The 13th edition of the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival will take place in Prague, Czech Republic next month from 8 – 17 March. This has become one of the most important high-profile human rights film fests internationally, exhibiting over 100 films over the course of a week and a half. It is there that I will get to re-meet Czech filmmaker, Helena Trestiková, a multiple award-winning documentarian who has been débuting her latest piece, Katka, on the international circuit this year. Perhaps most people might not necessarily categorize Trestiková’s films under a “human rights” rubric. She, herself, is quick to point out that she does not think of herself, necessarily, as any obvious kind of social activist. (The filmmaker, pictured, on the ferry ride across the sea from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia, courtesy Evelin Kask, January 2011.)
What does distinguish this filmmaker’s work is her unique, and intense, involvement with her protagonists, most of whom she follows with a small film crew for well over a decade and her singular commitment to her subjects goes beyond filming them. She shows us what it is like to be a particular human being in a particular set of circumstances—circumstances which are harrowing, off-putting for most, and all too real for the people acting out the passion plays of their own lives for years on end for her camera. Katka is the most recent work in a series of films that are observational studies of people who find themselves utterly lost and cast adrift. The first two are called René, released in 2008 and winner of the European Film Academy's Documentary of the Year Award, and Marcela, released in 2007, also a multiple award-winner. She has been following these subjects for most of the past 20 some-odd years and continues to do so today.
When we first meet her, Katka is a gorgeous, vibrant young woman, a recovering drug addict in a halfway house, trying to relearn the basics of life as a drug-free person. Trestiková spent the next fourteen years following her as she relies on precarious and violent relationships with two different men and embarks on misadventure after misadventure into a variety of criminal activities, including working as a street prostitute, to sustain her habit. She never kicks it--even when awaiting the birth of a daughter.
This powerful film, like Trestiková's others, raises many complex moral and ethical issues concerning the filmmaker relationship to his or her subjects. Nevertheless, Trestiková’s film is big box office in her native country since so far, over 100,000 Czech moviegoers have turned out to see Katka in cinemas.
I sat with Trestiková, a very elegant and soft-spoken woman in her early 60s (hardly your average crusading, rampaging social activist) in a quiet café in the midst of the DocPoint festival in Helsinki Finland in late January. [Note to those who haven’t seen Katka yet, this interview contains “plot” spoilers.]
Still in Motion (SIM): As a teacher of documentary filmmaking at FAMU [Filmová a televizní Fakulta Akademie Múzickych Umení v Praze, Czech Republic's national film school], what are you seeing from young filmmakers in terms of certain philosophies or schools of thought about making this kind of vérité or direct cinema documentary? The world moves at a particularly fast clip, for the most part, but your own films have a deliberate pace and timbre to them that requires loads of time, untold days and weeks over the course of several years. (Trestiková pictured above with Marcela.)
Helena Trestiková (HT): It’s true that young people look at the world and experience the world in their own ways. And they don’t want to really imitate anyone. They also have a very personal attitude and experience to certain topics and they want to help implement change by being active participants in their own films. They are one of the objects in their own films, directly in front of the camera. Some of them admire someone like Michael Moore and his way of documenting his stories where he is very active in his own films; he wants to move a situation. He wants to make the world a better place; this is a kind of social activism. This is the main part of the young filmmakers’ activity.
Antithetically, I have an observational method. I observe for a very long time. And some of my students think that this is too passive of a way to make documentary films, that a filmmaker has to be active and change the world with his or her film. My thought is that I will observe and record and the viewers of my films will think about things. And, then, perhaps, something in their own mind will change. It’s a much deeper reaction, I think, than watching someone crusade on behalf of others. This other method can be problematic in many ways. I would rather force people to think rather than to react.
SIM: However, you are incredibly present in your films. Your subjects interact with you in a very intimate way--they are addressing you directly in many instances. Your lack of interference, at least on camera, speaks to giving the lion’s share of attention to your subject. And that qualifies as social activism in a much more profound way by moving aside, allowing us to hear their voices and see their lives play out in a more authentic way—as authentic as one film can represent a whole life, that is.
HT: No, stillness for young people is not their way. They want to be seen and heard.
SIM: What’s so staggering about what you show us in your long-form portraits is the persistence of your subjects in their self-destructiveness. In the cases of René and Katka, they never reform; they never “get better,” or improve their lives in any way. In Katka’s case in particular, things go from bad to worse quite relentlessly. There simply is no happy ending in sight no matter how long you stay with this woman. What is the general audience reaction to this, do you find?
