AMSTERDAM — Helena Třeštíková’s speciality is what she likes to call “time-lapse” documentary, and it’s a phrase she doesn’t bandy about lightly. Having made her non-fiction debut in 1974 with short film “The Miracle”, she has worked consistently ever since, balancing so many years-in-the-making projects that sometimes she has up to 15 on the go at any given time. Třeštíková arrived at IDFA to introduce a short, selective retrospective of her decades-spanning filmography and also to curate a Top Ten, which includes works by Krzysztof Kieslowski, Sergei Miroshnichenko and the Czech Republic’s Vera Chytilova, whose 1963 film “Something Different” inspired the teenage Třeštíková to become a film director in the first place.
For IDFA Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia, honoring Třeštíková is a chance to put right some of the gender inequality he sees in the documentary world. “To me,” he says, “Helen – undoubtedly – is one of the greatest living documentary filmmakers. But she is not recognized as such in most of the world, which I think is a great example of how masculine our industry is. So it’s only natural that we are paying tribute to Helena. But why is she not being acknowledged and recognized everywhere, for the value of her career, and the films she’s making?”
Variety spoke to Třeštíková after her Filmmaker Talk at the festival.
How do you feel when a festival like IDFA decides to show a retrospective of your work?
Helena Třeštíková: Well, it’s really thrilling to see that an audience understands me [outside my homeland], because I am very local filmmaker. I make films with very local themes, about very local people, with very local protagonists, so it’s thrilling to be in an international arena and see that the audiences connect with those films, and with these themes.
Why did you become a filmmaker?
[Laughs] I am a child of the ’60s. I was influenced by the Czech New Wave, and, as a result of that, I decided to become a director. I studied at art school, and my interest was to show the lives of normal people – their everyday life. I wanted to make these films about our lives for the future, too, so that’s my task, and it keeps me in love with documentary films. I never wanted to make feature films. I am a pure documentary filmmaker.
Why is that?
I just think that life writes better stories than any writer. My method is to collect small anecdotes from everyday life and build a story out of that – out of the small daily events of quotidian life.
When did you realize you had a style?
The first step was when I started a project called “A Marriage Story” in 1980, and it was my first long-term observation project. I realized this was my message and that I would continue making films in this way. The project was that we would observe six young couples who were newly married, and we would observe them for six years. I always say that my method is putting all my money – placing a bet – on something that’s totally insecure. [Laughs] Insecurity is my slogan! But I can live with uncertainty. It’s an adventure.
Are you a very patient person?
[Laughs] Probably, yes!
How do you find your subjects?
It’s usually accidental. I usually have a subject matter, a theme. For example, with “A Marriage Story” we found them simply at the registry office when they decided to get married. We selected six random couples. We had no idea who these people were. We basically told them that he would like to observe them for a long period of time, for six years. And we’ve basically been observing them for the last 35 years. This was initially a six- year project. After six years we finished the films. They were shown and sometime later I decided to follow up on that, and so altogether that makes 35 years.
Is it easy to juggle six stories over six years?
It was a very vital work for me, so I guess it wasn’t difficult, but there was a lot of uncertainty because nobody around me had done anything like that before, so there was no experience to draw on. I no idea that there were similar “time lapse” films being made around the world. I only learned that much later – for example, the “Seven Up!” project by Michael Apted. I only learned about this many, many years later, because, at the time, Czech society was very isolated, and we had no contact with the work that was being done internationally – contemporary work. This is also the reason why I don’t speak English as well as I would like to, because in my youth I simply had no opportunity to practise it. [Laughs] And now there’s no time for it!
Were the “Marriage Story” projects shot on film or video?
The first part was on film, 16mm, and then the second and third parts were on video.
How much material did you have at the end of six years?
About 50, 60, 70 hours maybe. But it’s not so difficult, because I’ve worked out a system where I have transcripts to be able to keep track of the footage. And basically they are like retrograde scripts. So it takes some organization skills, but it’s not difficult.
What’s the longest you’ve ever worked on a project?
“Private Universe”. That was 37 years. Actually, It started with a short film I made [in 1974] about a baby being born. Then I decided, after I finished the film, to continue observing the people involved, but I did that on my own money. It was only in the last five years that I got a producer involved, and then a production company, Negativ, decided to join the project. We applied for a grant, which we received, and the result was “Private Universe”. Another example is the film “René”  – was a project that I’d finished, and then decided to continue shooting with the main character. So I didn’t set out to commit to a story for 20 years, it just happened by installments.
What are the advantages of filming this way?
Time writes a certain story, and by following that story over time, we record episodes that we can then shape in the editing room.
Do you ever get too close to your subjects?
I want to get close, and I get as close as they let me – and, actually, I feel that’s pretty close. We develop a relationship that’s almost like a friendship. We keep in touch outside of film production as well – these people have become a part of my life and I’m a part of their life.
It’s often mentioned that you never hide the filmmaking process. Has that always been deliberate?
Well, it’s a part of the openness that I’m looking for, because I also want the viewer to be aware that what’s going on is taking place in front of a camera. It’s part of my method. There is no hidden camera or candid camera. I should add that, after I finish my film, I let my protagonists see it, and they authorize it [for release]. It’s always little details that they’re not happy about and that they ask us to leave out of the film, but they’ve always been very small things – it’s never been anything really important. [Laughs] Fortunately!
Has it become easier with digital technology?
Obviously it’s much, much easier because with film technology at the outset it was much more complicated. Now, it’s just the cinematographer, the sound recordist and me, so the situation is much, much more intimate. I much prefer digital technology, because it doesn’t limit you. With film stock you’re always limited, which you are not in digital.
Has a risk ever not paid off?
So far, it’s always worked. So let’s hope the luck continues.
Why do you think that is?
I hope it’s because the relationship is always very honest, and that people trust me. So I trust them in return, so they won’t say, “I quit.” It’s a two-way thing.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished a film about Milos Forman, but it’s not “time-lapse” film – it’s a film from archive materials. It’s about the whole life of this very important Czech – and then American – director, and it will be screened next year. It’s the story of his life, and his life was not easy. He was actually a war orphan. He was basically the outsider who became the king. His life was full of challenges that he managed to overcome. Milos was a very important personality for me – my guru. In fact I sent him every film I made and he liked them. He actually wrote me letters. He said he liked documentary and he liked a story, and my films had both. So I was very happy to hear that from him.
Finally, what advice would you have for a young filmmaker?
Find your own voice and don’t try to be a copy of somebody else.