Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.
IDFA: Helena Trestikova’s work epitomises the innovative role of long-term filmmaking, and the inextricable link between big and little histories.
Helena Trestikova

«You bet on someone in the beginning of the process, and then you wait and see what life does with them.» That is how Czech director Helena Trestikova – the guest star of the 31st edition of IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) – explains her approach to filmmaking. While feature film directors brought long-term filmmaking to the attention of the general public (Derek Cianfrance with Blue Valentine (2010) and Richard Linklater with Boyhood (2014) for example), Helena Trestikova is one of the true pioneers of long-term observational documentaries, a practice she calls «time-lapse» filmmaking. A graduate of the prestigious FAMU (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts) in Prague, Trestikova has achieved a great deal: working for television, establishing a foundation dedicated to new societal perspectives following the political upheaval of 1991, working since 2002 as a film pedagogue, being appointed culture minister of the Czech Republic for a brief period in 2007, and having (to date) made close to 50 films, winning several prestigious awards along the way.

Illuminating the human condition

With time-lapse filmmaking, she has produced masterful studies on the passing of time and human nature; daring portraits of people, from outcasts to celebrities, personalities you will not forget for a long time after seeing the film. To achieve this, while the filmmaker requires a lot of patience, this is no waiting game. As René Plasil, an inmate whom she followed for 20 years frankly admits, «If Ms. Trestikova hadn’t come along and filmed me, I’d still be an offender with nothing to show for himself. As it is, I’m now in the papers, I write books, I get published. I could never have achieved any of that on my own».

«Seeing people change over long periods of time is inherently dramatic: the time itself provides a narrative arc and turns filmed subjects into heroes.»

Plasil, an intelligent young man  who has spent the majority of his life behind bars, can surely prove no rule. But what he says is true in more than one way. How she places the camera; how, using close-ups, Trestikova renders almost tangible the decomposing of the skin; how she positions her subjects alone in the centre of the frame and avoids others so as to not invade their privacy, or makes them visible when their presence becomes essential for the story; how she inserts a shot of a garbage truck after a drug addict is seen engaging in prostitution – there are numerous ways in which the director effectively «creates» the subjects of her films.

Context matters

Having so much power means a lot of responsibility, but can be used in a positive way. That is what Trestikova does, and not only with regard to the individual subjects of her films. In her own words, during the interview Pamela Cohn made for IFDA: «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».

In René (2008), a film that won the European Film Academy’s Best Documentary Award, the prison shots are often interrupted by TV news reports on key historical events: Vaclav Havel becoming president, the separation of the Czech and Slovak Republics, the attack on the World Trade Centre. As the oath «I solemnly swear to be loyal to the Czech Republic, to abide by its constitution and laws» echoes within prison walls, it provides a stark contrast to Plasil’s incapacity to obey the law.

«You don’t value freedom very much…», Trestikova reproachfully asserts to this young man, in reference to his repeated cycle of petty crime and jail time, in one of the rare moments when she lets her voice be heard. On another occasion, we hear him say, «Sure jail is horrible. But if you’ve spent all your life there since 15, it does give you some kind of sense of values, and certainties. I think a lot of people come back, not because they miss it exactly, but because they can handle it, and they can’t handle life outside. Sure you have a better life outside, but you have lots of problems too. In jail, there are no problems».

Thus gradually, the history of an individual enlightens the history of the world. As a metonymy (cruel punishment of a child) and as a metaphor (communism as a «prison»), it makes the last 30 years of the former Eastern Europe much more comprehensible: from the cruel idealism of the utopia, to the nostalgic longing for the old days that followed shortly after the liberation. René is a provocative, controversial discourse on freedom, comparable to Rossellini’s Europe ‘51 (1952) or Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). We can only wonder how it came to be that today we are able to envision such fundamental reflections on common values only when located on the very margins of society.

The narrative arc of time

Trestikova made her first film, The Miracle/Zazrak (1975), to «explore what happens to a woman when her baby is born and she becomes a mother». Family and motherhood have remained her main interest ever since. In her first series of time-lapse films, she followed the everyday lives of young married couples, from the moment of their wedding. As a result, the six-part television series Marriage Stories/ Manzelske etudy (1987) was made.

In 2006, almost twenty years later, she returned to filming the same couples again. The film A Marriage Story, Strnadovi (2017), presents a life path of one of the couples: the architects Ivana and Vaclav and their family, over the course of 35 years. The couple married as students, built a home and a business, had five kids, and remained together ever since. It is this particular film that best demonstrates the advantage of time-lapse filmmaking. Seeing people change over long periods of time is inherently dramatic: the time itself provides a narrative arc and turns filmed subjects into heroes.

In other words, time-lapse filmmaking relies on the power of structure. This structure can be the passing of time, can be history or society. Trestikova very attentively creates space for her subjects to express themselves freely, but eventually they will confront these structures as limitations. It even happens to Ivana, the core of the stereotypical portrait of a family: a wife and mother who greets with a warm smile whatever challenge she has to confront, but who, towards the end of the film, carefully whispers «I am not free».

Films about drug-addicts and celebrities are by far the most popular among Trestikova’s films, but the true advantage of her method is that her portraits of common people are equally as engaging. With time-lapse filmmaking, Trestikova gives the audience the possibility not only to voyeuristically peek into the unknown, but also to see how her heroes cope with what all humans have in common: the necessity of having to deal with limitations.