Rozhovor Slavomíry Očenášovej-Štrbovej s Fedorom Bartkom /z knihy Život - viera - umenie, anglický preklad,Translated from Slovak by Ivan Bartko P.Eng./

18.02.2015 22:20


Text translated from the book by S. Ocenasova- Strbova: Life – Faith – Art


FEDOR BARTKO: “I am interested in a man and his creative potential”

(Film and camera director, screenplay writer and dramaturge, born October 3, 1944 in Ksinna, living and working in Bratislava)


Q: Your father Ondrej Bartko, Lutheran Pastor in Bratislava, had been persecuted by the communist regime for many years, particularly in the 1950s. This must have created some suffering for you, his son as well. Which of you father’s character qualities have you admired most and which have you followed in your life?


A: Well, my father had not been imprisoned, as many of his pastoral colleagues were, but he was persecuted practically all his life. At the beginning of and during the World War 2 my father was the Lutheran pastor in Ksinna (in central Slovakia), where I was born in 1944. During the war, he had helped various groups of soldiers who were operating in that area, particularly during the time of and after the Slovak National Uprising (SNP). He had also helped many of the local citizens with advice or in helping with their personal problems and burdens that were particularly difficult because of the wartime. For example, during this time, my father saved life of an Ukrainian paratrooper from the group of Capt. Zeleznov, and the lives of Commander Michal Cerkun and his three soldiers who were send to our home by writer Elo Sandor to seek help if necessary. He also saved lives of several local citizens and Jews who were running to hide in the surrounding forests and, in one instant the whole village of Ksinna from being burnt down. During the SNP he declared restoration of the first Czechoslovak Republic and he was a leading force in forming the local government that lasted until the end of war. All of this at the young age of 30 and at a time when he was taking care of his 2 small children, one was my brother Ivan only 18 months old and me,  just a newborn, and his young wife, who worried constantly about he family’s future during those difficult times.

Immediately after the war, my father was decorated with the Czechoslovak War Medal 1939, for his participation in the uprising at the nomination by local citizens. However, this recognition, as well as his democratic thinking and support of the Democratic Party program were a great burden for him during the 1950s. I remember various provocateurs who were coming to our residence, at that time already in Bratislava, in an effort to borrow money that were supposed to be used in a trial as an evidence against him for supporting some fictitious anti-government activities. That my father did not end up in the prison, he could mainly thank to his service as a chaplain in Ilava prison for political prisoners, during the time of the First Slovak State (1939-1945).  At that time, the inmates there were mainly communists and a good portion of Lutherans as well.  Many of the cruel wardens who my father came in contact with in Ilava prison at that time were those who, after the war, turned their coats from either a fear of persecution or for other reasons, and under a new banner and with new shiny Communist Party membership cards in their pockets were enthusiastically building “new and better communist society of tomorrow” and also “new” Lutheran Church under a state control.

During this time, Lutheran pastors in Bratislava, separated from their parishioners by various barriers erected by the new regime, held more-less monthly meetings at their homes. Pastors Cibulka, Jurkovic, Holcik, Bartko, Kubovcak and senior pastor Adamis with their wives were meeting socially, taking turns in hosting these meetings in their homes. After some time, however, these meetings were identified by the authorities as anti-state activities and forbidden through the intervention from the bishop’s office. So, we lived in this kind of environment and even as children we could understand a lot. We understood that we are a bit different than our friends in school or playground, and we had a feeling that we were more-less just tolerated by the regime and various state institutions and agencies. It did not boost our selfconfidence and morale as you can imagine. We were happy in the family but unhappy outside of our family circle. It was time of intimidation and fear, and time of our frequent moves from one residence to other place to live in Bratislava. When we were moved out of the Lutheran Hospital where our father was the last spiritual leader, and were left without a place to live, we were taken in by the family of professor Jamnicky to live with them in their villa on Stefanik Street. But during the famous “Action B”, when Jamnicky family  was stripped of their villa during the wave of “nationalization” of private assets by the state, we were again without a suitable place to live.

