Definitions of decent behaviour are recited in the living rooms of homes in a block of flats somewhere in Litvínov, North Bohemia. The boundaries between decent people and the rest are flexible, set while knitting socks or pressing garlic. Without intervention and commentary, Radovan Síbrt's visually compelling film essay On Decency follows the roots of views that could easily be labeled as racist. What lurks beneath the surface of multiculturalism and how does the living environment affect our ability to accept otherness?
There are a lot of shots in the film that use voice-off. Was this choice based on formal, aesthetic or practical concerns?
We were using 16mm material, which requires that you think in visual terms, visit your locations ahead of time to visualize scenes you'll be shooting later. Interviews and statements are the key feature of this film so that this choice was was both formal and practical. At the beginning we struggled with every single minute, shooting as little as four minutes in one week. But at some point it became a formal choice, we knew that the shoot would go on like this and we made it our conscious approach. Once we've finished editing, the cameraman even complained that there were too many on-location interviews and that we didn't want and didn't shoot the film like that. I'd done another film in a similar way before. I first recorded the interviews and than composed the shots based on them.
This method goes against direct identification with the protagonists. It gives the viewer a chance to watch the film with a distance, through a more analytical lens. And with your type of film, distance is...
…necessary, absolutely necessary. I didn't want any identification with characters whatsoever. I wanted it to be anonymous glimpses into people's homes, with their comments on how they get along with their Roma neighbours. It was only later that we introduced the storyline with the dog and a more detailed development of the protagonists. I still don't think that one can identify with the characters but I let various moments slip into the film that do allow you to see the people in a bit more complex way and understand them a little better. I think it's for the better. The Ex Oriente Film workshop had something to do with the change. I had to decide whether it was possible to hold people's attention just by plainly presenting one comment after another. The dog storyline was a way to follow the characters.
The dog works on another level as well. He represents the fact that a person whose comments you could easily condemn as being implicitly racist loves and takes care of his dog. If you only heard the statements, it'd make your job as a viewer much easier. The situation would be all nice and clear and the character easily judged. A clearly identifiable evil can be quickly condemned but a 'decent' person saying nasty things can't be dismissed so easily.
I believe this is something we all share. We all have the potential to say any of the things declared by the characters. It just depends on the situation. We either allow this power to grow or consciously suppress it. It isn't about any specific people in a particular place but precisely about this potential. It involves all of us. The residents of Janov are in the frontline when it comes to the sort of multiculturalism we love to embrace on paper. We're fine when we just talk about it but when we see it close-up, we start struggling with it. I remember my own stay in Africa which really felt like torture. A holiday is one thing but if you have to live and work in a different culture, it takes an incredible amount of extra energy. You have to adapt in the way you think, the way you live... My protagonists simply don't have the extra capacity. And you also need to remember that they didn't voluntarily choose this experience. They are in a way victims of various business entities that bought out houses and flats in the area and moved in 'socially nonconforming' people from town centers that are gobbled up by developers. And, of course, there is lot of those with different skin color among them. My protagonists were not expecting any of that. They can’t defend themselves, they became prisoners. They can’t leave because the prices of their flats dropped and that wouldn’t allow them buy another flat somewhere else. These situations make the worst of us come up to the surface. I don’t want to defend my protagonists’ attitudes. I have only begun to understand it over time. We have spent a lot of time together, and at first I was shocked by all they were saying, but gradually I realized they are, in fact, victimized. Excluded communities are becoming a catalyst for such attitudes to concentrate.
So we are safe with our Prague background? Does it make us different from the Janov characters?
Yes, we live in some sort of intellectual wealth and we don’t need to confront anything we wouldn’t want to. First, we are not exposed to this extreme situation. Second, the thing can be faced better with certain experience – not education but experience, because whenever I know something about some foreign 'element', I learn about it, I realize it is not a monolithic entity, so I may start by understanding little pieces of such foreign culture. In addition to that we don’t only talk about culture, but also a social group. We tend to comprehend the situation in Janov in ethnic contexts, which is natural and easiest for us. But when we are talking about excluded communities, we are concerned about a social group rather than some sort of structured hierarchy. Another problem is social ghettos where these frictions among various cultures come to light extensively. My protagonists don’t struggle only with their coexistence with the Roma. They struggle with the fact they ended up in an unenviable situation. They are losing their jobs, they used to be miners, but they suffer from serious occupational diseases and they won’t ever find a new job. One of my protagonists used to work in a pit for decades. Several months before he got entitled for an early pension, the government cancelled the policy, even though he has nearly reached the mining quota after which he is automatically released form duty. On top of that he is not going to find a job anywhere due to all his health problems. And if he eventually gets seriously ill, they will fire him right on the spot. So he sits there in the neighborhood that once used to be a comfortable place to live in, he has no job, his dog is dying, people are celebrating next door and he sees them as Gypsies because they really are Gypsies.
