"Our cultural identity isn't holding up..."
An interview with Slovak filmmaker Martin Šulík
In the history of Slovak cinema, it is unlikely that the 1990s will be looked back at as a high point. Film production slumped, and what films were made were perceived my many—not least in Slovakia—as being of inferior quality.
Bizarre, then, that one of Slovakia's most successful filmmakers ever—Martin Šulík—should make his debut in this period and, over the course of ten years, churn out five full feature films, of which Všetko, čo mám rád (Everything I Like, 1992) won a nomination for an Oscar, at a time when the rest of the industry has almost come to a standstill. Moreover, at a time when the Czecho-Slovak cultural divide seemed to be widening, Šulík's films, and particularly Záhrada (The Garden, 1995), were equally attractive to Czech audiences as they were to Slovak ones.
His international success is all the more incredible, given that Šulík is a markedly "Slovak" director, with his films frequently raising issues of identity and belonging and exploring the Slovak countryside as a bastion of positive values.
His success seems unstoppable, and last year, as well as making his fifth feature, Krajinka (officially translated as Landscape, but also meaning "little country"), he was honored with being the first subject of the Slovak Film Institute's new imprint of monographs on Slovak directors.
CER met with Šulík in Bratislava to discuss his latest film and what it means in relation to Slovak identity.
The little country that wasn't
Central Europe Review: Could you interpret the comment that is made at the beginning the film and then repeated in various ways throughout it:
This film is about a country that seemingly never existed, because no one remembers it, no one talks about it. So let's try and begin now. Maybe then this little country will even appear on a map.
Martin Šulík: When we started to talk about this film, we thought it would be a film about memory. Dušan Dušek—who wrote the screenplay with me—and I both had the feeling that in Slovakia something like "cultural memory" simply doesn't exist. Every successive generation just discovers what has already been discovered. That's why we started telling stories...
Dušan found a nice motto from a South American writer that says, "A story doesn't want to be history." We wanted to talk about what remains in people's memories not from the "big" history but from normal, everyday experience, in which real occurrences are intertwined with fairytales and adventures that never really happened but are passed down from one generation to the next. We wanted to tell a story about what remains in that normal, everyday memory, not in the historical memory, which is constantly changing, twisting and actually seems to be on the margins of that other kind of history.
We discovered that people are forgetting about that history more and more—that we act as if some of the things that happened here never really did [happen]. Even in those little stories, there are things that are not being preserved. In short, we act as if a part of our culture doesn't exist. That's why we started talking about a "little country that never was," that is being forgotten and actually doesn't exist.
When we started the film four years ago, Slovakia faced a hopeless political situation—in film as well.
|They didn't like the film, because no one in it eats with a knife and fork
So we wanted to make a film that would be a happy one, with stories that would be kind of like the ones people told in the Decameron, during the time of the Black Plague, when conditions weren't the best, and people would tell happy stories from the past that gave them a new vital energy. But the more we wrote, and the closer we got to the present, the sadder the stories became. In the end, we just left it like that.
That's why the film begins with the statement about the "little country that never was."... Some of those stories really happened—to our parents, our brothers, our friends; some are stories from my father and Dušan's father.
What were you trying to say in the film about Slovaks and Slovakia?
When we made this film, we wanted to show that normal human existence... is played out independent of the big events. Almost every period puts some kind of pressure on a person, whether economic or political, or social. How people survive depends to what degree they can retain their joie de vivre, so that they don't break down completely. During the course of the film, the little country empties, people leave, die, return again, like the lady from Prague. That story is unusual in that the woman who went to Prague and returned and the one who stayed had very similar lives.
So, their life experiences, even though they are played out in completely different places, are basically the same. The woman who stayed is actually perhaps even happier, because she looks at life a bit differently, accepts it more straightforwardly. The other woman always looks at it very negatively: that didn't work out, this didn't work out... That's what the film was supposed to be about, a bit.
For example, all the historical things that are in the film are only shown as archival clips; they don't directly affect the course of events. There is 1968, when the Russians came; there are the 1950s, when priests were being imprisoned; there is the Holocaust, which at its peak lasted two years in our country.
