Long-Term Observations

Helena Trestikova

Helena Trestikova

Winner of the European Film Academy Documentary 2008 - Prix ARTE for RENÉ

RENÉ is a documentary that tells an extraordinary story - filmed over 20 years - about a character on the edge of society. The documentary director Helena Trestikova follows through these 20 years the life of René Plasil, habitual criminal - who even robbed the director at a certain point. He was sent to prison for the first time at the age of 16 and as a constant backslider, never lived a proper life.

Helena Trestikova explains how her “special thing” in life is to make long-term observational documentaries and how she must be the only person on earth who in fact cannot wait for time to pass by!

She was born in the centre of Prague in 1949 and as a youth wanted to be a costume designer and artist. During the tumultuous era of 1968 she made the life-altering decision to become a filmmaker, despite the concerns of her artistically-minded family. 

After having graduated from the Documentary Department at the FAMU Film Academy she worked with Czechoslovak television in the early 1970s. Her architect husband took on the job of producing her films, and she turned to the exacting and demanding method of long-term observational documentaries. 

She became one of the most popular documentary directors in the Czech Republic in the 1980s when she combined sociology, demography and documentary, in a film cycle called MARITAL SCALES, in which she followed six married couples and their family life between 1980 and 1987. The documentary series was an enormous hit for Czechoslovak television in 1987.

After this she has had continuous success with her genre and on 6 December Helena Trestikova received the European Film Academy Documentary 2008 - Prix Arte in Copenhagen.

What does it mean for you to win the European Film Award?

For me, in my professional life, it’s simply the TOP!

All in all - it is a very important prize for European filmmakers. And for many reasons it is certainly important for us filmmakers from the Czech Republic. I am the first filmmaker from the Czech Republic who is the winner of this prize!

We are a small country and we have a lot of problems financing our cinematography. We have a state fund through which films are financed. During the past ten years the politicians have been working on a new legislation and two years ago this legislation was finally agreed by the parliament but our president didn’t sign it. He is a very controversial personality with an orientation strictly to the right. He said that the Czech Republic is for the free market and that support for cinematography is not needed.

The politicians see filmmaking as a kind of hobby where the state has no responsibility.

So winning the prize will help you politically?

Yes… winning this prize gives us, from the Czech Republic, a possibility to put focus on us, to show people, show the rest of Europe what our small country has, in our culture, our soul, our feelings and our special topics. And at the same time hopefully make our politicians understand the importance of the art of making film - since they have been immune to our voices. So, it is a long introduction to the Czech situation but for this reason the prize is very important.

Has there been a focus on the European Film Award in your country?

Yes - fortunately everyone knows about it. In the media it has been called the European Oscar. And since it is the first time we win a lot has been written about it in the newspaper. And again this is very good concerning what I just explained about the politicians.

How do you finance your movies?

We have some support - from funds. We are in co-operation with Czech public TV. But when we compare the support of Czech cinematography with other European countries, we are probably on the last position.

How many movies are made annually and do you have an audience?

I think 25 feature films and approximately six documentaries. Until three years ago you only saw documentary films in television but it is a new trend during the last three years that the documentaries are screened in cinemas and we have an audience in the Czech Republic.

Tell me about René and your motivation for making this documentary?


My topic is long-term observations. I have been making this kind of film for twenty years. I think I will call this method a connection between documentary and story. If I can observe someone through a longer time it means I can observe exactly what is special, what is unique about this person. My general idea is that every life is interesting. My aim is to find the special topic in this life - what is the key in this life? I look for the topic and my film is a result of this search. It is very interesting and a great adventure.

Everyone has their story. You cannot find this story the first time you meet a person - you have to work on it for a long time and then you get the idea. It is very exiting for me. And in my life I found my topic - my special thing is the making of films as long-term observations. I must be the only person who is happy that time is passing!

People can spend their whole life trying to find their “special thing” or “topic”, as you put it - how did you find your own uniqueness? 

I started at the Film Academy and my first topic was a project in a village in the Czech Republic which had been destroyed by natural damages. We shot a year in this village - and we observed the end of the life in a village. I found this process extremely fascinating and got so passionate about observing for a long time - and then capture it all and make it into a short film.

My first film in a professional studio was about a pregnant woman. I observed her through nine months of her pregnancy and then through her motherhood. My aim was to observe a change and [to see] what this change looks like. It was my first step to say I would like to make such films. And here I am - with an important prize in my hand!

Interviewed by Frederikke Lett in Copenhagen, December 2008