We abandoned the investigative approach

An interview with producer Kateřina Černá and director Tomáš Kudrna about their film Finding President

At the end of March, the first of the two Czech documentaries dealing with the first presidential election will be released in cinemas. It was made by director Tomáš Kudrna and producer Kateřina Černá, who spent incredible one hundred and five shooting days with the film camera. The second “presidential” documentary, Spřízněni přímou volbou, will be shown in March on Czech Television as part of the Czech Journal series. The feature version of the film will open in cinemas in autumn. An interview with the authors, Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, will be published in one of the upcoming issues of Dok.revue.

You made a film about the first direct presidential election, but did you also take part in the election, did you vote?

Kateřina Černá: Of course.

Tomáš Kudrna: Yes, I did.

And is your preference obvious in the film? Does it reflect your opinion?

Tomáš Kudrna: I don’t think so. We wanted to provide a true image of the campaign and the direct election. That is why we didn’t want the film to reflect our own opinions. A certain creative approach is defined by the method applied in the film. But even without giving any hints, it is absolutely clear from the film, who is who. The candidates as well as their closest aides behaved in a certain way in front of the camera and our aim was to truly capture their behaviour. Everyone will make their own opinion quite easily.

Kateřina Černá: The script was written by the protagonists themselves. I don’t think we have influenced them in any way.

If I were to shoot a film about elections, I might probably make an a priori decision not to vote. One vote is not going to change anything. And this would allow me to be more objective, especially in such an emotionally charged atmosphere.

Kateřina Černá: For me, voting is a civic duty, considering I have the possibility to vote. You cannot say that one vote is not going to change anything. If everyone thought like that, there would be no need for democracy.

But not everyone makes a film about elections. For example, there are two categories of journalists – those who vote and those who don’t. There is a current debate on this issue. Have you considered this option?

Kateřina Černá: Of course, not everyone is making a film like that, but they may be doing other things. And to waste the right to vote seems irresponsible to me.

Tomáš Kudrna: Besides, thanks to our work, we could see more than regular voters. It occurred to me during the shooting that voters usually make their choices according to the media image of the candidates. We could see through this image. And it was clear who was worth our vote and who was not.

Making friends

You said that your creative approach was defined by the method of filming. Can you describe it?

Tomáš Kudrna: For me it was important to realise that I wanted this film to be made differently than Do Not Disturb, We Are Governing. That film was based on the book by Erik Tabery and on his opinions. This time we opted for the method of observational documentary. In this case, it was a matter of where we as filmmakers could go, of our relationship with the protagonists, who decided whether we could shoot in situations that were interesting and attractive for the film. And we didn’t intervene in these situations, we didn’t disturb or ask questions – we only observe and then share the images with the viewers.

Kateřina Černá: Details were crucial, for example, our choice of the form of cooperation with the candidates. We very much wanted to gain their trust. We made an agreement with each of the candidates, we didn’t want use or abuse anyone. We have basically established a friendly relationship with all of them.

Tomáš Kudrna: Or a correct one.

Kateřina Černá: Exactly. We didn’t want them to feel that we were investigative journalists who wanted to harm their reputation. Our aim was not to harm or denigrate anyone.

And what was the subject of your agreement? Did anyone have any problems signing it?

Kateřina Černá: No, never. All the candidates were very helpful. They agreed that they would allow us to make our documentary and that we were entitled to use any of the footage.

Tomáš Kudrna: It was reciprocal. The deal was that we would be allowed to use our footage after the elections, and, at the same time, we would not double-cross them by showing any of the footage before the elections.

Part of the game

Why did you decide to use the observational method?

Tomáš Kudrna: In the beginning, we did not have a clearly defined style. We tried to find our method in the course of the shooting. As we went along, we watched the footage in the editing room and tried to work with it. Thus we found out what we liked the most, what worked the best – observing situations. We also made interviews with journalists, political scientists and some politicians, such as Petr Pithart.

Kateřina Černá: And with all the candidates.

Tomáš Kudrna: Yes, we first made an interview with each candidate. And the more material we had the clearer it was from these short sequences that some things worked better than others. And the observational approach won. And since we didn’t want to abandon the principle of commentaries on current affairs, we also included interviews with political scientists and journalists.

