Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 4 
15 Oct
2001

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Roman Vavra, Miroslav Janek and Vit Janecek's Bitva o zivot (Battle for Life, 2000)KARLOVY VARY
Bystré is paradise
Roman Vávra,
Miroslav Janek and Vít Janeček's
Bitva o život (Battle for Life, 2000)

Starring the inhabitants of a Czech village in severe economic decline, Bitva o život presents a series of stories that blend reality and carnival, as Peter Hames explains.


Bitva o život (Battle for Life, 2000) is a feature film made over a 12-month period and represents a unique collaboration between three documentary directors of distinction—Roman Vávra, who is probably best known internationally for his fiction film Co chytneš v žitě (In the Rye, 1998), Miroslav Janek, who has made such award-winning films as Nespatřené (The Unseen, 1997) and Hamsa, já jsem (Hamsa, I Am, 1998), and Vít Janeček, who made the distinctive Houba (The Mushroom, 2000). Bitva o život's focus on different events (and different approaches from its three directors), also includes amateur footage, giving rise to an unusual collage, a portrait of what its makers refer to as a "lifestyle of the television age."

Bystré, we are told in the film's pre-credit titles, is a Czech village in the Orlické mountains, first mentioned in the year 1475. Situated close to Janov, it has 220 inhabitants and an average age of 41.6. It's part of a former textile producing region undergoing major economic and demographic change, with unemployment at 20 percent, the young people moving out, and the last small factories closing down.

Incomplete chronicles of the ages

Roman Vavra, Miroslav Janek and Vit Janecek's Bitva o zivot (Battle for Life, 2000)
The past and the present united
The film begins with a reading from the village chronicle: "1991. And as everything is coming to an end, I too, after 20 years, am finishing my chronicle." The commentary continues with the observation that, for twenty years "full of lies," all records were checked by the local authorities and no mention of the Soviet occupation of 1968-69 was permitted. In some cases, chroniclers even tore out records of the years 1968 and 1969. A man is revealed standing in a field reading from the chronicle in front of the village. "That is the last record of our one-time chronicler, Mrs Čvrtečková."

This reading from the chronicle recurs at regular intervals in the film and, combined with amateur film records, not only provides a contact with the past but establishes a continuity with the present. Thus, 1950 was the year that Karel Andrš set fire to a haystack and was sent to an institution, in 1970 there was a severe winter and the animals suffered, in 1971 film-makers came to make a film about the manufacture of candles, in 1980 there was a shortage of gravediggers. During the Velvet Revolution of 1989, two students went to Prague but the General Strike passed by the village.

History re-enacted

In what could be called the film's "conventional" documentary footage, present day workers talk about unemployment and the false expectation that they would live better lives after the fall of Communism. In two extended scenes with retired women workers (beautifully observed), they talk about looms, walking to work, bus services, paths, the old machinery and how it fitted together, carrying in water, and washing in the streams. A man locks up after the final scene, announcing with apparent spontaneity that "this is the end of the textile industry in our region."

Roman Vavra, Miroslav Janek and Vit Janecek's Bitva o zivot (Battle for Life, 2000)
Religious ritual mocked in Bystré
In contrast with this grim statement there is the New Year's Eve party, and the sense that, as one character puts it, "the pub is calling." Here, the villagers re-enact the history of Czechoslovakia with Švejk, Gottwald, and a dismemberment of the country by Juro Jánošik and Czech Honza, including a struggle over the hyphen in the post 1989 designation as Czecho-Slovakia. Events end in crude humour and surreal bad taste as "TV Vaginova" covers the Vagina Ball, a parody of Catholic ritual in which a girl is crowned beauty queen and rewarded with the appearance of a wooden phallus between her legs. However, the notion that the Bible, history, and bad taste television are combining to create a new folk tradition for the third millennium, as suggested by the film's programme notes, seems a little premature.

Intercut with the party and the traditional processions welcoming the new year are extended scenes with village "characters." A 92-year-old granny has an extended and drunken argument with her son, Láďa, about empty beer bottles and he observes that everything is democratic since she looks after the goat, they both look after the dog, and he baths her prior to going to church. A Polish couple discuss divorce, age, and mortality with a laconic humour. While none of these characters is in any way exceptional, the film's focus on their interaction is always revealing and, through their involvement with community events, gives the film a multilevel appeal in which social reality and community and individual life interrelate.

War games

The title "Battle for Life" refers to a war game in which the participants re-enact the Battle for Janov, in which partisans confront the Germans alongside the Russians, the Americans and the local fire brigade. They dress in authentic uniforms and ride various iconic vehicles but it all ends in a fire when Láďa's tractor is burnt out. In the general chaos, the caped figure of Death slips its cowl to reveal a blonde young woman. The camera retreats skywards to the song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" from Cabaret, used in the original for its Nazi connotations. This is presumably a comment on war rather than the Germans but soon strikes wider by including a reprise of the film's action.

The film is not without the traditional Czech lyrical and humanist portraits—the character who cycles through beautiful landscape recalling the planting of birches and the building of the avenue, the two priests, one Catholic and one Czech Brethren, talking of the need to "get along" together on earth to get ready for heaven, the attractive snowscapes, and the traditional welcoming of the New Year. There are also one or two absurd anecdotes. But all of this forms part of a wider picture.

Roman Vavra, Miroslav Janek and Vit Janecek's Bitva o zivot (Battle for Life, 2000)
The mayor gives an overview
Despite the brief sociological resume of the film's opening, we are thrust without warning into both individual and community life. At the end of the film, we are shown an aerial photograph as the mayor points out the various locations of the events we have watched or heard about, an unusual retrospective "placement" that works well.

However, purists will no doubt complain at the preceding "Battle for Life" montage which is cut to a purely aesthetic agenda.

As a portrait of village life, the film has much in common with the blunt idiosyncrasies of Miloš Forman's Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen's Ball, 1967), with its characters displaying a similar sense of disorderly behaviour. Nothing really goes according to plan, and the characters are obstinate and portrayed without romanticism or sentimentality.

The benefits of the film's three-director approach lie in the ways in which the subject's ambiguities are not tied together within the conventions of a single vision. The directors originally intended to base their film on the "Battle for Life" but soon found that this was only one of a multiplicity of stories in which there was "no distinction between reality and carnival." The characters do not inhabit a "sweet little village" and there is a deeper reality beyond the classifications of the social scientist. History is portrayed as both simple and contradictory, characters are neither good nor evil. Perhaps, most important, the characters are given the space to do more than reflect the perspectives of their observers. They stand on their own feet and assume the importance of their own life experience. But the unique quality of this "documentary" is the way in which in converts its material into a celebration and an entertainment.

Peter Hames

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Further coverage of Karlovy Vary
About the author

Peter HamesPeter Hames is author of The Czechoslovak New Wave and editor of Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer. He is an honorary research associate at Staffordshire University, programme director of Stoke Film Theatre and programme adviser to the London Film Festival.

Also by the author

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