Czech Dream and the Mission of Documentary Cinema: A Conversation with Helena Třeštíkova

By Christina Stojanova (University of Regina)

© Christina Stojanova, 2006

Helena TreštíkováHelena Třeštíková is an extraordinary person: quiet, elegant, patient, with a debonair presence that harks back to pre-communist Prague and its rich cultural tradition. She can also be playful and ironic, with a typically Czech sense of wry humor, softened by her beautiful smile. She is an incredibly prolific filmmaker with a rare talent for self-effacement and is among the most respected documentarists, belonging to the school of social observation. She has completed several cycles of documentary films that span from a couple to 20 years of observation, with each cycle comprising from at least 4 to 6 films, including Tell Me Something About Yourself (Řekni mi něco o sobě, 1992-1994), Women at the Turn of the Century (Ženy na přelomu tisíciletí, 1993-2001), and Marriage Stories (Manželské etudy, 1987-2006). Helena’s acute sense of discretion and genuine interest in her subjects has allowed her to meet with incredibly diverse and outspoken personalities, who tell their unusual, sometimes even scandalous stories for the camera in a relaxed, unpretentious manner. For example, the cycle Women at the Turn of the Century features such diverse individuals as Lída Baarová, the film star and notorious mistress of Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda (Lída Baarová's Bittersweet Memories [Sladké horkosti Lídy Baarové], 1995); Katka, a drug addict who roams the streets of Prague in search of money to buy heroin (Trapped [V pasti], 2001); or Heda Blochová—a brave survivor of two murderous regimes, the widow of Rudolf Margolius, one of the thirteen victims of Stalin sent to the gallows in 1952 during the so-called “Slánský affair” (Hitler, Stalin, and I [Hitler, Stalin a já], 2003).

Helena and I met six years ago at a conference on the future of post-communist cinema in Karlovy Vary, made friends, and were brought even closer by the hurdles overcome in organizing The New Czech Miracle, the large retrospective of Czech cinema across Canada in the Spring of 2002 that I curated. It was from her that I heard for the first time about three years ago of the shooting of a curious documentary film called Czech Dream, involving students at FAMU, the famous Prague Film School where she teaches in the department of documentary cinema.

We met again this year at the latest edition of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (2006), where she was introducing the most recent instalment in her longest running cycle Marriage Stories, shown under the title Marriage Stories, 20 Years Later (Manželské etudy po 20 letech). During our short meeting I asked her for an informal interview—or rather, for her opinion and clarification of some of the issues I have grappled with while watching (and especially when writing) about Czech Dream. We also discussed briefly her own style and artistic method. Below are some relevant excerpts from our conversation.

CS: Do you believe that documentary cinema has a particular mission in our world and, if any, what is it?

HT: I do not know about the whole world, but in the Czech Republic and in Europe in general there is a growing interest in stories taken from real life. As you may well recall, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) got the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival three years ago. I made a cycle of films called Marriage Stories—an observation of the life of 6 couples over 25 years—the longest observation ever undertaken in documentary cinema. And when recently the latest addition to Marriage Stories was aired on Česká televize’s second channel (more than a million viewers registered), it was watched by more people than the first channel, which was showing a fiction film. The same reaction could be observed yesterday during the screening of the film here before a packed hall, and people said they enjoyed watching my documentary much more than a fiction film… Maybe these viewers are film buffs, better educated in the language of cinema and in general, I do not know, but this seems to be a general tendency.

CS: What you are suggesting foregrounds the reasons for the phenomenal success of Czech Dream, the film made by two FAMU students Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda. Could you please elaborate on this experience?

HT: It was a very interesting experience especially because I followed the creation of this film from the conception of the idea until the completed film was released. Actually, Vít Klusák is my student and Filip Reminda is a student of my colleague Karel Vachek, who is the head of the Documentary Film Department at FAMU. We—Vachek and I—follow completely different documentary styles: mine are talking heads, observational, while Vachek’s films are metaphors about politics and life. He made four films after the fall of communism for a very limited, but very devoted circle of followers, who are deeply immersed in his philosophy, his aesthetics and symbolism… There is an annual festival in Jihlava (300 hundred kilometers from Prague) headed by Marek Hovorka. It is a very small festival of experimental auteur documentary cinema—no biographical or reality or observational shows, nothing made for TV!—whose inspiration and guru is Karel Vachek. So as you see, Klusák and Remunda come from two very different traditions of documentary filmmaking. They certainly had other advisors and integrated other influences in their film, not only ours, but Vachek and I were behind them all of the time… The film took half a year to prepare, and then they shot 65 hours of material on the opening of a non-existent supermarket, called Czech Dream. They spent another nine months in the editing room trying to make sense of this huge amount of material. I saw several versions of the film and have to say that, unfortunately, some very great moments were left out because of time constraints. It is a very important film for us as it says much more about consumer society and its drama than any fiction film would. It is a parable of our time…

CS: You have made many films on various subjects, featuring a number of very intriguing personalities, mostly people who already have a story behind them—like Heda Blochová, Lida Baarová, or Katka. Your quiet, unobtrusive observational style is what actually makes your films so unique. By comparison, in Czech Dream there is a provocation, a situation that is created and then people’s reactions are observed. Could you please elaborate on the difference between these two types of approaches?

