Blesok no. 74, September-October, 2010
Staging Reality in Order to Discover the Historical Paradigm
Alternative Interpretation of the Past in Documentary Film
Specific cases of Czech and Slovak documentaries dealing with the issue of subjective history are scarce in the common Czechoslovak cinematography. The number of films using a subjective viewpoint when interpreting history in both these national cinemas appeared as late as after the dissolution of the Czechoslovak federation in 1993. The change has been associated with the subject of coming to terms with the national past, the discovery of collective identity and the re-evaluation of the past in view of the repercussions of historical events on individual subjectivity. A distinctive feature of these films is a typical departure from the “great” linearly progressive histories as seen by positivist philosophy and a focus on the search for the truth about man – a truth presented through a subjective experience as a contact with history. When discussing alternative history, one implies its relation with the classical interpretations of great histories. That is to say, the alternative view on historical events develops from the variety of subjectively narrated stories. These narratives of the histories of individuals and of civic groups are intended to deliver an alternative representation of historical events. This representation has sometimes been founded on imprecise memories, emotional constructs, as well as on the impossibility to verify what has been said or the affiliation to certain groups (nationality, society). Peter Kerekes’ documentaries have originated from two sorts of archive materials which, for better orientation, might be divided into official and private archives. In most cases these are visual (postcards, photographs, silent videos) or audio-visual materials (archived comments) which, according to the principles of the documentary, come into conflict with the current statements of specific individuals – immediate participants in great histories. Their interpretation is not based on the small, fragmentary narratives. Hence we might call them subjective histories. The very conflict between subjective commentary and archive materials is typical of this “alternative” type of documentary cinematography.
There have been other similar films in the region, but as part of other national cinemas. In Hungary, for instance, a typical representative of these sorts of films is director Peter Forgács; in Austria we might speak of a philosophical and experimental avant-garde in film, represented by Gustav Deutsch, Peter Tscherkassky, Martin Arnold and others who research into the relationship of the film medium toward the history of the image, view, or narration. All these tendencies in terminology are marked as found footage films since their research aims to redefine the vague understanding of the history of culture, society and media. In the category of the younger generation showing systematic interest in the matter of subjective/alternative history in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia we include a broad range of important documentarians. In Slovakia, this style has most prominently been manifested in the opus of Peter Kerekes and Marek Šulík, and in the Czech Republic, in the documentaries of Ján Šikla, Jana Ševčíkova and Jan Gogol, Jr. One of our typical representatives, particularly devoted to this kind of documentaries, as well as authorially modifying in a systematic manner, is Peter Kerekes. He therefore deserves for us to at least briefly dive into the waves of his creations heretofore.
Among the thematically similar films reflecting the personal memories of an individual or a group we might also place those documentaries that in their coverage depart from the classical alternative history, but despite their different style – they develop this very same documentary trend. Two related film mythologies dealing with the collective history of closed society might also fall into this type of documentaries from the field of alternative history. We might place here Jana Ševčíkova’s film Jakub and Kerekes’ Ladomírske morytáty a legendy, or Moritats and Legends from Ladomírová. Whereas Ševčíkova is looking for the late Jakub in the collective memory of the closed community of Rusyns, Kerekes mostly focuses on discovering the local mythology of the social life of the people in the village of Ladomírová. Both documentarians investigate culturally and socially closed groups of people and their subjective attitudes toward their own local histories. The mention by current statements of contemporaries representing a reflective revisiting of the past is a constantly present phenomenon in the concept of these two filmmakers’ authorial documentaries.
Jana Ševčíkova, however, does not use any found-footage materials, regardless of whether we consider as such the photographs from the time in question or the archive footages. Gradually, as we listen to the individual accounts of the villagers on the departed Jakub accumulate, we thereby learn more about the life in this society from the medley of different statements than about Jakub himself. The villagers in their reports, in fact, more often speak of themselves. Figuratively speaking, the search for Jakub begets a myth featuring, primarily, the collective identity of the closed society. It is obvious that Ševčíkova is far more interested in the process of creating the story than in the specific facts on the dead. The dead man in time develops into a local legend, whereby his activities move into the realm of local mythology. In the subjective statements there comes about a mythologization of the real truth. The exact fate of the individual is blurred, so that we perceive merely the collective idea of the society regarding its own identity which marks the current subsistence in the given community.