How did the communication with your protagonists start? And more importantly, how did you manage to maintain it?
That was the most difficult aspect. It took months before I could even start to shoot. We arrived in a foreign environment and didn’t know how to get oriented over there. Nothing seemed to be wrong, but no one talked to us, especially when we wanted to film. We went to a grocery store, talked to a vendor and told her I film about the coexistence of white majority and Roma minority. She recommended someone else and there we were sent elsewhere as well. This went for a while until we got to some crucial characters, crucial also for this housing estate neighborhood, because they managed to reach an important influence in the community. Some didn’t even want to hear about me, some ceased to communicate during the shooting. For instance I was in touch with a young mother who was also the deputy chairwoman of the Workers' Party – an ideal character for this documentary. But the Workers' Party was banned, she stopped communicating and eventually moved away. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only good character I lost. I have developed some scenes I have just never managed to finish, and that’s why the film remained only some sort of a step towards my original intention.
In an earlier version of the film, you intercut the scenes of the housing estate with images of the neighboring mines, suggesting that the community is devoured by the environment, making it look like a true death trap. In the end, you didn’t use the shots…
I find the place very symbolic - a small housing estate, surrounded by mountaintops from one side and the excavators nearing from the other side. We have tons of beautiful images of the environment, but there was no way to connect these images with the place where the characters live. We have spent a lot of time in the editing room trying to create the connection with the estate housing and its surroundings, but it made no sense. If the viewer does not know the connection, there is no way to show these are two neighboring places. In the end we cut out all the images of mines. Another reason was that we wanted to leave the characters isolated in their own small universe. We found out that such a simplification only makes it more intense. Besides there was basically no way to soot it, the original version suddenly expressed something completely different.
I have seen the original version, I have known the project in development stage, and I even know Janov a little bit. As soon as I manage to leave all this out, I guess the film eventually works within general discourse. You see personal universes making sense in a context which might not be necessarily limited to the mining region, to a particular place.
I hope so. It is hard for me now to see if we managed to push the film on general level. We intended to talk about the failure of multiculturalism. The reactions after initial screenings in the editing room differed. Some said it is too general, some saw it as too local, some claimed it is an anti-racist film, some felt it could be interpreted as a racist film. I would be happy if such antagonist reactions initiated a discussion.
The film is co-produced by Czech Television. How did they react when the approving came about?
I’ll be honest. I think TV does not produce such kinds of films, and it never will. They need simple statements. On Decency managed to get in Czech TV only thanks to its programmer, Jana Hádková. And I think it wasn’t easy for her to push the film through. After seeing some footage, the former chief programmer, Jana Škopková, shouted at me that I must have gone insane, that I will bore the audiences to death, and that this is no way to make films. However, I got lucky – Czech TV went through transformation at that time. The director of the institution left, no one knew what is going to happen and film fell into this vacuum, too. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Jana Hádková and Roman Blaas who supported the film despite they knew it was going to be difficult. The film has slow narrative pace and is is not that easy to interpret (according to the reactions in the editing room). The problem with TV is that viewers do not pay attention, they only watch the screen halfway and if you see it from the middle, you can’t get it and take it as a completely different film.
A number of films managed get in Czech TV through some cranny, thanks to people who smuggle heavy film subjects in the fossil guts of the TV…
This is the case of On Decency, too. I cannot imagine a similar film get any support again. We may be surprised what the new management is capable of, though.
Now let’s go deeper into the past – the subject matter came through quite serious transformation. You began with a documentary project titled Wittgenstein’s Century that was supposed to be an epochal essay.
