Extraordinary and patient Helena Trestikova

An interview with globally successful documentary director Helena Třeštíková about her film journey, her observational method and the essential milestones on her way to the European film Oscar.

An interview with globally successful documentary director Helena Třeštíková about her film journey, her observational method and the essential milestones on her way to the European film Oscar.

Your works have been screened at world’s leading film festivals. However, it is for the first time that they are presented online. What is your opinion of online film distribution and how do you perceive your first world online retrospective?

I’m from a generation whose way to the internet is rather slow and difficult; unlike that of my children and students, or simply the young generation. Their contact with the internet is enriching and lively. However, I’ve learned a lot and I’m still learning to be aware of internet’s huge opportunities, for instance those of Video on Demand distribution. I’m moved by my online retrospective and I’m thankful to the organizers for coming up with it, making the effort and collecting the films. It obviously wasn’t easy. When I found that the retrospective of Agnès Varda was presented before me I blushed with pride. Agnès Varda was one of the key “icons” of my youth. I hope that my films will be watched by viewers who would otherwise not come to the cinema and I’m very much interested in their response.

The retrospective bears the title “A Long Journey”. What are the main cinematic milestones you would like to point out?

The first milestone was my decision to make films. I was studying at a secondary art school and for a while it seemed that my life would take a different turn. My parents were mad and were completely against it. My schoolmates thought that I was crazy. An indistinct and unassertive person wants to make films. Incredible! Another milestone was my admission to FAMU’s Department of Documentary Film where I completely found myself.

As for my films, what I find important was The Miracle from 1975; my first, still unconscious observational documentary. What was completely crucial was the launch of the project which was later called Marriage Stories in 1980. Since then, I have decided to deal with the observational method systematically and purposefully. The broadcasting of Marriage Stories on TV in 1987 and the following response were another important turning point in my decision to push for observational projects.

Another significant moment came in 1999 when I decided to continue shooting with the couples from Marriage Stories. I met up with all the protagonists and they agreed to continue shooting. To me, that was an important confirmation that I didn’t put them off by my work, that I didn’t discourage them and that they wanted to meet again. That’s how our “never ending story” project came about; after the agreed form is finished, be it a cinematic distribution or television broadcast, the shooting of observational stories continues in the next stage. For instance, we’re now making the third part of the Marriage Stories series and I’m currently working on a text about this method of making observational documentaries to be published by AMU Press.

You employ the observational method which means that editing is more important for your films than for those with a written script. You follow your characters for years, their life stories are written by themselves as well as by unexpected circumstances. Is there the word “script” in your work and if so, how do you use it?

There is nothing like a script in the right sense of the word. At the beginning there is an intention, an idea, an assumption, a hypothesis. For instance, in case of Marriage Stories, there was a question why so many young marriages get divorced, what strengthens them and what endangers them; as well as the intention to follow several young couples for six years since their wedding. Then we search for people for the given theme; the encounter is mostly a random one. We met the couples from Marriage Stories at the register office where they came to register the date of their wedding; a complete chance.

I prepare questions, ideas and situations for each shooting day. In the course of time, themes appear. They are partially my ideas of what to shoot; however, we mostly and primarily capture what our protagonists bring us. After that, editing is the most important stage for the creation of the film. Thanks to editing, a form is born out of the chaotically filmed footage. The editor is a most important co-worker and we need a lot of time in the editing room.

Your protagonists are both completely unknown people and publicly known personalities. Can you see a difference between the behaviour of anonymous persons and those who know what to do in front of the camera?

I’m trying not to make a difference between people who are partially used to the camera and completely unknown people. What is important to me is the authenticity of their expression.

You are in charge of a “mentor workshop” at the Department of Documentary Film at FAMU. How do current students approach documentary film in your opinion? What is their stance on the observational method?

When I came to the department as a lecturer 12 years ago, I was hoping that I’d find successors for my observational method. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened yet. You can’t force someone to make an observational project; you must want it yourself, otherwise it’s sheer suffering. Nevertheless, my daughter does continue my method at present, which I’m immensely happy about.

You travel to world festivals, attend screenings and discussions. Which of your films has received the greatest international response and why is that?

The greatest response was probably received by René which won an award in 2008 called the European Oscar (Prix Arte of the European Film Academy). What I find interesting is that Katka won an award at a festival in Baghdad, Iraq.

Would you recall an interesting question or critical remark from the audience?

I have introduced my films at various exotic destinations, such as South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Israel and Ecuador. At all these venues, I asked the audiences during the discussions whether they found my films comprehensible and they said yes, adding that they were “universal stories”. I was always extremely happy about that.

The questions of viewers are always inspiring. I met with a critical response rather at home; both on the part of some film critics and FAMU students, who are extremely critical. However, to me it’s always a good stimulus for reflection on what I can improve and what my brand, my signature style, my specifics are that may suit some and may not suit others.

Could you reveal what projects you are currently working on? Will there be a chance to see a new film of yours in cinemas?

I should finish the observational film entitled Mallory next year. That’s the name of the protagonist who really struggles hard in her life.

A viewers’ vote for the most popular film of your retrospective was launched on the website of the DAFilms.com portal as part of the retrospective. Do you have a personal tip as to which documentary will win?

So far, Katka has been the most successful film among audiences so I guess I’d go with that. But I’m curious myself.

The interview was made on the occasion of the online retrospective of Helena Třeštíková in the period from September 22 to October 5, 2014 at the documentary portal DAFilms.com.

Interview by: Andrea Průchová (DAFilms.com)


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