“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
– Atheist bus campaign in London
An overwhelming, almost indecipherable deluge of religious, spiritual, and metaphysical gobbledygook, Tmář a jeho rod aneb Slzavé údolí pyramid (English title: Obscurantist and His Lineage or The Pyramids’ Tearful Valleys) is nevertheless an absolutely fascinating contemporary document from masterful documentary filmmaker Karel Vachek.
Obscurantist is an apt title; after a 199 minute (nearly three-and-a half hour) running time, I’m still not exactly sure what the director thinks of his subjects and their theories. While most documentarians can’t wait to espouse their beliefs on their audience, Vachek takes the complete opposite approach, aspiring to raise questions but rarely daring to answer them.
Few will get past that running time, especially for a documentary that is hard to put your finger on, but the film is an entirely engaging experience, rarely taking a moment to breathe. Indeed, the film doesn’t end so much as just stop; it continues during and then past the closing credits before fading to black with a couple last parting messages, including “reality is not a concentration camp of the five senses.”
Tmář a jeho rod opens on the streets of London with tourists converging around an inflatable mascot for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and a bus with the slogan quoted above driving by. Right from the opening sequence, Vachek sets the pace, with his fisheye lens camera lingering over the scene far longer than we might be used to.
Yet the film never feels slow or boring – the director sets the stage perfectly for the barrage of talking heads that are about to bombard us, and if anything, the narrative moves too quickly for us to be able to fully grasp each one before we move on to the next.
Vachek opens with theology, covering the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to an airfield outside of Brno, speaking to a young Slovakian woman who had a vision of the Virgin Mary, glimpsing some of the Czech Evangelical Christian “healing” on TV, and interviewing a Hasidic Jewish rabbi. As the rabbi rolls up his sleeves and dons the tefillin (prayer straps), the image evokes a heroin junkie preparing for a fix, an analogy, I believe, not lost on the director.
The film also dabbles in politics, with a memorable sequence involving Barack Obama’s visit to Prague three years ago; Vachek films Obama giving his speech to an immense crowd outside Prague Castle, his face completely obscured by a teleprompter.
More spiritual material comes courtesy Czech philosopher Egon Bondy (Bondy died in 2007; an older interview is seen via TV screen), German writer (and ‘ancient aliens’ proponent) Erich von Däniken, and American author Zecharia Sitchin.
A chance encounter with Japanese poet Yoshimatsu Gozo also provides some food for thought, but the sequence ultimately becomes more concerned with the actual digital recording – a recurring theme in the film, with Vachek frequently on screen, opening each take using his hands as a clapboard.
The director also interviews some lesser-known figures, who provide some of the most interesting material in the film. These include a cryptozoologist who went to the Mongolian desert in search of the mythical Mongolian death worm, and a grandfather who takes Vachek through his claims of paranormal activity.
Interspersed throughout the film are clips from old Oldřich Nový movies – Pytlákova schovanka and Kristián – and an audio recording of Nový’s 1935 operetta Madamoiselle Nitouche.
What does it all mean? The film is perplexingly ambiguous; Vachek is careful never to appear as a proponent or opponent of the ideas discussed. But at a very basic level, I think Tmář a jeho rod is telling us that there’s more to reality than we can currently grasp, and some of the more outlandish ideas are no different than those widely believed.
But does Vachek believe in paranormal activity, ancient aliens, the Mongolian death worm? His meeting with Zecharia Sitchin at a New York bookstore is telling; as the two are parting, Sitchin agreeably remarks something like “we share the same beliefs.” Vachek chuckles to himself and corrects him: “I like your books.”
I caught Tmář a jeho rod (with English subtitles) at Kino Světozor, but future screenings (in Prague, at least) don’t seem to be on the horizon; check csfd.cz for upcoming screenings and watch the distributor’s website for a DVD release (currently available: director Vachek’s previous films on DVD).