Why did you decide to make the film a collection of short films? Would it not have been easier to convey your ideas through a more conventional and structured plot?
We could have written the film in an hour if we had written a script about the fate of one family, which would have made that message much more direct. But when we started writing it, we had the feeling that we would be undermining the project [if we did it] that way.
We liked the fact that in the country we were portraying everything was so scattered. If we were to look at a map of the country for a moment, we could say: ah, here is where the man who was killed on his motorcycle lived; here is the house where the woman who left for Prague used to live; here is the house where the poacher who was hit by a train once lived.
Seeing things differently
When we started writing, we were really in the hills of Myjava; tragically, many of these stories were connected with that region. We liked the feeling that a person has to
put the story together himself. When you come to a region, no one tells you, "This region is such and such." You just hear stories, meet with people. You remember some things and then create your own impression of it. That's why Dušan and I decided to leave it in this freer form.
But I am aware that the film has something about it that makes people nervous and not entirely willing to accept it.
There have been different reactions to it in Slovakia. Do you have the Zmena review? They had the "best" review about it. They said that we have to "fight against it." They said that Krajinka attacked all the traditional Slovak values, that there is no positive image of the family, that families are either dysfunctional, or they are broken families, or they use vulgar language.
They [Zmena] claim Slovakia is attacked in the film, that we show the Holocaust here [in Slovakia], and a lot is said about the bad things that happened. But I don't think this is entirely true. There is the Jewish story, so they have the opinion that the entire film was paid for by
Jews. To tell you the truth, it is the only review that made me happy, because I finally had the feeling that the film really provoked a clear reaction from someone. There is something in the film that makes people react to it too indifferently. People don't get upset about it. [The Zmena
review] was the only reaction in which someone wrote really emotionally about it.
They didn't like the film, because no one [in it] eats with a knife and fork; everyone just eats with a spoon!
Negating our history
You often portray the countryside in your films as the repository of quintessential Slovak values—a source of Slovak identity. The picture of the countryside that is conveyed in this film is not quite as idyllic as it has been in the past. What are your thoughts about the place of rural and small-town Slovakia in the country's cultural life today?
When you go to the Slovak countryside, you can see that, on the one hand, it has become much wealthier—there are new houses and shopping centers. On the other hand, when you go to Banská Štiavnica, you see that it was once a multiethnic city with a rich culture. It had the first mining school, where impressive houses were built. The city was alive then. Today, it is a dead city.
If you look at any Slovak city, Bratislava, for example, you realize that anything that used to represent some value in terms of cultural heritage, such as the area under the castle, has been razed to the ground. Nothing like a sense of our own culture's historical value exists. Our memory is extremely short. New big houses are being built; people have cars, hot water. The standard of living has gone up, but tradition has suffered.
It seems that this missing sense of tradition has had an impact on Slovak national identity, as if people were still groping, eight years after independence, with the problem of what Slovakia really should be. Maybe this is why your film reflects this lack of certainty. What are your thoughts about this?
I don't know if this comes out in the film, but we have been forced to deny our own past over and over again on different levels. It happened in 1918, when we gained our independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and joined the Czechs in the first Czechoslovak Republic. It happened with the [independent wartime] Slovak State, which was established on a very shaky foundation and was actually a fascist state. This identity fell apart after the war as well, when everything from that period was rejected again. Then again in 1992, when practically all of Czechoslovakia was rejected.
This constant negating of our own history... I know the film isn't a complete picture of Slovakia, that Slovakia is far more complicated in terms of structure, sociology and everything, but this is what I regret, that our cultural identity isn't holding up well. When you look at houses, I mean simple houses, houses in the countryside, they used to be built with some aesthetic sense, albeit a simple one... Now, they are tasteless. This is why we made the film.
It's not just about brutality or the vulgarization of relationships; it penetrates all levels of society. The film ends in the mid-1970s, when Normalization [the period following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, ed] began—another break with the past, another negation. That is why there is that story in the film about the tailor, who is kind of like a Vaudevillian character. There is a story about the snake, which is like a fairytale. There is an erotic story. There is a silent film... We also wanted to make the film colorful in terms of the genres represented.
