Helena Třestiková: Marriage Stories (Manželské etudy), 1987-2005

reviewed by Zdena Škapová © 2006

Helena Třeštíková (born 1949) has been shooting documentary films for 30 years and ranks among the most productive filmmakers in this field. She graduated from FAMU (The Prague Film School) in 1974. At that time, Czech culture was deeply marked by the return of a tough and rigid communist regime, which had been reestablished after the Soviet invasion in 1968. Only a few of the filmmakers who had achieved fame during the 1960s could continue working and many emigrated. Nevertheless, the regime needed to show that it cared about culture and, most importantly, that it was providing opportunities for young artists. Thus, the generation to which Třeštíková belonged had opportunities to make films. These opportunities, however, were transitory—directors would either lose favor by shooting something that did not suit the totalitarian regime, or they would become more or less loyal by making projects that automatically represented socialism of the Soviet type as the only just and prospective social order.

Třeštíková took neither of these paths and her school films already showed that she was able to find a space that would allow her to pursue themes other than those the authorities wanted to impose on her. One of her student films—and, subsequently, her first documentary project after graduation—hinted that she would focus on specifically feminine themes. Both of these films focused on parenthood; the latter, with its clearly symbolic title of The Miracle (Zázrak, 1975), followed the pregnancy of a young woman from the first months until the first days after birth. Other films, however, did not have such overtly feminine themes—for example, Viva Acqua (Živá voda, 1972), her documentary examining the emotional state of the inhabitants of a village that was about to be flooded; Two Anniversaries of Jan Zrzavý (Dvě jubilea Jana Zrzavého, 1976), a consideration of the personality of the important Czech painter Jan Zrzavý and the sources of his art; and A Touch of Light (Dotek světla, 1979), a film about blind children. There were also films about problematic individuals and their inability to find their place in life, works that presented insights into the world of teenage delinquents and drug addicts. Later, there were reflective portraits of different important personalities and also of women who were wrongfully imprisoned for many years during the period of the most intensive communist terror in the 1950s. It is only possible to mention the most important of her films, which number approximately forty and have grown by at least one film a year.

From a retrospective point of view, it is clear that Třeštíková’s professional debut was marked by strategies that would remain characteristic for the whole of her production. First, there is the authorial concept of the documentary; in her case this means the search for and the choice of a subject. She is not interested only in subjects that affect her emotionally, but also in social and psychological questions, where the prime objective is to examine a problem and analyze it rationally before shooting an intellectually accurate and structured narrative. Second, is the ability to find a subject where other documentary filmmakers do not look for it―because its reality seems uninteresting, if not banal, and, thus, unattractive for an audience. It is as if the word “miracle” from the title of her film has taken on a new meaning—linked not only to the creation of a new life, but also to the discovery of the miraculous in things that we take for granted or pass without noticing.

Third, there is Třeštíková’s directorial style, which is modest and almost austere. In the main, she registers what appears in the field of view of an almost motionless camera, the central position most often occupied by the speaking or acting individual. The director’s style seems inconspicuous, undistinguished, and some might even describe it as uninventive. But, on closer examination, it is clear that this dismissal of stylistic strategies that would draw attention to themselves is combined with an absolute concentration on her theme. She forces the viewer to join her in the pursuit of an authentic reality and to contemplate it without the help of any ostentatious authorial stylization.

It would be misleading to describe her style as journalistic. Třeštíková is not concerned with a mechanical compilation of facts, with simple description and registration; she does not present a mere record of reality. Instead, she strives to grasp the essence of reality, to capture its inner meaning, to force it to bear witness to those aspects that usually remain hidden to the eye and, thus, also to the camera’s normal view. In her successful films—and there are many in her long filmography—her sober, matter-of-fact method of shooting leads the viewer to an understanding of the meaning of what is being shown.

Třeštíková’s most important creative work takes place where nobody can see it—in the editing room. Here she deliberates over many kilometers of recorded material and considers how she should arrange it to carry the essential message. It is not just a matter of sequencing the takes to preserve their logical and chronological coherence. It is here that the director’s intellect and creativity is put to use most vigorously as she reveals—through sharply thought-out editing—the meaning contained within the individual fragments of recorded reality.

