Creativity flows from floods for award-winning director Alice Nellis

Alice Nellis, photo:

This week's edition of Czech Books is bit of a departure from our usual format. We're still looking at a writer, but Alice Nellis is more than that. An award-winning film director and producer of several theatre productions, she brings her words to life on screen and stage alike. She and Radio Prague's Brian Sabin discuss her newest work - Zaplavy, or "Floods" in English - which is now showing at Prague's Theatre on the Balustrade.

Czech director Alice Nellis gained fame here and internationally with her first two films, Eeny Meeny and Some Secrets. Since her last movie left the big screen in 2002, she's concentrated on theatre, directing several shows. Now "Floods" is the first play she herself wrote for the stage.

The story centers on Tereza and Miriam, two slightly out of touch sisters who are forced together by the destructive floodwaters that threatened the Czech Republic in 2002. When I met with Alice, I asked her about what inspired her newest tale.

"Part of it came from the floods that went through Prague several years ago. The big flood. This year there was again a danger of flooding, so we were reminded of it. But it's just a frame. You know, a flood is something that comes and takes away not only things but also your routine, the way you are used to living. Your house doesn't have to be underwater and your life can be changed, if it only changes these normal things - like how you go to work, if you go to work, where will you stay, maybe somebody will stay with you. So in my play the flood is a frame for taking people out of their everyday lives."

MIRIAM Tereza?! Who's that at the door?

TEREZA No idea...(looks down) Hello... Are you the guy who's been flooded out? Come on up. The gate isn't locked...

MIRIAM Who is it?

TEREZA Don't know... Some young guy... But he just keeps standing there... (shouts down) The gate's open! Weird... Why's he just hanging around there?... Shall I go down? MIRIAM It could be some complete weirdo. Perhaps we should wait for the boys to get back, and get them to let him in.

TEREZA What? And leave him standing in the garden for a couple of hours? (MIRIAM shrugs her shoulders and looks out of the window. TEREZA calls down.) Just open the gate and come up!

MIRIAM Hey, he really is a bit weird.(TEREZA heads for the door.) Wait.

TEREZA What are you scared of? That he'll rape you? Hey, I know they were always more interested in you, but this time I reckon I'm the one in more danger. Unless it's some pervert who's into pregnant women...

MIRIAM What's up with you?! Is it that I'm going to have a kid, and you haven't got one yet? Or is it that stupid haircut you've had done? Or is it that Petr's screwing some chick from the hairdresser's? Or is it everything?

TEREZA Right now, it's everything.

MIRIAM Then why the hell don't you talk about it? Why are you going around quietly making a martyr of yourself, someone anyone can walk all over? Why don't you want to talk about it?

TEREZA Well, maybe because right now there's this guy standing downstairs, who's probably just lost everything in the floods, he hasn't got a roof over his head, he's probably cold, and this just isn't the right moment for all that bullshit.

MIRIAM Aha. Great! Congratulations! A real Mother Theresa! (calls TEREZA, who has disappeared down the corridor) All you need is to throw a sheet round yourself and people will start kissing your hands as you go down the street! Maybe even your feet! (more to herself) At least under the sheet no-one will see how that dumb kid took her revenge on your hair.

Dialog drives the story and gradually reveals more about the sisters and their problems. Alice Nellis says she thinks of life's everyday dramas while writing.

"Well, what do you think about? You think about your life. Your life and your relationships, your family. I think everybody thinks about these things, though maybe not all the time. We all have parents. We are all looking for love, or trying to get out of love and forget about it. It's a normal part of life. I think about it. I think about it every day and I see that other people do the same. So basically, in my films I focus on more dramatic points than this, but I think they deal with things you live with. Not things you from time to time remember - you live them."

I understand that when you're in the writing process, you will listen to music to set the mood for a scene you're trying to create. What sort of music were you listening to while you were creating "Floods"?

