Culture and Tradition on Screen: Portraying the Endangered

The need to document culture has always driven people to find newer, better forms through which they could tell a story. With the invention of film in 1895, the range of possibilities became wider. Filmmakers learned to speak the film language and by speaking it, they inspired many others to find their own voice.

In 2019, I embarked on an adventure, wanting to find new methods of how we can document and portray culture, tradition and ritual on screen. The reason was and still is, I see very little documentaries (especially those talking about the culture I come from) that could transcend the didactic or commercial tone. There is a misconception, where we think culture is something we learn about at school. In Slovakia, my homeland, we read the works of writers we barely understand. Their language is timeworn and so it can hardly spark interest or create emotion. This is transferred to television programmes, whereas opposed to that, the creators attempt to speak in colours, motion, the everchanging variations to our world. What they often end up with, is a tiring splash of perceptions, something that cannot run deep, because its roots are too shallow. 

nnot run deep, because its roots are too shallow. For my research, I chose to document and explore the vision of Slovak Sherpas. Today, they represent the last Sherpas in Europe, as the work has been replaced by helicopters and cable cars in other mountain and alpine regions. This is also one of the reasons why every year, at least one of the Slovak TV channels (be it commercial or public-service) shoots a coverage about the men, who walk the high-altitude trails with dozens of kilograms on their backs, just to feed the tourists on their holiday. Aside from the publicist broadcasts, the characters of Sherpas have been a part of Slovak literature, feature films and a documentary film Freedom Under Load (2016) by Pavol Barabas, who is today considered the most remarkable documentary film-maker in Slovakia, especially when it comes to the topics of ethnology and anthropology.

If we now look at the number of attempts to capture the essence of Sherpas, we could as well ask a question “Why do it again”? Why should anyone create another film about something that has already been documented?

Because every person has its own voice. Because even though we all walk the same planet, we all look at it differently. Someone looks at the ground and sees herbs, someone stares up to the sky and sees clouds of extraordinary shapes telling a story. Not to give just the nice metaphoric answer – also because it’s not only about how we see the world, but also in what words we decide to talk about it and which tools we use while doing so. We can sing about it, paint it, write a poem about it, cook a meal that represents how it makes us feel. And in each of those narrative methods, there are small digressions creating a distinctive style of the specific storyteller.

The audio-visual heritage of Slovakia and Czech Republic has a favourite type of documentary. It’s called a “documentary portrait” or a “portrait documentary”. In its many forms, it appears on television and it seems to conform to rules, which do not seem to change. Fero Fenič, a founder of the Febio group, came up with a television format GEN (Gallery of an elite nation). Essentially, it is a series of dozens of documentary portraits, where different filmmakers portray successful Czech personalities. The first episode was broadcasted in 1993 and since then, GEN became a prototype, based on which the notion of what a documentary portrait should look like, has been established. This apprehension and the need not to bore the audience, has perhaps unconsciously shifted TV creators to speak only one “dialect” of film language.

Seeing this, I have first attempted to break the set rules of portrait documentary in Dying blue, a film about Matej Rabata, who saved the traditional craft of blueprinting. Because of this extraordinary situation, a young man found himself surrounded by TV reporters. All commercial channels wanted to get their chance to speak to the hero. When I met him, he has been asked the same questions so many times, he knew answers to them by heart. I imagined the man who has resurrected the almost lost craft in a poetic way, but to my surprise, he was just a kid happy to have found a way to provide for himself and his soon-tobe-wife. The problem in all the coverages arose, when the creators tried to represent him on a poetic level, although his words, mimics and body language were not in line with the beautiful prints he produced.

This was the lesson number one I learned after analysing the coverages – even though you might have a specific image of the person in your head before you start the shooting or even during the shoot, do not try to confine the person by what you want him/her to be. It might seem very simple, but I must remind myself of this every time. This does not mean you should do only what the subject, in words, allows you to – this means you should be open to changes in narrative and still be able to shape it in a way, which accentuates what you think is essential and distinctive of the figure.

