Representations of 1. abuse of power and 2. superficiality in two recent films

The European Union Film Festival 2017 in Toronto included two films noteworthy for their effort: The Teacher and The wolf from the Royal Vineyard Street. In the first case, the effort is worthwhile; the second effort is questionable.

 

 

The Teacher (Ucitelka; Slovak Republic-Czech Republic co-production 2016; directed by Jan Hřebejk)

Setting: Middle school in Bratislava (1983-84 and 1991-92 school years): classroom events and a principal-parents meeting. Also scenes in the teacher’s and some parents’ apartments.

Plot: A teacher (widow, local chair of the Communist Party, played with naturalness and ease by Zuzana Mauréry) demands, by various means, the services of her pupils’ parents: styling her hair, fixing her fridge, baking and cooking food for her, cleaning her apartment, etc.). In return, the parents who comply with her request are told to pass on to their child the exercise he or she will be tested on so they can study and receive good grades. Students whose parents do not bow to the teacher’s requests receive failing marks no matter how hard they study. The lack of academic success of their children makes for the parents’ frustrations and abuse. Things would have evolved this way forever had it not been for the fact that one female student tried to commit suicide because her father did not agree to be the go-between the teacher and her sister living in Moscow. The girl’s parents attempt to sign a petition to have the teacher removed, and the principal calls for a general meeting with all the parents to ascertain the level of corruption and abuse of power. The meeting’s discussion (as well as the silences) demonstrate three reactions to the teacher’s behaviour: 1. fearfulness for possible repercussion if the petition is signed (social/economic: demotion from work, political: on the black list of the Communist Party, academic (children not allowed to continue their studies).  Therefore, these parents do not sign the petition. 2. support for the teacher who is deemed of high moral standing – and these parents are vehemently against signing the petition. 3. animosity against the teacher and decisiveness to sign the petition in order to set things right. Most parents fall into the first category, but after the meeting closes, they too sign the petition which successfully removes the teacher from her position, to the great sigh of relief of all the pupils. The final scene – the academic year 1991-92 after the change from socialism to “freedom” – gives us the same classroom, different students, but the same teacher, undemoted, but using the same strategy to extract help and continue her abuse of power.

Comment: A number of themes run through the film, but clearly, the most obvious is abuse of power from a teacher, who should be a paragon of virtues. Corruption runs rampant regardless of the political system one lives under, and it touches, in this case, the most vulnerable: the children who are helpless to fight against this injustice. One should never assume that teachers act morally. It must be added that those who lived under Czechoslovak socialism see in the film almost a well-made documentary of the panic fear and distress brought about by abuses in the name of political power. The feeling powerlessness against moral abuse, exploitation, corruption, as well as the mental state of loneliness since no one else wants to help, are portrayed masterfully in the film. It is true that others simply see a black satire, but a worthwhile satire nonetheless. See also https://smolka.blog.sme.sk/c/468990/ucitelka.html?ref=tit.

Noteworthy lines: at the beginning, the teacher, by way of introduction, says: “I will be teaching you the Slovak language, the Russian language, and history”. And at the end, she repeats with due modifications: “I will be teaching you the Slovak language, English, religion, and ethics.”

The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street  (Vlk z Královských Vinohrad; Czech Republic 2016; directed by Jan Němec)

Settings: 1968 Cannes Film Festival, Prague 1968 Soviet Invasion, California and Long Island 1970s and 1980s, 2000s Prague

Plot: A Czech film director, nicknamed John Jan, “supported” by the socialist government, is up for the 1968 Cannes film prize, which he does not win since the festival closes early. Exhibiting the well-known cliched desires of all movie makers (fame, flashy cars, company of female escorts, champagne, rebelliousness),  he achieves some semblance of fame by documenting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and sending the film abroad (some archival footage is used). His attempts to shoot a film based on Kafka’s Metamorphoses is thwarted by the Czech military. He ends up in California shooting wedding videos, mostly views of the seascapes and couples and guests getting drunk. He asks Ivana Trump to put in a good word to her husband, not yet President; his request is denied as Mr Trump does not support movie making; but he sends John Jan a copy of his book. He has a heart attack which is “cured” by a sex session. He is taken advantage of by a young woman on Long Island. He returns to Prague by getting a special permit to “see the death of communism”. The final scenes, round images of nature in Vinohrady (now a trendy residential neighbourhood), get him back home untouched by all the experiences he lived.