That was also time when our brother Ondrej was born, time or constant parental worries about our future and time of seeking possibilities for Ivan and me to go to schools somewhere to further our education. With the help of a lot of good folks, mainly my dad’ parishioners, Ivan was admitted to a High School in Bratislava, and I was accepted at Film Industry Middle School in Cimelice, in Bohemia.  When my mother was leaving me there alone in this south-bohemian village at the age of fourteen, she was crying. But other events and family’s situation were also very difficult at that time. Our father valued very highly democratic principles, values and practice on which our Lutheran Church and free society are based.  Because of his was disappointment with the new government, he did not seek any political or civic involvement nor participated in any activities outside of his day-to-day pastoral work.  As a result, his career growth until the change of regime in 1989 was equal to zero.  Later in his life he was happy that he lived long enough to see changes in the political system in Slovakia. But his creative potential, his career goals, and his ability to contribute to the Slovak culture demonstrated by his published work were much higher than those he was allowed to realize. I had always admired my father’s logical reasoning, his ability to position issues and find solutions to problems that were always based on principles of ethics, Christian Moral Code and humanity. This is why he was a real pastor and a  spiritual leader by example in our family and also everywhere he worked among his parishioners. That is also written on his tombstone – “pastor of the Lutheran Church in Bratislava and a personal pastor for hundreds of families”.  He was always open and direct, levelheaded and peaceful person for his parishioners and his family alike. He did not seek any undue profit or recognition throughout his life that would take him away from God.  So I am also trying to find truth and love through my profession and in my personal life, which I share with my family and live by his principles.  Luckily, our human brain has one remarkable quality – with the passage of time, our negative emotional experiences we have had are suppressed. And those brief and less frequent feelings of happiness and love we remember more intensely.


Q: The faith integrates moral principles into our life and brings us a feeling of internal peace. How do you experience faith?


A: From my early childhood I have been growing up in faith and with faith. In my life, I had periods when, in the broader context with what was happening around me, I had moments of doubt and then again re-discovery. But faith was always there, sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker, not only in my personal life but is also reflected in my film work. I enjoyed searching for the roots of my faith also in the lives and work of our important Lutheran artists and political personalities from our past as well as those who are still living among us. I consider it to be a great privilege to be able to know them personally, their ideas, talk to them and work with them to capture their work, ideas and legacy  on film or to present it to the best of my ability on  television screen.

The faith I value the most is the one that is quiet – kind of faith we find in people like Roy, Hrobon, Krcmery, Soltes, Rufus, Rumansky and others. Faith that is not shouting and is not demonstrated by one’s chest beating or other excessive expressions, but faith that is expressed though consistent day-to-day living and interactions with others but remains highly personal and hidden deeply in our heart.


Q: When had you discovered that the world is arranged in an array of pictures and that they may be composed in a way that can be used to bring to a viewer important lessons from our history or the present?


I have several fascinating visual memories from my childhood.  For example, in Ksinna I had experienced very deeply one particularly strong storm. These storms are quite common occurrence in that valley and in the surrounding mountains. During one of these storms, I remember seeking a refuge from under our kitchen table and I was repeating words “it is raining and thundering” for the whole duration of the storm to calm myself down. Another experience is connected to the time when we lived in Jamnicky’s villa in Bratislava. It was just before Christmas in 1953 and I was ill, staying in bed. Outside it just started to snow. To keep me confortable, my mother just started a fire in a tall ceramic heating stove that was supposed to be fuelled with stoking coke. At that time, not long after the war, shortages of various articles of food and materials were very common and there was no coke to be had anywhere. And particularly there was no coke for some unreliable religious people who were not supporting enthusiastically the Communist government so my mother had to fuel the stove with just ordinary coal.  After a few minutes of fire, it seemed to me that the stove took just one deep exhale and it started to snow also inside, but the snow inside was black. The soot was falling quietly in a large, not very warm bedroom. It was like an inverse of what was happening outside, it was like seeing a film negative of the situation outside. This picture fascinated me so much that I was quietly observing this situation until the last piece of soot landed on my blanket. However, my mother was not as happy as was I…

Another time my brother and I found some photographic paper that was past its expiry date. We used it to expose various shapes and articles on the paper using sunlight and tried to outdo each other in finding new expressions of form and shade.