This brings me to lesson number two – speak to your subject, but never forget to observe. Sometimes, a documentarist gets lucky and stumbles upon a genuine storyteller. In this case, it would be foolish not to use the words of the person, it is his or her own way of expression. We must keep in mind, however, most of us do not have the ability to speak about a craft with the language of a writer. We are good in our own fields of interest – cuisine, art, carrying heavy loads up the mountains – but there is no need for us to give essays on what it is we do best. In a documentary portrait, this could be a serious problem – the form relies on a commentary of the documented person or family and friends. Instead of showing the spectators what the person does on a regular day, the documentarist often makes the respondents talk about the extraordinary. I believe the extraordinary of anything we decide to capture on a camera can be portrayed in images, we only must try to find the detail which will create a far more intensive experience than minutes of talking.

This brings me to lesson number three – time. Time is an important parameter in making a documentary, the ethnographic one especially. This may sound obvious – we need hours, days, weeks for shooting, post-production, for the editing of the postproduction, to collect Oscars... All of these are relevant processes, but we often forget, we may need even more time to create a relationship with the topic, then to break up with it, because it is so difficult to absorb, and then to find a way back into the relationship with a different view, a different goal. The thing is – it is like falling in love. At first, there are no boundaries, no limitations, everything is possible and even if we do something we do not like, we will find a good excuse for why we have done it. Then, there is a crash, where we see only the bad aspects of the relationship, how it is draining us, we want to be done with it as soon as possible. We want to do it the right way, of course, and so we follow the rules of a proper break up – we do it in person and make promises to stay friends. And in the end, when we are left alone, we realise, that the “in-love” mode does not last forever. It is not the actual love; it is just an illusion which boils away after time. And so, finally, we come back with a certitude, that we can make the relationship work again, if we are able to start an open conversation and make compromises. 

This is the reason why it is not only the time we need to capture, but it is also the time we need to process. We need to doubt our decisions from time to time, we need to see how our ideas and ideals shift in a course of a few weeks. If some of the material we decided to keep in the film does not ring true the second time we see it, it probably means, we have been fooled by the love of an individual scene, which does not work in the film anymore. On the other hand, some of the scenes we thought we will never use may change in its importance when we see it again.

Time is vital to capture and to observe situations that are regular, boring. Time is important, because the subject gets used to the fact that you are not trying to shoot the same coverage everyone else does. You just become a part of a background noise. You will never blend in completely, most probably, but for your subjects, you will be like a flower kept on a window. They may look at you from time to time, talk to you, give you water, they will know about your presence in the room, but they will not mind it as much.

It is known in our society that time is also the most “expensive” commodity there is. The ideal is, of course, to have years one could dedicate to a project, but the reality is often very different.

When documenting the Sherpas, I knew I would not have a lot of time for the actual shooting. My resources were limited, but I still wanted to create a feeling of time “stillness” in the documentary. I wanted to document more seasons to reflect the cycle they go through, but I did not want them to talk about it. I decided to split the shooting into six days spread in a course of three months. This way, I was able to shoot two days in August, two in September, and two in October. Effort-wise, the process took far more time to recover from, because filming with the Sherpas with no crew or professional photography director could be quite strenuous sometimes. What was important, however, was the consistency.

An interesting observation, which has influenced my view of Sherpas and the final version of the film Tower of Sherpa, was the knowledge of all other films about Sherpas. In the 1970s two feature films – The Copper Tower and The Eagle’s Feather – about the life of three Sherpas were filmed. They became very popular as the portrayal of freedom and adventure and after the change in political regime, their popularity did not fade. Interestingly, these films are still alive and not only for the older generation and so they continue to shape the notion of the actual Sherpas. Moreover, the two films also shape how the Sherpas themselves perceive their walk of life. They find themselves citing from the films, humming the theme, becoming the characters. This way, they do not need to say much about themselves, because the films have already done so. Knowing they know and knowing I know, has created a bridge between worlds of the imaginary and the real. It has given room for artistic expression, for interpreting them as real story characters.

Preservation of what is a part of us, is not only important, it is a necessity. In a world, where we can own anything a person on the other side of the world has, and where wealthy does not equal content, where we do not need to feel good in our own skin, but we should fall into line so others feel good about us, in this world, we need to know what our roots are. Not to see them as an attraction from a long-forgotten era, but to seek how they influence us today and how they once again root us, so we do not fly away with the slightest gust of wind. The preservation is a long process and it can be achieved in many ways. Just because somebody keeps telling us: “This is how it’s done,” does not mean he/she is completely right. We should always doubt it, compare it with our knowledge of reality, let it grow into something new. If we allow the instituted methods to kill our creativity, there is a danger of losing much more than just information.


Silvia Divéky