighters were active everywhere. In fact, one of my goals is to show the audiences that this was no exception, that Romas were fighting Nazism all around Europe. Unfortunately, before I can persuade the viewers, I have to persuade the professionals at various funding events. It actually strengthens the social relevance of our project. Just look at the rise of far-right movements – we can fight them by raising awareness. The image of Roma people as being passive observers standing outside history is certainly undeserved and plays into racist prejudice. The Roma fought alongside others and the fact that we are forgetting applies to Europe as a whole.
Bodnár: The differences in historical consciousness between Central and Eastern Europe, the West and, especially, the United States are significant. When you’re at Ex Oriente Film or the East Doc Platform, you get some level of understanding. But when we play our teaser to somebody from the U.S., they know nothing about the context and they have some stereotypical expectations. As Vera says, at least this helps us realize that our film is very much needed today.

Will this influence the way you present information and communicate with the audience?
For example, some people in the West said our script was missing a clear storyline and a clear hero through which to experience these little-known stories. But our intention was to create a kind of collage, it isn’t supposed to show the adventures of a single heroic partisan. We’ll see how we can sort it out in the editing room.
Lacková: It’s a strange experience because it shows that things we consider normal can be completely unknown somewhere else. On the one hand, these encounters can be inspiring but on the other hand, one must be careful not to abandon one’s original vision and avoid easy solutions.

Still, as a producer, do you feel you should push for an outcome that will be successful in distribution?
It’s always difficult to what extent you should calculate as far as audience reception and distribution viability. Just the fact that we’re talking here at the Jihlava IDFF suggests that we’re actively involved in the process and want to have a festival presence. We’re working on our strategy, meeting with various festival representatives, we want our film to be seen. And we’re serious when we say that it isn’t just about our professional achievement. We really want to raise awareness of this topic and educate as many people as possible. That’s why we’re trying to premiere our film at a large European festival. As Vera says, we have to carefully weigh all outside influences so that the integrity of the film remains intact.

Every time there’s a festival movie that focuses on an underrepresented group, it always becomes a sort of universal representative of that particular group. Do you accept this role or would you rather that the viewers’ interpretations not go beyond the storyline?
Just the fact that Vera is also Roma means that the movie automatically goes beyond the story. Of course, we want to do our part in fighting prejudice and stereotypes and it would be pointless to avoid this issue. On the other hand, I don’t feel this is “a Roma film” that has its own unique, separate voice – it’s a movie about our short historical memory and it applies to our society as a whole. It’s a movie about people of different nationalities coming together to fight evil, which is a universal theme.
Lacková: I don’t want anybody to think that I set Roma apart to make them seem in any way better or more heroic than others. On the contrary, I’m trying to show that we feel a part of society, we feel the same amount of responsibility for different issues and we can help to find the right solution. This certainly goes beyond the storyline, so I don’t insist on any simple interpretation. I’ll be happy if people identify parallels and meanings that are relevant today and that can build connections between our ancestors and our generation.

We haven’t yet talked about the overall concept.
We’re working with archives and trying to contact children of the partisans since none of them is alive today. The movie is held together by Vera’s story that blends detective elements as she uncovers her past with fairy tale elements because that’s how Vera viewed stories about her great-grandfather when she was little.
Lacková: So perhaps you could see it as a detective search that goes from a fairy tale toward facts, but that’s grossly simplified. We receive a lot of different reactions to me as a protagonist. A few people weren’t sure about it because I seemed too timid, but I think I convinced them in the end. I believe that my participation lends the film a bit of human connection, a bit of intimacy.
Bodnár: We should also mention that the project is much larger and this movie isn’t the only output. As part of the preparations, we carried out an extensive ethnographic research that was used for the exhibition Roma Resistance that will also appear in the film. Importantly, the opening was attended by the Slovak president Zuzana Čaputová, which helped us draw media attention to the project. We’re also considering publishing a book that would complement the movie release.

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