Though now well into her sixties, Czech documentary treasure Helena Trestikova (Marriage Stories, Katka) continues to churn out one fascinating long-term observational documentary after another, making one wonder how many people in the Czech Republic she must be following at any given time. (It almost feels like she’s that country’s NSA but with purely socio-economical, emotional and artistic interests in her subjects.)
Her latest project is Mallory, which follows the titular protagonist briefly in 2002, when she was a figure on the counterculture margins and a heroin addict who found herself pregnant and then decided to quit, before chronicling her life between 2009 and today — a period during which she mostly lived out of a car with various shady boyfriends while her son grew up in an institution (he’s got a neurotic disorder). Again largely told through precision editing and the seemingly straightforward passage of time, Mallory is nonetheless different from its predecessors because its protagonist very emphatically refuses to fall off the wagon, even though the price for doing just that keeps increasing over the years. As the winner of the top Karlovy Vary documentary prize, this fascinating nonfiction drama should travel both the documentary and general festival circuits widely and should also interest broadcasters and niche distributors.
Superior “time-lapse” documentary filmmaking
Trestikova first met and filmed Mallory when working on a project about women and drugs, and the film’s first five or so minutes contain archival material from that time, in 2002. Even back then, the lead is perceptive about her station and situation, explaining that “skinheads, punks, bikers; I tried everything so I could find my place,” while also revealing that “drugs were a form of protest to my parents and the Bolsheviks”. Things changed when she became pregnant and decided to better her life for herself and her future son, inspired in part by a chance meeting with Czech acting icon Jiri Bartoska (also the president of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival) on Prague’s iconic Charles Bridge. The actor offered her some money and, more importantly, hope, which she desperately needed in order to turn her life around.
In 2009, the film catches up with its subject, who’s now living out of a car with her then-boyfriend. As in most of the director’s films, the director mainly follows her subjects as they go about their daily business and she’s only infrequently heard asking questions from behind the camera (six cinematographers are credited for the almost seven-year stretch that constitute the bulk of the film). Mallory continues to deliver insightful commentary on what she sees around her, including when they have to park the beat-up car next to some tennis courts, where well-off compatriots enjoy their leisure time while she struggles every day to keep down a waitressing job and find a more permanent home.
Eventually, and this will unfortunately become a pattern, her boyfriend becomes quarrelsome and starts using again — some things are inferred, not actually seen — and Mallory loses her job because she “brought her personal problems to work”. Applying for social housing, which would allow her to finally live with her now almost teenage son, whom she sees only a couple of times a year, becomes impossible now, since applicants need a steady job.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the film’s midsection turns into a Kafkaesque odyssey as Mallory knocks on what feels like hundreds of doors to try and find a job and, especially, a place to live, though the labyrinthine rules make it impossible for her to be eligible. Clearly, the system is not designed to keep people like her off the street, which is shocking. No one at any of the government offices ever seems to be available or willing to take any responsibility — even with a camera team staring them down alongside the protagonist. The real tragedy for Mallory lies exactly there: If she doesn’t help herself, then no one will, and it’s hard to muster that kind of courage if you’re already without a home and a job and practically cut off from your son, the reason for whom you’ve managed to remain clean all these years.
Several times, the affable but not always entirely logical protagonist — like when she buys an anti-depressant from a witchcraft shop — comes perilously close to making bad decisions, such as when she considers renting a room in the house of an ex who’s now an addict and who used to hit her, which is telling about how bad her situation must really be to even consider going back to that. In many ways, Mallory is a logical extension of the world of junkies and people living on the streets that Trestikova already explored in her millennial trilogy, consisting of Marcela (2007), René (2008, European Film Award for best documentary) and Katka (2010). What sets this film apart, however, is that (spoiler!) the title character here really is tough as nails and she doesn’t want to go back to using again, resulting in her doing some pretty crazy and even harmful things just to stay off the smack. But the finale is so rewarding it’s almost hard to believe this isn’t some kind of tacked-on Hollywood ending (whether it’s 100% her own doing or she got a little help from Trestikova and/or Bartoska isn’t entirely clear).
In Trestikova’s documentaries, just like in Apted’s Up documentaries or recent (semi-)fictional experiments such as 52 Tuesdays and Boyhood, only time can reveal the difference between minor issues and overarching tragedies (the good-for-nothing boyfriends who keep using her) and joys (each day spent with her son), between what’s chronic or ingrained behavior and what’s coincidence or influenced from the outside. Juggling time, the director and editor Jakub Hejna do a miraculous job of fitting all the different pieces of footage together. The only real misstep is the awkward framing scene that opens the film and is supposed to instill some tension about the lead’s ultimate fate. But what’s most revealing here is the journey over time to get to that point (and what that teaches us about Mallory’s character and the world she lives in), not necessarily the end point itself.
Production companies: Negativ, Ceska televize
Writer-Director: Helena Trestikova
Producers: Katerina Cerna, Pavel Strnad
Co-producers: Helena Uldrichova, Ivana Pauerova
Directors of photography: Miroslav Soucek, Vlastimil Hamernik, Robert Novak, David Cysar, Jiri Chod, Jakub Hejna
Editor: Jakub Hejna
No rating, 97 minutes