HT: Most of the viewers I’ve had contact with describe a physical, visceral reaction to my films and to the subjects. There is an experience of physical pain. The story is, as you said, relentlessly depressing. But when I sat on a panel after showing the film to a group of young teens, ages 12 to 14 or 15, they said it was a good experience for them to see it. In our generation, we had Christiane F—We Children from the Zoo Station , such a personal story about someone’s relationship with drugs. They realize, watching Katka’s portrait, the danger of beginning a relationship with drugs; there is a real fear. But that’s only one aspect. It shows how far a drug addict will go—the impossibility to do anything else with one’s life once the body and mind are addicted. And there is the attitude of society when encountering this kind of person since we have to understand that there is nothing anyone can do for a drug addict who does not want to be hospitalized or cured in any way. I was asked why I didn’t take Katka to the hospital right away and I said it was impossible—a hospital is not going to take someone being brought there by force. If it’s not his or her personal decision, then it’s impossible. We all have free will and free will works the same way in that situation as it does in any other situation. (Pictured above, a several months' pregnant Katka in Prague.)
What’s important about this long-term observation is that, as a viewer, you can see the whole story—it’s there for you. But me, as the filmmaker, I don’t know at the start what I will encounter, what will happen.
SIM: I’m sure your own emotional state, your own innate hope that things will get better for this person you’ve come to care deeply for, must really be intense and quite difficult to sustain at times.
HT: Of course, I had hope the whole time. Especially when Katka was pregnant and told me that this was her motivation to get clean and find a home. And I believed her, feeling that this would be a very good impulse for her stopping. But it was probably this moment when she left her daughter in the hospital and escaped, that was the most difficult. Because it was in this moment that I felt the greatest disappointment, the greatest doubt.
SIM: That if she could give up her child for drugs then it was truly hopeless?
HT: Yes. There was just one day, just one day before she was to get her daughter back. And she escaped.
SIM: It is a great moment of despair because we really don’t want to believe that someone could do that. And yet she does. When I watched René, I had the same thoughts—can a person really do that? Yes, he can really do those things and he does. In René’s case, there is the self-satisfaction of being so utterly irredeemable. But this, of course, is not the case with Katka; she’s a prisoner of her own addiction and she stays chained there no matter what. You, as an individual, must have to be capable of putting up some kind of wall at certain points between you and your subjects, just as you would have to do with anything or anyone that has a profound impact on your life in a negative way.
HT: Yes, well, a viewer sees this film in 90 minutes. I lived it for 15 years. So it was not so intensive in that way because during that time, I also made other films, did other projects and so on. But yes, also, there were moments and incidents shooting with Katka that were so horrible. When she was a street prostitute, I discovered her there by accident; it was a chance meeting because I was shooting something else nearby. At the time, I didn’t know she was working as a prostitute. We were returning from a shoot and we saw her on the street.
In terms of this “wall” you mention: It’s my task to make a film. And yes, I am a person, too. The emotions I experience and how I handle all of it is complicated. But I think and I hope that my position in Katka’s life is good because I want to help her. I spent a lot of time with her without a camera. We gave her some money or paid for her mobile phone. One summer, she wanted to have a tent and asked me if I had one. I didn’t but asked many friends and we got a tent for her. For the times I filmed with her, I paid her. But that’s my normal method. I always give some money to my subjects, not only her. But for her, this is the only legitimate money she’s ever made, a salary for her. This gave her some pride. She was contributing to the film and getting something in return. Her only other financial resources come from stealing things in stores, prostitution and making drug deals. Contact with me was okay for her because it was safe. She wasn’t afraid and I always treated her with respect, asking if it was all right to film her. I was one of the few people in her life that didn’t judge her or suspect her of doing bad things. Her contact with me was not dangerous for her.
SIM: The people who accompany you on your shoots do extraordinary camera and sound work and I know you always work with the same colleagues, so there is probably a very intuitive way in which you work together which is especially useful in some of the more dangerous or risky situations in which you find yourselves. You’re not exactly shooting in very safe places most of the time since your subjects live very close to danger every day. It’s also very obvious that they’re emotionally involved; that shows in the camera work and the way in which they capture things. Can you speak a bit about those collaborations? (Pictured above, Trestiková and crew filming with René.)
HT: This is a stable of constant collaborators, yes, and so they are very intimate with the situations. [The three DPs who worked on Katka over the years are Kristián Hynek, Vlastimil Hamernik and Martin Kubala. The soundmen are Stanislav Hruska, Václav Hejduk and Jaroslav Jedlicka.] During filming, most of the time it is impossible for us to speak together about how to take these pictures. But they know what is needed and they can work on their own without me. Especially in this case of Katka and her life, it’s important because they’re not afraid of the situation. It wasn’t always safe. The railway station in Prague is especially not safe at night. Katka and her friends were our friends and we were connected to them. They were not in conflict with us, but there were some other people that didn’t want to be filmed so it could get complicated. But nothing ever happened and we all survived. But these cameramen always had to be ready for anything.
