“You should have come when I was in bloom,” says one of the people interviewed by Dušan Hanák in his beautiful and staggering documentary, Pictures of the Old World (1972). A series of stills by Slovak photographer Martin Martinček were the inspiration, and Hanák seeks to capture the lives of the same elderly Tatra villagers in his own chiaroscuro collage. He begins utilising the same verdant metaphor as his aforementioned subject, asserting that the people he is presenting are rooted in the soil they came from, unable to be replanted for fear of perishing. While death is a very real element of this poignant tapestry, its underlying concern is life.
That life is one on the fringes. The men and women upon whom his camera focuses are those that have been all but forgotten by modern society – indeed, not only do they find his philosophical questions confounding (“what is of value?” – “what do I know!”) but even the microphone he uses to record them is hard for them to fathom. While his line of inquiry may seem esoteric, in fact it embodies the unique, and more elemental perspective, that makes the film such a work of tragic wonder. Emphasis is placed less upon the events of the various lives, or the politics of their marginalisation, and more on insight into the nature of life itself given by those that have struggled through it. One response to the question about value is “sadness; I don’t know anything else.”
Despite the incredibly hard lives led by these peasants, from their accounts Hanák manages to sculpt sound and image into life-affirming poetry. Building the feature around Martinček’s original black and white photos, he intersperses them with similar monochrome footage that injects their testimonies with ever greater gravity. These are not the words of individuals as such – the film is not constructed with talking heads in the traditional sense. Voices are transposed over non-corresponding visuals to create an unending flow of narrative in which lines – between photography and film, between reality and artifice – are constantly blurred. Martinček’s pictures are displayed in measured tracking movement, and the newly shot footage is often composed of long still takes; both conjure a sense of time’s steady and ineffable march. There are moments of artfulness – some of the subjects passed away between the original photos and Hanák’s film but still seem to be given a voice – but they are always in the service of deeper truth. One of the stranger asides features a mechanical puppet show devised by Jan Švankmajer but it again lends the voiceover additional significance. It’s rare to see a documentary of such deft frailty and heft; their lasting resonance makes Pictures of the Old World an example of thoughtful and formally expressive documentary cinema that should not be missed.