Kerekes’ film concept in Moritats and Legends from Ladomírová is similar, so that we might define it as revealing the self-evolving local mythology – based on memories and preserved, in fact, within the orally transmitted history. The contents of the documentary are founded on the mosaic of oral testimonies that, despite certain additions and constructs, reflect the local history from a subjective standpoint, as seen by the villagers themselves individually in contrast to the objective historical age. From the documentary it becomes clear that the inability to verify during the authentication of the events described, as well as the concretization of personal memories, is epitomized in the birth of a local mythology set firmly in the grounds of the “communal” history.
Peter Kerekes’ opus began to shape more significantly around the year 2000. Those days, in fact, saw the creation of one of his first thematically oriented documentaries, Most Márie Valérie or The Mária Valéria Bridge, which intentionally discusses the impact of historical events on the behaviour of individuals. In the subject of discovering the historical paradigm, his work always relies on a certain firmly established, in most cases, heterogeneous point around which the specific historical functionality or the social/sociological meaning develops – meaning that not only carries that functionality with, but may also cause it. Finally, based on the discourse thusly limited, the author may explore the stirs of history in order to stress or create the new museum of history, founded on the interaction of specific events and on the strong subjectively narrated story. The ways of constructing the statements in which a departure from the specific historical event is possible do not, in fact, interest him as author. The primary importance falls on the polemic s between great histories and its repercussion on the destinies of specific individuals.
In the The Mária Valéria Bridge documentary the expressive value of the film focuses on the history of the bridge on the Danube that in the past used to unite and divide the Slovak town of Štúrovo (Párkáň) and the Hungarian Ostrihom. In another film, 66 sezón or 66 Seasons, the role of the charged heterogeneous point of such stories, that is, the town, dependent of the private past of individual, is played by the Košice public swimming pool. And in the film Ako sa varia dejiny or Cooking History, this specific point is the military field kitchen. All of the abovementioned focal points, that is, locations, are also deciding factors, pivots determining the multitude of subjective narratives by a certain meta-individual historical stage. Therefore, as history stirred, so did the relations surrounding the focal points in question and then, under the pressure of changes, the destinies of specific individuals changed as well. Kerekes deliberately employs this principle in order to realize the concept of subjective interpretation of the past by using the category of actual witness. The individual narratives in his films become “audible” primarily by the use of orally communicated history and by maximally exploiting the various archive materials from the time in question: starting from painted postcards, all the way to photographs, amateur videos or commercial audiovisual materials, as the ideologically biased official weekly film reviews with a tendentiously imposed comment. Kerekes most meticulously develops his own authorial method, perhaps even in his full-length documentary Cooking History. The orally presented testimonies are envisaged as staged micro-narratives, and during their reinterpretation he makes use of the fictitious repertory, oftentimes borrowed from the narrative patterns of feature films. The speech scenes of the character at an image level are enriched with a mise-en-scène, often even with the use of a film metaphor whereby the original meaning is proliferated. Some feature dramatic proceedings might, from a directorial standpoint, be seen as part of the documentary as well, as an end in itself. Regardless of such remarks, one should stress the intelligence with which the author manages to communicate the historical events to the viewer particularly in order to make them more appealing and comprehensible. The viewers can best form an opinion by themselves, drawing from the multifaceted arrangement of indications, on a certain aspect of the “small” subjective history as opposed to the “great” history, which was oftentimes tendentiously promoted by historians in the past. It is precisely the dialogue with the past the viewers experience while watching Kerekes’ films that raises in them the question of the logic of historical truth, as well as challenge the conventional mode of understanding the past founded solely on the context of passing of great historical stages.
