For IDFA’s 31st edition, the festival’s star guest will be director Helena Třeštíková. The 69-year-old award-winning filmmaker has created a prodigious output of close to 50 documentaries in her native Czech Republic, resulting in a deeply personal take on the last half-century of her country’s history. Třeštíková’s shooting methods and work ethic have resulted in a bespoke genre of what she calls “time-lapse” filmmaking, in which she follows her protagonists over decades of time. In her films, viewers are invited to observe people as they live out the stories of their lives.
This year’s retrospective of Třeštíková’s work includes the six films she’s completed within the last 10 years. She has also curated an outstanding selection of some of her favorite films, resulting in a Top Ten to share with audiences in Amsterdam—one of the most exciting curations I’ve seen in a while. I had a chance to get some short-take answers from this dedicated documentary director about her working methods, to be followed by a much more expansive discussion during Třeštíková’s public Filmmaker Talk in November.
Q: Your first observational documentary, Miracle, is a 15-minute black-and-white piece from 1975. We can see some of the emerging themes you’ve continued to explore throughout your filmmaking career, particularly the family in the midst of the domestic sphere. Why is the everyday life of the household so important to share with viewers?
A: My goal as a filmmaker is to capture everyday life, the versatility in the course of time and the changes that this passing time brings. Miracle was my first film after graduation, and I wanted to explore what happens to a woman when her baby is born and she becomes a mother. At that time I was still childless, but many of my friends were having children, and so I decided to ask one of those friends because this topic was very important for me. Once the film was finished, I decided to continue to film with the same family. I had collected material without any clear idea of how long the film would be or what to do with that project, but in the end, I collected footage of them for 37 years and ended up making a film called Private Universe. That's how my passion in filming the everyday lives of ordinary people in their daily activities, with all the small pleasures and all the banal worries, started. I always believed that these stories could also attract an audience, and I began to apply this method to my other projects.
Q: In all of the selections in the representation of your work we’ll see at IDFA, there is a high degree of openness and intimacy with you that your protagonists display before your camera. How do you negotiate the segments that consist of direct cinema shooting in relation to the subtler moments that enable you to capture something more ephemeral about the circumstances your protagonists find themselves in?
A: I am in constant contact with the heroes of my films, and I do always have an idea of what I want to capture before every shoot. At the same time, I know that I have to adapt to any situation that will present itself in front of the camera. I try to record the personal stories of my protagonists, as well as the difficult situations or problems they experience. In the edit, I attempt to make a mix of everything—good and bad, joyful and painful, etc.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your narrative process and how you work with dramaturges to finesse all the material you gather into a film? How does that process of decision-making work? Are you making choices during production, or is that work mostly encountered during the final editing sessions?
A: It is very important to say that during the entire period of shooting, we are only collecting material. We do not cut or edit or do anything with it. After each day of shooting is done, I make a transcript of the material (or some kind of reverse script), so I can always have an overview of what's been filmed, what topics we've been discussing, what I might want to ask after a while. I work with these transcripts even during the finishing of the final cut of the film. We need a lot of time in the editing room, since we test different variants or alternatives to the overall narrative. It's during this work where the final shape of the film is made out of all of the collected material. This is also the period when the collaborations with the dramaturges and script editors begin.
Q: René, Katka, and Mallory are seemingly always in states of duress. All three of them frequently talk about “the disappointments of reality.” Mallory is the only one that consistently triumphs over her weaknesses. Did you find yourself engaging with her any differently because of this quality, from the ways in which you engaged with Katka and René?
A: I make all my films in the same observational way. The fact that the result is so different (like with Katka and Mallory) really is entirely due to how their life stories play out. I observe without interfering with them in any way. For the entire duration of shooting with Katka, I had hoped, of course, that she would somehow change her life and leave this devastating way she’d been living behind her. But unfortunately that did not happen. But Mallory, as well, is also still struggling—falling, then rising again, but in the end, she is able to regularly defeat her weaknesses and go on.
Q: Over the course of the 35 years you shot with Ivana and Václav and their family in A Marriage Story, there emerges an archive of their lives, but also an archive of the state of the world and how that impacts each individual depending on his or her generation. There is also frequent discussion about the process of filming, a meta-discussion that acknowledges these irrevocable global changes. Why do you think it’s important to include these transparent discussions about the act of documenting?
A: I always try to include “big” history in my little histories. My desire is to capture the contrast of these small personal stories with the events of the larger world that run in parallel to these individual lives. Discussions about the filming process end up in the material quite naturally; I never feel it’s necessary to hide that, because the shooting itself is actually a very important part of our communication. On the other hand, there should always be a sort of backup plan. The first plan is always made by the stories of our protagonists, the changes that take place in their lives and their progression as human beings.
Time-lapse filmmaking is my lifetime theme. I’ve never stopped enjoying watching my heroes, being in touch with them, even when we’re not filming together. Oftentimes, emotions during filming are sometimes strong enough that I do need to take a pause, to find moments of calm, and to take care of my own family. But after a while, I go right back into everything again. For the time being, I am managing it all just fine!