In the Czech Republic, where the historically persecuted Roma community continues to have little, there is certainly no shortage of irony, as exemplified by director Petr Vaclav’s “We Are Never Alone,” a darkly comic slice of life set inside a village built around a prison, where it is the residents who would seem to be incarcerated. Largely left without names to distinguish them, the group Vaclav’s lens hones in on includes a hypochondriac (Karel Rhoden) and his wife (Lenka Vlasakova), a convenience store clerk who finds herself inexplicably attracted to a local nightclub bouncer (Zdenek Godla) who only has eyes for a stripper at the club (Klaudia Dudova), whose beloved is in the jail, manned by a security guard (Miroslav Hanus) who yearns for the golden days of totalitarianism.
A roundabout of desire, cycling in and out of black and white and color to reflect the mundaneness of daily life spiked with occasional bursts of emotion , Vaclav’s set-up opens up a study of how people impress themselves on one another, their actions and behavior setting off chain reactions that ripple through the community in ways big and small. After first telling the story of the Roma through orphans in his 1996 debut “Marian,” the director’s return 20 years later appears to be a crystallization of his ideas, examining those who live on the fringe of society yet most affected by the decisions made deep inside of it. Vaclav’s sharp observations were recognized earlier this year at Berlinale, where “We Are Never Alone” picked up a jury prize for best film at the festival’s Forum program, and shortly before the film makes it North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the writer/director spoke about making a loosely connected trilogy of films about the Roma in recent years, the adventure of trying his hand at a sardonic tone and finding the right cast.
How did this come about?
It is a script I had before [making] “The Way Out,” my previous film made with Roma people here in the Czech Republic, but we didn’t have the [financing]. There was this idea that we [as individuals in society] are never alone because we are depending all the time on other people and we behave [differently in other people’s company] — we’re not the same person with a friend, with a parent, with an enemy. That’s why I wanted to do a film without [a single] main character and just with these eight people.
I wanted to make it very quickly after “The Way Out,” because I found an incredibly good non-actress in a bar [Klaudia Dudova] and a Roma guy [Zdenek Godla], who played a small role in that film, and I wanted to continue with them because they were just perfect for these two main roles. Klaudia won a Czech Lion for Best Actress of the Year, but she had never made a film and we discovered somebody who’s a really interesting actor, and Zdenek is also really powerful — they became real actors, thanks to this shoot, so it was very nice for me — and I mixed them with actors I already used in my previous films.
Besides casting, did the films influence each other? This and “The Way Out” are both set in the Roma community.
Yes, it’s true, but they are [also] different [stories], so it’s not so true. For “The Way Out,” “We Are Never Alone” and “Skokan,” [my next film] which is finished now mostly, I was seeking some continuity with the same producer, the same crew and the same actress, but it is not some idea of recycling, but the idea of growing from film to film.
What’s the continuing interest with this community?
[These] are people who don’t live anymore in a village, but they don’t live either in a city – it is still countryside, but not in nature. For me, the street is dividing people in nature and there is this slew of cars that don’t stop, really. Neighbors are divided by the street and at the same time, they are together around the street, which is a little bit like a river.
Everything in the film does seems to be circular – there’s a loop in terms of who desires who and you cycle through black and white and color – was that a foundational idea for the structure.
This is one idea that we live with – this eternal return, but I mostly saw the people in this film [like] balls on a billiard table — close to each other, shocking or they don’t shock [one another] and some will disappear in the dark [holes].
A paranoid security guard talks about how great the old days were in comparison with the present — is there actually any truth to what he says?
I think there really are a lot of people who are nostalgics and even this is something that does exist now in Europe — [there’s this nostalgia for a world that wasn’t so chaotic where Russians were bad and Americans were good or if you were a Communist, maybe Russians were good and Americans bad. Because [these people] live now in a world of security, they forget what it was and they think this world was not so bad because there wasn’t unemployment or terrorism. There was just the totalitarian system, which for some people who did travel themselves wasn’t so bad for them, or they didn’t see it that way with the eyes of today.
You able to convey this with a dark sense of humor, though your previous films were more sober. Was that always your way into this story?
It was a tone I tried to find for the film, which is not easy because when you do a more classical film with gags, you know if the joke works or not. But if you try to build this world of absurdity, you are not so sure it will be understandable. So it was kind of an adventure because I was a little afraid — do you see many other examples of this kind of humor in the cinema? You can find it with the Coens, but it is not the same and I didn’t have any example I wanted to follow, so I was more inspired by literature and by philosophy. It was a kind of lotto, you know?
What’s it been like taking this around the world?
It is very important for me because we want to show the film and we are curious to see what people will think. In the Czech Republic, the reaction was good and at the same time, very [controversial] because for many people, the film was received something very [critical] about the Czech Republic or these times — a lot of people had a sentiment to be heard by the film and even some journalists said I was cruel with the people, so the reaction of the public abroad is very different because they are looking to the story and to the characters.
“We Are Never Alone” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Toronto Film Festival on September 8th at the Scotiabank Theatre 4 at 5:30 pm, September 9th at 12 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 and September 14th at 1:45 pm at Jackman Hall.