The Mária Valéria Bridge falls into the category of Kerekes’ stylistically most readable works from a documentary standpoint. In them the director left out the excessive use of dramatic proceedings and focussed more on the collage aspects of the film and on the combination of contemporary and archive materials. The result is seen in the characters’ speech delivered in the form of “talking heads”, and that is exactly the non-cinematic mode of shooting that Kerekes abandons in his later years. In the context of his later work, The Mária Valéria Bridge seems as a certain verification of the accuracy of the method. The concept of the film is fairly simple and generally comprehensible. It is about a bridge between two nationally mixed territories. The bridge was built before the two world wars in order to connect the two banks of the Danube which in those days were part of a single territory within the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. After World War I and during the foundation of Czechoslovakia, the Danube became a borderline river flowing between two independent countries, and the two parts of the bridge came to symbolize the divide. The problems resulting from this turn of events for the ethnically diverse population often came to be fatal. During the wars and after their end there were transfers, exiles and transport of the Jewish population; injustice was served on the part of both national states. Toward the end of World War II the strategically vital bridge was destroyed. During narration Kerekes alternates several audiovisual materials to underscore the significance of the subjectively recounted stories. The bridge serves as an important symbol that, under the sway of individual historical stages, that is, depending on how these stages are subjectively and chronologically presented by the characters in the film, in its history managed to evoke occasionally positive feelings, and sometimes traumas based on the subjectively grasped interpretation of historical facts. Witnesses’ personal statements and their stories cannot be regarded in isolation, regardless of the fact that in places they differ significantly, infected as they are by the interests of the two national states (Hungary and Slovakia). The bridge is interesting for the narrative as a central symbol from the perspective of the historical changes of its function. In fact, even in the consideration of the citizens of both towns the bridge stands as an extraordinary symbol. Through this subjective view of the interpretation of events the differences and evaluation of historical events disappear. On the other hand, such reports bring us back from the historical results to the repercussions of historical development on the specific individual, identity, people and collective memory of the diverse society with diverse populations on both riverbanks. And that, from the standpoint of Kerekes’ documentary analysis of a heterogeneous territory, represents the most crucial conclusion. A separate chapter in the documentary is assigned to the contrast between subjective interpretation of historical events and the impersonal formulation provided by the tendentiously imposed comment in the film weekly. It is difficult to accurately verify the positions presented in the film and it is thus impossible to be partial to either side (Slovak or Hungarian) without running the risk of losing sight of the objective assessment of the whole. Should we wish to approach the meaning of Kerekes’ concept and thereby recognize the author’s view, then we must surrender to the symbolic core of the documentary. That core alone might create the impression based on which we could manage to understand the history of the area. That history hides behind the stories of the subjective histories of the specific society of the population of the area. It is impossible to distinguish the territory from the people living there, as well as from their local histories, regardless of the fact that they separate from any historical perspective.
In another Kerekes’ film, 66 Seasons, we encounter the subjective memories of the citizens of Košice and their experiences in one way or another dependent on the area around the Košice public pool. Kerekes employs a playful mode of filming when, more than ever before, he investigates the past of the authentic mien of the place during three summer season following one after the other. Apart from the stories of the past, he enriches the report with a philosophical element with the help of which compares the pool to a so-called symbol of the world, and around the pool water he creates cosmogonic interpretations regarding the birth of life and the origins of death. He is interested not only in the stories of the pool in the past, but also looks for certain types of young people who might resemble the people who were swimming there 50 years before. He creatively connects a whole crew in the course of filming and frames the documentary in the memories of his grandfather who had only been at sea once in his lifetime. Several times he show amateur archive footage of the concrete walls of the pool and the water inside in order to invoke the shadows of the past as it once was by blending the long lost time and the authentic place where the footage was made. The film 66 Seasons falls into the category of the most feature-like auteur documentaries in Kerekes’ filmography, labelled as a family movie. That is confirmed by the choice of characters from his circle or friends or his immediate family.
Kerekes attempts to construct a much more complex message in the full-length documentary Cooking History. Considering that the film was intended for screening at movie theatres, Kerekes chose a globally comprehensible subject that could attract a wider audience in a European notional context. The fundamental heterogeneous point, the pervading location, the object of history explored through subjectively narrated stories, in this case is a military field kitchen. The repetition of the flight over unidentified land throughout the movie, as well as of the several musical/visual landscapes, is presented as a predominant symbol in Kerekes’ film aesthetic. In a traditional sense, the military field kitchen is a materialized symbol of cooking. It symbolizes food preparation in unconventional conditions – during the armed military conflicts that occurred in Europe in the twentieth century. This time Kerekes did not settle for one specific location, as was the case with The Mária Valéria Bridge and 66 Seasons. In his full-length documentary he attempted to create a dangerous symbolic/metaphorical collage dealing with the specific aspects of the duration of war from the war chefs’ perspective. As it turned out, this film collage is concerned with the very important activity of food preparation and eating. On the old continent, in the various war conflicts entered mostly uniformed, but from a historical standpoint, essentially unspecified masses, and the result of the conflicts often depended particularly on the regular food supply. Most wars in the history of mankind ended in defeat on account of the starvation of the opponent, even if that opponent had the military advantage. Due to this arrangement of events in Kerekes’ concept, his direction was facing a number of simplifying acts. He could not treat the given armed conflict in detail, so he chose to focus on the coverage of a broader spectrum of various events contributing to the establishment of less interaction of the whole of the work with its individual parts than one might wish. The versatility of the conflicts determined the author’s selection of the stories based on the fact how interesting they are, weakening the overall unity and the message of the narration. The author also failed to dismiss certain solutions that, even though acceptable in documentary film, might be considered as mainly authorial mannerisms. It is mostly a question of dramatic proceedings which in the concept of the documentary are often visible, so that some documentarians decisively dismiss them since they are incompatible with, for instance, the principles of cinéma vérité, or they threaten the authentic expression of the piece. And dramatization appears in Kerekes’ film on several notional levels, not merely on the level of segments, but even within the intelligently created collage composition. It is primarily concerned with the narrative proceedings, as we might immediately notice in the epilogue, in the first story of the cook about the substantial defeat of the calf before the cooking skills of the Russian army in the school for future military cooks.
