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The Filmmaker as Scout and Warrior

Slovak Investigative Documentaries since 1989

How far does this genre extend? Bribery, behind-the-scenes machinations, and mafia practices have somehow naturally led to the investigation of activities in order to reveal matters kept out of the public eye by individuals, corporations and countries. (Think of Watergate, Wikileaks, or Gorila, a Slovak political affair). Investigation has another face, too: it reveals and makes public those things that no one tries to cover up – they have just dropped from our memories. It is no longer a struggle, but a discovery, intentional as well as accidental, like the discovery of America by the “investigator” Christopher Columbus.
And then there is the rather extensive borderline. One of the basic characteristic features of documentary production is the effort to bring to light something unknown or unnoticed. In this sense, every documentary (and journalistic) film worthy of its name is, in some respect, investigative too. Such an extension, however, would only lead us ad absurdum.
What immediately strikes the eye is the fact that the most glaring example of Slovak documentary film belongs to the second category. The archaeological expedition into the World War II by Matej Mináè (Minatsh) and Patrik Pašš (Pashsh) brought to light the dust-covered and forgotten rescue operation of Nicholas Winton. The two parts of their duology, The Power of Good (Sila ¾udskosti, 2002) and Nicky's Family (Nickyho rodina, 2011), overlap and at times even repeat themselves. Considering its genre, the duology sometimes crosses the boundaries marked by conventions of documentary film, and tends to resemble the mainstream esthetics of film reconstructions and docudramas. Its social impact and international reception support the filmmakers' main goal – the depiction of a journey in search of the un-Hrabalesque pearl in the sea-bed, promising that in this world driven to destruction by consumerist entropy there might still be a speck of hope left. The revelation of a historical phenomenon of the Oskar Schindler kind by means of documentary and reconstruction methods constitutes an attempt to address the world, at a time when the media are continually feeding us with images of new celebrities as promoters of the consumerist mentality. And it is certainly something that transcends the boundaries of cinema. As such, it is quite unmatchable in the present period.
Of a similar sort is the inventive film Built-In Photographs (Zamurované fotografie, 1997) by O¾ga Pohánková, which is not real investigative in the strict sense, rather the discovery of a golden egg.
Another kind of investigative documentary brings to light events and circumstances not so much unknown as tabooed. In doing so, it is shattering national myths and turns against the stubborn reluctance to confront historical truth, whereas the first place in the value hierarchy of institutionalized patriotism belongs to the nation, according to the nationalistic concept – and only then (if at all) come other values, namely civil ones. In predominantly Catholic Slovakia, the persistence of the nationalistic tendency is revealed by the aversion to reflect critically on the clerical fascist republic of 1939-1945. On one occasion, one enters this minefield with a buck passer like ¼ubomír Mlynárik, whose film Attempting a Portrait (Pokus o portrét), released in 1991, depicts the president Dr. Jozef Tiso. On other occasions, a fierce headwind will blow the filmmaker in the face, as happened to Dušan Hudec (Dushan Hudetz), when his documentary entitled Love Your Neighbor (Miluj blížneho svojho, 2004) – a distinct presentation of xenophobia and “folk anti-Semitism” archetypes, depicted in the context of the post-war pogrom in Topo¾èany (Topoltshany) – clashed, under a Kafkaesque legalist pretext, with the censorship barrier instituted by the management of Slovak Television (STV). The filmmaker, however, arrived at this final point of investigation – the synthesis – by means of continuous systematic research: It had started with the extensive documentation comprised in Messengers of Hope (Poslovia nádeje, 1999) and continued with a focused look from an internal perspective at the atrocities of fascist guardsmen in The Witness (Svedok, 2000). On still other occasions, a filmmaker will cast a critical look at the holocaust, but only from the victims' perspective – this is the case of Peter Hledík's We Were Not Loved (Nemali nás v láske, 1991). If a filmmaker aims the spotlight at the current myths of Jozef Tiso rather than at the past, he usually has to search for a producer somewhere abroad, as evidenced by the production of Tranèík's (Trantshik) Tiso's Shadows (Tisove tiene, 1996), which was screened by Slovak Television (STV) only after 1999, thus after the defeat of Vladimír Meèiar's (Metshyar) authoritarian regime. A documentary based on a book by the Slovak emigrant Dušan Šimek (Dushan Shimek) The Sixth Battalion (Šiesty prápor, 1997) was screened at the same time. It dealt with the hard work of Slovak Jewish recruits and cuts deeply too. No wonder that it had to be produced in the Czech Republic without Slovak participation. The same song is sung by the audio-visual productions of the Nation´s Memory Institute, which proclaims the study of the 1939-1989 period one of its goals. Although it has already released seven DVDs, none have dealt with the period of the clerical fascist republic.
