It is well known that Slovakia is a strong base of documentarists. Fiction films kind of limp behind. Young talents, coming from short films, could bring a long needed recovery. One of them is a promising director Teodor Kuhn. His last film Momo has been selected for several festivals and his directorial style shows signs of unusual maturity. Thematically, he has been oriented on the issues of young generation and their integration into society.
Teodor, you belong to young filmmakers from the capital. How do you perceive the space you live in which and how does it affect you?
I live at a housing project and even though I partly grew up in the country, I know little but the city. I stand for talking only about things i know so I take for granted that my films take place in an urban environment. The city actually has a great part in few of my films and determines their stories so much, that they could not take place elsewhere. But I also have a few films, where the city is not featured at all, or is marginalized and can’t be seen as a character.
City is almost always present but themes may vary. From depression to skateboarding to the people with antisocial reputation – skinheads. Do you see a parallel between them and skaters?
I rather feel that the common thread for the vast majority of my films is searching for the just world. I have some light, funny movies and then the ones that should have a message. The protagonist regularly attempts to solve an internal problem, often related to his unsatisfactory social status or trouble with parents. All in all, he seeks happiness and peace. Momo is not directly about skinheads and there is no mention of this or another ideology. It deals with a teenager, who lacks authority. He is looking for his place in life, and suddenly he finds his ideal in the unworthy aggressor. Moreover, the film shows that the alpha male philosophy may be attractive on the outside, but in real life, truly great people act very differently. That’s what the father’s character is about.
Can we say that your ideas come straight out of your life?
Of course. Everything I shoot I want to enrich with experience, even if it was only the details of someone’s moves or dress. Same in selecting my themes, I adapt my experience or issues that bother me intimately. Now I am working on a political film, say detective or thriller, about one of the greatest wrongdoings in the history of modern Slovakia.
So even the Three Weeks of Freedom, in which a young skater recollects the events that changed his family and his sport passion, is directly inspired by your life?
Yes. There are such authentic internal details that it would be impossible to make up if it didn’t happen.
Your screenplay for Momo was awarded at the Midpoint program, that surely felt good. Did it also gave you a boost or you kept your head cool?
It felt very good. And it stimulated me, because after the ceremony a bunch of Romanians congratulated me with malicious smiles like in “and now let’s see how you shoot it…”. But I am rather encouraged by good films from my context. For example Ja som baník, kto je viac by Roman Fábian or Trogár by Adam Felix and Ďakujem, dobre by Matyás Prikler. Actually, they are almost my generation and I respect their work.
People know you as a former skater, you had to quit due to injury. Skater community is typically very fond of audiovisual media. However, what was the direct impulse for you to study it?
(laughs) I accidentaly read some promotional broadsheets at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. And direction looked like the easiest course. I couldn’t imagine what director actually did, since cameraman filmed and actors acted. Somehow I deduced that interview for the direction would be the the most passable. Only after I had been accepted I found out what was going on there. Until then I had been making some comic sketches with my mates, but with no interest in filmmaking at all. It was just fun. Your question has brought back the memories (laughs).
So in a way it was a coincidence. If you mention friends, do you still collaborate with them now that you make more serious things?
Actually I do, one of them is an editor and I edited my last film with him. The others still skate and we make videos together sporadically. But the core of team I work with is from the school.
Do you miss skating or do you concentrate just on filmmaking?
I miss it. It’s a love of life, but I learned to cope with it.
As an ex-skater you probably had some trouble with the police. In fact, that is one plane of your film Skateboard Seven. I wonder if you thought how you’re going to depict policemen in your following works.
I’m an idealist in this, I believe that policemen should be respected service and not hated controllers. It wasn’t expressed in this film, but the next one will have a cop as a prominent character and despite his flaws he will be a positive hero. I think that people do wrong, because they are unhappy and sad, not because there is something like absolute evil and appetite to harm.
You have continually emphasized authenticity of locations and characters. That is a very positive element, but hard to work with. Do you want to pursue authenticity even in features?
I’m glad you see authenticity in my films! It’s not yet spotless, but it will get better, hopefully. I definitely want to pursue it in bigger things, as I haven’t been interested in stylization so far. There is power in verity, I think. You can either labour on a script for years and then have a story that will strike a spectator or you can film real people in real events and get the same impact.
Certainly. However, to make a film speak to the broad audience, its theme has to be in some way universal yet specific. Bratislava city may provide such themes. You have mentioned the film you’re working on now. Presumably it’s set in the capital as well. Can you disclose more about its story?
As I said it’s about great wrongdoing that makes me want to cry. A huge scandal where everybody knows the culprit, as always in Slovakia. But since the big shots are involved, we can’t do anything about it. I can disclose that it’s not set in high political circles, though there is a connection. As very little verified information about the case has surfaced, our film will have informative and educative value, too.
You think like a true filmmaker – public sphere is often a rich source of film stories. Obviously it’s going to be a different kind of film than you made before. Does it concern you that such matters should be exposed?
I was always politically and socially active and it touched me when someone met with injustice. And it seems that Slovakia lack reflexion of contemporary events. From time to time there are some reports on the state of society, but mostly we are dealing with out of date issues like The Confidant (2012) that still tackless communism. If there is something to reflect, it’s a velvet revolution and post-revolution times. Yet nobody goes there. Rarely we have something good about social reality, for example Thanks, Fine, great film, by the way. And very few people poke nose into politics, though it has great influence on how we live. Therefore I respect documentarists like Zuzana Piussi or Mirolav Jelok. And I want to follow them with feature film.
That sounds great and I can see you are very enthusiastic about it. Do you plan to address young people in future?
Of course, but I haven’t thought of details. I do what I consider necessary.
You’ve had a considerable success with non-actors. Are you going to use them for the next film?
Certainly. I have no need for used up and formulaic Slovak actors, though some are still quality. Those cherished by the public, are mostly puppets with pretty faces. So either I work with less known, but talented people, or I choose non-actors. There are heaps of talented people and they don’t have to study acting at all. Some are simply born with that skill. I know many folks, who don’t make living of acting, but they could put to shame half of National Theatre or any local series cast.
You have non-actors in Momo, too. On the other hand, Gregor Hološka, experienced theatrical actor, was quite impressive. How do you remember shooting?
Shooting was great. We had been carefully picking people to work with and in the end we had the best crew ever. All good and honest folks.
What films inspire you?
I have a couple of top films. Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, Ghost Dog and Broken Flowers from Jarmusch or The Wrestler. But all are removed from what I would like to do, or what one can do here. And I watch everything, because I think, that it’s very useful. Especially contemporary things. From the USA it’s mainly older stuff and Oscar films. Independent only if it’s worth it. However, Europe has the real stuff now, generally.
You sure attend various festivals, whether with your films or just as a spectator. Which ones have been most interesting to you?
We go to festivals with mates to have fun, mostly, so they’re like parties. But then there is a different kind of festivals, like now IFF Bratislava, where I get shut for ten hours a day to study. We drink through Piešťany a Trenčianske Teplice (Artfilm) and then in the fall I become a student (laughs). Outside it’s always great. I have no money, so if they didn’t invite me, I wouldn’t see as much. Next week I’m going to Moscow, where I wouldn’t ever get without film, so I am very grateful.
What are you looking for at the Bratislava festival?
All big films. New ones from Fliegauf or Haneke. Always looking rather for proved names, although debuts tend to be great, too. Also, I am curious about films by Ken Loach, Thomas Vinterberg, Kim Ki-duk and, especially, Garrone.
interview by Lukáš Slovák