Martin Mareček - On the Great Divide Between People and the Slim Gap Between the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan
[...] The film medium serves him as a platform and tool for social prevention that allows him to unmask various issues and declare his world beliefs. He is interested in issues of social and global relevance. Protagonists are confronted with each other as embodiments of ideas rather than as individuals. This genre could be labeled as film-argument and its impetus comes from the desire to understand issues in their complexity.
As early as in his student films, Mareček worked on developing a specific creative approach based on revealing the film construct and on emphasizing the message over identification. Filmmakers who focus on the power of intellect, deliberation and argument frequently employ distancing devices but it is to Mareček's credit that he never resorts to gratuitous stylization. The development of his films can also be traced chronologically.
His first film Dust Games (2001) depicts the commotion surrounding the World Bank and IMF summit that took place in 2000 in Prague. The crew dedicated two weeks and two cameras to anyone who had any part in the turmoil. At the same time, the filmmakers were well aware of the fact they were immersed in the event just as much. The film captures the protesters, summit staff, police forces, businessmen who want to make a quick profit, active supporters and opponents as well as the indifferent crowd. This kaleidoscope of human weakness has an almost Forman-like flair. Naive anarchists recite slogans about freedom and equality, while veteran journalists feel that events take place so that the media have fodder for interpretation. Next to them we see the World Bank representatives caught up in lies and petty politics, and police officers who are unable to do their duty with a little more poise. The crew not only acts as one of the protagonists but also gets involved in the thick of the action. Mareček makes a call to the security coordinator and with well-aimed questions forces him to concede that the police - although they keep warning the public against violence from the protesters - are in fact very ill-prepared and lax if something actually did happen. Dogmatism plagues both sides though. At a discussion with experts who are supposed to explain the World Bank and IMF issues to young people, one of the students blurts out: "I don't really understand it but I'm definitely against it." Arguments are the key tool and almost each statement presents ideas of one or the other side. Mareček also packs the film with more arguments that take the shape of intertitles, a device he often likes to use. The film is also divided into chapters to make nuances of the polemic more clear. Mareček's commenting titles add a subversive ironic tone to what we hear from the protagonists. This essay with an intellectual structure requires a thoughtful viewer but implicitly turns to those who also agree with the opponents. At the same time, the film does not provide enough compelling evidence to identify with their perspective. This fault virtually disappears in Mareček's later films.
In Dust Games, Mareček most strongly foregrounds the film medium, baring its various problems and mechanisms, and makes it stand out, comment on and ironize itself. He questions the very nature of media and those who determine their discourse. Can one ever provide a "true" picture? What does it mean? Is there such thing as unbiased truth? In Dust Games and in The Source (2005), Mareček is very responsible in his handling of facts and operates almost as an investigative journalist.
In The Source, the director continues refining the film-argument. To enhance clarity, he adds animation. Its succinct form allows the author to quickly present all necessary facts and its propagandist power has been tried and proven over many years. Mareček also uses archive footage to support and illustrate events in the present. It seems as if his first film set up an introduction to global issues and Mareček now decides to travel to places everyone talked about in order to get first-hand experience. The Source takes him to the oil fields in Azerbaijan and he sets out to explore oil as a sustainable resource, environmental burden and a power interest.
Representatives of the oil company and the dissident use the same logic - if you could fully understand the issue, you'd be on our side. Mareček complies and lets them speak. He finds out that the workers are certainly not the ones who profit from the black gold. On the other hand, a farmer whose cows graze amidst radioactive vapours claims that without this resource, the country would surely collapse. The filmmaker gradually discovers that all the half truths come from the indifference and ignorance of some people, targeted and deliberate propaganda of others, and from the injustice lived by the ones on the bottom. Finding the truth is a difficult task and Mareček tries to give space to everyone. Despite that, it is evident that he has his own opinion on the matter and he wants to prove his stance. He again uses titles with comments that include numbers, quote an independent source or serve as a counterargument to what has been said. The titles are a compelling argument because the viewer is guided by Mareček's storytelling logic. It is a legitimate method although sometimes viewed as controversial as in Michael Moore's films (Moore's methods are much more manipulative). Because of his attention to facts, he puts forward compelling confrontations and discoveries that are self-explanatory and no longer need commentary. In a crucial scene, the bosses of the oil multinational that builds the longest oil pipeline claim that it is impossible to film it because it is underground, yet the villagers later show the construction to the director. It is plainly visible but its position is not the same as on official maps. Somebody else got the money for buying out the land. It is a memorable instance of meticulous investigation that brought a clear result, a proof of lie and corruption. Later when the oil boss expresses his hope for Czechoslovakia to discover its own oil fields, it sounds like a particularly vicious curse.
