Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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21 Jan

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Demanding work, but always creative
Ondrej Šulaj and Dušan Dušek interviewed

Ondrej Šulaj and Dušan Dušek have written the screenplay for many of the major Slovak films over the last few decades. Peter Hames speaks to them.

When the Irish Film Centre hosted a week of Slovak films last October, the focus was supposed to be on the work of Martin Šulík, Dušan Hanák, Elo Havetta and Juraj Jakubisko. However, two other names made appearances on the credits for almost half the films shown—scriptwriters Ondrej Šulaj and Dušan Dušek.

Ondrej Šulaj is President of the Slovak Film and Television Academy and was Dean of the Film and Television Faculty at VŠMU in Bratislava from 1993-99. He graduated in film and television dramaturgy and scriptwriting in Bratislava in 1974 and, after working in the theatre, contributed to most of the "breakthrough" films of the 1980s. These include Pomocník (The Assistant, Zoro Záhon, 1981)[1], Pavilón šeliem (Cage of Wild Beasts, Dušan Trančík, 1982)[2], Tichá radost' (Silent Joy, Dušan Hanák, 1985), Štek (Bit Part, Miloslav Luther, 1988) and Správca skanzenu (Down to Earth, Štefan Uher, 1988).[3]

He has subsequently worked on five films with Martin Šulík: Neha (Tenderness, 1991), Všetko čo mám rád (Everything I Like, 1992), and in co-operation with Marek Leščák, Záhrada (The Garden, 1995), Orbis Pictus (1997), and "Obrázký z výletu" (Pictures from a ), an episode in the film Praha očima... (Prague Stories, 1998). He is currently planning a feature film, Bloodlines, with the American-based Slovak documentarist Oleg Harančár, and an adaptation of Agava, from Ladislav Ballek's novel Agáty (Acacias, 1983). His television work includes Na Bukvovom dvore (On Bukva's Yard, 1994) from the novel by Jozef Cíger-Hronský, which he also directed.

Dušan Dušek is Professor of Screenwriting at VŠMU. He began to write stories while studying Geology and Chemistry at the Comenius University in Bratislava. After publishing his first book of stories in 1972, he worked with Dušan Hanák on the films Ružove sny (Tinted Dreams aka Rose-Tinted Dreams, Pink Dreams, Rosy Dreams, 1976) and Ja milujem, ty miluješ (I Love, You Love, 1980). The romantic-lyrical Tinted Dreams—which was not without a social substance rare under the conditions of Normalisation, proved to be one of the few high points of Czech and Slovak cinema in the 70s. I Love, You Love was banned by the authorities (the third of Hanák's films to suffer this fate).[4] It was finally released in 1988 and won the Silver Bear at Berlin in 1989.

As a result of this, Dušek focussed on his novels in the 80s, although he wrote two films for children in 1983 and 1988. His most recent work was on Martin Šulík's Krajinka (Landscape , 2000). His television work includes Prašky na spanie (Sleeping Pills, Juraj Nvota, 1996) and Zabíjačka (Pig Kill, Martin Šulík, 1999). His books include Strecha domu (The Roof of the House, 1972), Oči a zrak (Eyes and Sight, 1975), Poloha pri srdci (A Place on the Heart, 1982), Kalendár (Diary, 1983), Náprstok (Thimble, 1985), Milosrdný čas (Merciful Time, 1992), Teplomer (Thermometer, 1996), Pešo do neba (Walking to Heaven, 2000) and Mapky neznamého pobrežia (Maps of Unknown Shores, 2002).

Both screenwriters were present at the Dublin event, where Kinoeye met them.

Would you say that there's a specific Slovak style of film making? Many critics felt that Slovak cinema began with Štefan Uher's Slnko v sieti (Sunshine in the Net, 1962)[5], co-scripted by the novelist, Alfonz Bednár. Uher and Bednár subsequently collaborated on many films. How significant was this for Slovak cinema?

Ondrej Šulaj:I think the significant elements were there in Paľo Bielik's films, particularly his first film, Včie diery (Wolves Lairs, 1948). It was based on a screenplay by Leopold Lahola[6], with very specific Slovak characters. It remains the most significant film in Slovak film history. But Uher was probably more important and influenced more film makers. Jakubisko, Hanák, and Havetta[7] carried on the tradition but each in his own specific way.

How important do you think the link with literature has been for Slovak cinema? I notice that many novelists are also screenwriters.

