The interview was first published on Tomáš Hučko's website DOKO (in Slovak)
Shaped by Documentary Film
Documentary Filmmaking as a Self-Portrait. An Interview with Jaro Vojtek
What are some of the elements that make The Border your self-portrait?
Right after the revolution, we felt the fresh air of freedom and we thought that nobody would ever again make decisions for us. But I've had this feeling for some time now that some of the old ways are coming back, albeit in a slightly different form. Before we lived under a general ideological pressure that has gradually been transformed into a financial pressure. We see the growing power of money and business which manipulates people and pushes them into aweful situations that are difficult to get out of.
Nowadays, individuals are mostly overlooked. People follow herd mentality, it's true for the entire society, on television, in the tabloids. People with original views and ideals are not interesting and have no chance to make their way to the top. If somebody opens the subject of morality and values, it feels uninteresting and outdated.
I felt that some of these issues could be tackled in the story of this hapless border. I think that the EU views some things from a purely bureaucratic perspective and implements insensitive solutions. They don't know Eastern Europe well enough in Brussels and they don't really care that there's any border in Slemence. They don't stop to think whether the border could be somewhere else, they don't care about the history of the place but they're like "since they've already got a border here, why not build another one..."
I'm a bit lost now. The border in Slemence was not built by Brussels but the Soviet Union...
Yes, after the Second World War. But now - at the end of the film - Brussels erected another one, the border of the Schengen Area.
I see, but was it possible to have the Schengen border anywhere else? Is that realistic? Does the EU have any power to do that?
This debate never even started. I wish it did...
Can you imagine a situtation in which the state border would move and Malé Slemence would get...
The Ukraine would never agree to it...
Sure they wouldn't. But I saw it as a symbol and an opportunity to show that there are some things happening today as in the past, except in a different form. The EU borders are surveilled by cameras like in the old times. The only difference is that the border used to be red while now it's blue.
Some people still want to split the world into the good and the bad, the rich and the poor. And the EU provides a cover for this. It may be a bit of an overstatement but it works as a symbol. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to live in Europe, in the Schengen Area, I'm glad we have the euro but, at the same time, I think that capitalism should be more sensitive in some issues. Capitalism fosters herd mentality and we lack more individuality. The same applies to the media. Things that find their way into the media get a certain stamp of approval and things that are left out are no longer deemed worthwhile, as if the media were the judge of quality... And that's a major problem...
While I agree with you that the value of individuality is starting to diminish, I'm not sure if we're being fair in our assessment of the European Union...
How was the West fair to us? Call me crazy but I believe that the West needed to liberate Eastern Europe to grab more market power. I think that the West suffered from an economic surplus and by opening the East European markets they warded off a crisis which we're facing today. I think that they were concerned mainly with the economic aspects of the whole thing, not ideals or freedom. These could've played a part as well, but if it hadn't been profitable in financial terms, I think the change would've come much later or under different conditions... I've simply lost all naive faith in certain things.
Let's stay on the topic but let's talk some more about your film. The Border ends with an interesting paradox - because of the EU and the Schengen border, the issue of Slemence seems more glaring. But if you think about it, you'll see that the sudden worsening of relationships is due to the uneven social and political developments in Slovakia and Ukraine. It is possible, though, that the Ukraine might join the EU someday and become part of the Schengen Area. Those who have been affected the most by the split might not live to see this happen but there are younger people as well. So it struck me when two young guys were cursing the EU on their way from the pub...
I had to respect the authentic mood of the place and I had to be true and fair to the locals so that I'm still able to look them in the eye when I go there to screen the film. The disillusionment from the EU is real and I thought it would be useful to capture it. Maybe in ten years the locals will be better off. They'll be rich and shake their heads over how stupid they used to be. But it's vital for me to capture their present thoughts, feelings and views.
Would you concede that they could be wrong?
They have their own truth, that's how I saw them.
In the course of the shooting, did you in any way set up a situation to reflect on the European vision as well? Without manipulating the protagonists, of course...
I wanted to create some tension and to offer a certain sort of polemic against the trend that's apparent everywhere around us. Wherever you look, everything is super dooper. I'm happy that we're part of the EU. My sister studied in Brussels where she runs her own company. I was visiting her back when nobody here had any idea that we could belong in this world. I saw the world there, their model of "wealth" and "democracy" because they're not perfect either.
As a documentary filmmaker, I don't think we can just keep talking about how perfect things are. That's why I wanted to create the tension, to pit the feelings of a small village against the interests of the giant that is the European Union.
SUCCESSFUL DOCUMENTARY FILMS
Although your films don't necessarily cater to audience taste, you couldn't say that they are less successful for it. Here We Are (My zdes) and The Border (Hranice) have won a number of festival awards and they resonate with audiences as well. You're currently touring Slovakia for screenings of The Border. How does it feel, then, to have a succesful documentary film?
I might be a little too skeptical at times. I was happy when Here We Are was screened at a festival which I wasn't able to attend and the film still took the best film award. They just sent me a message that my film won and they'd like me to come to pick up the award. I felt a great deal of satisfaction that the energy which I put into the film carried over to the audience and the jury.
Do many people go to the cinema to see The Border?