One always tends to side with the "good guys", i.e., the ones with less strength, money and power. An activist filmmaker has it as his holy task to provide a counter-narrative to the official discourse. The official story has been claimed by the strong, rich and powerful. The others need a stronger voice and Mareček looks for them to offer himself as the amplifier.
In his following film, Auto*Mate (2009), Mareček finds a new mode for his engaged method. Moving away from being an investigative reporter, he is now an active participant in an issue and a problem solver. He pinpoints the issue, builds his case and looks for a solution. He is now directly faced with power interests that show no desire to follow the suit of other European cities and become a bit greener. Less cars? No, thank you, Prague is not interested. Graphics and titles are still among Mareček's typical devices. Now he also provides absolute insight because he is the one who set things in motion. The film gets an unwanted victim of automobile ruthlessness when one of the founders of the Auto*Mate initiative dies after being hit by a car. Pollution and environmental impact seem too remote, while personal comforts are much too close. Even the Škoda boss says that he is not alarmed by the pollution because the next two generations will not be dramatically affected. The inability to see the bigger picture is simply staggering. The divide between those who want to live greener and those who drive their cars just to buy bread seems too great to bridge. The official PR and statements from political representation are haunted by words and scenes from The Source. Azerbaijan is not nearly as far away as we like to believe.
Mareček's latest film Solar Eclipse (2011) represents a shift to a more composed approach and a subtler form. The change is evident straight away in the much more sophisticated visual style and the greater attention to cinematographic beauty. After the very personal Auto*Mate, the director returns to global issues, this time not as an explorer but as an observer. There are no graphics or comments. For the first time, the crew remains off-screen. The act of making a film and the fact of artifice are concealed now; it is an entirely different form. Two development aid experts Milan and Tomáš for several years made repeated trips to Zambia. They brought electricity to the local kindergarten and hospital and the film follows their latest journey to the village. The way light is shot works on a symbolic level - the lights of a car in which they arrive, their house where they promptly get electricity running - the camera likes to follow them from a distance and they become the only source of light surrounded by pitch black darkness. This implies that the Czech engineers are bearers of progress and hope. They are, of course, just ordinary men but the contrast is refreshing and amusing. Their English is funny, they fish for their passports in belt bags and keep making jokes. Even a hero can be zapped by electricity.
The film offers a practical look into development aid, not on paper, in a project or a conference but on the spot, right in the encounter of two different cultures that attempt to reach some understanding. Mareček also points out the charming fact that people drop their language guard when they know others cannot understand. While repairing the distrbution box, the experts use language one would expect from people with much less education.
Mareček is suddenly much more tolerant towards the system and its actions, he deals with practical and real conditions, not distant or utopic ideals. Perhaps it was a lesson he took from Auto*Mate which also included doubts over the utopic nature of the initiative. That is why the filmmaker may have felt the need to explore the usefulness of these projects, and some of the practical issues and problems they struggle with.
Meaningfulness is a crucial term that runs through all of Mareček's films. He looks to find projects and activities that are meaningful and he gets actively involved (not only as a filmmaker). His civic engagement and his desire to get to the heart of problems make him a truly conscientious documentarian. He cares about the things he films and that is a vital ingredient that will never go stale.
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This text first appeared in IDF's paper Industry Reel, published in March 2012 during the East Doc Platform.