It is not easy to make films about politicians because they always try to control their media image. What made it possible for you to get close to the candidates?

Kateřina Černá: Our great advantage was that we tried to meet the members of their campaign teams, like in the case of the film Citizen Havel. It was rather difficult as there were originally more than nine candidates. It also helped us a lot that we made an introductory interview with each of the candidates and spent one day with them – for example with Jiří Dienstbier at his cottage.

And what was the effect?

Tomáš Kudrna: We were able to get closer. For example, in the beginning of the campaign, Jiří Dienstbier greeted Jiří Pehe and Edvard Outrata and they informally commented on the course of the elections and the preferences, and Dienstbier tried to find out whether Fischer was a serious opponent. We could record this conversation thanks to the fact that Jiří Dienstbier knew us well and knew what kind of a film we were shooting. The others could see that Dienstbier did not mind the camera and so they did not care either – it was a part of the game.

Still, all of these people know how to control their behaviour, they are used to appearing live on TV and responding to questions. The ability to control the discussion and suggest topics is one of their basic skills. For example, did you know that Miroslav Šlouf was in Zeman’s team?

Tomáš Kudrna: It was more of a guess. But if we wanted to find out more, we would have had to turn into investigative journalists, focusing on Šlouf and not on the individual candidates. And that was not our aim. As filmmakers, we didn’t have the means to do that – it is the journalists’ task.

Emotions played a major part

A substantial part of the public was enthusiastic about the elections. At the end, it rather resembled a reality show and stirred great emotions. Did you try to keep your distance from what was going on?

Kateřina Černá: The only thing we focused on was not to favour any of the candidates whom we became fond of during the shooting. We had to handle that.

Tomáš Kudrna: This is why we also chose a different perspective. We wanted to shoot behind the scenes. We didn’t care what was shown on TV. And if Czech TV was also shooting behind the scenes, we tried to take a different point of view so as to show also their news teams. Cameramen and photographers found this a bit annoying. For example, Tomki Němec took me to the side and said: “Shoot what you need. But then you have to move over. I also need a good shot.”

I was personally surprised by the intensity of emotions that the direct election stirred – and transmitted to the society. Were they your primary focus?

Tomáš Kudrna: Emotions were important. The atmosphere before the first and especially the second round was escalated and tense. These were the moments when the characters of the individual candidates, but also the parties supporting them as well as other power players, came to light. This was the most interesting part.


The campaign resembled The Firemen’s Ball.

Some of the few political documentaries that have been made are the jewels of world or Czech cinematography. Did you do any research on how other filmmakers coped with similar topics?

Tomáš Kudrna: Not really. I know the film Citizen Havel pretty well. And there is a great film about Kennedy where the audience can see what other films don’t show: not only the moments in the spotlight, but also exhausting journeys, stressful moments and strategic planning. And that appealed to me. I remember one scene where Bob Kennedy is traveling on a train and quietly watching the passing countryside – amongst all the hustle and bustle. As if the time has stopped. That could be handy, I thought to myself. And I was glad that we could make some shots with Karel Schwarzenberg traveling by train from city to city.

There are few remarkable Czech political films, including Elective Affinities and New Hyperion, The Greatest Wish 2, Citizen Havel and Czech Peace. Which one do you identify with the most?

Tomáš Kudrna: My basic point of reference was Citizen Havel. Václav Havel was uniquely open, he allowed filmmakers to record what they wanted.

Isn’t this partially a myth? Didn’t also Havel, quite naturally, control the presence of the filmmakers and decide which situations are filmed? Both with respect to his private life – when the crew was surprised that he was getting married to Dagmar Veškrnová and they were among the few guests – and to his political comments and complaints, for example in relation to Chemapol and Lucerna.

Kateřina Černá: I don’t see it as a myth. Havel surpassed everyone else in terms of openness and allowed Pavel Koutecký to fully use the possibilities of the observational method. That is why it was one of our goals to come as close to what was happening as in the case of Citizen Havel. We managed to do that in some cases, but sometimes we failed. It was not always possible to manage that.