A significant contributor to this demanding process is a procedure not yet mentioned in this article, though closely connected with many of Třeštíková’s documentary projects. It is long-term shooting, the repeated return to the subject of the film over an extended period of time. This was first used in her school films, where she returned over a period of a year to a village that was going to be flooded, or when she followed the pregnancy of a woman through to the delivery of her child. Today this method is termed time-collecting. The director frequently refers to herself as “a collector.” This method is related to a contemplative approach to the subject—the subject is reflected repeatedly, the temporal gaps allowing the director to distance himself/herself, allowing for a natural ripening and deepening of focus. As far as reality is concerned, the time-collecting documentary offers a particularly authentic view. It not only captures development, but also detects an inner flux and direction that cannot be encompassed in the short stretch of time usually examined in documentary film. Třeštíková’s René (1993) a sequel to the pentalogy Tell Me Something About Yourself (Řekni mi něco o sobě), shot using the time-collecting method, is not just a portrait of a young delinquent of the type depicted in the media dozens of times. Thanks to a three-year recording of his life story, the one-hour film becomes an exceptional, multi-layered study of an unstable psyche, of the influences of different environments, of the role of family background. Step by step the viewer follows the director as she discovers the sources of the young man’s psychological and spiritual traumas, questions the possibilities and effectiveness of the penal and reformatory institutions, reflects the impact of the socio-political climate of the time and the standard of socially accepted ethics. This is also true of films such as Trapped (V pasti, 2001), part of another series, Women at the Turn of the Century (Ženy na přelomu tisíciletí), a comprehensive exploration of the world of drug addicts; and the documentary about Dagmar Pecková, Forte and Pianos (Forte a Piana, 2001), part of the same series, which gives a rich portrait of the internationally acclaimed Czech mezzo-soprano. It is at the same time an extensive deliberation about talent as both a great gift and a burden, about different aspects of an individual’s responsibility, about self-discipline, about the lot and the dilemmas of a modern woman.

The film cycle Marriage Stories / Marriage Etudes (Manželské etudy) represents the most interesting and significant achievement of the time-collecting method. The original plan was already ambitious. In 1980, Třeštíková found six young couples and filmed them for five years following their weddings (all of them had married within about two months). Today she recalls that she had little scope in the choice of her protagonists, yet what seemed mere coincidence at that time, later turned out to be an advantage. The six young couples represented a perfect cross-section of society. Some of them had completed elementary school and a kind of apprenticeship, and were experiencing their first jobs at the time of Třeštíková’s shooting. Others had taken provisional jobs, which they would leave as soon as their vision of the future became more concrete. And a third group consisted of college graduates who had more ambitious plans for both their lives and careers.

Třeštíková recorded one of the key epochs in the lives of these twelve young people in her six documentaries, each lasting around 40 minutes. Each film follows the first steps in their married life: the start of their own family, the birth of their first child or children, the way they faced their new parental roles, their first professional experiences, the need to establish a family budget, and the distribution of duties within the household. The director returned again to her project in 1999 and concentrated on the same married couples for another six years, even as she worked simultaneously on other self-standing documentaries (as she always did while working on her long-lasting projects). When she began the second “epoch” of filming, all her “heroes” were 20 years older, now between 40-45 years of age, an age that is decisive and represents a certain boundary in its own right. It represents the peak of a professional career, the feeling of being established, greater safety and self-confidence, but also an increasing sense of the narrowing of life’s horizons in private, social, and professional spheres; children come of age, gradually becoming emancipated, and begin to leave the family.

The spectator watches “only” the last six years of the couples’ present life in Třeštíková’s six documentary sequels, this time about 60 minutes long each. However, the years that had passed between the two sequences of filming are also present, as we are informed about them both directly (through peoples’ comments) and indirectly (through the present situation of the characters). Both parts, the 1980s and the 2000s series, were then combined to create six unique, full-length documentaries, each about 100 minutes long. They were presented in this form on television, starting on 1 January 2006, and continued to be broadcast every Sunday during prime time.