HT: Michael Moore also provoked a situation. Yes, it is true that he manipulated that situation, and I am not discussing here what some believe to be the controversial subject matter of his films, but the documentary tendency with which he is associated. Many students at the documentary department of FAMU are using this method of provocation and, in a way, it has created a new wave in documentary filmmaking. This is their way of catching life, reality unawares, life in the making…

CS: There has been a lot of controversy and passionate discussion generated by the ethics of Czech Dream, and the film itself includes material pertaining to the controversy. Luring people to a remote area and leaving them empty-handed was perceived by the Czech media as unacceptable. It was also said that most of the people who showed up at the “opening” of the non-existent super-market belonged to the lower social strata—pensioners, unemployed, underemployed…

HT: Yes, there was quite a discussion around this issue. I myself saw only a few elderly people there. Most of the people who responded to the advertising campaign and turned up were in their prime and fully responsible for their decisions and their actions. They themselves had a lot of critical things to say about consumerism and the irresistible urge to buy… and not all of them were flattering, even towards themselves…

Actually, provocation in our documentary cinema has a long-standing tradition, going back to the 1960s, the so-called “golden age” of Czech documentary. Its initiator, so to speak, was Jindřich Fairaizl.[1] His films examined social attitudes towards children and the elderly. In 1967, he placed an advertisement in a newspaper, which read “I would like to adopt a child.” He got no response. Two weeks later, in the same newspaper and on the same page, even graphically in the same column, he placed another advertisement, reading this time “I would like to adopt a child and am ready to give as compensation a brand new car, a Fiat.” And what do you think? Two hundred and fifty people responded! And he made a film about these people—not about all 250 of them, obviously, but about twenty… It is really interesting to see how people change when the material stakes are higher and how they are ready to exchange a child for a brand new car… Certainly, the situation with Czech Dream is quite different, and although I had my discussions with the directors, I fully understood and supported their method. When there is no other way to capture a debilitating social phenomenon—in this case consumerism—via more established ways of documentary filmmaking (like observing or interacting, etc.), then this seems to be a fairly good way of doing it… In short, I stand a hundred percent behind this film!

Helena TreštíkováCS: How are Klusák’s and Remunda’s careers coming along after the success of Czech Dream?

HT: Klusák will teach first-year courses at FAMU; he is a good editor and well versed in new technologies, and will make a very good advisor for the students. He is also working on a feature film with his brother. As for Remunda, for now he is working as a documentary film promoter and organizer of a documentary film festival in the Czech Republic, and as a liaison for other European documentary film festivals, but we hope he will return to filmmaking soon…

CS: You have followed and observed quite a number of individuals with unusual, sometimes tragic fates—for example Lída Baarová or Katka, the drug-addict. Do you stay in touch with your subjects once the film is made?

HT: When we were shooting the Baarová film, she was very reserved and tried to avoid all mention of her relationship with Goebbels, which was actually a turning point in her life, and it remained unspoken of throughout the film, although this notorious affair ruined her career and her life. She had quite a promising career as a young and very beautiful film actress, but after the affair she was ostracized, first by the Nazis and after the end of the war—by everyone else; she was confined to her small apartment in Austria, where she lived in a drunken stupor during the last twenty years or so of her life… Anyway, when the shooting was over and I was back in the Czech Republic, she kept calling me, begging me to return and film “some important things” that she had failed to mention in our conversations. Unfortunately, this was impossible financially, and soon after she died… So there was no way for me to follow up on her tragic fate. As for Katka, she is more or less in the same situation as I left her six years ago; however she is not on heroin anymore, but on a local Czech substitute, a version of amphetamine. She lives with a man who produces this substitute, which means that she does not have to steal or prostitute herself for drugs anymore… I have already established contact with her as I plan to make another film about her in the fall.


The text consists of excerpts from a conversation with Helena Třeštíková that was taped at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Czech Republic, 2006.

1] Jindřich Fairaizl (1934-1993), Czech filmmaker and actor. His career was ended abruptly by the “normalization” of 1968, after his open stance in support of the self-immolation by Jan Palach. The Czech title of Fairaizl’s film is Inzerát (An Advertisement); he directed it and wrote the script. The actual newspaper advertisement read: “Adopting a child up to three years old. Reward: a brand new car, Fiat 850. Important: Imported via Tuzex [that is, for hard currency]—a real bargain!” The film won the Prix Italia for documentaries at the International Festival for TV and Radio Programs held in Rome in 1968.

© Christina Stojanova, 2006