When I was in my preteen years, I used to be invited by my uncle to come to Vazec (birthplace of my dad) and spend a good portion of my summer school holiday there. From there, I have a beautiful visual experience from inside of my uncle’s smokehouse. About six of us, friends from the neighboring families, ventured into the smokehouse to share a puff from Detva cigarettes. And then I saw it: A heart filled with matter inside was floating in space. Rays of sun shining through a carved out heart in the door filled with cigarette smoke particles created what looked like a 3-dimensional heart floating in space. From the outside it probably looked like smokehouse was on fire because someone doused the smokehouse with a bucket of water. And the floating heart just shook a little and then disappeared with opening of the door.


Q: Your films have a magical influence on the viewers and are have a quality of leaving a mark on their souls. When viewing your films one has a feeling that one would like to return to them and view them again sometimes in the future.  Are you worried that film as a mass communication medium is loosing its importance among other, some more current, media forms?


A: I am not worried at all if the viewer remembers only a small information or detail that has an educational or spiritual value for him.  Even if he does not remember anything but if the film had some emotional awakening of his soul even that has some value as well. But this emotional cultivation of his soul is difficult to measure.

In our small country of Slovakia there seem to be a prevalent practice that publishing authors are using largely previously published material in their work. Looking at many of foreign authors I find that they are using more and more other media forms to mine information and ideas, giving references to them and incorporate them in their work. In the audio-visual medium such as film visual material is also supported by the audio (text or music). Quite often material presented is being laboriously discovered in old photographs or film archives, forgotten commentary our authentic reenactments with the participants of various situations or events.  This is leading to a process by which many authors are discovering what was already discovered but in a new space or form that was not familiar to them initially.

I do not work on films just to make living. In the area of film directing I have passed over several screenplays and some authors because I am interested to work on films or subject I am not interested personally. I believe that every director of a documentary film has a desire to discover and bring to the public something new, historic events tat are supported by new information and insights and, at the same time also to search for values important to our being as humans. If such values are important to him, they will be ultimately also shown in the finished product and will be perceived as such by the audience.  Therefore, from the plethora of visual and audio material director has to select what is of the most value, what was discovered during process of making film and what is most dramatic to express what was discovered. And he may use many variations of audio-visual forms available to him in the mix to support his personal views as well. And I think that may be the reason why a person in the audience may have a notion that he would like to see the film again.


Q: At the beginning of 1990s you had participated in removing some electronic media tools that were used as propaganda tools by the old regime. How do you remember this period in your life?


A: It was a very stormy part of my life and also stormy time for our society as well. Lots had to be re-evaluated; some people were trying to retain the status quo also in the media institutions, or to find new confortable chairs for them to sit on. For some people it was a short period of fear and for others it was a chance to fulfill their career hopes. People in the media elected me to represent them and work as a deputy chairman at the Federal Radio Regulatory Board and later in a similar position on a Slovak Radio Regulatory Board after Czech and Slovak Republic separation. I had participated in formulating many initial legislations in this area and in their application in a new industry landscape we created. We have established principles of dual industry environment, we had de-commissioned propagandistic monopoly and tools of the Communist Party in both radio and television, and we were processing licensing applications also from various private domestic and international broadcasters. We had to divide assets and broadcast frequencies during our separation from the Czech Republic. I am proud of this work. It gave me a lot of good feeling to participate in such a “historic” undertaking and I have not heard any criticism of any decisions we had made at that time. It was a pleasure to know and work with people like Ivan Medek, Miloslav Luther, Igor Ciel and Vladimir Justa. In 2004 however, my primary goals and principles with regard to the coverage of television spectrum and media operation were on a collision course with the wishes and directions of the new government. As a result, I had resigned from the board, together with three other board members who supported me. But I was not leaving the work on the board being bitter at all because we have accomplished the most important tasks that were given to us. For all the political interference and deformations of the media landscape since that time I do not feel any responsibility.  Many small and unrecognized government political appointees on the board that have followed accomplished this after our departure in 2004.