Šulaj: There's not always been a strong tradition in scriptwriting in Slovakia- it came later. In the late 50s and early 60s writers were trying to help out with screenplays. A lot of writers—Rudolf Sloboda[8], Peter Jaroš[9]—became involved. There weren't any professional screenwriters so the writers substituted. The influence was so strong that the form of the scripts often resembled literature. Screenwriters came in the late sixties who had studied at the film school in Prague [FAMU]. So the connection with literature was very strong, especially in the late 50s.

Dusan Dušek: It was also in the 50s that writers like Dominik Tatarka[10], Vladimír Mináč[11] and Juraj Špitzer[12] were working for the cinema.

Sulaj: It started a kind of tradition.

Moving on to your own work, the first film I saw with a screenplay by Ondrej Šulaj was Pomocník and, in Dušan Dušek's case, Ružove sny. Were you members of the first generation of screenwriters in Slovakia?

Šulaj: The first was Tibor Vichta.[13]

Dušek: Peter Karvaš.[14]

Šulaj: I was one of the first generation of screenwriters to study in Slovakia.

Do you also write stories and novels?

Šulaj: One. It was actually a script but it was published as a book.

Dušek: My situation is absolutely different. I studied natural history and geology. During my studies, I started writing short stories. When my first book was published, I met Dušan Hanák. Hanák was in a difficult situation because both his first two films 322 (1969)and Obrazy starého sveta (Pictures of the Old World,1972) had been banned. Dušan Mitana[15], a Slovak writer, introduced me to Hanák. He was looking for co-writers and Mitana and Hanák were trying to collaborate. Pavel Vilikovský[16] was also trying to help. But Mitana and Vilikovský didn't work out. My first book was published and Hanák read it in 1972. That was the beginning of our collaboration. We began to discuss a future project.

I once had a friend who came to my library to borrow books. He was a young postman and when we met, he always started telling stories about his work. I was forwarding these stories to Hanák and he felt that the postman could be one of the main characters in the script. We saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the time and we were thinking of a typical Slovak story made in accordance with the film.

Our aim was to make a love story. Hanák had come up with the idea of the Roma girl who would be the other half of the couple. So we wrote the first version of the script but it was put off for a year. It wasn't state policy to consider the assimilation of Roma communities at that time. The story also originally contained the story of a bachelor who was to become the main figure in the second film we made together, I Love, You Love.

It was interesting to see both Iva Bittová[17] (she played the Roma heroine, Jolanka) and Věra Bílá[18] in the film. Were they known at the time the film was being made?

Dusan Hanak's Ruzove sny (Rose-tinted Dreams, 1976)
Iva Bittová in Ružove sny

Dušek: Not at all. Iva was studying at the Music Academy in Brno and it was her first role. If I remember correctly, Dušan Hanák saw her at the Academy and liked her. I don't know about Věra Bílá. Dušan Hanák had a good relation with Dr. Rychman, who was a specialist in Roma language and a supervisor on the film and I think she knew Věra Bílá.

Both Ružove sny and Pomocník were made at a time when it was difficult to make good films. Did you start with the ideas you wanted to develop and put them to the authorities and try to work with them. Or did they say, "We want a film on this subject. Will you write us a script?"

Šulaj: I was asked to adapt Ladislav Ballek's[19] novel Pomocník at a theatre where I was working as a dramaturgist. The play was performed throughout the country so there was no problem in adapting it as a film. Zoro Záhon was the director and he got rid of some things in the play that I really liked. He was also director of the Koliba Film Studios at the time so he did his own censorship. The film was originally meant to be in two parts—two and a half hours long.

Dušek: They wanted a happy end for Tinted Dreams —a marriage—but we refused it. That's why the screenplay was stopped for a year.

Šulaj: Rudolf Sloboda was a dramaturg at Koliba and he helped me a lot. The dramaturgy at Koliba wanted to get rid of many things in the script and Rudolf managed to resist this. You may remember that he plays the part of the writer in Martin Šulík's Všetko čo mám rád.

I notice that you also worked with Dušan Trančík and Štefan Uher, in the 80s. Almost all of the Slovak films I saw seemed to have your name attached. Did it become easier to make good films then? How did your work on Trančík's Pavilón šeliem develop?

