Olga Sommerová: Accelerated course in the school of life

This filmmaker has shot over 80 documentaries, depicting people from across the social spectrum with remarkable sensitivity. She spoke with us about fateful encounters and the knowledge she has gleaned.

For many years you have been an observer of people’s fates and problems. What do you think has changed in our society since 1989?
My friends and I have often said that we’re glad that we lived through Communism. Our experiences under the totalitarian regime was very good for us, because a person’s character becomes stronger under oppression than under affluence and freedom. Due to the fact that people could not travel they experienced existence more deeply, they read a lot, they were interested in art, they cultivated friendship and nature, they simply did things that I see as basic for life. After the revolution we all thought, “Oh, this will be beautiful,” a bit forgetful that people have been the same for centuries. We felt that freedom and democracy are good for strong personalities and mature individuals. I think that there are too few people who mature enough for freedom. We experienced much bitterness and disappointment from ignorance and illusions, because society wasn’t ready for big thieves, cheaters, and careerists who were capable of anything.

What do you think of what is happening in politics, with the communists gaining ever greater influence within society?
Forgetting is dangerous. The history of this nation shows that a democratic society can easily become totalitarian. But for young people, with some exceptions, this is something like the era of the Hussite revolution. So new pro-communist voters are being born, thinking of good food and material things, of course this doesn’t involve any ideology. Why should we remind ourselves of hundreds of thousands destroyed lives, thousands of killed and tortured, destroyed morality and the stolen resources of this country? It’s been 56 years since the Nazi occupation, which came soon after the communists’. And 12 years since it ended, communist criminals have not been punished. It’s as if nothing happened. It is depressing.

You said that making documentaries affects a person profoundly. How has it affected you?
Making documentaries is truly a way of life rather than a job. I shoot films about what I live, what bothers me. To deal with pain and suffering is my obligation. This makes a person more mature, it’s an accelerated course in the school of life. I have lived like this for 25 years, and now, when I’m over fifty, I am asking myself: but where is my life? I’m always looking out for the fates of others, but am I thinking about myself? Only when I was fifty did I discover that there’s a difference between work and life.

You recently drew attention through the documentary and then the books, “What Women Dream About”. Now everyone talks about just one topic with you: feminism, and relationships between men and women. Does it bother you that your other work, which might have had even greater possibilities to make more urgent statements, has become lost?
It does. People forget that I’m a documentary maker – now I’m just a feminist. I shot 80 films, maybe five of them deal with the topic of feminism. Documentaries on social themes are of interest to only a certain minority, whereas relationships between men and women appeal to nearly everyone. It is more sensational, more titillating. But I’m very pleased that the film and those books were so resonant. I probably stirred up a hornets’ nest. I’m happy that through these books I started a dialogue with women.

In one interview on the topic of those two books you stated that “perhaps some people who give priority to their careers will finally learn that fame is but an empty name, because a person needs to live by the Ten Commandments, and to give love.” Are you trying to say that in fact we are fighting for emancipation, but we don’t know where it will lead us?
When I said it I thought of men, not women. If I would be thinking that women should follow the path men take, because that’s what I’m criticizing, being workaholics, pursuing careers, I would be crazy. I’m convinced that the two roles, which were good in the 19th century, are no longer possible and necessary in the 21st century. Men should devote themselves more to their families and women should discover the world. They say that children need their mothers… we know that, but no one mentions that children need their fathers, too. While they have mothers, they don’t have fathers. So what’s lacking? It’s not the mothers’ fault, it’s the fathers’. A woman is a human being, just like a man – she has ambitions, talents, and gifts, and she wants to have children just as men do. She has a right to her profession and to her children as well. But this doesn’t mean she should burn herself out to the point of death.

So perhaps some other type of emancipation is called for, possibly for men?
Of course they need emancipation. They depend on women and on their careers. The biological differences give women the unique chance to give birth and nurse the baby. But then fathers should come and share the care of the baby equally with women. There are certain abilities and skills that men have, and others that women have, and I agree with that. But then there are children, and both parents have them. And there are certain gifts that both of them have. It’s astonishing how Czech men treat women. How macho their behavior is, how they pry into their lives, how they always give them a hard time.

You refer to men as “boys”. It sounds as if you like them anyway.
I do like them! How could I dislike men when I like people? Feminism is not a war of Amazons, it is a call for free and democratic relationships. In my view, it is a better way of life for men, too. Of course they would lose some advantages, but they would gain something as well. I think we could use Scandinavia as a model; men and women there are on exactly the same level these days.

A life in numbers
1949 born August 2 in Prague
1977 graduated from the Prague Film Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), majoring in documentary film
1978-88 as the director of Krátký film Praha, made documentaries for movie theaters
1989 began working primarily for Febio, Original Video Journal, Film and Sociology, and the World Circle Foundation. Her works are dominated by social themes, the lives of ordinary people, interpersonal relationships, and portraits of leading personages in the Czech Republic
1991-2002 teaching at FAMU in Prague since 1994, as head of the documentary film department
1995 was named a docent based on her second doctorate lecture, “Documentary Films – My Love”.
1999 filmed the two-part series, “What Women Dream About” and “What Men Dream About” for ČT
2001 published the book What Women Dream About
2003 To date: 77 films, 25 awards (Czech and international).

In the generation of today’s thirty-somethings there are plenty of women who don’t intend to be servants to men, but these women often have problems. People around them see them as contentious. When you look at how our society is structured, do you think that in the end they’ll have to give up and either get used to it, or stay single?
I say that a woman who wants to be herself will be alone after all. We live at a turning point. Old ways of thinking have yet to disappear, but the conditions for life are new, including the freedoms for women. We want to live in freedom and democracy in our relationships with men as well. But patriarchy is stronger, since it has been here for five thousand years. Still, women can make decisions about their own life, about their own money. If I wanted to live with a man, I’d want to live together with him, enjoying the same rights. It’s still difficult to, it’s as if there were no solution. The only hope is that possibly new men are now being born. They’ve already been living in the West for some time now. They have really been forced to change the way they think.

Which changes do you think society must go through for both sexes to be truly equal?
The thinking must change, the social awareness and the laws. There are an awful lot of laws that need changing, but our male-dominated parliament is not bothered by that. Why should a mother at home with children feel like a parasite or be helpless when she wants to leave a man who beats her and has no money or accomodation? A woman who is subjected to violence is absolutely helpless. Social organizations like Rosa or Bílý kruh bezpečí (White Circle of Safety) can help, they can provide her with asylum, but that’s all. I recently read that one man was forbidden to come within 50 meters of his child, which is normal in the West. That was the first case of its type in the Czech court system. Terrible injustice is in the case of men following divorces, who cannot be fathers to their children. They’re also helpless and desperate, as sometimes they can’t see their children for years.

Relationships and love are connecting links in your works. Do you think that they are the meaning of human life?
I do. There’s no doubt about it. Love between a man and a woman is the greatest boon. Also friendship is love. But love isn’t an object, love’s something inside. And when I have love inside me, I feel love for everything else. It can be an all-embracing love for humanity and the world, but the greatest prize in life is when a person has one relationship that outshines all the others. Men and women were made to go through this valley of tears together.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Behind a camera? (laughs) There are two alternatives. One is behind a camera, and the other is in the countryside, sometimes in the garden, sometimes in the woods, and from time to time in a pub in Vyšetice.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Lioness, sad, happy.

How do you want people to remember you?
As a bright woman with long blond hair who preached feminist ideas from the kitchen and from behind a camera!

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