One way or another, the topic of fascism and the Jewish holocaust remains one of the dominant themes of the historiography and art in the Euro-Atlantic world. With certain obstacles, it prevails here, too. On the other hand, a historical investigative documentary by Pavol Korec (Koretz), This Railway (To ta tra, 2002), very convincingly supported by archive research, deals with another kind of holocaust that has fallen into oblivion – the Roma one. The historical events revealed by This Railway stand vicariously for similar atrocities perpetrated on yet another traditionally victimized ethnicity.
Lately, it was Zuzana (Susan) Piussi, a professional scout, who set off to research on intolerance, this time of the contemporary type. Her Fragile Identity (Krehká identita, 2012) revealed the layered image of the Slovak version of nationalism in all its varieties, extending from a moving old-world kind of selfless love to concealed as well as open, decently or cunningly masked nationalism and xenophobia, and from the romantic search for Slovak roots to radical anti-Semitism. The topic is organically linked to Catholicism, the creation of myths and the tradition of missionaries. The final images are created mainly as a reportage using the cinema direct method in combination with testimonies in front of the camera. In this way, everything is seen from the perspective of the protagonists, while the filmmaker's share lies in the choice of shots, choice of performers, and the editing. Fragile Identity is probably the most complex depiction of the syndrome constituted by the link between nationalist conservatism and the church in a specifically Slovak version. At the same time, it serves as a model – with variants of this syndrome showing through, as they exist, mutatis mutandis, in all predominantly Catholic and Orthodox countries of the post-Soviet bloc.
Zuzana Piussi's work is a distinct phenomenon in this field, as it focuses increasingly on the investigative part of the genre or at least borders on it. Therefore, her non-investigative films let us think of the warrior's rest. With what builds the core, she reminds us of a scout who feverishly keeps looking for trails, which the shredders and “cleaners” failed to erase. She is also rather prolific in what she is doing. After all, she finished Fragile Identity almost concurrently with a similarly bizarre investigative documentary entitled The Grasp of the State (Od Fica do Fica, 2012). And the recent pair of films entitled Men of Revolution (Muži revolúcie, 2011) and Dis(ease) of the Third Power (Ne(moc) tretej moci, 2011) belong to the same category too. At the beginning of the investigative career of this “angry young woman” stands a student documentary, Wipe-out (Výmet, 2003), which received an award for “its daring treatment of a tabooed subject” and Koliba (also 2003), in which the filmmaker is trying to untie the Gordian knot of machinations around the privatization (i.e. embezzling) of the Slovak national film studios. Although the revelation of this labyrinth was perhaps a little beyond her powers, what she revealed as a filmmaker remains a stimulating and sometimes also grotesque insight into the interior mechanism of mafia practices that came into play with the assistance of a part of the filmmakers themselves.
The series Right of the People, “an online advisory centre” for civil initiatives, on which Zuzana Piussi worked on her own and occasionally in collaboration with Robert Kirchhoff, comes also under the heading investigative documentary. Kirchhoff's mostly reflexive, associative and socially-critically work has so far always contained an investigative feature, mainly in the sociologically relevant and metaphorically dense, authentic documentary Hey, You Slovaks (Hej, Slováci, 2002). And his “never-ending story” of Normalization (Kauza Cervanová, 2013), ambitiously characterized as “a documentary tragedy about the right to justice”, promises to be a striking investigative documentary, even if it is not clear yet what it will reveal and how it will present it.
We have been focusing on the most important titles and names in investigative documentary film production. It is necessary to note, however, that a fairly large number of producers from both TV and the film industry have dealt with this genre. Quite naturally, the Post-November investigative documentary productions focused on pre-November cases. The post-totalitarian cases were only being born then. Apparently, Štecko's (Shtetsko) Stanislav Babinský – Life Is an Uncompromising Boomerang (Stanislav Babinský – Život je nekompromisný bumerang, 1990), a depiction of “the taste of power”, and Kamenický's (Kamenitsky) The Last Letter (Posledný list, 1990), belong to the first category. The Last Letter reveals the profile of Vladimír Clementis (until his execution) through his correspondence with his wife, the backdrop being the Slánsky Trial. Due to the initiative of such people as Mário Homolka and ¼ubomír Štecko, who are merging the tradition of authentic documentary film production with television-based documentary journalism, a number of series were produced by Slovak Television that were journalistic, documentary, educating, as well as civil-society-inspired, critical and even satirical in character. Series like Variations, As I See It (Ako to vidím), Women About Women (Ženy o ženách), Cactus (Kaktus), What Next with the Ecology (Eko ïalej), Subjective (Subjektív) or Surrealities (Surreality), with the subtitle What's Burning Us, revealed present maladies, and from time to time even slid into interventionist journalism, as in the case of Blanka Purdeková's series Terra X. Even in the longest lasting STV series, Historical Panorama (Historická panoráma), which can be seen on TV even today and whose contributors include renowned authors such as Rudolf Urc (Urtz), Martin Slivka, Marcela Plítková and Dušan Hudec, one may come across some creativity accompanied by features of investigative documentary, side by side with the standard and mainly “neutral” and “objectivistic” (i.e. “middle-of-the-road”) approach to the processing of archival material, commented on by old hands or contemporary experts in the field.