Dusan Trancik's Pavilon seliem (Cage of Wild Beasts, 1982)
Pavilón šeliem : A difficult period

Šulaj: Dušan Trančík had a very difficult period at the time. He was scared that the state security police were after him. Sometimes when we were working on the script, he would take a pot and look at it to see if we were being bugged. Then the partnership broke down and I was angry with him because I felt the script wasn't finished and I wanted to make a second draft. But he was scared that they would stop it and preferred to shoot it straight away rather than wait. Maybe it could have been better. And it was very similar with Štefan Uher. He was also in a bad condition and had to attend a mental hospital. I wrote a nice scene and the next day, I wanted to visit him. And he said that he had met Tatarka in the street and that Tatarka was being followed by the police. And because they had been seen together, he felt that we should stop the script. But I said that it was the best thing we wrote.

Did you see your scripts as a collaborative venture? Did the ideas begin primarily with the writer or with the director?

Šulaj: There was a very strong connection between director and screenwriter from the very beginning. So it was always collaborative. It's never been the case that I would write a script and somebody would then take it on. It's a process of a minimum of 8 to 12 months working together.

Was this also the case with Hanák's Ja milujem, ty miluješ?

Dusan Hanak's Ja milujem, ty milujes (I Love, You Love, 1980)
Ja milujem, ty miluješ : Directing in the script

Dušek: Dušan Hanák is a perfectionist in the best sense. I learned a lot from him when we were working together. When we finished working on Tinted Dreams I was really tired. Even the preparation for the film—visiting Roma villages, preparation for writing and shooting—took us half a year. So I didn't immediately want to work with Hanák again. But when I saw the film, I was amazed and very happy. I liked it very much. So we started with the character of Pišta, the bachelor, and began work on the script of Ja milujem, ty miluješ. I also agree with Ondrej Šulaj that the best way of working on a film is to write in close collaboration with the director. Because I am a writer, I see things from a different perspective—I don't know if I have a precise feeling for film scenes.

Dušan Hanák and Martin Šulík are already "directing" during the writing process. The last advantage of this kind of writing, when you work in close collaboration with the director, is that you can be sure that 95 percent of what you write will be used in the film. I also had the experience when I wrote a script for a TV film that, when I saw the film, almost none of my ideas had been used. It was my story and my script and I asked for my name to be removed from the credits. The film does not appear in my filmography. From my experiences with Hanák came an effective way of working—and it is the same with Martin Šulík. It's always demanding work, especially with Hanák and Šulík, but it's always very effective. Creative work is a dialogue. When you come up with an idea that can't be used in the script, the director can correct you or add something else.

Is this a way of working in Slovakia or is it just your way of working?

Šulaj: It's not very common like that. The other way is more common and both directors and screen writers are usually disappointed with the results. Now that we are both teachers at the Academy, we try to show students that this is the best way of working, with directors as partners.

Can I go back to the 80s? There are some interesting films there. Slovak films seem to have been more adventurous than those produced in the Czech lands?

Zoro Zahon's Pomocnik(The Assistant, 1981)
Pomocník : A sign of improvement

Šulaj: It started off in the 80s with Pomocník. In the Czech lands, things were going downhill but, in Slovakia, there was an improvement. A lot of younger film makers started working. It changed around in 1989 when Czech production began to improve and Slovak production declined. There was a new young generation in the Czech lands but there wasn't a similar generation in Slovakia. Martin Šulík was the only one, a generation to himself.

Dušek: I wrote nothing in the 80s. Everything was said already and I was not able to write. Later on, there was a group producing films for young people, and they persuaded me to start again. So I made Sojky v hlave (Jays in the Head, 1983) and Vlakári (Commuters, 1988), both directed by Juraj Lihosit.

So you were disillusioned by the banning of Ja milujem, ty miluješ?

Dušek: Yes. Thanks to the bad experience on Ja milujem, ty miluješ, I chose to write books as opposed to films. It was an absurd and irrational situation. You never knew what would be accepted and what would be banned. I wrote a radio play and it was banned. Then I rewrote it as a short story and it was published with no problems.

How has the situation changed in the post-1989 period?

Šulaj: Aside from political and economic issues, there has been a creative crisis in screenwriting and direction. There aren't any generations. There isn't an old generation followed by a young generation. Just a few individuals-Martin Šulík, Dušan Hanák, Miloslav Luther.[20] There's no tension between creative groups and no competition. There isn't a young generation of film makers who could really move things forward. This year, for instance, there have been only two premieres—Eva Borušovičová's Vadí nevadí (Truth or Dare) and Vladimír Adásek's Hana a jej bratia (Hana and her Brothers). I don't know what the audience thinks about it but when the Slovak Film Academy carried out a survey of all film makers on the current situation, only five responded. They don't even put their views.

