Czech director Helena Třeštíková graduated in documentary direction from Prague’s Film School (FAMU) in 1974. Since then she's made some 30 films, specialising in long-form observational studies that follow their subjects over many years. She was in London (alongside her daughter, who makes a special guest appearance below) to open the Made in Prague film festival with René, the story of a petty criminal who spends his life flitting between freedom and a cell. 'Documentary' is scarcely the word to describe this extraordinarily rich and intimate portrait of a life, which lays bare the deepest character flaws of a singular individual. For an excellent account of Trestikova's life and work, check out this site. For a snapshot of her thoughts, read on...
LWLies: How did you meet René and how did this story evolve?
Trestikova: This method of long-term observation is my speciality so it’s not my first film made this way. I started another project before so I decided to observe my subjects over a longer time. In 1989, I started with a new project of this long term observation, and this topic was of young delinquents. I wanted to find some young delinquents in a prison for juveniles and observe them for three to four years, just to ask the reasons why they’re anti-social and see their lives evolving. I found about six of them and René was one of them. This first film about René finished with this situation where he robbed my flat, which was interesting LWLies: Can you tell us more about that because its a key part of the film?. You don't explain too much about it, about the circumstances.
Trestikova: Of course, it was really unusual that he would make such an action against me. But I saw it as a strange type of message. It was unpleasent, of course, and my children, who were little at the time, had their cash boxes stolen too. It was very complicated, not only for me but my whole family. I said that it was a special message from René to me and that was his personality. LWLies: Did René have a relationship with the rest of your family?
Trestikova: It was a strange relationship. After three years [since the robbery], I decided to continue with René and not with any other films. He is not a positive character but he is original and complicated and it could be interesting to observe such a personality. My relationship to him is complicated and he asked me in one scene, ‘Did you want a relationship with me or am I just an object to you?’ And I couldn’t answer easily. I’m not sure if he was for me. He’s sometimes something as a friend but, on the other side, I can hate him. I wanted to generate all these mixed feelings and I hope this story has more colours than black and white. LWLies: The other six films that you made, did they ever get screened at all?
Trestikova: Yes. It came out as a series for TV and they had the same title Tell Me Something About Yourself. It was a personal decision of mine to release it and I put my own money in it. I wasn’t sure that there was enough material to make a film because I was uncertain what it was going to be. LWLies: One of the interesting things about pointing a camera at someone is how different they act and react. How could you be sure that you were capturing the real René? How do you know he isn’t acting in a certain way just because you're there?
Trestikova: My opinion is that it’s impossible to try and fake it. In some moments, he gets into his own stories but I hope that the whole film is a true representation of this person. He has different moods and is in a different place to everyone, but I hope that there isnt only ‘acting’ and there is a showing of truth to his life. LWLies: Do you worry that you exploited him?
Trestikova: Yes, it’s possible to take it as such. But, because this was an equal partnership, René was a good experience. I hope I was the inspiration for him to write. I’d say without my influence, he wouldn’t have done the writing. These two books he got published are very important to him because it was the first time any thing positive happened to him. LWLies: [To Helena's daughter] How have you dealt with this over the decades?
Trestikova: It’s very weird. He’s a bit like a family friend in a weird way. The weirdest moment was a premiere in Prague, which he came along to and recognised me and asked how I was. I was very young when he wrote to us and at times he was really scary, like there’s a scene when he leaves messages on our answering machine and was, like, ‘Come on, pick up!’. It was really scary. Now I’m more worried that he’s taking advantage of my mum, like, sometimes she’s giving him money...
[Helena]: I don’t want to give him money for no reason. I find his life interesting. I do organise for him things like these screening activities. When he does these, I organise for him to get paid because he hasn’t any money and it isn’t easy for him LWLies: René is very difficult to like. It can be hard to stick to the film because it’s about him. Does that concern you at all?
Trestikova: I’ve had different feedback for it. Some say he’s different and has a dark charisma, an anti-hero. But this is my method – to observe special people in time. This is a documentary, so I cannot organise how people are sympathetic or not. It’s not easy to be around these subjects for a long time, but I do hope it makes for an interesting topic.