The distinction between past and present is made clear with the credits, yet it would be evident enough even without them—the original documentaries were shot in black and white, the later ones in color. Originally, the director used 16mm film, and she has repeatedly spoken about the difficulties of using a limited amount of film material, which often hindered her grasp of significant moments in a person’s reactions or comments. In the second series she used video technology and this time the director had an excess of material for the subsequent editing. Yet technological change had no decisive consequence for her documentary style, which was as sober as before. Třeštíková is strictly focused on her subjects, she observes them carefully, and listens to them as patiently as always. Sometimes this approach seems too passive, for instance when she does not interrupt disturbingly simple-minded utterances and does not ask any investigative question to force the interviewee to reflect upon reality in a more complicated and complex way. But, at the same time, we accept the director’s absolute respect for those she interviews and records, and we have to admit that this kind of “regulation” would neither deepen their self-reflection nor make it more structured. The greatest truthfulness is achieved through the filmmaker’s patience, her ability to wait until the protagonists say all they wish to say, and through her careful attention to their reactions and expressions. For those who are impatient with the length of shots and scenes in the films, it should be stressed that they are essential. The extremely lengthy shots when the protagonist sits, eyes cast down, struggling to find words for his/her emotions, when the camera stares into his/her face, provide the most powerful and truthful moments of the film, those moments that miraculously reveal what is normally hidden.

Třeštíková has no ambition to be an investigative reporter, tending rather to be a psychologist, whose task is to listen carefully to the individuals who open their hearts to her and unconsciously offer the most private and precious element they have—their fate. Editing plays a very important role in a filmic conception of this kind. When the long-lasting shots mentioned above are used to record every smallest trembling in the face of a protagonist, it can be totally eliminated (with just short intercuts, for instance, to show the meaningful “pantomime” of telling hands). Alternatively, an invisible inner montage is employed and the camera-eye leaves the character while he/she is speaking and focuses on the reactions (facial expressions and gestures) of those who are listening to him/her, or searchingly scrutinizes the surroundings. The chosen space is usually one familiar to the subjects, their apartment and its vicinity or their workplace, and the camera certainly does not examine it in order to leave the characters aside. On the contrary, these shots also present intensive moments of observation. This time, attention is paid to the couples’ social conditions, their living standard, their likes, pleasures, hobbies, and the personal tastes of each member of a family, including the adolescent children. Of course, we learn also about their bad tastes and habits, about their weaknesses, or even about an inability to leave personal traces on the spaces they inhabit.

The way Třeštíková uses editing demonstrates that she handles all her collected material with an open mind and heart and that she is very well oriented within the process of editing. Most of all, she handles it with a reliable and mature human attitude, the consequence of which is a permanent tact and discretion towards all characters who have agreed to become the objects of her documentary interest.

She also estimates exactly how much space is needed for a single piece of information. The intervals between her visits to the selected families are more or less regular (there are intertitles in the films from the 1980s marking the month and occasionally even the exact date of a meeting, while the second series includes only approximate statements such as “three months later” or “autumn 2004”). But the director knows well that there is no reason to maintain a proportionally equal length of time in the individual reports. She radically shortens some of the recorded meetings so that just a few shots are left to inform us briefly about “the news” (the most frequently posed question in all the films of Marriage Stories is: “What’s new with you?”). At other times she captures some trivial and seemingly marginal situation, which turns out to be the ideal medium for a deep insight into a person’s interior. In yet other cases, her contact with the characters fills long-lasting scenes and opens the spectator’s eyes to a subtle and knowing observation of what is happening inside the characters—what they are fighting with within themselves without being able to articulate it. Paying close attention to these scenes rewards viewers with a truly magical experience: they realize with amazement that they are able to foresee what will happen, what is inevitably coming about, how the characters—real, not fictional beings!—are drawn to unintended ends, how they can be harmed by what they desire and strive for.

