Film about Transnistria wins top Czech documentary award

'Fortress', photo: Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

A film about the breakaway region of Transnistria won the best Czech documentary award at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival 2012. The movie Fortress, by Lukáš Kokeš and Klára Tasovská, follows last year’s presidential elections which ousted Transnistria’s leader of 20 years, Igor Smirnov. At the same time, it offers an insight into the lives of ordinary people in the internationally unrecognized country located on a strip of land east of the river Dniester between Moldova and Ukraine.

'Fortress', photo: Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
“Many wanted change”, says an ominous voice in an election campaign clip for Transnistria’s long-time leader Igor Smirnov. “Did they succeed?” asks the voice, followed by footage of rallies, riots, and police commandoes. The clip ends with the slogan, “Igor Smirnov – stable changes”.

This is one of illustrative moments in the award-winning Czech documentary film Fortress, a study into the life in the obscure country of Transnistria. I spoke to one of the film’s directors, Lukáš Kokeš, and asked him why he chose to make a movie about this little known region.

“The main reason why we went there was a simple fascination with the existence of an unrecognized country in European territory, and also the fact that none of our friends knew about it.”

Why did you call the film Fortress? Is it a fortress in the sense of communism’s last stand or what did you mean by the name?

“When we chose the title, we were thinking for instance about ice hockey where you have a strictly bordered area where the play goes on. We see Transnistria as such a playground where you can play a game but which you cannot leave. So we had that kind of fortress on our minds when we were shooting there and when we were editing the film.”

What was you basic approach. It seems to be a political documentary – most of the people you talk to spend most of the time talking about politics. Yet it does not feel political in the sense of, let’s say, activist or political documentaries. So what approach did you have?

“From the start, we knew we did not want to shoot a political reportage or human rights films because that’s not our approach, that’s not the kind of film we are interested in.

Lukáš Kokeš (right), photo: CTK
“So we knew exactly what we didn’t want. Then, we decided to use cinematographic language to describe the country. But we also knew it wasn’t enough, that we needed to give the viewers some information about the region, the regime and the system in which the people were living.

“We were looking for harmony between information and emotion. Transnistria is a very photogenic country with a strong atmosphere; we were focused on this atmosphere but at the same time, we were looking for precise information that would describe the system there.

“So at the beginning, it was a sort of denial of the political reportage method, and we were looking for cinematographic and atmospheric images inside that country. In the editing room, we then wanted to find the right proportion between politics, information and images, atmosphere and emotions.”

How did you work with you co-directing partner, Klára Tasovská? Did you do everything together or did you have different roles?

“We decided to work together because we didn’t get a permission to shoot in Transnistria so we had to work illegally there, and that was also the main reason why just the two of us went there. Klára worked with the sound and I was operating the camera.

“We made a film together before, and we discovered that we understood each other in terms of aesthetics of the film and of what we find interesting in reality.

“Neither of us makes reporting-style films or question-based documentaries where the director asks questions all the time and people have to answer them. We share the same method which is more observational, more cinematographic, and that’s why we decided to work together.”

Coming back to politics, some of the people in the film called Transnistria’s regime “controlled democracy”, one person said it was “a little Afghanistan in the heart of Europe”. But you witnessed an election there which ousted the leader – do you think you saw some change, some transition?

“I must say something did change after the new president was elected. When we were waiting for the result of the elections, some of the people said they were afraid that Smirnov would not leave just like that, that they could be some violence. We were in fact expecting this violent scenario. And then the new president was elected and nothing really happened which surprised us. But in the air, we could feel relief; the people were happy, they started to talk freely and we could feel a change in their minds.

“When Smirnov was still in charge, they were scared and they didn’t want to say what they really thought. But after the election, they started to express their opinions and the fear went away.

“But at the same time, I have to say that this change was expected. There was information that Russia and Moscow didn’t want Smirnov to continue in office, so we knew that the Russians had a different scenario for Transnistria, which was confirmed in the elections. So I think that Shevchuk, the new president, is a leader supported by Moscow, albeit with a more democratic face.

“We could maybe compare it to the “socialism with human face” of the Prague Spring of 1968. We can’t call it communism in Transnistria but it’s perhaps oligarchy with human face.”

You have some very powerful images in the film of what the Soviet Union might look like today if it had not collapsed. For example, this domino effect-style exercise by military guards during the national anthem. You were six years old when communism collapsed in this country – what did you feel when you saw such things in Transnistria?

The Transnistrian parliament building in Tiraspol, photo: Monk, CC 3.0 license
“It’s not an issue of military parades. We were in a situation when were shooting in the street, and we were approached by a secret police agent who asked if we had permission to film, which we didn’t have.

“So we were arrested for a while, and had to go to an KGB office – the secret service there is called the KGB, just like in the old times – and they asked us questions like, who did you talk to? Who gave the phone number for that guy? Where did you meet him? What did you talk about?

“That moment made me think of communism in my own country, about the secret police and the dissidents who were interrogated in the same way. That was when I though, ‘This is exactly like the old times when you could not do what you wanted without thinking about the consequences.”

Will your film be screen in Tiraspol or elsewhere in Transnistria?

“We worked together with Ivana Skálová who works for the NGO People in Need, and they have some programmes in Transnistria. One of them is documentary film screenings in a small club in Tiraspol, the capital. Every year, they show films there so I think our film will be featured there next year. We will also show it in Chisinau, in Moldova.

“Some documentary film festivals in Europe also expressed interest to screen our film, so after the film is shown at these major festivals, we will go to Moldova and Tiraspol.”