In Mallory, the latest documentary from director Helena Třeštíková, the most striking moments come when the titular character attempts to apply for social benefits and enters a Kafkaesque maze of bureaucracy.
At one point in the maze, an office worker attempts to get rid of both Mallory and Třeštíková.
“You must leave now. You can ask our press officer your questions.”
In a rare moment – for this film and others from the director – Třeštíková puts herself in front of the camera.
“Your press officer has agreed to us filming here,” she says. “We’re making a documentary about how our government helps people in need.”
“Now help this woman.”
Throughout the rest of Mallory, any sense intervention from behind the camera is gone. We want to reach out through the screen to offer assistance, and wonder, like National Geographic photographers, why the filmmakers aren’t doing more to help.
(Of course, Třeštíková does help her subject, off camera, and the very nature of their relationship likely changes Mallory’s life for the better.)
Like almost all of director Třeštíková’s films, Mallory follows its subject through a number of years. Třeštíková first began filming Mallory when she gave birth in 2002.
At the time, she was addicted to heroin, homeless, and begging for money on the streets of Prague. At one point, she met the famous actor Jiří Bartoška on Charles Bridge. His generosity – not just financial, but the brief moments he spent talking with and encouraging her, changed Mallory’s life.
She’ll never do heroin again, she tells the director. Against all odds, it’s a promise she manages to keep.
And that’s when things really get tough.
Třeštíková next picks up with Mallory in 2009, when she’s living in a car with her new boyfriend in a Prague parking lot. The father of her child, addicted to alcohol and gambling, has kicked her out of his flat. Her son has been placed in the care of the state, at a school hours away from the city; she sees him once every few months.
Mallory is off drugs, and even has a job – though she’s being paid under the table working at a local dive bar – but things don’t come easy. “I never thought living clean would be so hard,” she tells the director, in tears.
Attempting to get help from the state is her biggest nightmare. Much of the film is spent inside bureaucratic hallways, where she’s directed from one office to another, told to fill in a form and submit it here and then apply for housing there.
When she finds that her assigned case worker is on vacation, she has to go through the process all over again. Nobody else will deviate from protocol in order to help her.
“To be honest, I was on vacation when you applied for housing,” her case worker tells her via a phone call when he returns weeks later. “I don’t know anything about your case, but I can ask my colleagues about it.”
At other points, she is told that the housing is full and her only recourse is the “Christmas Lottery,” when housing is assigned to those in need over the holidays at random. Mallory rolls her eyes at each mention of this. We do the same.
There are glimmers of hope in Mallory, unlike the director’s previous film, Katka, which followed the titular character through the downward spiral of drug addiction. Mallory, unburdened by addiction, is eventually able to make a (slightly) better life for herself with some outside help – but not from the state.
Director Třeštíková’s latest film is one of her best, telling a wholly compelling story on its own terms – and Mallory’s bureaucratic nightmare also turns the film into something of a social polemic.
Off drugs, cleaning themselves daily, not begging for money, and following the proper channels for assistance – even employed by local businesses – people like this are not the typical homeless denizens of Prague. But they’re out there, too, and Mallory gives them a voice.