Film : Attachment to a Camera : a review of Helena Trestikova’s film, ‘Rene’

By Alison Poltock

Date Posted: Monday, 15 June 2009


Alison Poltock, who trained as a fine artist at Middlesex University, is the Director of this year’s East End Film Festival in London. After university Alison continued to paint from her studio in north London and exhibited widely. Later she created her own ‘art events’ company which became involved in community, social and business projects. While she was doing this she studied film music which combined her long held and continuing interest in music with her fascination with visual media. Two years ago Alison became involved with London’s East End Film Festival where she has been a major influence in establishing its growing national and international reputation.


Attachment to a Camera : a review of Helena Trestikova’s film, ‘René’


René  : Czech Republic 2008, 90 min, 35mm, Director: Helena Treštíková


‘Why has my shitty life turned out like this? No-one knows. Not even God. God’s on holiday and he’s reading porn’.

So says René, the now 37 years old subject of Helena Trestivoka’s documentary film which records the fate of  René Plasil for a period of  over 20 years.

Since his early teens René has been in and out of  the Czech care and prison systems as if they had revolving doors. Helena Trestikova first met René in the late 1980s when she directed a series of documentary films about young Czech people from differing backgrounds. René was intended to be the token young criminal. Over the years as a consequence of the regime changes in what was Czechoslovakia, Helena lost funding for the series and was unable to continue with it but she found René interesting enough to follow him further.

In the film we first meet René when he is 15 years old at the beginning of his yo-yo-ing between incarceration and freedom – if  freedom is the right kind of term to use about René’s life with the changing manifestations of his dysfunctional family. René’s  father is a shadowy figure who has played little or no part in his life. His impoverished mother, who struggles too much to meet  her own material and emotional needs to be able to give her boys what they need from her, becomes an increasingly marginalised figure in René’s life as does his younger brother who has followed René into a life of delinquency. René strikes us immediately as  the definite loser   – there is even a mis-spelling in the obscene tattoo across his neck, ‘fuck of people’. He is a petty criminal with a sense of entitlement and a chip on his shoulder. His life in prison has a timeless listless quality and the passage of time (viewed through fuzzy prison televisions) is marked only by the 1989  ‘Velvet Revolution’ against the communist regime, the break up of Czechoslovakia, the resignation of Vaclav Havel, and the swearing-in of the different presidents. René seems oblivious to these momentous changes but the mirroring of a country’s and an individual’s growing pains are plain to see.

As René grows into an adult with a throaty chain smoker’s voice, he develops an interest in writing. With Helena’s help, René publishes two books and begins to achieve a strange kind of fame in his native country. In the months between the shooting of footage for the film, when René is lonely or needy, he writes long, thoughtful letters to Helena and as the film progresses we see the relationship between Rene and Helena change. It has become an enigma. In a moment when René stops performing his role of disaffected, value-free social outcast, he tells Helena gently, “I would have been nothing without you”, yet at other times he is bitter and angry, accusing her of ruining his life, of putting his life on display and buying him from himself because he had no other choice but to sell himself to her for her creative use. The relationship between the subject and the film maker seems more and more to become for both a dysfunctional love relationship. Rene’s desperate lack of, and need of love sucks him towards the lens of Helena’s camera but a mother’s love is not to be found there. We are left to wonder about the impact Helena’s ‘attention’ has had on the path of René’s life. Eventually this documentary film becomes not an observation on the passage of a young man’s life but more an exploration of  the manipulation (from both sides) of the difficult relationship between a documentary film maker and her ‘subject of  study’.

Proponents of the significance of the consistency and the quality of attachment relationships between human beings need look no further if they need proof of their theory. At the end of the film René is abandoned. He has lost his mother, lost his father, has little contact with his brother and has lost touch with his daughter and his girl friend, the mother of his child. As the film ends it is clear that his relationship with Helena is ending too.


02 Jul 2009,    Michael Collins
Michael Collins of Record Pictures writes

I watched “Rene” last night, which was enough to guarantee bad dreams. Especially depressing was watching him look at photographs of his girlfriend in a porn magazine and then to learn at the close that he’d been making amateur porn on his borrowed camera. Being the viewer of the film maker and the filmed, it was clear to see the different trajectories that their lives took, and to wonder at how much they knew, or sussed, about each other. Her almost fetishist treatment of him early on, and his almost innocent seeming childish lies, and how he matured into an angry, brutalised, cruel adult, and she more understanding and clear sighted (or world weary?). His is the story of the bulk of prisoners the world over, no doubt.

There is a good report in The New Yorker (John Seabrook, Annals of Crime, “Don’t Shoot,” The New Yorker, June 22, 2009, p. 32) about using a multi-agency interventionist approach to break down the brutality and criminality of key individual “gang” members in the States, which in its merit is so blindingly obvious. You wonder what might have happened if Rene, his brother, his girl friend, the film maker, his burglary victims, the police who processed him, the social worker, the warder, and his publisher had all met up and all told their accounts of the consequences of his behaviour.