SIM: I think it’s important to show how very dangerous life is for Katka every day she’s out on the streets.
HT: Yes, we can’t close our eyes to that; such a world exists. Life on the streets has special rules. She never has a proper flat, anything stable or comfortable; she never owned anything except the clothes on her back. This life on the street also requires her to always be in contact with a man. She cannot be on her own. It’s impossible for a woman to live alone on the streets. If she has a conflict with her boyfriend and wants to leave him, she cannot. (Pictured, Katka and her boyfriend, Roman.)
SIM: Yes, she’s trapped there, too. What’s your relationship with her now? Are you still documenting her life?
HT: I am still filming her as I am the other protagonists from my films. It’s a type of life for me. I consider myself a chronicler.
SIM: Your storytelling technique is like that of a novelist. That’s the closest way of working creatively I can think of to describe what you’re doing in film. Going back to someone like Michael Moore or many other documentarians working in the genre these days and the films they make “to change the world”—it’s a total contrivance, this idea that these films are made with the express purpose of creating social change. They certainly can—some have. But these films actually have very little to do with the protagonists and their lives. We’re just not talking about the same level of commitment you display in the way you work. What is so unique and beautiful about your work is that you provide absolutely no resolution where there isn’t one. It’s a rare way to storytell. Who do you admire in filmmaking today?
HT: Obviously, I like highly observational films. I think of Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard’s 2009 French film, The Arrivals, which also won the Golden Dove at DOK Leipzig the year René received the same prize there. It was such a perfect study of the situation of immigrants and the problems and issues of the social workers and how complicated it is to help. Frederick Wiseman’s work I admire so much. These are some of my favorite colleagues. Michael Moore is not my cup of tea [smiling]. In his first film, probably, yes. But in Sicko, his portrait of the health services in Cuba is completely false.
SIM: I want to talk about this one particular scene in Katka that was deeply affecting for me. Towards the end of the film, Katka and her boyfriend, Roman, are living in a little shed beside the railroad tracks and the police come to kick them out. Roman is extremely frightened and because he’s also strung out, his fright borders on hysteria. He starts calling you by name for help and he tells you how scared he is, as if to say it’s time for you to step out from behind the camera and become an active participant in what’s happening. I love that moment so much because it’s so select. You’re so rarely a physical presence on camera in your films but the times you choose to appear are very powerful for that reason and they speak volumes about your relationship to your subjects. Can you talk a bit about the choice to include those moments in the film when you become an active participant, when we actually see and hear you?
HT: The times when I am an active participant are many, much more than a viewer will ever see in the final film. This particular situation you’re referring to was a real SOS situation. They really thought they were going to be attacked by these policemen. So I wanted to talk calmly to the police officers and try and allow them to stay longer in this little railway house where they were. So we did resolve the situation and it was such a big victory since the incident happened without any attack or anything. I always wanted to help her in any way I could but it often was very limited what I could actually do to help. That was one situation where I could do something.
SIM: It goes a long way towards establishing this relationship for the viewer, especially when it comes so late in the film. I think most people do wonder what the involvement might be between Katka and you and your crew and this seems to be your answer to those questions. Is this your solution to obliquely confront the criticisms of “merely” being an observer without any kind of interference or aid? It adds a layer of complexity at such a key moment.
HT: There is such complexity in the relationship; it is unavoidable. My relationships with René and Katka and the others--well, our “friendships” are obviously limited by the way in which we meet. I am always the filmmaker. Of course, most of the time I met with them it was without a camera but they cannot forget that I am a filmmaker and I cannot forget that they are the protagonists of my films. It’s a persistent issue between us. It’s the limitation of those relationships. (Pictured, poster from the film René.)
SIM: But those limitations serve both parties, in a sense. You want a film; they want their stories told.
HT: Yes, of course. I often wonder how audiences from other countries can accept or come to my films, how they can connect with our daily realities in Czech Republic, the intricate ways these films are related to this nation and to the culture? It’s always, somehow, surprising to me.
SIM: Well, I can only speak to the country I come from, one that has dire immigration problems right now, social services problems. All of it layered upon the persistent myth that the USA is still some “land of opportunity,” to which all are invited equally to partake of the riches there. There are millions of US citizens living in abject poverty, no home, no health care, no protection from the state—in the midst of staggering wealth. Just like life in any number of places on the planet—no different.
It is a rare and wonderful thing to witness this kind of commitment, this kind of obligation, on the part of one human being to another. This is what translates no matter what culture or language. How has Katka received the film?
HT: After she saw the film, someone asked her what she thought she had managed to do in her life that she could redeem as something good, something positive. Katka replied that she had had a child. And that she had “made this film with Helena.” (Pictured, the director and her subject.)