28.1.18

A Film a Week - Family / Družina

What is a family? A mother, a father and a child? Two children? Three? A dog? A cat? A funny uncle? A demented grandmother? A live-in girlfriend or boyfriend? What if one or more of the persons we talk about has some issues? Physical, emotional, intellectual or mental? What if that someone cannot or would not understand someone else? Is it still a family because of blood relation and/or living agreement? According to Rok Biček’s (known for Lux prize-nominated fiction feature Class Enemy) documentary, a family is much wider concept than its church or state-sponsored concept.

Biček composed his 104-minute piece of deadly serious cinema verité from 120 hours of material filmed over the course of 12 years, following his subject Matej Rajk from early teens to mid-20’s in different familial contexts. The amount of material might seem huge, but divided with the time spent with Matej, his nuclear family and his two girlfriends ant their families later on, it is not that much.

The filmmaker is not “cheating”, commenting or adding anything to the context, since his film consist only of pretty raw-looking long takes from a hand-held camera operated by the director himself, so every camera move or choice of the song played in the background is a result of a mix of good instinct and pure luck. Biček’s only intervention was choosing the takes that would get in (the film started as a student documentary short) and arranging it into smooth-running, compelling narrative with usually non-linear editing that he did himself with the help of Yulia Roschina.

Such a project might prove to be quite a task even as a work of fiction (parallels have been drawn with Richard Linklater’s magnum opus Boyhood). It might seem easier to do it as a documentary (at least cheaper), but one needs to be patient enough for the pieces to fit in and the story to close in a natural way. No matter how sensible, the subject has the right to lose the trust in filmmaker, to lose interest and to quit the whole thing anytime he wants. And Matej Rajk is far from reasonable: he is stubborn, under-educated, self-proclaimed alpha-male who had a hard life and invented a number of quite effective defense mechanisms not letting anyone to get near him.

He grew up in a special needs family as the “most normal one” among them. His parents and his brother are intellectually challenged in different degrees and compared to their status, Matej’s learning disabilities and behavioral disorders (it has never been disclosed, but seems like some form of ADHD) make him the most functional one. Biček’s initial idea was to film them all, with a focus on Matej’s brother Mitja, but Matej proved to be other kind of interesting.

We actually meet him in a delivery room, witnessing the miracle of birth of his daughter Nia. At the time, he lives with his girlfriend Barbara at her father’s home. Soon enough their relationship turns sour and Matej goes back home to his mother and brother. Nia’s visits are arranged and seem to run smoothly, as he turns to be a loving and moderately responsible father. But when Barbara has another child with another man and when Matej starts dating then severely underage Eli (her mother seems fine with it), things get not just complicated, but also ugly, it becomes a proper custody battle with threats, lies and manipulations.

We see the “type” of Matej’s girlfriends: they come from broken homes so they fall for his charm and for a certain amount of time they feel safe with him, so they stay. We also get those relationships are doomed for failure once when they see through his not that carefully arranged mask. He might act like the smartest and the most capable person in the room, but he has a lot to learn about functioning in the real world. However, the central (deteriorating) relationship here is the one between him and his daughter since she gets more and more attached to her mother and her new family unit.


Rok Biček does not judge here. He does not even explain some potentially interesting details. We do not get any background for Matej’s lost front teeth. We do not get to know why he had left the high school (he was good with computers) or why he does not have a driving license. All he does is presenting life in its harshest, but also the most complex form. Sometimes it is unnecessarily cruel (like the shooting of the dying dog), sometimes it is hypnotizing, sometimes deeply humane, but all the time it all feels so real.