People often say that the situation is the same everywhere—that film makers are less aware of their roots and have little awareness of film history or, indeed, history in the wider sense.

Dušek: Maybe I'm not patient enough, but some things you can see in students at the Academy. They don't want to write anything without being sure that it will be filmed. I don't want to talk about myself, but it was the same situation when I was working on Krajinka with Martin Šulík. We didn't know if the film could be finished or when the shooting would start. We were encouraging each other. Let's finish it. Also the script. The situation suddenly changed and, after the election of 1998, shooting started.

It was a direct result of the election?

Dušek: Yes.[21]

Šulaj: The young generation in the Czech Republic have carried on with what started in the 60s but in a creative way, and have moved it to the present. The young directors and screenwriters in Slovakia were not confident enough to do something new. They rejected European influences and, in a way, looked to their idols—Lynch, Tarantino, Jarmusch. They reject everything that has been done in Slovakia, including Martin Šulík.

But when I spoke to one of the leading Czech directors, Petr Zelenka[22], he also seemed to be more interested in American independents.

Šulaj: But subconsciously, he's using a lot from Czech cinematography, and other films coming from the Czech Republic are very like Czech cinematography in the 60s.

What is the future for Slovak cinematography? Is there any new legislation to help the production situation?

Šulaj: There are two ways in which the situation can be improved. The first requirement is a source of finance and the second is a young generation of film makers to make some good films and move things forward.

I was impressed when I visited the Bratislava Film Festival last year by the fact that the audiences consisted mainly of young people.

Dušek: The Slovak audience response is not as strong as in the Czech Republic. The Czech audience reflects Czech culture more intensely—and that extends to Slovak culture, especially film culture. They take the best from both territories. In a sense, Martin Šulík's films are considered as Czech films. In Slovakia, the reflection of our own history and culture is missing.

It's clear that there's a concern with a certain tradition in Martin Šulík's films and I believe that Záhrada was successful in Slovakia as well as internationally. What is the response of the Slovak audience to Martin Šulík's films?

Šulaj: Poorer than in, for example, Hungary or Poland.

Dušek: Martin Šulik was very disappointed that there were not larger audiences for Krajinka and thought that he'd probably made a bad film. Then he went to a film festival in Poland, and the Polish people said what a strong film it was. They loved it.

Peter Hames

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Also of interest
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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1. Pomocník, adapted from Ladislav Ballek's novel, is set in southern Slovakia just after the Second World War. A former resistance fighter takes over a butcher's shop after the owner has left the country. His assistant is a former collaborator whose activities on the black market lead to wealth, corruption and moral decline.return to text

2. Pavilón šeliem is an allegorical film set in a zoo, where the keeper of wild beasts rules over both animals and people without doubting the justice of his actions. His young assistant is opposed to authority and their conflict is inevitable.return to text

3. Správca skanzenu is the story of a scientist who gives up his career in protest at the misuse of his work. He becomes the curator of an open air museum in his native village, and attempts to rediscover an inner tranquillity.return to text

4. Ja milujem, ty miluješ is a tragic-comic romance about Pišta, a physically unattractive man, who finds himself rejected by women. The background of the film, with its emphasis on alcoholism and sexual infidelity, and its study of deglamorised characters, was far from the sanitised optimism favoured by official bodies.return to text

5. Slnko v sieti (1962) was one of the key Slovak films of the 1960s and paved the way for the more open approaches that were to develop in Czech and Slovak cinema during the remainder of the decade. Its intricate and associative structure challenged conventional narrative and its use of introspection and metaphor earned it an initial ban. It was the first of Uher's collaborations with Alfonz Bednár, which was to lead to a further eight features.return to text

6. Leopold Lahola left the country in 1949 returning in 1968 to write and direct Sladký čas Kalimagdory (The Sweet Time of Kalimagdora), adapted from the novel by Jan Weiss, Spáč ve zvěrokruhu (Sleeper in the Zodiac).return to text

7. Elo Havetta, one of the leading directors of the Slovak Wave of the late 60s, died young after completing only two feature films, Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade (The Party in the Botanical Garden, 1969) and Ľalie poľné (Wild Lilies aka Lilies of the Field, 1972).return to text