We tried to have variety in all the film's aspects, in the music, for example, which is a bit different in each story. There is a two-part television version that is three stories and 20 minutes longer... Krajinka is already long, to be honest. To sit in the cinema for two hours watching a film is a long time, mentally. The second version is for two evenings, and I have the feeling that it will feel a bit more complete.
Cheap flicks, or no flicks
Ten years after the Velvet Revolution, how do you assess the current state of cultural life in Slovakia?
The thing is that in the past ten years, we haven't succeeded in creating a new model for how culture should function here. Culture in Slovakia once had two forms. On the one hand, it functioned as an ideological tool, and because of ideology, films were made about the great October Revolution... and all those who helped build Socialism. It was the same in Hungary and Poland... It worked the same way in the theater...
The second level of cultural life came about because people needed culture much more back then. People always
|I wonder whether Slovaks really need Slovak culture
came up with things that were on the edges of that ideology but were really important. There were theater productions that used to be sold out, and people went to good films, because they needed that just to survive. There were alternative exhibitions. I don't mean completely oppositional forms of "alternative" art, either. They were activities on the edge of what was permissible and were officially acceptable. People went to concerts much more often, listened to music.
I have the feeling that people who were involved in the arts had a much deeper sense of having some sort of feedback back then. Now, this has changed. This is in part because the structure of society has changed. The place that was once occupied by art is now being substituted by entrepreneurship.
On the other hand, objectively speaking, cultural life in Slovakia used to be financially supported by the state. Now, there is no longer any institute of cinematography, and all the musical institutes have been shut down. Lado Gondar, who has composed music for several of my films, has a good sentence in a recent article of his, in which he is very critical of the lack of support for the arts in Slovakia today. He lays blame on the new "political bourgeoisie," who make all the decisions that are so detrimental to art, but who never set foot in a concert hall themselves. The situation that exists in the field of music, which Lado explains in the article, has been played out in the same way in literature and cinematography.
For example, when we were thinking of making Krajinka, the producer had a survey done to see how many people would go to see such a film. It turned out that 47 percent of Slovaks would not want to see a Slovak film. I wonder to myself whether Slovaks really need Slovak culture, whether they are instead just able to assimilate culture from abroad, and I don't just mean from America but from the Czech Republic, Poland or Hungary.
How do you feel now that mass culture has triumphed?
I have a feeling that we all thought the changes would take place much faster than they have. And, yet, I don't think that they actually can take place any faster. There are many factors at play here. One is that Slovakia is a new state, where the people are still striving to construct a national identity for themselves. For the most part, they have been doing this in a negative way, by differentiating themselves from their neighbors—from the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians—by showing how special they are. It is time to start constructing this identity in some positive way, to inject some positive energy into the situation.
How has the current situation forced you to change your own approach?
I don't think about that really. I haven't had to change my approach, thank God—'knock on wood.' I am still able to do what I want, and I have the support of my producer. The television station that co-sponsored Krajinka tried to pressure me into adopting a conventional approach, with a plot instead of little vignettes, but in the end I made it the way I wanted to.
And in the end, Slovaks went to see Krajinka, didn't they?
Krajinka? Very few. But they don't even go to American films now. We did a survey and found out that attendance goes way up on the days when the price of tickets is reduced. People go on the days that tickets are cheap and don't go when they are expensive. I don't think that after the novelty wears off people will be going much to the new Dolby cinema at the Polus shopping center in Bratislava, for example, because the tickets are SKK 140 on the weekend [about USD 3.50].
In all, very few people went to see Krajinka: about 30,000 so far. But they don't go to commercial films, either. The film Dinosaurs is playing here now, and only 100,000 people went to see it. If you compare Polish, Czech, and Slovak cinema attendance, Slovaks fall way, way behind.
Christina Manetti, 19 February 2001
Photo credit (Šulík portrait): Slovenský filmový ústav
1. Tento film je o krajine, ktorá akoby nikdy nebola, lebo nikto si jú nepamätá, nikto o nej nehovorí. Tak to skusme a zacníme. Možno sa potom táto krajinka objaví aj na nejakej mape.