Wednesday, March 25, 2009

THE COUNTRY TEACHER -- and an interview with Bohdan Sláma

A frustrating but overall worthwhile experience, Bohdan Sláma's THE COUNTRY TEACHER offers a look at homosexuality in The Czech Republic today via the situation of one young man, a teacher who, after breaking up with his boyfriend, relocates from a major city to a teaching job in a small town. I'm already giving away too much; better to arrive fresh at this story and make all the discoveries yourself.

But it's hardly possible to discuss this particular film without bringing up at least some of its content.

Pavel Liška, right with his student Ladislav Sedivý

From the film's initial scene, we learn how wonderful a teacher is the lead character, known simply known as "teacher" and very well-played by the Czech go-to actor of the moment, Pavel Liška. His initial engagement with his small-town kids is believable, specific and smart (he wins over the students, just as he does us). The scenes that follow -- his introduction to the town's various citizens, a trip back in the big city to visit his parents, a reunion with an old love, and finally the likely make-or-break moment, which sets the tone for the remainder of the film -- are all splendidly handled. The latter of these involves a scene that should strike terror in the hearts of teachers -- gay or straight -- worldwide because it goes to the core of the teacher/student relationship and shows so directly and honestly, how a breach of trust can shatter this bond. It also captures, as well as anything I recall, how enormous longing and desire for a forbidden love looks and feels. The tension and resulting explosion are as inevitable as they are shocking and moving.

Liška, right, with Zuzana Bydžovská

This scene itself is likely to sever audiences down the gay/straight divide. I would ask viewers of whatever persuasion to simply force themselves to imagine their response, were these moments taking place between a male and female. What follows this scene is even more likely to divide viewers: The writer/director clearly wants to achieve some sort of benign closure, but the succeeding events happen in such large chunks that the emotional changes that should take time seem rushed. I think Mr. Sláma might have found a way to elide or smooth out these changes more fluidly. Of course, this would probably add another half-hour to the already 113-minute movie. In any case, the film is definitely worth seeing and thinking about -- for the above reasons, as well as for the look it provides at city and country life and attitudes in today's Czech Republic.

Sedivý, right, with his girlfriend, played by Tereza Vorísková

The Country Teacher will open at both New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Quad Cinemas on Friday, March 27th, followed by a limited national theatrical release.

Some months ago, shortly after viewing the film, I had the opportunity to speak at length with its writer/director, Bohdan Sláma (shown below in a photo by Andrea Koch). What follows is a pretty fair transcript of our talk. I don't think it contains any major spoilers, but, as always, it might be better to see the film first and then come back to the interview....

TrustMovies: We're talking now with the writer/director of the film….

Bohdan Sláma (as he clears his throat): Bohdan Sláma

That's easy: It sounds just like it spells. Before we get into The Country Teacher, I have two questions about your earlier work: Does your first full-length movie The Wild Bees exist over here on DVD.

In the United States, I am sure not. It is only available on European type of video cassette tape.

Your next film, the very fine Stestí, which was released here via Film Movement, had its title translated into English as Something Like Happiness. Since, in Czech, the title is only one word, what does that word mean?

In Czech, it does means happiness. But we decided to give the English title Something Like Happiness because, sure, the word exists as happiness. But our word stestí has two meanings: it also means "luck." So if you are translating only the one word happiness, it will not give the full meaning of the film's title.

The country teacher and his favorite student go boating

That makes sense. So, tell me: How did The Country Teacher's story come about? Was it based upon something you had heard of, or did you just think it up?

I have a whole lot of friends that I must say are homosexual and who, I also must say, were not very lucky in finding a partner. So this is not really one story but it is a combination of stories that is very normal. You love somebody and there is no interest from the other side. This is a situation which I knew very well from my friends. I came once to the situation -- this triangle shown in the movie -- because I also knows lot of people from whom this love, this homosexuality is not accepted

This story touches me, you know, because this love, which is not reciprocated, is a painful human theme -- however it takes it shape. It is a very important point of life. This non-reciprocated love idea came for me to be a very important one -- the way in which women have this love, at times, for a man who is homosexual. When I found this triangle, then I said to myself, this is a story. That was the point at which I started to think, this could be my film.

And it is. Your earlier film Something Like Happiness takes in such an interesting and large group of characters, yet The Country Teacher is much more focused on just a few people: the triangle, the girl friend and the ex boyfriend. How was it different for you as writer-director to make the focus smaller, as opposed to the larger-canvas Something Like Happiness or The Wild Bees?

The Wild Bees has so many characters that it is a kind of a mosaic. This kind of thing is connected to my experience. When I left film school, I had no experience in terms of writing, and so I made the experience of making first Wild Bees, and then I said, I need to make a film with fewer characters, so then I made Stetsi. And then even fewer characters, as with The Country Teacher. That was the way for me, like an education. When you are more focused on fewer characters, you then have the chance to go in more deeply. So this is how I tried to work, to discover the drama and go deeper into their feelings.

We'll come back to this, if you don't mind. Let's talk about Pavel Liška, who plays the lead character in The Country Teacher. Is he perhaps the most famous Czech actor currently working? It seems he appears in almost every Czech film I see, at least (granted I don't see that many Czech films…)


Maybe. Luncacy, Something Like Happiness, Up and Down. The Country Teacher....

