New documentary looks at how media influences modern Czech women


A new documentary called Zeny pro meny (The Beauty Exchange in English) looks at how the media makes contemporary Czech women feel conscious of their appearance, and the ways they try to conform to stereotypes of feminine beauty. Zeny pro meny's director Erika Hnikova, who is 28, explains why she chose this topic.

"I had to make a school leaving film for FAMU [film school] and I wanted to make a film about some important theme for the society. This theme was interesting to me for a few reasons.

"One reason was that during the Communist time there was no capitalism, there was no consumerism and it's something brand new. And also I felt some pressures on me from the media.

"The second thing was that I saw some statistics about how much we spend on cosmetics, how much we spend on plastic surgery."

Zeny pro meny focuses on four women: a trendy 20something who buys all the latest beauty products; an overweight woman who will try anything to lose the kilos; a 15-year-old who enters a competition to be a model; a woman who undergoes plastic surgery. The latter, Eva, says she can work on other parts of her body, but once her breasts sag there's nothing she can do about it. Except have plastic surgery. The operation is shown at length and in detail, and I was curious if Erika Hnikova had found filming difficult.

"During the shooting it was more difficult for me mentally than physically, because the woman who was lying there was someone who I knew, and who I knew very well. So for me it was hard not physically, but mentally.

"I didn't feel sick during the shooting, because you are working...I had to speak with the doctor, because the things which he is saying are really during the operation, it is contact sound, so I had to speak with him."

I was surprised by the fact that the doctor gave you the interview during the operation - did that surprise you?

"Yes, I asked him before the shooting if I could speak with him while he was operating on Eva, and he told me 'yes, it's a job, it's nothing more'. So I was surprised he was speaking to me, looking straight at me, at the camera, and operating with his hands, so he didn't watch what he was doing."

The operation scenes are not for the squeamish, and when I saw the film many people in the cinema groaned or covered their eyes. But the director has no regrets about showing the surgery in such detail. Far from it.

"I spoke with some girls who went to the film because they were thinking about having aesthetic surgery. They told me during the discussion after the film that they didn't want to have it any more, because it was so hard - they saw the blood, the pain.

"So I think it was important to have these scenes to show the real body, the real cut and the real pain from the operation."

There are several memorable scenes in Zeny pro meny. The wannabe model - already very thin - is advised to lose weight by someone from an agency, the woman who has plastic surgery later complains her new breasts are not quite right, and the overweight woman curses the creator of a "weight loss" meditation CD.

It must be said, though, that some of those featured, such as a lady from the cosmetics department at a women's magazine, do not come across in a positive light. How did the documentary's subjects react when they watched it?

"They knew before the shooting that I would try to lead a dialogue with them, they knew that I would be critical, and they all saw the film. The four main participants saw the film, and two of them don't agree with my opinions in the film. But they agree with their roles, because it's all true. They really have - for example [trendy 20something] Karolina really has her bathroom like it is in the film.

"But there are some protagonists, for example [overweight] Magda, she saw the film and she was smiling and she phoned me immediately and said 'I look like a fat pig, like a stupid fat pig, and I won't do these things [use weight loss products] any more'. So it helped her."

I saw the film in a cinema in which I would say 75% or more of the audience were women. Have many men reacted to the film? Or are they not interested?

"I think it's mainly a film for women because it is, of course, a women's problem. But when men see the film they feel like it's more a film about liberty, about freedom, about inner freedom and about this society now here in the Czech Republic."

Though she concedes they have political engagement and the use of humour in common, Erika Hnikova says she is no fan of the controversial US documentary maker Michael Moore. But whether you like Moore's films or not, his success is one reason documentaries are more popular than ever. And that also benefits Zeny pro meny.

"People now know that documentary films are not boring, it's not objective, but it's never they are not afraid to go to the cinema. Also Czech feature films are not very good, in my opinion. They are not trying to say important things about this society now and here. So maybe this is why people are going to documentary films, because they can see the reality, how it looks like."

Is there a chance in the future your film could get distribution outside the Czech Republic?

"They are thinking about distributing it in Slovakia. I was with my film in Austria and Germany but they were not so interested; they told me that the things I am dealing with in the film they dealt with 20 years ago. I think our film could maybe say something to people in Slovakia, maybe in Poland, so now they are thinking of taking it to Slovakia, in April I think."

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