Kerekes in this episode cleverly inverts the relation between image and comment. In this case, the image illustrates one the tendentious statement of one of the characters, not the other way round. The documentarily included pieces, thanks to the untraditionally chosen narrative, get a symbolic meaning that they previously did not have. The Russian soldier in the comment explains how they forcibly took away the cow from a local old man in Chechnya in order to diversify the monotonous army supplies. This move provoked the subsequent bombing of the unit. The comment is complemented by the collage sequence in which the trainees look at the calf tied down to a tree in the woodland. In the next frame, the freshly prepared beef is served in plates, and the comment continues, ending the event with the words: “… and thus it was repeated.” We then return to the trainees and the calf by the tree which is soon to be subdued with the blunt end of an axe. The scene, as per the narrative structure, is developed un-chronologically. We first observe the preparations to kill the animal, then the serving of the meat, and at the very end we witness the act of killing in the moment when the comment suggests the possibility of future repetition of similar events. The naturalistic portrayal of the killing of the animal is assigned more room in the documentary because it symbolically alludes to the killing of people brought about by wars. If the French legionnaire from the Algerian conflict cut the French symbol – the cock, in order to cook it with wine, then we once again witness a progression of symbolical levels in the small space of the dramatized recipe.
Another mode of staging is the part of the narrative about the Croatian cook who prepares food in a field. The shape of the pot placed on the embers, in which the food is cooked, closely resembles a landmine. During the whole sequence of preparing the meet, behind the cook is a soldier with a mine detector beeping and testing the terrain around the fire. His activity is seen in the background on account of his considerable lack of involvement in the shoot. In the symbolic/metaphorical core, his activity reinforces the connotation connecting the shape of the pot, the mines and the Balkan conflict in which these dangerous weapons were extensively used by both enemy formations.
The director also used a pretentious metaphor in the story of Josip Broz-Tito’s personal chef from which we learn how all peace negotiations in the attempts to reunite Yugoslavia ended. They ended in fiasco, which was to be assumed from the very selection of dishes on which the republican delegations were feasting. All three attempts, which took place in different capital, according to the nationality of the host, were marked by strictly ethnically determined selection of food at the receptions. In fact, neither side managed to consider the national particulars of the rest of the delegations in the negotiations. The failed political negotiations were a disaster that Kerekes visually shaded with three slow-motion frames. Each national dish was shot with a bullet which turns the set plate as the symbol of national pride into amorphous mass.
Peter Kerekes’ Filmography:
Man On The Book, The Book On Man
(Človek o Knihe, Kniha o Človeku)
© STV, štúdio Košice 1994
Balog Jozsef, PrÍbenÍk 66
© VŠMU 1996
(O Troch Dňoch v Jasovskom Kláštore)
© VŠMU 1996
Moritats and Legends of Ladomírová
(Ladomírske Morytáty a Legendy)
© VŠMU, STV, ČT, Ars Media s. r. o. 1998
Zuzana from 8.00 to 5.00
(Zuzana od 8.00 do 17.00)
© STV 2000
© Peter Kerekes, ČT, STV 2003
Across the Border (Episode 3 – Helpers)
Cez Hranice (Epizóda 3 – Pomocníci)
Directed by: Pavel Lozinsky, Jan Gogola ml., Peter Kerekes, Robert Lakatos, Blijana Cekic-Veselic
© Nikolaus Geyrhalter Film Production 2004
(Ako Sa Varia Dejiny)
© Mischief-films, Peter Kerekes, Negativ, ČT, STV 2009
The Slovak original was first published in: Vlna /výtvarná/, 2009, č. 39.