Q: You had worked for the Lutheran Evangelical Media Program in Bratislava, whose activities were popular and captured many viewers in various age categories…


I was director of the Lutheran Evangelical Media Program in Bratislava for its entire duration. The program relied mainly on participation and help from many volunteers supporting various elements of the program. This work was mainly undertaken to fulfill publicity gap that existed in the Slovak Lutheran Church at that time, the work that was suppressed for years by many government agencies of the previous regime. We had produced documentary films such as “Good as the Principle of Light and Truth” about Professor I. Rumansky; Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion; history of the Lutheran Church in Slovakia and History of Lutheran educational institutions.; and a cycle of television programs titled Ecce Homo I., II., in which we introduced various important Lutheran personalities such as: Pavol Potocek, Vladimir Droppa, Jana Krivosova, Jan Findra and choral group Hope, all together about 21 personalities or groups.  We had also published audio book readings of Jan Karafiat’s fairytales titled “Life of Firebugs”, and films for children titled “Red Booties” and “Little Sheppard,” all published on CDs.

Also, my good friend and co-worker Jozef Szadvari was leading Biblical Correspondence Courses for children and adults. Our television programs were streamed by 23 stations in Slovakia but also by television programs for Slovak living outside our borders, particularly those in Bohemia, Serbia and Hungary.  We had also received co-operation and support from our brothers and sisters in Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, International Lutheran Laymen League and Lutheran Hour Ministries in St. Louis, USA.  I considered all of this work very interesting and challenging and I trust that it was also useful to those who participated.


Q: You have made many films about important and interesting people. While making these films you have probably also met others, who were/are equally as important and interesting. In one essay you had revealed that or you are most interested in the person as such. What is it that is the most fascinating to you about a person that makes you to decide to speak about him, think about him and try understand him?


I am interested in a man and his creative potential. I am searching for his soul and the results of his creativity, and his responses made during times of stressful periods or situations in his life. It does not have to be necessarily an artist such as Vincent Hloznik, Milan Rufus, Vladimir Roy, Ignac Bizmayer, Hana Zelinova, Ernest Hemingway for example, but also other important personalities in a diplomatic area or polititians such as Milan Rastislav Stefanik, Dr. Stefan Osusky  for example. I was also fascinated by life stories of people such as commander of a partisan group Viliam Zingor, wood carver Jan Fekiac or astory about operation of an American military mission in Slovakia during the SNP or stories about Slovak soldiers on Piava front in Italy during the First World War.

Looking back, I wish I could have back those 20 years after I stopped working in the Czechoslovak Documentary Film and after my graduation from the Faculty of Film and Theatre at the University in Bratislava. Sometimes I think what could I had accomplished in those years or, maybe could not be able to accomplish. Maybe I would have to work sometimes on films or subjects I would not care about but necessary to keep working during the period of totalitarian regime we had at that time. So here we have it: Man has a plan but… So in adding it all up, I am quite satisfied. I have been able to introduce to the public many real heroes and personalities who will continue living among us in a virtual world that which is on the television screen. I have to express thanks to many co-workers who were instrumental in bringing these heroes and personalities on the television screen, but particularly Tatiana Synek, Milan Varsik, Jan Mikus and Daniela Bosanska. In making my films I have tried to include also other talented people as much as I could: people like wise Mr. Milos Kovacka, writers such as Drahos Machala and Jozef Kulacik, historian Alena Bartl and also you Slavka. Two of us worked together on films about Peter Karvas, Igor Rumansky, Jana Krivosova and also film about the Holy Sacrament of Communion. I love talented and creative people so I am trying to help them if I can and open the door for them so they can also realize their dreams. I know how difficult and discouraging it sometimes can be.

In spite of everything I lived through, I am satisfied with what I was able to accomplish as I have already mentioned. And I am happy that my brain is nice to me and that allows me to remember it all…


Translated from Slovak by Ivan Bartko P. Eng.


Autor prekladu Ing.Ivan Bartko s manželkou Ann /október 2014/.



Fedor Bartko