Of all the terrific entries on display recently at the 61st BRNO16 International Short Film Festival, Nora Štrbová’s S P A C E S was perhaps the most moving. In just seven minutes, the animated documentary explores memory from the perspective of her brother, who suffered a rare neurological disorder before his untimely death in his twenties. With a minimalist, hand-crafted style that evokes the glitching memory of its central character, S P A C E S is a poignant blend of artistic medium and heartfelt subject matter.
I spoke to Nora about S P A C E S and her experiences as a filmmaker with my friend Tomáš Hůsek, who helped translate the conversation…
LA & TH: This is clearly a labour of love about a very personal subject, as you directed, wrote, animated and created the art design for the film. What made you choose this style to tell the story?
NS: Well, at the beginning when I was thinking about what the movie is going to be, the idea about the subject matter came to me. The entire style of the film is derived from that original concept. It is a very personal story about my brother who lost his memory because of the brain tumour that eventually caused his death. I wanted to try… after I was no longer able to ask him about it… try to imagine how he might perceive the world without memory, what does it mean to live without memory, and also think about what memory actually is.
I started reading articles, books, stories – both fiction and non-fiction – poetry, everything. From this, I put together a sort of mosaic and the style of the film, which is mosaic-like, actually reflects that. It felt fitting to choose a kaleidoscopic form to show how the human mind and memory works. The more I analysed how memory behaves, the more I found out that it is mostly fragments, even in healthy individuals. It is just fragments saved into memory. Sometimes just emotions or sensations that we once felt during situations rather than the situations themselves – colours, smells, textures etc. So I wanted to create that feeling for the viewer…
LA & TH: The film received one of the special mentions at the BRNO16 International Short Film Festival recently. We all loved it on the jury. Was it entered into other film festivals, and how was it received elsewhere?
NS: Thank you so much, I’m glad that you liked it! Yes, the movie has been around at some festivals, but in this bizarre online environment, I find it hard to truly take it all in. I think it was seen all around the world. It premiered at Visions du Réel in Switzerland, it was at IDFA in the Netherlands, it was in Germany… I can’t recall all of them right now. We have a very active festival department at the school [FAMU] so Mrs Hroncová is helping me with all this stuff. It seems to me like she entered the movie pretty much everywhere!
LA & TH: How long did it take you to put the film together?
NS: Two years, but I actively worked on it for about six months. But the original concept started two years ago. I split my studies and I spent a year thinking about the subject matter.
LA & TH: Can you tell us a little bit about the animation techniques that you used in the film?
NS: There are multiple techniques used in the film but the main one is rotoscoping, something that isn’t always considered a type of animation in our department, because you shoot live-action footage first then trace over it. I think there are four scenes that we shot and then I hand-drew over it.
Then there are the more abstract parts, mostly at the beginning and during some of the rapid montages. Those were mostly experiments in front of the camera. I was just playing around with oil paints and baking soda and whatnot. Just things that react in a certain way. When the powders and colours did something interesting I played with it in post production and then, I don’t even remember exactly how, it turned into the images that you see in the film.
I often use overlapping, double exposure, triple exposure, and photo collages. Also the rotoscoping itself was an interesting process, because not only did we trace over the live-action footage, we shot it, transferred it into just outlines through the computer, then printed it all out on paper. Then me and two or three assistants drew over more than 1500 sheets of paper, colouring it with pencils, crayons and watercolours.
LA & TH: Can you tell us a little bit about your filmmaking experience at FAMU? Who has influenced your work?
NS: Well, I studied animation for four years and S P A C E S was the end of my Bachelor’s Degree. Then I transferred to the documentary film department where I started in the first year again. So now I’m in my second year in that department. During my studies at FAMU, I slowly found out that the documentary film department is the closest to my heart. Not just because of the professors and the subject itself, but also because of the collective there. To put it bluntly, it was mostly the people from that department that I’d grab a few beers with!
Also, I realised that when I was studying animation there was complete freedom in that department, which gave me the opportunity to make a film like this. If you want to do something, you don’t really have to discuss it with anyone. You just kind of do it all yourself, and that’s what I did with S P A C E S.
In the documentary film department it is the complete opposite. It has its benefits but with my personality I kind of have to fight it, because I’m afraid that some things might not get made. We have to do presentations about our projects all the time. It makes sense because a lot more money goes into those projects, so of course, people are way more interested and you have to explain what you’re working on. Just thinking about what it would be like to explain what S P A C E S was about before it was made… I can’t even imagine that!
In short, there was complete freedom in the animation department – maybe sometimes too much – but because of that freedom, awesome films get made. Everyone can kind of do what they want. As for influences, the person who influenced me most – not just in my FAMU studies but also in my life – has to be Karel Vachek, who sadly passed away just before Christmas. He was an absolutely crucial figure – for me he was FAMU.
LA & TH: S P A C E S obviously covers a very personal subject. Was it scary making a film about it and putting it out there?
NS: Sure, I was scared. When I began working on the film I was fascinated by the concept of memory itself based on my personal experiences, so I decided to make a movie about memory loss. At first, I started researching people who had lost their memory and I wanted to do it about somebody else. I absolutely didn’t want to put my personal story into it. I even recorded about three interviews with people who had lost their memory, but after a while I realised that I was just running in a circle and I needed to realise my story. I was suddenly worried that if I didn’t do it then I would keep exploring that aspect in all my future films. So I decided to close the matter with this film and not return to it ever again.
And I was right about it because making this film was absolutely gruelling! The process itself was very arduous – it was full of… incredibly unpleasantly spent time (laughs). But in the end, it helped me get over that thing, although I didn’t want it to be like art therapy for myself. I thought that a movie shouldn’t serve that purpose and that it would just become autotelic and only for me. So I did my best to research everything about the topic and keep my mind open. Not just drowning in my own story, but using it as a guideline, or something that connects the whole film together.
So in short yes, I was afraid. During the process of making the film, there were multiple times when I just wanted to quit. I said to myself that I never want to show something like this to anyone in my life. That it is too personal. I had a couple of low points like that, but in the end, I don’t actually have a problem with it anymore. Somehow I found closure and it did work like art therapy because it helped me get over that entire thing.
What’s next for you? Any other projects lined up or coming soon?
NS: I was saying to myself that I have to prepare an answer to this question because I can’t fully answer how I’d like. I’m not sure if I want to talk about what I’m working on right now. It’s in its infant stages so… I’m working on something, yeah! (laughs) But also I’m working on a school film about documentary filmmaker Zuzana Piussi, and I have another project that surrealistically depicts the case of the Bečva river. And Bečva is also something that should relate to my next project.
If you would like to watch S P A C E S (M E Z E R Y) please contact Nora directly for access – email@example.com