First-time mums star in new docusoap series

'Čtyři v tom', photo: Czech Television

Public broadcaster Czech TV this week will launch the first of several new documentary series that fall under the heading of docusoap. The format, well-known to audiences in Great Britain, for example, but less familiar here, focuses on real and personal stories as drama and entertainment. Entitled Čtyři v tom (which could be loosely translated as Four Buns in the Oven) the series was co-directed by filmmaker Linda Kallistová Jablonská (whose previous films include a documentary about young communists and conservatives) and Zuzana Špidlová (recognised for her own film Bába).

'Čtyři v tom',  photo: Czech Television
As is obvious from the title, the six-episode series focuses on four expecting mothers, three of whom are awaiting the birth of their first child. Čtyři v tom focuses on their hopes and expectations as well as fears and unforeseen difficulties. Director Linda Kallistová Jablonská told me more about the project:

“They asked me to get involved in this project and we thought that is was such an amazing and special period of life, just the pregnancy itself and then the delivery and everything that happens afterwards, especially for those who are pregnant for the first time, and so many things happen, not only hormonally but also in partnerships that we thought ‘Yeah, this is something that we really want to follow’.”

The filmmaker admits that finding four suitable participants was not at all easy. Essentially, they needed four interesting subjects, already pregnant and willing to allow cameras into their homes. Linda Kallistová Jablonská again:

“First we tried to find the protagonists by ourselves but it was almost impossible. So we came up with the idea to broadcast an ad on TV that we were looking for women who were going to give birth at this time of the year. Surprisingly, almost 300 women sent us their life stories and so we invited them for interviews and selected the four women we came up with. It was hard work but the ad made things easier.”

Linda Kallistová Jablonská,  photo: Czech Television
JV: Generally, is it hard to establish trust as a filmmaker, is it a slow process?

“Definitely but in this case it was easier because of the ad. All four wanted to take part and wanted to share this intimate period of their lives. They are also kind of exhibitionists: they wanted to be in the film, we didn’t have to beg any of them: they wanted to be involved. Also, from the start we made clear we would be with them all the time, that we would see them ‘bloody’ and that we would be the first to see their newborns. They all agreed.”

The four protagonists who are chosen – not surprisingly – come from different walks of life and have different aspirations, personal successes and more often than nought, difficulties. Thirty-two-year-old Věra is an event organiser and the owner of her own company who loves her job and hopes to work even after she gives birth. Thirty-four-year-old Miky is a farmer expecting her third child but who still cleans out the stables and works as hard as ever, although this time, her partner jokes, she’s not helping put up a new roof! Petra is a former NGO staff member expecting a baby with Abel, an Ethiopian man she had a relationship with in Africa; and 25-year-old Lucie has to face things largely on her own, without family support. Her mother has died and she has an estranged former boyfriend who wants nothing to do with her or her baby. All are shown in the film at good moments and bad, a sliver of which is also highlighted in a short ad now running on Czech TV.

'Čtyři v tom',  photo: Czech Television
I also asked the filmmaker if were there any moments that caught her off guard:

“Everything was sort of surprising: in short, in documentary you never really know what can happen. We began shooting in May and we finished in January and lots of things happened over those months. Not so much on the farm perhaps but with Lucie who is alone, who doesn’t have a man, lost of unexpected things happen in her life that are very surprising: that is kind of the adventure of documentary. Lots of things happened that we didn’t know about in the beginning.”

Indeed, one unexpected development was Linda Kallistová Jablonská’s own pregnancy: the baby who cried in the background during our interview was not one of the protagonist’s but hers: her little girl, just three months. Jablonská learned she was pregnant the same day Czech TV approved the project, she says. Consequently she filmed up until three weeks before term but got help from fellow film director Zuzana Špidlová in completing the project. Later she returned for some of the post-production. Making a series about expecting mothers while expecting herself she admits made a significant difference:

Zuzana Špidlová,  photo: Czech Television
“It definitely helped a lot because I could share my own experience, my own morning sickness, I could share plans and everything. I also think they felt much closer to me, also pregnant for the first time. And even now we still share even though I am off the project.”

As for the final result? Parallel storytelling switching between the four protagonists’ lives presents plenty of hooks and tension that will leave most viewers – not just women or mothers but male spouses and fathers drawn in, wondering how each thread, each story line will develop. You wonder whether Lucie will find help; whether Petra will be joined by her Ethiopian partner, how the births themselves will go and how all four mothers will adjust. Those questions are raised and cleverly drawn out while intimate moments are intensified in part by the fact that in addition to principal filming, each of the women was equipped with their own camera to capture what they are going through. The framing is sometimes off and shots may be out of focus at times, but together the home-made clips form their own aesthetic and are often fuelled by raw emotion. Linda Kallistová Jablonská agrees the self-shot material reveals some of the best moments in the series:

“I think that Lucie’s camerawork is among of the best: she takes it as her own diary but the others do as well. It’s the same as if you kept a diary but filmed it and then gave the material to us. I think they are really brave that they shared these moments with us and I really appreciate it.”

JV: One of the things that is very enjoyable is the whole package: the graphics and music you’ve ‘wrapped’ the series in? Who did the end-credits track?

'Čtyři v tom',  photo: Czech Television
“The last song was done by the duo of Bára and Léňa who are the singers from The Yellow Sisters and who are also mothers. They had already done a few songs about motherhood that we liked so we asked them to write a song for us too.”

JV: Is humour important for you also to offset some of the seriousness of the stories?

“Of course. I think if there is no humour in a documentary nobody would watch it! {laughs}”

The first episode of Čtyři v tom airs on Sunday January 13; you can find information about the project in Czech at Czech TV’s website.