Comment: What can one say about self-reflecting and autobiographical film about a director? That despite the effort by the now recognized Czech artist Jan Němec (called also “diamond in the rough”), or maybe because he passed away just before finishing the shooting, the film falls short of expectations. It is true that obtaining fame and respect is not easy. It is true that film directors love what they do. So these things do not need an autobiographical filmic representation. What is not true is that movie audiences want to see rebels everywhere and at all costs. And then, being a “rebel” nowadays, in the postmodern era, does not add much to our understanding of the world, and, above all, it does not contain the seeds of transformation of those values which, in fact, are wrong.

One tidbit I did not know: Jean-Luc Godard  was not against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

 

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Captain Fantastic

cptnfant

This is a great movie: from the gut reaction of shedding some tears to laughing out loud, it has us also wonder about some basic questions of parenting. Above all, this little jewel underscores the generally well-observed fact which almost no one adheres to: do not make value judgements about people and their actions, since you don’t know the whole truth. In the case of Ben, the truth is that he  made his 6 children live in the forests of the US Pacific Northwest because he wanted his wife to get better by attempting to make her lose the chains of mental illness, not because he was some type of freaky hippie.

Here are three questions-considerations stemming from some scenes in the film which made an impact on me:

  1. Is knowledge acquired from books such a bad thing?  Ben’s oldest son (Bo)  claims that he does not know anything that has not been written in a book:                                     I know nothing! I know nothing! I am a freak because of you! You made us            freaks!  And mom knew that! She understood! Unless it comes out of a fucking book, I don’t know anything about anything!                                                                                  This is interesting, since nowadays, teachers often say  that students don’t know anything because they do not read and therefore are not appropriately familiar with any topic.  Furthermore, Ben’s 4-year old daughter knows not only what the Bill of Rights is, but she can also quote the individual amendments. Ben’s sister’s children (boys over 10) do not know what the Bill is. One could ask what the utility of knowing the Bill of Rights is while living in the wilderness. Either everything written has a value no matter where one lives (and therefore one can actually think about many, many topics and put arguments together, making one’s own mind  naturally), or nothing has a value and therefore making one’s own mind does not come easily (and one is easily persuaded). The film clearly leans on the side of usefulness of books for the cognitive growth of children, especially as the father asks the children to talk about the ideas that the book evoke (not to describe the plot).
  2. When will a “controlling” parent stop being such a parent? In the film, Leslie’s  father controls the way her body is to be disposed of,  even though it is contrary to her last wishes. What does it exactly mean when a parent/caregiver says to his/her child: “I am doing this for your own good”? Different parents have differing opinions of what this “good” means. The film attempts to give children the right to express their own “good”. In this meaning, the title of the film may be misleading.
  3. Is spirituality always connected to giving/receiving gifts? Noam Chomsky is the spiritual godhead in the film and celebrating his “birthday” means Ben’s children get gifts. Gifts which are bought in the store; therefore, the film seems to be saying that even a “wild” education falls prey to  consumerism.                                                                                                                                                                                                          One of the most entertaining  lines of the film mentions Marxists, Trotskyit, Trotskyist, and Maoist almost all in one breath, the other reflects the mother’s desire to have her body cremated according to the Buddhist tradition and then flush the ashes down the toilet.  A number of American cultural traditions and problems are either made fun of or questioned (giving some wine to children, obesity, consumerism, hypocrisy, ostentation of wealth, etc.). It would be most instructive to hear what children and young adults think of the film.  All in all, since the idea to live in wilderness as a family was not really the initial push toward this type of unconventional education, it is difficult to make judgements about it. Suffice it to say that good parenting is never just parenting: it is also (maybe above all) the relationship between the parents. The dynamics may be unpredictable (one child or more? one parent or more? religious background or atheistic or agnostic? right-leaning or left-leaning politically? etc. etc.) but in conclusion, parenting is always unwitting experimentation.