The Czech filmmaker discusses what led him to make a documentary about proud neo-Nazi Dalibor.
Vít Klusák first gained notoriety for his 2004 documentary Czech Dream in which he and co-director Filip Remunda made a playful, barbed comment on modern society by opening a fake supermarket. With a number of other well-regarded documentaries under his belt, including Czech Peace (2010) and Good Driver Smetana (2013), Klusák is a leading light in the Czech documentary scene.
His latest film, The White World According To Daliborek, is a controversial portrayal of Dalibor, a proud Neo-Nazi who lives in a small Czech town. The film alternates between showing some of the more ridiculous behavior that results from Dalibor’s beliefs as well as portraying the real damage those beliefs cause.
With the film premiering as part of Karlovy Vary’s documentary competition, Screen caught up with Klusák to find out what drew him to the subject and where he found his lead.
Why did you want to make a documentary exploring the subject of nationalism?
Our main protagonist does not hide behind a guise of ‘nationalism’. During our first meeting, he told me outright that he is a neo-Nazi. However, I am not sure that he would have caught my attention if he was just a Nazi and his character was not more potent. What caught my attention during that first encounter was that Dalibor is not a fool, that he has artistic ambitions - he films noteworthy videos, composes songs, paints - and also that he reflects upon his situation.
He was very open in explaining to me what lead him to the Nazi ideology. It was the collapse of a short-term relationship with a girl, whom he had known from school and hadn’t seen for 20 years.
Was it difficult to get him to agree to be part of the film?
Initially I invented Dalibor and only after did I find him. I was asked in an interview whether I put characters from my films into the polar categories of positive and negative in advance and then adjusted the filming accordingly. I answered that I would find this dishonest and stated that if by chance I ever happened to be making a portrait of a neo-Nazi, I’d far rather the character was ambivalent and multi-layered. I would, for example, like it if it was a tender Nazi, who writes poems.
And then I discovered Dalibor on YouTube. I came upon a video in which he was showing off his new expandable stun gun baton, which had just arrived from the e-shop. At first he wasn’t able to get it to expand, and then it wouldn’t fold back. It seemed like a perfect parody, but alarming at the same time.
I wrote to Dalibor that I make documentaries and that I would like to get to know him. He replied that he was afraid I was a cop and blocked me. So I set off to find him in his town of Prostějov and after two hours of conversation, he conceded he might be interested in shooting.
How did you approach the filming?
The most difficult thing was to maintain a balance between critical distance and empathy. Although I obviously don’t associate myself with the Nazi ideology, I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to make an activist condemnation, a documentary execution of a Nazi. It is more valuable to try to understand these forgotten, excluded from society, unhappy, lost people disconnected from information about the real world. I don’t believe people are born hateful.
To begin with, Dalibor was strongly opposed to filming, that he can’t express his views in a documentary film, that he would be put in jail for that. That’s why we resorted to stylisation.
The remaining characters entered the film during filming and it was always the same: they needed some convincing but later on they called us, telling us that there was more they would like to say on the issue. These are people from a forgotten corner of our country and they would never have thought that someone with a camera will be interested in their opinions and viewpoints.
Your films always skirt the line between fiction and documentary. How do you approach certain scenes and achieve what seems a high level of intimacy?
An important part was played by the total openness in communication with the characters. We didn’t hide anything from them, not even the fact that the great-grandfather of the art director of the film, Marianna Stránská, was a prisoner in Auschwitz, because he was a member of the Sokol movement [an all-ages gymnastic organisation founded in Prague in the mid-19th century].
I see getting close to the characters as my main mission. With this proximity, we prevent the audience from simply dismissing the protagonists. They are forced to think a lot more about what makes these people take on such hateful opinions.
Nowadays, anything can be easily dismissed as “fake news” it seems. Does it ever feel like an exercise in futility?
We need to realise that few people are capable of changing their point of view. Dialogue is much more important than trying to use force to try and convince with one’s own version. The biggest problem is a society divided into bubbles that don’t speak to one another. I do not expect documentary film to be tasked with changing the world, it’s above all a way to conserve memories, a message to future generations showing what we had to deal with now.
Has Dalibor seen the film?
Dalibor saw the film and he even laughed at some scenes. After the lights came on in the cinema, he stated that the Auschwitz ending spoils the film and turns it into a “reality show”. Today, he is even more reproachful of the film and says that he was never a neo- Nazi and that I put him into that role in order to sell the film better. Hahaha.
What projects do you have in mind to do next?
We’re working on a project with Filip Remunda, with whom we made Czech Dream about the fake hypermarket. We’re filming in Poland, but I am unable to say more as this could complicate filming.
With thanks to Aneta Quraishy.