I find it rather problematic when a film like Citizen Havel does not admit these limits, and does not work with them. That is also why I find it crucial when, for example, in Vachek’s Elective Affinities, a door closes in front of the crew and nobody else can enter, yet the sound recordist points his microphone to the keyhole. Of course, nothing substantial can be heard, but it is a powerful metaphor of the fact that decisions and agreements are made outside the public domain, and also away from film cameras.

Kateřina Černá: Yes, but that’s a different filmmaking style associated with a different message. Some filmmakers find it crucial to emphasise that various doors were closed on them. It is up to them which genre they choose. You are either an activist documentary filmmaker or an observational filmmaker. And we only tried to observe the events and provide the audience with the choice and the possibility to form their own opinion. Only once it happened that Zeman’s team kicked us out, but we didn’t particularly look for such situations.

And why do you think the candidates agreed to be filmed and let you come so close?

Tomáš Kudrna: They let us come close because of the media coverage they thought they would gain. That was definitely the case of Jana Bobošíková, Jan Fischer and Miloš Zeman. However, they often weren’t able to predict how the scenes would eventually turn out. They weren’t able to see what could happen, what questions would the audience ask, as for example in the case of Jan Fischer’s billboard photo session.

But what if you have only measured the charisma and observance of the presidential candidates? Isn’t your film, after all, just a long advertisement for potential presidents?

Kateřina Černá: Not at all! The film isn’t only about the candidates. It documents the current situation in the Czech society, our first presidential elections which nobody actually knows how to handle. We have no professional campaign teams. None of the candidates had foreign advisors. That’s why the campaign often resembled The Firemen’s Ball by Forman. At the time when we were making our film, US presidential elections were underway and at some points we could compare Obama’s campaign, for instance, with that of Tomio Okamura.

Tomáš Kudrna: When we saw the work of the individual campaign teams, it was clear that only Zeman’s team knew how to run the show. He was the only one who had it all prepared. The strategy, the advertisements and billboards, their timing. Control, self-confidence, clear orders and arguments. They knew it all.

How can politicians sleep when there so much dirt

Did you ever, when making your film, find yourselves in a situation when you thought: How do I prove that this person is lying although he or she keeps on repeating the same thing?

Tomáš Kudrna: Even though we abandoned the investigative approach, we have compensated for it by more than six months of shooting. And suddenly it became evident that the candidates were changing and how they were changing. For example Jan Fischer, whose campaign was based on his opposition to Miloš Zeman, was now supporting him. These moments have come to the surface and become very visible.

Kateřina Černá: Or Vladimír Franz. People around him have maintained that Zeman is evil, but he too eventually supported him. These contradictions emerge from the footage thanks to time continuity.

Still, were there explicit proposals behind the scenes, for example, that unsuccessful candidates could support Miloš Zeman, under certain circumstances, in the second round of the vote?

Kateřina Černá: Indeed, there must have been such proposals. We were not present at private meetings but it is clearly evident from the film how, for instance, Franz and Zeman gradually became close.

Tomáš Kudrna: Some things could be captured in the film, and some could not. There is, of course, a line. But we still have powerful tools. For example, during the campaign, Zeman said that Šlouf was not supporting him and that they were no longer in touch, and after the results have been announced, Šlouf himself says how it was his own idea to pretend to have been cut off from Zeman and that he was secretly helping his team. Thus, Zeman has been proven a liar and these statements have a powerful effect in the film.

These facts have already surfaced. However, there have probably been more ambiguities and agreements. And if they are not recorded using the observational method, it is as if they didn’t exist.

Tomáš Kudrna: Before the elections we heard a lot of speculation but we did not have any footage to prove it. However, the search for these details was the task for media, not for us.

Kateřina Černá: Sometimes we had sleepless nights. Especially between the first and the second round, I wanted to include things that we had found out behind the scenes. But since we didn’t record any of them, we couldn’t tell anyone, perhaps only our friends. I was so naive that I was wondering how the politicians could sleep when there was so much dirt around them and they knew it all. We were dying to show the footage before the election, but that was not possible. We were bound by the agreement.

Finding President (Hledá se prezident). Director, photographer - Tomáš Kudrna, producer - Kateřina Černá, Pavel Strnad (Negativ), Lenka Poláková (Česká televize), editing - Evženie Brabcová, music - Mishan Pajdiak, sound - Daniel Němec, Marek Hart, ČR 2013, 109 min.

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