Ivan Ostrochovský • Director of Servants
“I want the audience to understand how easy it is to end up on the wrong side of history”
- BERLINALE 2020: We chatted to Slovak documentary filmmaker Ivan Ostrochovský, who has premiered Servants, his sophomore fiction feature after the much-celebrated Koza
After his successful venture into fiction-filmmaking territory with Koza [+see also:
interview: Ivan Ostrochovský
film profile], Slovakian producer and filmmaker Ivan Ostrochovský has unveiled his sophomore fiction feature, Servants [+see also:
interview: Ivan Ostrochovský
film profile], in the Berlinale’s new Encounters competition section. Ostrochovský zooms in on the Catholic Church’s collaboration with the communist regime during the normalisation era in the 1980s, within the walls of a theological faculty. Cineuropa met up with the filmmaker to talk about why he picked a rather taboo topic, the true events behind the script, the genre of the movie and his decision to work with Ida [+see also:
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
film profile] co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
Cineuropa: Why did you decide to tackle the taboo topic of the Catholic Church’s collaboration with the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia? It’s true that Marko Škop did touch on the topic of the Church’s collaboration with fascists in Let There Be Light [+see also:
interview: Marko Škop
interview: Milan Ondrík
Ivan Ostrochovský: I don’t think my intention was to reflect the Catholic Church under socialism, as such a wide-ranging topic cannot be encapsulated by a single film. I chose the surroundings of the theological faculty because the moral conflict posed by collaborating with the regime was logically more intense there than it was elsewhere. The majority of society collaborated with the regime. It is easy nowadays, and unfortunately a bit fashionable, to criticise the Catholic Church. However, their story of collaboration is not that different to the story of, for example, artists from that time. Priests lent legitimacy to the regime with their membership of Pacem in Terris, and artists did likewise with their affiliation with the Communist Party or the Socialist Union of Youth. However, priests in Slovakia are just citizens, like the rest of us. If the majority of society collaborates with the regime, so do they.
I do not consider film to be a tool for generating issues or for moral condemnation. I do not want to present a specific opinion or an answer to the audience; I want to prompt them to think. Not to think critically solely about the others – the “bad guys” – but most importantly, to think about ourselves. It is way too easy to leave the cinema patting ourselves on the back, thinking that we belong among the good guys, and the bad guys are behind the line that the film drew, dividing society into good and bad people. I agree that evil should not be relativised, but it certainly cannot be trivialised either. That’s why I like to pick characters that, even if they do something reprehensible, are similar to us in some ways. We understand why they succumbed to fear, frustration, insatiability or rational arguments that maintain it could not be done any other way. I want the audience to understand how easy it is to end up on the wrong side of history.
Your previous film, Koza, was based on real events to a great extent, and the same probably applies to Servants, as Pacem in Terris was a real organisation. What other true events are behind the script?
Co-writer Marek Leščák told me the story of Vlado Zboroň, who studied at a theological faculty in the 1980s, from which he was expelled. The state secret service offered him a deal: he could continue to study if he collaborated. He refused and now stars in our film. While we were researching the history of the theological faculty, we found out about an extraordinary event, where the majority of students went on a hunger strike to protest against the priests’ collaboration through Pacem in Terris. It was incredibly brave, and I do not know whether it would have happened to such an extent at other universities in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s. We used several true events that happened during normalisation, such as the hunger strike or the death of the secretly ordained priest Přemysl Coufar. We did not attempt to reconstruct these events. They form a loose basis from which to depict the period and the problems thrown up by the topic of religious freedom. Naturally, we met former students from the school as well as members of Pacem in Terris.
Previous versions of the story were described as more “genre”, rather than “classical arthouse”. How did the form evolve?
I don’t think we have neglected the genre dimension. I believe the movie involves some elements of genre films, from thriller to horror. Naturally, we did not attempt to make the feature more attractive. The horror genre comes with the feeling that forces you cannot control are taking hold of you. That is the very same feeling I had when I heard about events in the school. We were trying to inject a vibe of irrationality into the images, and intensify the psychological anxiety or even fear of those characters.
Besides Marek Leščák and yourself, British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who co-wrote Ida, also worked on the script. How did the collaboration come about?
Very simply. Rebecca saw Koza, and she was sitting on a festival jury that awarded us a prize. I talked to her about my next project. She liked the story, and even though she had plenty of other offers on the table, she started working on our script. I believe it is highly enriching if somebody from a completely different context works on a script and attempts to see the narrative from a different perspective. It was a huge risk, as viewers unfamiliar with the period may not have fully understood the story – mostly viewers from the West. I believe that, also thanks to Rebecca, we managed to make a movie that is understandable without being literal.
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