Translated into English by Kalina Janeva
With these three particular examples we attempted to demonstrate the manner in which Kerekes combines the symbolical levels, first at the level of comment and the illogical frame composition, then at the level of mise en scène (foreground, middleground and background), or finally at the level of visual symbol as an independent iconic comment. The other staging modes were developed fairly traditionally. For instance, there is a scene of dramatized cooking without ingredients in an empty pot during food preparations for the dead comrades or literally – to reconstruct the story in which the cook hides behind enemy tanks in a corn field, or the case with the explosion of the pot of goulash behind the Hungarian army chef who “does not see it coming”. The various visual effects sometimes draw the attention away from the overall meaning which thanks to the playful form of presentation and the ironic ease as if bypassing the ethical parameters beneath the tragedy of the individual stories. We may only conclude: there is no accounting for taste. As much is the cooking authentically portrayed and the staged reconstructions inauthentically, so is each addition directly dependent on the narrated story.
Either way, we cannot deny Kerekes his tendency to develop an eclectic style in his work as documentary film director. Apart from the dramatizations and reconstructions, he also aims to offer well-founded opinions, makes unconventional use of counterpoint in editing the segments, attempts to establish a dialogue between the archival and the authentic, for instance, by using tools such as the quotation. For example, the archive frame in which German armed forces are lifting the ramp, and the frame shot today. The frail old men, former Wehrmacht soldiers, cannot even manage to boost the ramp. Kerekes quite often establishes an open dialogue with his protagonists, even though positioned merely as a voice behind the camera whereby interactively influencing the performance itself since he “imposes” his own value judgements to his characters: Do you believe the recipes to be orders? and the like. Another time, together with the protagonist and on his initiative, he reacts skilfully and offers an improvised confession during the filming of the unbiased participants, members of the Israeli armed forces during grocery shopping at the supermarket.
The flexible directing, stylistic diversification, the collage and the eclectic variation of practices condense the film space with ambiguous symbols and blurring the clear-cut expression of the message of the documentary. Kerekes may be even too focussed on creating an “intellectual” type of film that particularly relies on the emotional involvement of the viewer in the action. He borrows not only from the documentary, but above all from the feature film tradition, whereby opening a polemic discussion between times. Between the time of the conflict seen historically and the time of mentioning, that is to say, in the context of today’s perception of the past event. The polemically built character of the film document in which the authentic is transferred from past into present by the process of staging reality leaves plenty of room for subjective assessment of the events by the viewer. The unifying principle of the film Cooking History is not the relationship between the truth captured documentarily and authenticity in a historical sense of the world. This film is united by the principle based on the paradigmatic relation between the subjective narratives on the topic of cooking in the time of war and the transnational nature of food preparation as one of the human activities acquiring particular meaning and character in wartime. Kerekes in therefore less interested in the reasons and consequences of the rage of war, he has no interest in judging; he primarily to observe the particular event somehow marked by war, as well as its repercussions on the individual regarding food, eating, cooking, that is to say, regarding survival. The fact that food in the army is crucial part of every war is confirmed by the many additional mini-narratives. The Jewish supporters of the resistance toward the end of World War II managed to poison the bread intended for the captured German troops; food was the reason for the attack on the Russian soldiers in Chechnya; the famine during the siege of Stalingrad was an omnipresent constant; the sugar cube managed to provoke hatred toward the ruthless invader; the pickled mushrooms gathered from the occupied territory became souvenirs of war, and so on. From this first – and banal – point of view the contemporary viewer can directly see the aspects of war and the army forces’ motives for action based on food. Kerekes manages to effectively include other aspects within the subject matter, such was: heroism, cowardice, hatred, betrayal, vengeance, national interests, the attitude of the state towards members of its own or of another people, nationalism, as well as ordinary soldiers’ naivety and primitivism which at times even result in atrocities.
Kerekes thus attempts to ironize the individual episodes in order to relieve the pathos of the “warring” parties in the account. It is this humour that helps him not to fall prey to the seriousness of the tragic subject matter. It may also be seen in the twelve cooking recipes appearing directly on the screen as subtitles, and their presentation is at times quite cynical considering their contents. We certainly cannot question the director’s enormous effort to present subjects captured as understandably as possible. He has no ambition to attack the great historical events but to mainly focus on the tragedy of the common man who, in the pull of history and under the pressure of the war machinery, is in a situation to prepare perhaps what is most banal, but also most important – a good meal.
1. Moritat is a genre dealing exclusively with the subject of murder, executions, death. In some segments they might resemble ballads or elegies.