The word destiny should be emphasized in connection with this project since it has hardly ever been so prominent in the domain of documentary. This is true in spite of the fact that Třeštíková turns solely to everyday reality, to the life-experience of ordinary people, of anonymous citizens. It is as if the director has been the only person with the courage to fulfill what Cesare Zavattini, the father of the Italian neorealism, planned 60 years ago. He dreamt about a movie with a character that has never experienced anything extraordinary. Some feature-film directors within the New Wave movements of the 1960s successfully followed that aim and there have also been some isolated documentaries of this kind. Yet no one has ever done anything as complex as Třestíková: no one has presented a reportage covering a quarter of a century—about a third of a human life—during its most important and most dynamic period.

At first sight, the terms “destiny” and “everydayness” seem to be in a sharp contrast. Yet Třestíková shows that sensitive observation has the power to turn trivial and episodic events into significant testimony about human existence. This is the point at which she intersects with some of the great masters of cinema and literature.

A very young couple, both scarcely adult, is always introduced at the beginning of her six films. Their pure, innocent faces reveal their inexperience, their excitement over the serious step they have just taken, and their eager expectations focused on the future. They experience their first children, first troubles, first misunderstandings and conflicts, yet it seems that love and vitality will defeat all complications. Only one of the young women moves back to her parents with her new-born daughter eleven months after the wedding and considers a divorce. As time passes, their adventurous discoveries are replaced by different stereotypes—more serious conflicts appear, as well as various failures, disillusionments, weariness, passivity, moments of resignation and despair. Třeštíková’s films are not at all monotonous. Besides the crises, she also exposes situations, in which her characters feel happy, relaxed, encouraged, successful, and satisfied, when they are full of energy and very active, with plans for the future. Yet half of the married couples divorced during those 25 years and in two of the three remaining families there is a traceable tension and a sense of loneliness on both sides. One of the married women has repeatedly tried to commit suicide, another has had to put up with the death of her 22-year-old daughter while her younger son has suffered brain dysfunction since birth. The daughter of another couple marries and becomes a mother at too young an age and against her parents’ will (the first series showed that the same thing happened to her mother); the adolescent son from another family makes his parents desperate with his drug experiences.

What does all this mean? First of all, it is an undoubting confirmation of the truth that every human being is an enormously interesting subject. Furthermore, it confirms the fact that, although human existence does not strictly follow the principles of tragedy, it can be taken as a never-ending dramatic struggle that ceases only at the moment of the death. It also confirms that no human life can be reduced to a few phrases and simplified propositions. There exist common sources for individual lives, certain archetypes and eternal rules, but each life is constituted differently, is dependent on an individual human nature and is therefore unpredictable. It is the individual’s character that influences and modifies his/her life in the most decisive way. Without being explicit (her shots are not illustrative, no commentary is used, there are no manipulative questions, no emotive or supporting music), Třestíková convincingly destroys many of the false myths that overestimate the influence of politics, social climate, media and popular culture on our existence. Within the whole series, she makes it clear that they only influence one’s life to a limited degree, providing a kind of frame that marks off a picture without having a direct impact on its contents. One of the divorced and lonely women spends a lot of time watching TV melodramas and soap operas, but we are given enough time to identify the true reason for it: passivity is her dominant feature. The “hero” of another story invests all his invention and creativity in a billiards enterprise, and we discover that his activity is not a consequence of society’s emphasis on consumption, but of his inability to identify and distinguish between true and false values. The political and social naivety of a very young couple that we find so shocking in the next film is not the result of media influence, but derives from the phenomenon of eternal human ignorance (the newly-married woman is the daughter of one of the couples portrayed in the film). In a different sequel, we often meet with the son of another couple. He is very fond of computers but not possessed by this “obsession.” On the contrary, he cultivates his knowledge and creativity as did his father, whose love of electrical technology could not be stopped even under the limitations of totalitarianism.

