There are moments in Mallory, Helena Trestíková’s harrowing 2015 documentary – made over 13 years – about an unmarried Czech mother on the skids, where you feel you can’t watch much more. Ex-heroin-addict Mallory’s downward spiral is so merciless, and the authorities’ indifference so callous, that it makes bleak viewing indeed. Starting almost optimistically in 2002, as Mallory determines to kick heroin on the birth of her son, the film flashes forward to 2009, as we see the situation 7 years on but with its central protagonist looking several decades older.
Nothing has gone right for her – a partnership with her son’s father has descended into violence, her son is in a carehome, and though she has a new partner now – one she loves – their only shelter is an old Peugeot in which they stash their possessions, watch films on a laptop and try to stay clean and decent. Her successful abandonment of heroin feels more like a loss than any kind of gain: being without it, she says, has left her in a state of constant worry, feeling ‘naked’ before the world without anything to turn to. With Trestíková’s regular updates, we watch Mallory as she swings from mishap to mishap, like someone, in her own words, ‘bouncing off a wall’ – until soon even the car and the shelter it provides will seem like a lost paradise, and she really does touch bottom.
Mallory herself is redeemed by self-knowledge, a wry sense of humour (we see it less and less as her problems intensify) and a heroically dogged persistence in finding somewhere to live. ‘This has to work out,’ she says of one scheme to get a roof over her head. ‘But it won’t,’ you think, and it doesn’t. Mallory is on a losing streak, and in a film so much about lucklessness – where she’s even encouraged to take part in the DSS Christmas Lottery to win her own home – it’s a black joke that her background should be working in casinos.
It’s also appropriate for a film set in Prague that she’s led a Kafkaeseque dance from one office to another – always leaving answerphone messages, always fobbed off, told again and again that the person she wants to speak to is ‘on holiday’ or that they cannot locate her file – yet not once do we see her lose her temper. Instead we get her mounting desperation: when she goes to a witchcraft shop to buy a potion to ward off bad spirits in ‘official and legal matters’ (‘It takes six minutes to work,’ the shop assistant tells her earnestly), it seems scarcely more delusional than the plea she writes to the city’s deputy mayor asking him for help (it’s never answered, though we see Mallory taking a tiny but sweet revenge later on).
There are moments of redemption – happy days out with her son, or the kindness of a neighbour – yet the overwhelming sense is of society’s absolute indifference, and it’s the film’s effect to implicate all of us: never has being among the saved rather than the drowning seemed so shameful, nor a roof over one’s head, a lockable front door or a water-supply to wash felt like such a miracle. Yet when Mallory’s fortunes slowly begin to change and her life regains both meaning and – a not unthreatened – dignity, it’s deeply satisfying to watch.
Everyone should see this film, which at times outdoes Ken Loach in its unblinking exposure of how society treats its most helpless. Pulling no punches, it’s nonetheless a story of hope and recovery – enlarging our sympathies, extending our understanding of the world around us and forcing us to reevaluate our own. What higher praise for a documentary than that?
Helena Trestíková’s Mallory (2015) can be seen on Saturday June 25 (20.30) at Picturehouse Central, as part of the Open City Documentary Festival 2016.