Just before the Barbican screening of his award-winning 2016 film We Are Never Alone, director Petr Václav took some time to frame his work in a conversation that started out with questions about Czech identity, and ended on post-truth masculinity and why We Are Never Alone is, essentially, a feminist film: women have a future, it seems, while men still need to find theirs in our new, increasingly radical environment.
Václav stresses that his films give a voice to people who are not listened to, much as in his 2014 Romani documentary Way Out. However, this doesn’t mean he shows them in a heroic way in his latest film – quite the contrary. What he gives us is the nitty-gritty bits of disadvantaged lives: he exposes rather than glances over them, showing a world where ‘noble’ qualities don’t really exist. The story he creates is realistic as well as hyperbolic: a woman, whose husband is a psychotic, abusive hypochondriac, falls in love with a pimp from the local brothel, who is in love with one of the prostitutes, who in turn is in love with the imprisoned father of her young daughter. When the hypochondriac makes friends with his paranoid, fascist neighbour (a prison guard), the two find out that the wife has started to prostitute herself, whereupon they kill the pimp. Meanwhile, their sons accidentally shoot the hypochondriac’s father in a law, a wealthy old man completely oblivious to his family.
Václav’s characters’ desperate situations are emphasised by the film’s visual construction as well: there are black and white segments contrasting with coloured ones, and, in opposition, they make one another more extreme. Václav calls this framing ‘not realistic, but close to reality’. The character’s lives could be true, but are just a bit too heightened to be entirely realistic- a difficult thing to convey, but one that We Are Never Alone manages convincingly. It’s a film based on observations, on prostitution as a by-product of 90s post-communism, on exposing myths that have held their status for too long.
The most pressing of these myths is Václav’s unravelling of homeland mythology, based on the ‘right of the blood’, rooted deeply in ideas of the forest and the countryside as ‘home soil’. That’s also why he chose to make a film set in the country, the periphery, rather than a city, where society dissipates more easily, Václav explains: the rural, desolate village is a huis-clos, a closed space, where inhabitants are confronted with and dependent on each other. Take the figure of the prison guard, whose fascist character finds no resolution. Instead, he destroys his new hypochondriac friend. We Are Never Alone is about the interconnectedness of people: if you tie yourself to the wrong person, you will inevitably go down with them.
The secluded space of the rural town brings out these inevitable and unfortunate links and, in so doing, challenges an idealisation of the countryside, which Václav traces back to the 18th century philosopher Herder’s notion of Volksgeist, or ‘national spirit’. By his choice of setting alone therefore, Václav has begun to show the myth through a critical lens – continuously exaggerated by the hypochondriac’s praise for a mythologised forest – which doesn’t exist. In fact, Václav occasionally calls We Are Never Alone a fairytale. This not only hints at a fascination with the supernatural, but also seems to be reflected in the director’s film practice, using well-known actors next to laymen, and a decoupage of constructed scenes and spontaneous elements. In so doing, Václav uncovers something playful that, he admits, doesn’t always make it easy working with him, but preserves a realistic feel, which is essential to the film’s testing of boundaries. One of the most important messages in the film, Václav stresses, is about borders and frontiers – and how to break through them. The intersections of ‘real’ people and actors, of scripted and spontaneous scenes, of monochrome and colour all add to this.
Václav emphasises that We Are Never Alone is not a mainstream film, and thus not ‘made to sell’. This adds a level of freedom to his practice, which he explores to the max. We’re left with so many things unresolved, so many open questions – which is entirely intentional, the director says: ambiguity is also the freedom not to explain, to give the viewer a choice. This sense of empowerment, paired with the brutally exaggerated lives of his characters is what makes We Are Never Alone intensely political: it plays with boundaries, exposes the uncomfortable, but doesn’t enforce one particular view or another.
Vaclav smiles. ‘A film-maker is not an activist. He can only show what’s there and, rather than change the world, perhaps attempt to change the climate in society,’ he says. This seems a good place to start.
The New Social‘s programme of Eastern European cinema and related events will continue in January 2017 with Ralitza Petrova’s Godless (2016: Bulgaria / Denmark / France).