That was a pleasant surprise to me. When people talk about documentary film, they think it will be something boring in a TV format. But that's not the case. Documentary film can be very attractive and original.
Last time I attended a screening in Humenne, they told me that arthouse films usually get around fifteen to twenty people. The Border screening was attended by a hundred.
I appreciate every single person who comes to see my film and I'm happy when they feel some emotions and impact after the screening, when the film conveys some feeling or opinion of life, opens up a new door, offers a new perspective, instead of rehashing the usual stuff.
How do you explain that your films are successful although they're not primarily made for entertainment or tailored to audience expectations?
I don't know, really. I submit my films to a festival and they let me know they've been accepted. I've managed to attend some festivals in person. The films then go on to affect the jury, audience and reviewers. When I'm making a film, I never have any festivals or viewers in mind. I always think of what I need to express of myself. Only once the film is completed do I pray that it gets a chance to go out in the world.
That probably takes a good producer...
I don't think that's this sort of producer lobby applies to my films...
I didn't mean any lobbying pressure.
I send the films out into the world to audiences and festivals where the films employ their own inner energy they're infused with.
PRODUCTION DOMAIN, CREATIVE SPACE
How important is cooperation with a producer for a documentary filmmaker? I think you've found a very good partner in Mário Homolka.
A director is lucky if he can make a film which he can consider his own and authentic, without the producer meddling with it or pressuring him because of all the business and festival stuff. I'm really lucky that Mário is a documentarian who respects the need for a creative space. That's vital in the making of a film. In the next stage, we need to get the film to audiences and that's when the producer steps in and that's when he's very important. So it's as important to focus on the shooting as it is to focus on your film once it's completed. You need to send it to festivals, organize a premiere, secure distribution, all these elements are essential to see your work pay off. Some producers only see the final part and they just travel the world talking to festival directors... But there are some films that break into the world of film circulation without all that. It's all very individual and different for each film.
Today documentary filmmakers are taught to have a certain production awareness. Filmmakers are often encouraged to attend various pitching forums and they're expected to win over as many co-producers as possible for their documentary projects. The mighty hand of marketing wields its power in documentary filmmaking as well but it's going a little too far for my taste. I prefer some sort of distribution of work and I believe it's ideal when a filmmaker finds a good match in a producer who takes the weight of practical issues off his shoulders. All that said, there aren't many capable producers in Slovakia even though production is taught at film schools...
Each director has their own opinion in the matter. For instance, I need to have the right conditions just for making films. I need to focus completely on the subject and I'm absolutely incompetent when it comes to production issues. If I need a camera at a particular time, I simply pick up the phone to call my production manager but beyond that, I'm hopeless. There are some directors slash producers who are able to shoot a film while calculating its commercial output and then modify their film accordingly. I always shape the subject according to what I'm trying to express and then I pray that the film is able to find its way to viewers.
But times are changing and film students should be familiar with other aspects of filmmaking as well and they should find out about all the options. Some directors have made a successful transition to becoming producers. Students should be able to choose but it isn't good to force them, not everyone is able to do it but they should definitely have the option to try it out.
AFTER THE FESTIVAL
We're picking up our interview after your return from the Rotterdam IFF. How did it go?
I knew before I went that Rotterdam is a huge festival for independent films. I saw some fifteen features in three days and it was for the first time at a festival that none of them disappointed me. I chose them by the subject and they all resonated with me, all of them were strong. And they made more convinced that the film we're working on with Marek Leščák isn't in any way outdated or out of place. We don't have to be afraid of being original. All the festival films were primarily author-driven. If a film finds its audience, the director is happy, of course, but I don't follow any formula when I'm making a film - now you should laugh, now you should tear up... All of them were compelling, author-driven films that manage to find a receptive audience. That struck a chord with me.
The Border had a good reception as well.
I found out only after I got to Rotterdam that my film is included in the Spectrum section, along with Herzog or Coppola. They take this section more seriously than the competition because it features only first or second films while Spectrum presents accomplished filmmakers who've already made their mark. Coppola was screened before my film, Herzog after.
I was nervous at first but all three screenings were sold out and the debates lasted until the screening of the next film. I even got to sign festival catalogues and even two days later somebody stopped me to discuss the film. To be honest, it was a pleasant feeling and it completely recharged my batteries. I got back with renewed energy and I want to go on making films while staying true to myself. I was worried that a report might have disappeared from contemporary film but I was wrong. It can still be very effective when used in a creative way within the given subject.
You've mentioned you were working on a film with Marek Leščák. Is it a narrative project?
Yes, it has the working title Na ceste (On the Road), it will be made up of four episodes. It should be a strong author-driven film with a powerful story that's not based on any demanding lighting or epic scenes but rather on actors and clean cinematography. Just like many films at the Rotterdam festival.
Are you leaving documentary film for now?
Absolutely not, I'm working on three documentaries at the moment. One is about autistic children, another one - already in production - is called Cigáni idú do neba (Gypsies Go to Heaven) and it's about Vlado Sendrei who wants to become a politician (he appeared in one of my previous films called The Back Passing). And the third film, Z kola von (Odd One Out) follows children who've been abandoned by their parents and who live on the street, struggling through life in a vicious circle.
To read the full interview in Slovak, please visit www.dokofilm.sk.
THE BORDER - Official website