Helena Třeštíková, the country’s leading documentary maker, has released her latest project – a feature-length film titled "Soukromý vesmír”, which chronicles the life of one Czech family over a remarkable time span of 37 years. By adding archive TV footage and putting the family’s story into a wider context, the director was able to paint not just a family portrait, but also the portrait of a country.
Soukromý vesmír, or Private Universe, is the newest work by esteemed Czech documentary maker Helena Třeštíková. Known for following her subjects over long periods of time, the director has outdone herself with her latest film, which covers the life of one family over an incredible time span of 37 years.
Private Universe, which is currently being shown in movie theaters across the country, grew out of Třeštíková’s 1974 project “Miracle”. The short documentary dealt with a couple in their mid-twenties, Jana Kettnerová and her husband Petr, having their first baby boy, Honza, the director explains.
“The initial impulse to shoot this documentary was the birth of Honza, and that is why I felt this movie should be about him. Because it was his birth that the viewers experience in the beginning of the film, and I wanted to follow his life story, see how happy he would be in this world, and how he would experience life. So at the time, I didn’t know that the family would have other children, too. I admit that his siblings are supporting characters more than anything else.”
The 15-minute documentary has grown into the director’s most ambitious project to date. Not all footage in the movie was filmed by Třeštíková herself; husband and father Petr recorded key moments in the family’s life himself. Since following her subjects closely at all times was not possible with such a long-lasting project, was the director afraid she would miss something really important?
“That is one of my main problems. And another critical moment with these kinds of projects is that at the beginning, you do not know what you are going into, where it will lead. The beginnings are always very difficult. It’s more about intuition than anything else. I always say that these kinds of documentaries over a long time span are a bet on the uncertain.”
Honza, the family’s first-born child, is the central character of the movie. He is a bit of a rebel, smokes pot and is interested in the punk movement. Later, he moves to Spain, where he works as a dishwasher. Naturally, his alternative lifestyle leads to many confrontations with his mother Jana. Was Třeštíková able to anticipate that Honza would develop into such an interesting character?
“No, certainly not. You have no idea what will become of a child. He was always full of energy and opinionated, even as a child, but you cannot guess how that will develop. You observe that gradually, as the child grows up.”
Like many families who lived under communism, the Kettners, too, retreated into their private lives – their own private universe. Jana, the mother, opted to become a stay-at-home mom after graduating from university rather than making the sacrifices a career in a totalitarian regime would have required. Her husband Petr, an electrician, admits to not really paying much attention to the Charter 77 protest movement. The documentary is ultimately about everyday life, says Třeštíková.
“This for me is certainly the hardest aspect, and at the same time, the most interesting for a film maker: to capture everyday life, which for all of us is very similar.”
Along with chronicling important moments in the life of the Kettner family, the film also uses archive TV footage to put the story into a wider context. In this way, the documentary not only portrays one family under communism, but also the history and general mood in Czech society from 1974 until 2011. Some important political events included in the film are the Velvet Revolution and the Czech Republic’s joining of the EU in 2004.
However, the director was careful not to distract from the core theme too much and limited her focus to two back stories in particular: the Cold War space race and the popular singer Karel Gott. Třeštíková says the space theme grew out of Honza’s fascination with space rockets and cosmonauts, including the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin and the first Czechoslovak cosmonaut, Vladimír Remek. The cosmos serves as a symbol for the characters’ and the country’s dreams and ambitions.
The director also interjects the film with footage of the iconic, if often mocked, pop singer Karel Gott at various stages of his career: regurgitating Socialist clichés during the Normalization era, expressing his respect for Remek on the occasion of the cosmonaut’s participation in the Soviets’ Soyuz 28 mission and later singing the national anthem with exiled protest singer Karel Kryl on Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution. Why did Třeštíková decide to include Karel Gott in the documentary?
“Karel Gott is a given in our lives. He is a person you simply cannot escape or ignore if you live in this country. Karel Gott is always there and having him appear in the film was meant to illustrate a certain security, the never-changing aspect of our everyday lives.”
The main thrust of the movie, though it focuses on such a small set of characters and in that is very specific, is actually rather universal.
“I think the main theme is: How do we fill our lives, what do we fill our lives with? And that is the main theme both for Honza and his sisters, but also for Karel Gott and for those who launch rockets into space. We are here for a short time, so what should we do with the time that we have?”
Previously, Třeštíková’s documentaries focused on tragic characters such as the drug addict Katka, whose life takes a steady downturn that is recorded in the eponymous 2010 documentary, or Rene, a repeat offender whom the director followed for over 20 years. Private Universe departs from these grim realities.
“Katka and Rene were characters on the margins of society, whereas this movie is about a stable, functioning family. It is a family portrait, and a portrait of their children. Their one son is a rebel, but still, this is a film about normal people and the times we have lived through. And at the same time, as opposed to my previous films, there is more of a stress on issues and happenings in society, and the story of the family is framed by events in the world at large.”
Private Universe is remarkable for the sheer span of time it covers alone. That it manages to also be humorous and touching makes it a must-see for fans of documentary film.