8. Rudolf Sloboda's novels include Hudba (Music,1977), Rozum (Reason,1982), Stratený raj (Paradise Lost, 1983), Uršul'a (1987), and Rubato (1990). His screenplays include Milosrdný čas (Merciful Time,1975), Prerušená hra (A Suspended Game,1979), and Karline manželstvá (Karla's Marriages, 1980). He also appeared in Šulík's Všetko čo mám rád (1992).return to text

9. Peter Jaroš was involved as artistic supervisor on a number of films. His best known novel Tisicročná včela (The Millenial Bee, 1979) was adapted as a film and television series in collaboration with Juraj Jakubisko in 1983. The film won a major award at the Venice Film Festival.return to text

10. Dominik Tatarka's work includes Panna zázračnica (The Miraculous Virgin, 1944), Farská republika (The Parish Republic, 1948), Démon súhlasu (The Demon of Conformity, 1963) and Navrávačky (Tapings, 1988). At times influenced by Surrealism, particularly in Panna zázračnica, his work was banned after the Soviet invasion of 1968. He wrote the screenplay for Štefan Uher's adaptation of Panna zázračnica (1966).return to text

11. Vladimír Mináč is the author of Dlhý čas čakania (The Long Time of Waiting, 1958), Živí a mŕtvi (The Quick and the Dead, 1959), and Zvony zvonia na deň (The Bells Ring Out for Day, 1961), collectively known as Generácia (Generations) and wrote four screenplays in the 50s.return to text

12. Juraj Špitzer wrote three screenplays between 1958-1968, including Niet inej cesty (There is no Other Way, Jozef Zachar, 1968), about the Slovak patriot Ľudovít Štúr.return to text

13. Tibor Vichta wrote seventeen scripts including Boxer a smrť (The Boxer and Death, Peter Solan, 1962).return to text

14. Peter Karvaš is well known for his plays, which include Jazva (The Scar, 1963), Veľká parochňa (The Great Wig, 1965) and Absolútny zákaz (Strictly Prohibited, 1970). He wrote three screenplays , Polnočná omša (Midnight Mass, Jiří Krejčík, 1962), adapted from his play, Pripad Barnabáš Kos (The Case of Barnabáš Kos, Peter Solan, 1964), and Pán si neželal nič (Master Did Not Ask for Anything, Peter Solan, 1970).return to text

15. Dušan Mitana is the author of Koniec hry (The End of the Game, 1984). He also wrote the screenplay for A pobežim až na kraj sveta (And I'll Run to the Ends of the Earth, Peter Solan, 1979).return to text

16. Pavel Vilikovský is the author of Citová výchova v marci (Sentimental Education in March, 1965), Prvá veta spánku (The First Movement of Sleep, 1983), and Večne ne zelený...(Ever Green is the..., 1989), and Slovenský Casanova (A Slovak Casanova, 1991).return to text

17. Iva Bittová is an internationally known musician and singer whose music mingles folk and avant garde traditions. She has also acted in the film Neha (Tenderness, Martin Šulík, 1991). Together with Pavel Fajt, she composed the music for Mikola a Mikolko (Mikola and Mikolko, Dušan Trančík, 1988). Her singing is featured in Šulík's Krajinka (Landscape, 2000).return to text

18. Věra Bílá is an internationally known Roma singer. She is the subject of the award winning Czech feature documentary Černobílá v barvě (Black and White in Colour, Mira Erdevički-Charap, 1999).return to text

19. Ladislav Ballek is the author of the trilogy Južná pošta (Southern Post,1974), Pomocník (The Assistant, 1977), and Agáty (Acacias, 1981) and Lesné divadlo (Theatre in the Forest,1987). Pomocník was filmed by Záhon in 1981 and Južná pošta by Stanislav Párnický in 1987.return to text

20. Miloslav Luther's films include Zabudnite na Mozarta (Forget Mozart, 1985), which enjoyed international success, Štek (Bit Part, 1988), and Anjel milosrdenstva (Angel of Mercy, 1993), which won the Prix Europe in 1994. He is currently working on an adaptation of Vladislav Vančura's Útěk do Budína (Flight into Budin).return to text

21. Prior to the election, the government of Vladimír Mečiar had favoured nationalist projects, but most were not made. The provisions for the privatisation of the film industry had also been open to charges of benefiting those close to the government.return to text

22. Petr Zelenka is the Czech writer-director of Mňága-Happy End (1996) and Knoflíkáři (Buttoners, 1997) and writer of Samotáři (Loners, David Ondříček, 2000).return to text

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