The same kind of experienced authors came up with authorial ambitions. In People from Hauerland (¼udia z Hauerlandu, 1994), based on Viliam Jablonický's (Yablonitsky) script, Rudolf Urc immersed himself in the historical evolution of the co-habitation of two ethnicities. Nevertheless he presented the massacre of Carpathian Germans by guerrilla groups outside the historical context, which proves how easy it is to slide from the pre-November retouch to the opposite extreme. Whereas the massacre is just one of many episodes in a broader context in People From Hauerland, Milan Homolka's The Night at the Swedish Wall (Noc na Švédskom vale, 2006) takes a similar massacre perpetrated against Carpathian Germans by a troop of Slovak soldiers after the war as its main theme, and it reveals the process of the slaughter and its circumstances in detail. Only the search for traces of the initiator of the massacre, Pazúr, which logically should have been one of the main parts of the investigation, got stuck half-way, even though it had the potential to become one of its highlights.
Two fair examples of reconnaissance related to Soviet terror in our country are Lihosit's Dubèek (Dubtshek), Internment (Dubèek, Internácia, 1998), which is part of a larger biographic intention, and Palonder's attempt to free us from taboos, entitled My Father Gulag (Môj otec Gulag, 2008). The latter examines the fates of abducted Slovaks through the fate of a camp orphan on the one hand and the hopeless look of today's archipelago Gulag on the other hand.
Subconsciously, we may relate investigative documentary production to history, politics, diplomacy, organized crime etc., but it does not always need to be so. Berák's Meine Wehrmacht (2009), which reveals the virulence of neo-militarist thinking coupled with Nazi sympathies, as well as Begányi's Erotic Nation (2009), which depicts transformations of Slovak forms of the sex business in connection with political developments and the attitude of Slovaks towards a theme that is not tabooed anymore – are remarkable examples of investigative documentary productions, although not always with an unequivocal result. A film like Dezorz's and Páleník's docudrama Devín Massacre (Devínsky masaker, 2011), on the other hand, offered a chance to take a look behind the scenes with regard to a key social problem – conflicts with unadaptable neighbors. Instead, it focused on the reconstruction of said event and the personal background of the gunman, whereas the image of the social background remained hidden under an assemblage of personal opinions and impressions, which in fact suggest nothing relevant.
In the past few years, STV has been producing documentary TV series such as Slovak Cinema (Slovenské kino), Science in Europe (Veda v Európe) and Tins of Time (Konzervy èasu), which from time to time offer some scope for actual creative ambitions. However, only one, Citizen Behind the Door (Obèan za dverami) bears the characteristics of investigative journalism. After all, in an attempt to win a larger audience, STV or at least its Channel 1, has been competing with commercial TV stations for years now, relying on the particular weapons of the latter and thus no longer on the means proper for a station obliged to render a public service. Private channels do not produce investigative documentaries, although a fierce investigative journalism could be a real blockbuster. After all, there were times when TV Markíza built its success around such documentaries too, and its series like Gunfire (Pa¾ba) and In the Shadow (V tieni) brought shocking revelations of anomalies, and at times even came close to interventionist journalism. You would vainly look for similar programs in its current profile (or the profile of other commercial TV stations). If I am wrong, mea culpa.
It is hard to imagine that the new generation would neglect investigative documentary production. After all, some “daring” films have been produced at the VŠMU (Academy of Drama and Performing Arts) too. To me the most inspiring seems to be Vote 98 (Hlas 98, 1999) by Marek Kuboš (Kubosh), who used a motif of the electoral campaign applied in the pre-election atmosphere for the purpose of mystification, in the tradition of cinema direct. The telephone questions served as bait, and the recorded answers on the other hand offered an authentic group portrait of Slovak people, the children of totalitarianism. In consequence, it is the human voice that is standing in the centre of this film, while shots of streets, people and buildings create the background. The result is an impressive image of a “landscape” with the shadow of Big Brother hovering above it. Even this kind of investigative documentary met with resistance, this time right at the film school, which refused it as a graduate film entry.
At the time Voice 98 was produced, another student, Marko Škop (Shkop), looked under the surface of the protection mechanism of our top brass by shifting the image of how the security machinery works into the grotesque (Security of Office / Ochrana úradu, 1999).
Students at the Film Department of the VŠMU have not dealt with investigative documentaries in the past decade very often, although youth usually goes hand in hand with a fighting spirit. Whether this is due to the hostile reception of Vote 98 or the growing pragmatism of the new generation, is hard to say from an outside perspective. And perhaps I am just wrong…
This fragmentary review certainly has some gaps. The author expresses his apologies in advance. But perhaps a little something amounts to more than nothing.

Print version of the text first published in the monthly no. 11/2012 Translated by Zuzana Starovecká [Slightly revised by AW, May 7, 2013]

Last modified June 2013
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