Eva Tomanová’s documentary Always Together (2014) offers a glimpse into the strange life of an unconventional family with nine children, living in what amounts to an immense improvised treehouse in the shadow of a remote mountain, and migrating to Spain like a flock of birds each year. The most interesting figure in the film is the Tolstoyan father, an absolutist whose psyche seems to resemble a powerful machine. He’s subversive, against bureaucracy and conformist values, and this dictates the way he raises – or manages – his family.
Always Together deserves applause for its crisp mountain scenes and the consistent presence of the natural, green landscape, which underlines the authenticity of their lifestyle-choice. At times it’s innocently amusing (the father encourages his children to be like a herd of goats that passes by), at others uncomfortably poignant. Though the romantic ideal of living in proximity to nature, close to the earth itself, is perfectly embodied by these undiluted children, what’s also clear is their difficulty interacting with outsiders to this group.
The documentary is about the natural dynamics of interrelationships, and offers a new perspective: life is all about offspring – which is, in a natural sense, true. Yet it also encourages questioning, not least of the medieval father, about whom it’s never clear whether he’s genius or madman. He’s certainly an extremist – or at least, he follows his dogmas in these circumstances in a pathologically strict way. Many tensions are flagged up in the family: ‘I’m happy with the way he raised me, it’s professional’, says one boy, as though his father wasn’t the polar opposite of a corporate boss. While the younger children benefit from the supposed freedom the father advocates, the two oldest boys seem uncomfortable and even afraid in the presence of their interrogator-father, and the passivity of the mother adds to this. Meanwhile, the appearance of the grandmother at their home offers interesting revelations about the couple’s professional pasts, undermining our assumptions about such a family and their background.
So far, so interesting. Yet it would have been useful to hear more pressing questions about why they chose to live this life and an explanation of how it came about. The film’s apparent lack of bias – it’s show-not-tell quality – is at times a double-edged sword: there’s no comment, for instance, on the father’s criticisms of the state while living off social security, nor the fact that he makes his sons work as musical performers to bring in money for the group. It’s possible Tomanová chose the voice of the passive observer to let the viewers draw their own conclusions, but a more exacting interview style would have arguably given more direction to what we take away.
All in all, this is an impartial documentary offering a humane and generous snapshot of a lifestyle many people in modern society would condemn. Its stoic observation of human qualities and flaws makes accessible what might seem to some a rather eccentric lifestyle choice. Yet you’re left slightly uncomfortable by the power-dynamics that governs this family’s life together, and the director’s seeming reticence in probing them.
Eva Tomanová’s Always Together can be seen on Saturday 26 November (16:00) at the Regent Street Cinema, as part of the Made in Prague Festival 2016, organised by the Czech Centre, London.