Ladislav Čumba wrote a theatre piece about Ludwig Wittgenstein, Poldi factory and Jaromír Jágr. I invited Jakub Kudláč to work on a similar structure – an essay-like 20th century probe seen through the Wittgenstein family. One of the chapters was supposed to be the failure of multiculturalism, to say it delicately. It was to be about racism, about 20th century highlights. About the Shoah and all what concerned the Wittgenstein family (and not only them), because they were Jews. When we were looking for a location to shoot this chapter, we arrived to Janov and realized it was actually an ideal place allowing one to narrate on such a subject within a short essay. Suddenly, we saw with our own eyes something happening right on the spot, something unbelievably gutty and intense. It was then when we found out there is no need to make such a complicated, intellectual easy if there is drama happening right in front of us. What's more, it even seemed to carry all the necessary features of a proper TV form. It isn’t a ghetto, the neighborhood looks like a peaceful spot. Nothing indicates there is a problem hidden within. Once you enter each home, however, you eventually realize those people hate each other. There is such a friction in the air that it doesn’t take much for them to go out in the streets. So we abandoned any structure and began to look around us, on something that suits our idea. Of course, at one point I realized this would be an ideal subject for a narrative feature. That would free me from dealing with ethical questions I had to face during the whole shooting. Sometimes there were situations so intense and frank that made me question if these are acceptable to be made public. The definitive end to the original concept came only faster due to the fact that a very similar subject (Wittgenstein, Poldi and Jágr) suddenly appeared to hold base for a new play of an off-Prague theatre. Involved were Ladislav Čumba’s former classmates, and they knew a lot about his play.
Have you changed your position as a reaction towards reality?
Not really. For sure I still kept in mind that I must not use anyone. One is always responsible towards his/her subjects. On the other hand, it is also crucial for a director to be responsible towards himself and the audience. And I often miss that about documentary film. An author begins to take responsibility only towards the protagonist, loses critical perspective, yields to the man in front of the camera and that is how many documentarians film inanimate monuments dedicated to people who don’t deserve it. They only bring forth particular pieces of their lives, only something nice that overshadows the fact that he or she might have been quite a bitch, or at least a controversial character. That's irresponsible. Sure, you can’t defame anyone, but you just cannot yield, because when you film you do so in order to find the truth and you should always bear that in mind: never compromise.
You have majored in Roma studies. Was it difficult for you to drift apart from all your knowledge in order to maintain your concept?
I don’t think so. In fact, I've never been quite a model student of Roma studies. I was rather interested in sociolinguistics and I went though African studies as well. I was no Roma enthusiast who would be in love with Roma culture, not at all. I think my problem wasn’t drifting apart. I was actually interested in the white majority – the author of the decency concept. Ethnic or social minorities do not create this concept, they don’t preach about what is decent. It's us, the so-called white majority, and we make all the decisions.
Decency is a concept without content and forms continually, according to one’s need. There is an amazing example of this in the film. As long as the Vietnamese play our game and don’t allow Roma in their pub, they are decent people – just like us.
That’s why the film features also the police camera images. We are the majority that enforces decency. We demonstrate our decency by having you under surveillance. We are going to investigate as deep as your cleavage to ensure everyone on the street is decent. Nobody attempts to question whether such surveillance itself is decent. The white majority claimed it is. It’s our instrument to reach for a common decency and that explains why I am not really interested in Roma with this film. It’s a common issue, one that seems to accompany all of us here in Europe (and not only here) since forever. One time it's the Jews, another time it’s the Roma, later Arabs. And next time, it’s going to be someone else. As soon as a problem pops up, usually of social nature or intensified by social issues, we find it easiest to frame those who live different lifestyle, the different ones. Because they are not decent, they don’t have a decent lifestyle while we do.
It is hard to reason against this concept, it’s rather fluid.
You can object against particular laws, whether they discriminate or not. When you make it a law for Jews to wear a yellow star, we can certainly bring out an argument about it, but you can never debate decency. The ways we are surveying people around us changes all the time. You can’t contest decency. It always dodges and reformulates itself a bit.
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O slušnosti , Czech Republic, 2012, 52 min, HD, Personal View, Social Issues, Society
A sturdy miner in his fifties, Mr. K, is sitting with his wife in the living room of his spacious apartment on the fifth floor of a block of flats. The walls are filled with decorations, from the open shelves glass animals, small souvenirs from foreign lands and the family china stare at them. Mr. K is exhausted, can hardly control his emotions. He is on the verge of crying. "I hate them. The only thing they know is how to make children, destroy things and make a mess. That's their culture." Mrs. E, a well-dressed elderly lady is sitting at her favorite table in her favorite restaurant. "The new owners started letting them in. So we explained to them that if they turn it into a gypsy bar we'll stop coming. They stopped letting them in. It's been quiet ever since."Cinematographic essay about decency. Everyday banal situations shed light onto those dark, hidden places in us that unveil the thin border separating normality from abnormality and show us the forces causing the failure of the multi-cultural social model.
Ex Oriente Film 2010 / East European Forum 2010 / Catalogue of Upcoming Czech Documentary Films 2010 / East Silver 2012