Of course, Třeštíková is far from saying that living conditions have no impact on us. In those parts of Marriage Stories that were shot in the 1980s, we can see the grey uniformity and spiritual and material poverty at every step. Most newly married couples had nowhere to live, and usually lived in one small room in their parents’ apartment. If they inherited an apartment, they were very fortunate. There was a critical shortage of money, very basic goods could not be found on the market, and to get hold of anything—from needles to tiles or furniture—required incredible amounts of time and energy. None of the couples could even dream about a holiday abroad (it was too expensive and most of the world was inaccessible for political reasons). To follow any hobby demanded extraordinary resourcefulness and doggedness. It is no wonder that the original films did not deal with political and social issues. Ignorance provided a sort of self-protection and manifestation of civic powerlessness. The director did not want to risk having her films be banned and she avoided breaking those taboos. We can understand her silence in those years, but are surprised and somewhat disappointed by the same attitude in the contemporary sequels. Not a single direct question on these subjects is asked. In any case, it may be symptomatic that almost none of the characters touch on this subject and, if he/she does, the commentaries are rather indirect, flat, and sometimes primitive—providing yet further confirmation of the fact that politics is not an organic element in the everyday life of ordinary people.

Whether people articulate their attitudes to politics and the social situation or not, there is no doubt that things have changed radically since the arrival of democracy and the free-market economy. It is easy to note a much higher living standard and a more cultivated everyday life (the lonely mother with two children is the only exception). It is very easy to welcome this open atmosphere and the wide range of choices that have replaced the tight and forever fixed horizon of the former regime. Of course, not all problems disappeared with the installment of a new political and economic system. Above all, many new problems arose and hardly anyone was able to cope with them.

Seen from a historical perspective, the situation turned upside down overnight in 1989. Czech citizens who had barely reached adulthood in the era of democracy between the first and second World Wars were 70 years old at the beginning of the 1990s, and there was no sense of continuity in society. Many people enthusiastically started new careers and succeeded, but others overestimated their abilities and failed. Třeštíková takes this very topical issue into consideration and carefully examines it in as wide as possible a context. In this respect, her cycle provides highly valuable material for experts interested in the psychological and social consequences of the radical changes of 1989. There are some men and women who provide positive examples, but the prosperity of others raises disturbing questions. We see that some pay for their success by becoming exhausted, neurotic, and by suffering damage to their personal identities. Some exaggerate their achievements, and become workaholics and victims of consumerism as they try to have everything they previously missed out on.

One additional problem exposed in Marriage Stories is worth mentioning. It is the conflict between generations that usually occurs during children’s adolescence. What has always been a normal and natural process in any society became much more difficult to deal with in the post-communist Czech society of the 1990s. The fact that children grew up under conditions totally different from those of their parents made the conflict much more dramatic. The dilemmas of the generation gap in a fast-changing society were reflected in a crystal-clear way. Many aspects of social life changed radically within a few years so that parents’ experience became less relevant to their children and vice versa. The parents in Třeštíková’s films spent the important years of their lives in a totalitarian society where basic human rights were often ignored, whereas for the coming generation it is natural to take full advantage of them. Both sides have serious problems, but neither is able to make them accessible and understandable to the other. It seems that important life experiences can never be transferred. And the chain of human dramas is endless.

The series of six full-length films directed by Helena Třeštíková met with an extraordinary reception when it was presented on television. Almost a million spectators watched some of the life-stories, a number never previously reached by any documentary program. This enormous interest is well deserved; the films have so many layers that they will maintain their relevance and value even into the future.

 

Zdena Škapová, Technical University of Liberec


Marriage Stories, 20 Years Later, Czech Republic, 2005
Documentary, Color, Beta Digital, 6 episodes, 90-100 minutes each
Director: Helena Třestíková
Screenplay: Helena Třestíková
Cinematography: Jan Malíř, Miroslav Souček, Vlastimil Hamernik
Sound: Jan Valouch, Miroslav Simčik, Vladimír Nahodil, Zbyněk Mikulik
Co-producer: Helena Třestíková
Production: Ivana Průšová, Máša Charouzdová
Production: Česká televize.

Marriage Stories , Czechoslovakia, 1987
Documentary, b/w
Screenplay and Director: Helena Třestíková
Assistent director: Marie Sandova
Cinematography: Jan Malir
Editing: Alois Fisarek
Sound: Zbynek Mikulik
Producer: Masa Charouzdova
Production: Kratky Film Praha for Ceskoslovenska televize Praha

 

Helena Třestiková: Marriage Stories (Manželské etudy), 1987-2005

reviewed by Zdena Škapová © 2006

Updated: 04 Nov 06