Alternative Interpretation of the Past in Documentary Film
Specific cases of Czech and Slovak documentaries dealing with the issue of subjective history are scarce in the common Czechoslovak cinematography. The number of films using a subjective viewpoint when interpreting history in both these national cinemas appeared as late as after the dissolution of the Czechoslovak federation in 1993. The change has been associated with the subject of coming to terms with the national past, the discovery of collective identity and the re-evaluation of the past in view of the repercussions of historical events on individual subjectivity. A distinctive feature of these films is a typical departure from the “great” linearly progressive histories as seen by positivist philosophy and a focus on the search for the truth about man – a truth presented through a subjective experience as a contact with history. When discussing alternative history, one implies its relation with the classical interpretations of great histories. That is to say, the alternative view on historical events develops from the variety of subjectively narrated stories. These narratives of the histories of individuals and of civic groups are intended to deliver an alternative representation of historical events. This representation has sometimes been founded on imprecise memories, emotional constructs, as well as on the impossibility to verify what has been said or the affiliation to certain groups (nationality, society). Peter Kerekes’ documentaries have originated from two sorts of archive materials which, for better orientation, might be divided into official and private archives. In most cases these are visual (postcards, photographs, silent videos) or audio-visual materials (archived comments) which, according to the principles of the documentary, come into conflict with the current statements of specific individuals – immediate participants in great histories. Their interpretation is not based on the small, fragmentary narratives. Hence we might call them subjective histories. The very conflict between subjective commentary and archive materials is typical of this “alternative” type of documentary cinematography.
There have been other similar films in the region, but as part of other national cinemas. In Hungary, for instance, a typical representative of these sorts of films is director Peter Forgács; in Austria we might speak of a philosophical and experimental avant-garde in film, represented by Gustav Deutsch, Peter Tscherkassky, Martin Arnold and others who research into the relationship of the film medium toward the history of the image, view, or narration. All these tendencies in terminology are marked as found footage films since their research aims to redefine the vague understanding of the history of culture, society and media. In the category of the younger generation showing systematic interest in the matter of subjective/alternative history in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia we include a broad range of important documentarians. In Slovakia, this style has most prominently been manifested in the opus of Peter Kerekes and Marek Šulík, and in the Czech Republic, in the documentaries of Ján Šikla, Jana Ševčíkova and Jan Gogol, Jr. One of our typical representatives, particularly devoted to this kind of documentaries, as well as authorially modifying in a systematic manner, is Peter Kerekes. He therefore deserves for us to at least briefly dive into the waves of his creations heretofore.
Among the thematically similar films reflecting the personal memories of an individual or a group we might also place those documentaries that in their coverage depart from the classical alternative history, but despite their different style – they develop this very same documentary trend. Two related film mythologies dealing with the collective history of closed society might also fall into this type of documentaries from the field of alternative history. We might place here Jana Ševčíkova’s film Jakub and Kerekes’ Ladomírske morytáty a legendy, or Moritats1F and Legends from Ladomírová. Whereas Ševčíkova is looking for the late Jakub in the collective memory of the closed community of Rusyns, Kerekes mostly focuses on discovering the local mythology of the social life of the people in the village of Ladomírová. Both documentarians investigate culturally and socially closed groups of people and their subjective attitudes toward their own local histories. The mention by current statements of contemporaries representing a reflective revisiting of the past is a constantly present phenomenon in the concept of these two filmmakers’ authorial documentaries.
Jana Ševčíkova, however, does not use any found-footage materials, regardless of whether we consider as such the photographs from the time in question or the archive footages. Gradually, as we listen to the individual accounts of the villagers on the departed Jakub accumulate, we thereby learn more about the life in this society from the medley of different statements than about Jakub himself. The villagers in their reports, in fact, more often speak of themselves. Figuratively speaking, the search for Jakub begets a myth featuring, primarily, the collective identity of the closed society. It is obvious that Ševčíkova is far more interested in the process of creating the story than in the specific facts on the dead. The dead man in time develops into a local legend, whereby his activities move into the realm of local mythology. In the subjective statements there comes about a mythologization of the real truth. The exact fate of the individual is blurred, so that we perceive merely the collective idea of the society regarding its own identity which marks the current subsistence in the given community.
Kerekes’ film concept in Moritats and Legends from Ladomírová is similar, so that we might define it as revealing the self-evolving local mythology – based on memories and preserved, in fact, within the orally transmitted history. The contents of the documentary are founded on the mosaic of oral testimonies that, despite certain additions and constructs, reflect the local history from a subjective standpoint, as seen by the villagers themselves individually in contrast to the objective historical age. From the documentary it becomes clear that the inability to verify during the authentication of the events described, as well as the concretization of personal memories, is epitomized in the birth of a local mythology set firmly in the grounds of the “communal” history.
1. Moritat is a genre dealing exclusively with the subject of murder, executions, death. In some segments they might resemble ballads or elegies.