Quirky Slovak Peter Kerekes has made a gem of a film. Impossible to classify, it crosses genres with abandon – part oral history, part family home-movie, part comedy, part meditation on loss, part homage to the Nick Broomfield school of the on-screen boom mic, part mockumentary parody of documentary reconstruction, part celebration of Slovakian beauties in swimsuits, and part ethnography of the swimming pool – 66 Seasons keeps you on your toes.
It purports to be about the filmmaker’s great-grandfather, the boy from Romania who always wanted to go to sea, though he never got there. The film opens at Kosice open-air public swimming baths and never gets anywhere else, taking languid laps up and down the memories of Kerekes’ grandma and her pals, and following whatever byways the director’s surreal imagination suggests. He sets up an underwater card game at the bottom of the pool, with playing cards and the players’ skirts drifting up towards the surface (this seems positively normal after the underwater bicycle race in World War Two uniforms.) He hires an Adolph Hitler-lookalike from a casting agency and cuts sync from bathers who’ve been in Nazi concentration camps to images of Hitler, apparently, in the pool or being accosted by sunbathers. He grills the pool-maintenance boy about where the water goes when the pool is drained – you’re sure Kerekes has lost the thread of his great-father altogether, until the maintenance boy solemnly declares that the pool water goes, eventually, to the sea.
Kerekes’ interview questions are idiosyncratic – “Are there swimming pools in Heaven?”; “When you were in the Soviet secret service, how did they choose your codename?” – but he coaxes thoughtful and intimate responses.
He creates exquisite in-camera ‘split-screen’, such as by shooting a screen beside the pool while projecting archive footage onto it – at least the footage is black-and-white and scratchy, but is it really archive? Kerekes is playful and mischievous with time, using what he himself calls ‘fake archive’. His key contributors are women in their seventies (“We used to be young and beautiful, now we’re just beautiful”). We see him asking his elderly interviewees to scout among the bathers by the pool, picking out someone who looks like themselves when they young, and inviting them to perform for his 8mm reconstructions. Written down, this sounds laboured; on screen, it’s charming and revealing. The film cuts with glee between ‘archive’, actuality and meandering chats between director and interviewee about what to shoot next. Marek Sulik’s editing builds a satisfying rhythm, taking evident delight in the material.