The Great Night (Velká Noc) from director Petr Hátle is a hard-hitting documentary centred on the underbelly of Prague’s nightlife, and the 2013 winner of Best Czech Documentary Film at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, as well as the 2014 Golden Kingfisher Award at the Finále Plzeň. Shot entirely at night, the film follows its subjects around Prague, as they grapple with identity, disappointment, and their places outside of conventional society.
The film opens in a warehouse in which workers assemble slot machines, watched by a security guard. From there, it builds with a series of character studies which form its meandering core. Two prostitutes chat as they sit in the snow in Karlovo náměstí, waiting for clients. Another applies makeup in a wheat field at twilight. A woman sits in the corner of a small 24 hour casino, aimlessly pressing the buttons on the same machines we saw put together in the opening scene.
The Great Night’s protagonists – prostitutes, gamblers, alcoholics, drug addicts, and a former boxer – unapologetically present their lives outside conventional society. Hátle himself never appears, nor does he interrogate his actors. Instead, he observes silently as they carry on their own conversations, presented in truncated snippets. Often the subjects are followed from behind by the camera, as though the audience is being pulled along on their nightly rounds.
While the film’s subjects would ordinarily be portrayed as victims, either of society, addiction, or circumstance, Hátle doesn’t present them as passive individuals forced into their positions. Instead several seem to have consciously rejected a conservative life lived during daylight hours, and see themselves as defined by their connection to the night and their places within a subculture.
Not all the subjects seem to be hopeless. Helena, a hardcore alcoholic living in squalor when we first meet her, is eventually able to clean up first her apartment, and later her life, joining her daughter Ornella on a trip to Paris. Ornella herself is by no means an addict, and simply prefers to spend her nights dancing in clubs and flirting with cute boys. Former boxer Zdeněk, meanwhile, seems to have chosen his life lived in and out of all night bars as a result of his own nihilism. After coming out of a month-long coma, his relationship breaks down, but he wastes little time finding a new partner, seeing no use in wallowing over one new setback in a lifetime full of them.
Other stories are less optimistic, and although the choices of many of the subjects may be their own, there are times when it’s particularly disturbing to hear about their lives. One prostitute recounts her first experience with heroin and crystal meth at the age of thirteen, when her mother showed her how to use. Going into withdrawal, she was informed by her mother she’d have to make the money to feed her new-found habit herself. Another prostitute is pregnant during filming, but continues nonetheless with her sex work and her injected crystal meth habit.
Prague itself is also a subject of the film, but rather than appearing as the romanticised version so often seen on-screen, it is instead a blur of neon and omnipresent cigarette smoke. As unglamorous as this depiction may be, the city’s importance to those who have rejected the everyday is summed up by Zdeněk’s insistence that he will not go to find his girlfriend “in some shithole outside of Prague”, even for love.
The lives of the subjects are presented in all their ambiguity without comment or judgement, as a viable, if unenviable, alternative to ordinary society. These people either don’t wish to live everyday lives or can’t function within the scope of modern life. Hátle seems to ask the audience whether this is necessarily a shortcoming. The title of the film itself, The Great Night, can be seen as a comment on the nocturnal lives of the film’s subjects, as well as their mindsets. At the heart of the film is an existential question – in what way are humans meant to exist if they are too fragile, or damaged, or different to participate in daily life?
The Great Night (Hátle, 2013) was part of the Made in Prague festival, organised by the Czech Centre, London.