"My films are not nice to these people"

Erika Hnikova

One of the most distinctive young voices in Czech filmmaking celebrates her 30th birthday in two weeks: documentarian Erika Hnikova. This autumn she brought out her second cinematic release, "I Guess We'll Meet at Eurocamp".

Erika Hnikova's first film "Zeny pro Meny" ("The Beauty Exchange") was a surprise success at the box office in 2005. Put together as her senior thesis, for FAMU, the prestigious Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, the movie looked at the lengths to which Czech women go to achieve their idea of beauty. Many viewers were startled and upset by the images and ideas the film contains. For example, graphic close-up footage of one woman's breast enlargement surgery. Hnikova also followed a formerly carefree 15 year-old as she entered the soul-crushing world of modeling competitions.

Here was a new director, it seemed, who held up a double-magnification mirror to Czech society, and definitely didn't miss any warts.

Besiny is a the little town at the edge of the Sumava forest in Southwest Bohemia. In Erika Hnikova's most recent documentary, Sejdeme Se v Eurocampu ("I Guess We'll Meet at Eurocamp"), which came out in September, Besiny is a drab, damp place where the social ties that once held the community together have frayed. I asked Hnikova what took her there in the first place:

´The Beauty Exchange´
"I was looking for a village where are living people who are wearing uniforms. And I wanted to make more like movie essay or film essay about relationships between your body and uniform, your uniform and other persons, and what does it mean for you when you have it on, and when you have it off. And then I was in the pub and my friends told me go to Besiny, we have a cottage there and there are very good fire brigades and very good people from the Sokol. And I went there and I saw them and I took my decision in 3 minutes. Just by some 6th sense or I don't know how you call it. And then we started shooting and the theme of the film changed because the people were so interesting."

Hnikova discovered that in Besiny, what uniform you wear determines who you socialize with, and who you avoid. The men of the town divide into three tribes which don't always get along.

´The Beauty Exchange´
"One are people from voluntary fire brigade, second group are people from Sokol which is something like sport club and which has a history in the Czech Republic, and the third group is group of hunters. And the main problem is between voluntary fire brigade and people from Sokol. And I really didn't find out why it happened. It was like, it happened six years ago when this man said this about this man and we will not speak with them any more. But the fact is they are living in a small village. There are 620 people. And they don't have a place where to meet, and where to talk about the problems, where to solve the troubles, so for example, when one man insults the other one and they don't have any opportunity to meet, it's possible they will not see each other two months."

The documentary is composed entirely of interviews with the ordinary people who live in this hamlet at the edge of the Sumava forest.

The film takes its name from the only place to get a drink around Besiny, a tourist center called Eurocamp, which was built a few years ago with funds from the EU.

"it's a little bit out of the village, it's 5 km from the center. And they don't want to go there and also it's not so pleasant as a pub. Because when you have a typical Czech village it's normal to have pub in the center of the village and it's a cosy place. There are only local people, they like each other, they drink, I don't know, they drink, maybe they gossip each other, they are solving the problems but Eurocamp, it's not a place like this."

´I Guess We'll Meet at Eurocamp´
Besiny did once have a pub of its own, but it closed down. Volunteer firemen and Sokol members both partly blame the demise of the village pub for the tensions in their relationship. But as a postscript to Hnikova's film, Besiny's decrepit old pub building got a kind of happy ending:

"People from the village, they bought it and they are renovating it. They were so ashamed when they saw the film that they said to themselves, OK, we have to solve the situation. - So you can actually measure the impact of your film on this village? You can. The main lady who bought it, she wanted to do it for two years, so the film was like a last drop - that OK, I'm sure, I have to buy it. And now they are rebuilding it inside, and they are planning to open it in seven months."

´I Guess We'll Meet at Eurocamp´
Critics of both of Hnikova's films "I Guess We'll Meet at Eurocamp" and "The Beauty Exchange" have accused the director of holding up her subjects for ridicule. Certainly one of the distinctive features of her filmmaking is how deeply the director manages to penetrate their lives, spending weeks and months with her subjects, and letting them speak at length in their own words. And what they say isn't always pretty. I asked her how she gains people's trust.

"You must be there some time. It's not like OK I will shoot here a film and next day you come with a camera. You have to have a social thinking. And it's very important to say that my films are not nice to these people. They are trying to be honest, and they are trying to open something. When you want to show and open something you must be cruel in some way."

For now, Hnikova has no plans to focus her cruel lens anywhere else. After making two documentaries that got cinematic release, she's decided to take a break from filmmaking. In April, she was hired to be the new editor of Novy Prostor, or "New Space", a magazine sold by the homeless in Prague. Her new bosses there, she says, have set her up for a challenging task.

"I had sometimes feeling that it's harder than to shoot a film. But on the other hand they gave me total freedom. They said, OK, we know that last six months the magazine wasn't good and we want some change. We will try to make a magazine which is ironical, critical, not nice; cultural, and which is solving the things which are on the edge. We would like to be brave because we can be brave."