"You will laugh, but I was actually listening to the Leningrad Cowboys. I was somehow listening to the CD during the time I wrote "Floods." I got into a goofy mood. But yeah, it was the Leningrad Cowboys."

"The main characters are not really flooded, but they are kind of put together in a situation that otherwise would not happen because two sisters that are not living together anymore and have a complicated past are put together because one is evacuated.

They are in a house that they inherited from there parents, who are dead. Each sister has her problems with her family and with her partner, but through this time they slowly start to get to the core of their problems - which may not lay in whatever is happening to them now.

Maybe it's something that happened when they were young and with their parents. We do inherit the model of parents. We don't necessarily follow it. Sometimes we inherit something that we fight all of our lives, but quite often we inherit something that we do not understand. This play is about trying to find out what really happened.

Since this is theatre, where you are much more free to play with reality and abstract things, I don't have only the sisters but also the ghosts of their parents. So it's like today and the '70s together."

There's also some classical music, because one of the characters, the mother, is a musician. She plays cello and teaches the kids. They actually sing and play in the play. So that was another part."

There is infidelity, anger and unspoken resentment in "Floods," but there are no angels and no villains. Nellis's tries to imagine that she could behave exactly as her characters do were she in their situation. This helps her create complex characters with a human touch.

Living a diverse life has also helped her. Nellis worked with computers and performed as a conservatory flutist before she enrolled at Prague's Film Academy. She's since been a director, producer, writer and sometimes actor. Her newest title - Mom - may be her most challenging yet. She and her husband just adopted a baby girl, Ella. So what does the 35-year-old new mother see in her future?

"You know, I gave up visualizing my future because no matter what I imagined it panned out differently. I just hope my family and I healthy and do whatever we want to do."

Is it a return to film? Will it be more on the stage?

"If it's possible, I'd like to do both, as I did until now. I like the combination. Making films is more or less a very expensive and exhausting hobby. If I work here I could not make as many films as I would want to. In theory, it's very nice when you have time off from being locked in a dark room and you can go outdoors to make a film."

What's the least understood aspect of your job?

"Loneliness. You have a lot of people around you, but in your position you are alone. I don't have another director with whom I sit after work and we talk about the rehearsal like actors do. When I write, I do not have a co-writer who, after we write, we talk about writing. So it's the loneliness. Sometimes it's great because you can concentrate, it makes you focus. Sometimes it is awful because you are alone with your problems."

MIRIAM [...] The kid's not his... I thought it didn't matter. That it won't matter...

TEREZA And who's...?

MIRIAM That's beside the point. Really. It was nothing. Just one of those stupid things. My stupidity. But it happened. It's not the kid's fault... And Adam would be a great dad... What with all those carefully packed bags and retractable wheels. Much better than I'll be a mum... I thought it would be ok. But it just isn't...

TEREZA Shhhh... don't worry... it really isn't that important... right now other things are more important... just don't think about it...

MIRIAM Please don't tell him... Don't tell him which hospital they take me to. I don't want to have to tell lies right now... to have to lie the moment I see my kid... I couldn't take that... I've coped so far. And I'll cope later. I've always been a good liar... Somehow... somehow I'll decide and do something, but not yet, I can't do it right now... I didn't realize it would be so... so... real! That I'll really want to tell the truth...

There are reconciliations - and reckonings - that remain ahead for the sisters in the final act of floods. Alice says her play doesn't necessarily have a moral, but it can offer lessons about living through life's changes.

"A moral to the Floods? Well, I would hardly call it a moral, but sometimes the worst things that happen to you - and floods are pretty bad, for a lot of people they were a real catastrophe - they can be the best things that happen to you.

Like the floods in nature, they are purging. They take out things. Most of them are valuable things and you miss them, but sometimes they clean things: Clean your life, clean your old cellar. Things that at the beginning might seem like a big loss or catastrophe in the end might turn out to be a process that is good and healthy."