Liška, right, with Bydžovská atop a haystack

In his age and generation, I would say he is one of the most popular actors in our country. I would say it is very sudden, however, because he was actually more of a comic actor. Mostly, in the Czech films, he gets a little character but with a big comic point to it. I know Pavel from my first full-length film Wild Bees (2001), when we started to work together, and after that, I said to myself, Wow--he is so good that I would like to go on with him, to go to more dramatic roles. And now with The Country Teacher, it is drama, and for him, this is also a new experience. Most comics, I find, are really very good in drama.

And sometime they don't get the opportunity to play it, so it's good that you’ve given this to him. You know how it is with comedians: they all want to play Hamlet.

(laughs) I don't know. He did play Romeo, but Hamlet? I think he is over that wish.

Now he’ll play anything you ask him to play?

Well, no. He said to me, "I don't want to star in your next film because it will be too much!" We became very close, you know, and he said, "In next film you must find some other activity for me." So we will see.

How is the"state" of homosexuality in the country of Czechoslovakia -- whoops, the Czech Republic -- today? I would guess it's easier if you live in the cities, rather than in the country, as happens with your "teacher."

I think it is going really better and better because people are growing more and more tolerant. But still you can find sometimes reactions like from 100 years ago. The problems faced by homosexuals still exist, sure, and I am sure even when you ask people a question like, Are you open to a homosexual teaching your kids in the school, they will -- a lot of people -- start to think if they will want this or not. I wanted also to open this question, and to make people see: Look how great a teacher he really is! In my childhood, I met a lot of teachers who were really great and I know that they were homosexual. So, though it's still a problem, it is one that is getting better.

In Poland, only one year ago, they began discussion on the subject that homosexuals could not be teachers! So compared with Poland, we are a super liberal society.

For me, the most interesting visual moment in your film occurs on the balcony while the teacher is there visiting his parents. You really get the sense that, though he and his father are there, together, they are facing in opposite directions. And then the mother joins them. Yet the viewer still gets the sense of the utter separation between them. Was this something you aimed for, or is this simply my perception of the scene?

The country teacher (Liška, right) doing what he does best.

I think it is a very small touch. But I really had problems with that scene. I had five versions of this, and the last one was the one in which we found the right details with the actors -- the ones who played the mother and father. It was so important to express these things: that they loved each other but also they had problems with each other, what is like normal life. These are such good actors, they have such a big heart and are such good people. I think we found in this little moment, the whole history of their relationship.

Yes, and you didn't even need any dialog in that short scene. But it does capture both the sense of closeness and the separation they feel. Oh, yes, and how did you arrange for the two calf birthings?

(Laughs) Look: first, when the little one dies in the movie, it was actually just a normal birth and was OK. But we procured a calf who had died and was frozen, prepared just in the same day. But it was not OK, because we had asked for a black one, like the mother, but we got a brown one.

And this does not happened in cows? That always give birth to similar colors?

Yes, but we were lucky, in a way, because on that same day in a nearby farm a newborn calf died, and so they brought it to us, still warm, and we were able to use it. And the cow did lick the little one, as shown in the film. The woman who worked with the cows told me what to do. We collect the liquid that is coming from the cow with the birth, and they put it on the body of the newborn. In this scene, we did not expect the cow to do what she did, and we all found it so touching that we were all crying on the set. These are things that sometimes happen and you have to be thankful for them.

Happy accidents, we call them.

Bydžovská, left, comforts Liška

We were also very lucky that all this happened at the very last night of the shoot. The sun was going down and we had no more time nor budget, and so we were so happy this happened right then, in our last ten minutes of daylight. We shot the scene only once. We did not want to repeat anything because, for the cow, it was a very stressful time. I am not a religious person, but I could not help but think that something was going on....

From the god of movie-making, perhaps. What was the budget for The Country Teacher as compared to that of Something Like Happiness?

OK: Happiness was like a little bit -- maybe $2,000,000. Country Teacher was like $2,500,000.

Was it due to inflation happening in the years between?

Not only. You must understand that we also had to make a decoration set. Those two buildings -- of Maria and the farm, and of the little house of the old woman who died -- These were both sets. Otherwise we have no chance to make the long shots. It was expensive, sure, but because this was a co-production between Czech Republic, Germany and France, consequently, we had to spend money in Germany, and so our equipment was from Germany, too. If the German government gives us money to support our film, we must spend part of that money in Germany. Everything is also much more expensive in Germany, than in the Czech Republic. While we could make the movie cheaper at home, we would not even be able to finance it there, without the German money.

Does this pretty much guarantee that the film will have a release in Germany, maybe in France.

It is not guaranteed, but probably it will. The most important thing is, if you have a German producer and French producer, they will make it happen. But it is never 100 percent.

What's next for you? You mentioned that the actor Pavel Liška said no more heavy drama. Do you have another film idea yet?

Yes, I have an idea, a dream, of a historical film about the death of St. Vojětch (or St. Adalbert, as he is also known). So I am studying to make this now. Not to make a big movie spectacle, but one based in nature, and about the religion problems. About the character of Adelbert, who was on a mission to convert the pagans to Christianity and so came to Europe to bring Christianity. He tried but they killed him. From my view, it is about part of history and our culture. So I want to make something like this.

When might the St. Adalbert film be finished?

(He considers) Maybe in three years, maybe four.

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