OBRAZY STARÉHO SVETA – PICTURES OF THE OLD WORLD (1972, 1988)
Director: Dušan Hanák
Script: Dušan Hanák
Music: Václav Hálek, Jozef Malovec
Cinematography: Alojz Hanúsek, Martin Martinček
Still Photography: Martin Martinček, Vladimír Vavrek
Of the three major Slovakian directors to emerge from FAMU in the 60’s, Hanák was the only director to begin his career with short films. The other two directors, Havetta and Jakubisko, would make their debut with feature films. Hanák’s early work in short films would help him define a style focused on removing the separation of fiction and documentary. Most of his features that he would direct such as 322 (1969), RUŽOVÉ SNY (1976, and JA MILUJEM, TY MILUJEŠ would focus on central characters and their underlying motives.
ARTISTI (1965) and UČENIE (1965) are two early shorts that give us a glimpse into Hanák’s style. UČENIE seamlessly melds documentary and fiction while Hanák turns to subject portrayal in ARTISTI. UČENIE follows a few hairdressing apprentices who are practicing for a hair composition. Hanák blurs the line between documentary and narrative as he simultaneously weaves the story of the girls’ lives and the documentation of the approaching hair composition into one film. ARTISTI is a documentary on circus performers, showing his subjects practicing for their performances by training lions and practicing stunts. Hanák turns the lens on the core of what makes the performances spectacular, the repetition of learning the routine while at the same time displaying a strong sense of visual style in his use of framing the subjects.
In 1969 Hanák debuted his first feature film titled 322. In it we follow Laukovi, a cook who is diagnosed with cancer and who refuses to accept his diagnosis. His denial can be seen as a greater symbolism of his rejection to the suffering and guilt he feels for his actions as a Communist Party member in the 50s. His belief in healing and growth in the wake of his pain was meant to inspire community healing among Slovakians, but with the film’s release coinciding with the end of the Velvet Revolution the film was shelved. 322 was released at a time when the Censors were reverting back to the guidelines set by Socialist Realism. To the Party, this film portrayed 50s politics “unfairly” and presented a leading character questioning socialism. This is the first of Hanák’s three films that would be disallowed by the Party, though it would receive some international acclaim among critics in the festival circuit.
OBRAZY STARÉHO SVETA was Hanák’s second film, a documentary about elderly Slovakians living on the fringe of a rural area in Liptov. He displays several portraits of these rural Slovakians discussing life and the values they hold. Within each of them reside admirable qualities, immortalizing a spirit of strong work ethic or grander desires of happiness and good health. Among their stories they sing songs or perform on handmade instruments and entertain themselves.
Hanák attempts to blur ideas of nature and culture throughout the film. Cinematically, nature is explored in several ways; first with the use of blending camera footage with still photography from Martin Martinče and Vladimír Vavrek. This helps the viewer to feel a sense of culture in the recorded stories while experiencing the timelessness of seeing the portraits in still frames. Thanks to Martinče, the imagery in OBRAZY STARÉHO SVETA is striking and gorgeously captured.
Thematically, Hanák explores the idea of nature in both its physical and metaphysical sense by recording these portraits in mostly rural settings of hilltops, fields, and among livestock. At the same time he focuses the conversation on their values, by asking the subjects questions about what is deemed to be ‘valuable’. These subjects themselves also seem to be worn down by life and nature itself, both physically and mentally, with portraits of elders either suffering from neurological disease or crippled from their life experiences.
Along with nature, Hanák also explores the idea of culture – OBRAZY STARÉHO SVETA is essentially a film about the acceptance of changing times. Hanák presents scenes of contradiction, such as shots of the rural Slovakians talking with the sound replaced by the noise of the city. This allows the viewer to see the sharp contrasts in Slovakian society by juxtaposing agrarianism with urbanization. Music is also used as as a contradictory statement to portray Hanák’s moods in OBRAZY STARÉHO SVETA – the opening credits have a disorienting and sterile modern electronic score, but the stories are scored with classical orchestral music from Handel. It’s these contrasts that alert the viewer to a conflicting message of Hanák’s central theme of blending nature with culture. It marks the end of an era that disagrees with a nation’s new imposing identity. Theres more to this theme that lays in the history of Slovakia and the time in which Hanák chose to work.
OBRAZY STARÉHO SVETA is very much a Slovakian film, a country whose own recognized identity didn’t exist until 1993 with the Velvet Divorce. Slovakia has struggled, along with most Eastern European countries, with the concept of identity because of their absence of any sort of international power and renown. Because of this, Slovakia’s art and culture also suffered, with their works often labeled as Czech. One example of this is OBCHOD NA KORZE, co-directed by the Slovakian Ján Kadár and shot in Slovakian but still seen as a Czech film. I feel this lack of national identity is a strong reason for Hanák’s focus on Slovakia’s culture.
In 1972 Czechslovakia was at the end of a three year period of Normalization by Gustáv Husák, a period in which Husák removed the previous reformists in the Velevet Revolution and attempted to restore Communism. This was a period marked by terror and the loss of personal freedom. In this context the portraits in OBRAZY STARÉHO SVETA seem to contrast the new national identity of Czechslovakia. They are content living on the fringe of society, seemingly far removed from the city dwellers going to see the film.
OBRAZY STARÉHO SVETA is available as an English friendly DVD release by SME that includes several short films from Hanák including ARTISTI and UČENIE.