Tomáš Škrdlant: giving a voice to the marginalised

My guest in One on One is Tomáš Škrdlant. With more than sixty films to his name, covering over thirty years, Tomáš is one of the Czech Republic’s foremost documentary film makers. Much of his work has focused on the lives of people living on the margins of society: sometimes because of disability, sometimes old age, or simply because they are different. This ties in with a second thread that runs through his films: our complex relationship to the world around us, how we identify with the place we live and its ecology. When I visited Tomáš Škrdlant at his flat in the centre of Prague, I began our conversation by asking him where his interest in film began.

“I don’t know exactly where. I liked some Russian films and I started to feel that I would like to make feature films – which I don’t make, I’m a documentary maker. When I finished film school at Prague’s FAMU, I did my military service in the studio of military films. But that was in 1968, when there was rather a lot of freedom in these things, and I made three films there that were important to me. And then the so-called ‘normalisation’ started. It was the 1970s and 80s and it was a really terrible time. But I was very happy because I worked as a freelance filmmaker for Czech TV, so I wasn’t forced to do political items.”

Tomáš Škrdlant, photo: authorTomáš Škrdlant, photo: author That must have been very exotic at the time – to have been a freelance film maker in communist Czechoslovakia – because there weren’t many of you, were there?

“Sure, but it was only because I made films about sport and motoring, both of which I hate! But it was rather honest and without any political subtext.”

Are there any films that you made at the time that you remember with pride?

“I made the first documentary for Czech TV in the 1970s about doping in sport. Czech sportsmen really were doped with the agreement of the government. It was almost the same situation as in East Germany, and it was a discovery.”

It seems almost unbelievable that they actually let the film be broadcast.

“Yes, it was broadcast after some time and after some problems with it, but it was broadcast and it was fine.”

With the fall of communism your career blossomed and you have become one of the most respected Czech documentary film makers. Was it hard starting again from scratch after the fall of communism?

“It wasn’t so hard. I don’t know why it was so, but I was able to realise almost every item I thought up, even if it was just in very modest form for Czech TV at the beginning, but later I received different grants and now I can make my projects really in freedom.”

‘Democracy of Nature’‘Democracy of Nature’ There are certain currents that can be seen in your films. For example there is always a strong underlying philosophy, and this is often accompanied by a concern for the environment.

“Yes, I am interested in ecology, but not in ecology as the preservation of nature and some species, but I am interested in it as a systemic science, as a systemic point of view, and as a holistic point of view. I think this is very important.”

And you have actually written a book about this subject.

“Yes, I have written a book called ‘Democracy of Nature’, which seems to be a paradoxical title, but I feel that we can find some democratic principles in nature or in relations in nature.”

In this respect, I remember in one of your films that you looked at the Sudetenland, the part of the country that was formerly inhabited by Germans and resettled by Czechs after the war. You pointed out that a lot of people who have settled there do not identify with the place where they live. There is a sense of detachment; people feel in a sense alienated even from themselves.

“It’s a documentary called ‘No Man’s Land’. Maybe it’s slightly better now – but at that time, at the beginning of the 1990s, it was visible that they are not at home there.”

And I’d like to ask you about one of your most recent films, for which you won the very prestigious Pavel Koutecký Award. It’s a film called ‘Nevítaní’ (The Unwelcome), in which you look at the lives of a number of people over twenty years.

‘The Unwelcome’‘The Unwelcome’ “It’s the life story – or stories – of five people who were rejected by their parents at the moment of their birth, and in another way they were rejected by society too, because they lived in institutions, in children’s homes. Especially during the communist era it was really a very artificial way of life. They were completely isolated. But these people succeeded in returning back into our world.”

They were all children who were in some way physically disabled, but in other ways there was no possible reason why they should be brought up detached from society, was there?

“Putting people into institutions was very typical for the communist regime, but unfortunately, even now after twenty years of democracy, were are very institutionalized when it comes to the care of old people and children. It’s a bit better than it was, but the situation is not very good.”

One thing that is very encouraging about the film, ‘The Unwelcome’, is that all the children who feature in the film and who we see growing up, really have managed to do something with their lives, and managed to get out of the institution.

“Yes, but unfortunately they are exceptional. The majority of handicapped adults and children living in institutions do not have such a chance.”

One thing that I particularly enjoyed about the film was the way that you really managed to follow the lives of these people over such a long time. It’s really very unusual for a film maker to have the opportunity to do that.

‘The Unwelcome’‘The Unwelcome’ “I didn’t plan it at all. There wasn’t any intention. It just started with a first film about the British animated film maker, Jessica Langford, who made an animated film with children from the Jedlička Institute in Liberec, and there we met two boys. They were fantastic, so several years after it we followed them in another documentary for Czech TV, and then another one three or four years ago, and every time one of these documentaries was broadcast, it influenced their lives. For example, some of them met their parents. And after that, I saw that I must follow them.”

To find out more about Tomáš’s award-winning film ‘The Unwelcome’ in English, you can go to the website: www.nevitani.info/NEVITANI/HOME_engl..html