Tereza Nvotová's Nightsiren (Svetlonoc) was among the handful of titles that blew me away at this year's long-ago-feeling Boston Underground Film Festival. It's smart, beautiful, savage, and from a part of the world, Slovakia, with whose cinema I'm unfamiliar. (Ditto the filmmaking team of Nvotová and her co-writer, Barbora Namerova.) Part folk-horror and part female-empowerment/coming-of-age melodrama, Nightsiren demonstrates an ease with archetype and the courage to use funding provided by the Slovakian government to create a piece that questions the country's systems and traditions uncompromisingly. It's righteous.
I jumped at the chance to speak with Nvotová over Zoom in the run-up to the film's VOD debut in America. In conversation, I found her to be direct and forthright about everything, short of explicitly spelling out the religious imagery of her work. She doesn't want to unduly influence individual approaches to the film, and there's a refreshing wisdom to an artist making their sophomore feature who would rather the subtext stay that way. I started off by asking her to link witchcraft with fear of female sexuality:
TEREZA NOVTOVÁ: Oh, it's very connected. I'm not a scientist or anthropologist, but from my point of view, the whole idea of witchcraft is just connected with the subjugation and fear of women. If you go all the way back to the Bible and Eve and the serpent--she eats the apple, not Adam. She's the one who desires dangerous knowledge. This is how our society thinks of women in general, how societies see women's sexuality. Powerful women are expressions of something dangerous. And I think from that fear, from that presumed danger, comes the idea of witchcraft. "Oh, this woman can harm me--she must be killed." Or, this woman is openly sexual, or they are homosexual, or they look different--she is a threat to me and needs to be neutralized. All this fear and hatred reinforced by ignorance and the Church. It's easy to say, "Oh, witches, but that was the Middle Ages," but literal fear of witches and witchcraft is still current in some places we think of as "civilized." That's why Barbora and I set Nightsiren in the modern day, because I didn't want to just talk about, like, hey, this was terrible back then, but it's okay now. I'm from the city and I had that prejudice. I never ever thought there could be witches or people still believing in them, but in our villages, people really still believe in that.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Did you screen your film in the village where you shot it?
Yes, we screened the movie in the village where we shot, and even though people saw the movie and understood what we were saying about the destructiveness of these old superstitions, when it was over, they would still tell me, like," Oh, I know this other village where there's this witch..." And I was, like, wow, it's really still very much a thing. Even if we don't say the word anymore, you don't have to look deep into Western society to see how we might not talk about witches anymore, but we always talk about, you know, these women. Hillary Clinton is sucking the blood of little children to live forever. This is all the witch bullshit retold in a modern way, and it infects the ignorant in the same essential ways. It's still scary for women.
We have an entire political party in the United States that's dedicated to suppressing female sexuality, women's rights--things never really change. Why do you think men are so afraid and threatened by women's sexuality?
(laughs) That's a good question. I would ask you.
Well, in the question of reproduction, men have a lot to lose by not monopolizing the reproductive potential of as many women as possible, so we exhibit that fear through violence and control...and government...and social systems...and religion. You have a wonderful scene of male fear early in your film when they all run from "the witches' cabin."
I think most of that just came from experience. We didn't have a big theory behind it, it was more like you just live in a society, you encounter people, and this is what they act like. (laughs). I didn't want to be against men or to say, "Oh, men are terrible," or something. I just wanted to show that this whole village society is poisonous. And to underline that, often it's women that are reinforcing those systems. More women in my film accuse other women of being witches than men. They've entirely internalized this state of existence... There's safety in being on the wrong side of it. They spread all these lies and conspiracies. Anyway, a lot of my portrayal of men and women comes from experience, so that when you start to look at it in a conscious way, the design of it starts to reveal itself. I look at our national traditions, like Easter, for instance, I never... As a Slovak person, you never think about it because you're born into it, so you don't think about how, in our tradition, there's a day of the year when you get splashed by water and beaten by these whips, and since you're kids, you're told, "Yeah, it's fun!" And (laughs) it's not that much fun for many women. Once you connect the dots and look at more traditions, you see these traditions are put in place to reinforce this idea of how society is supposed to work, even if it mainly benefits only men. It's designed so we never question it.
You talk a lot about motherhood, too.
Yes. One of the main things we wanted to express was facets of womanhood you don't usually see represented in films. Issues with motherhood that aren't beautiful, for instance, like when if you're a woman, whether you want to be a mother or not, you have to deal with this question, with this ordeal written on your body. You're born with... You know you menstruate every month, and you're reminded constantly you can become a mother at any time. These things naturally came into our story, because these two women are trying to figure out their life, and when you're around 30, this is often the central question you're dealing with, or your friends and family are forcing you to deal with. You have to decide. You may suffer. You may experience things we don't really have the right mechanisms to confront, like miscarriage. I think a lot of women in my country don't even think about whether to be mothers or not. It feels like you don't have a choice--you just have to be a mother, you know? Of course you're gonna have children, and if you don't want to, people will say, "Not now, but later you will." I just wanted to put the question out there--offer the choice as something that isn't a tragedy or some great missed opportunity, but just another acceptable way to be. I don't have any answers for anyone, but in presenting ambiguity, hopefully I can help someone feel less alone.
"We got it done this time, they supported me, but maybe after the [upcoming] elections, things will be different. You strike when you are able, because you never know when your voice will be taken away from you again."
You mention Easter: How do you characterize the role of Catholicism, Slovakia's dominant religion, in Nightsiren?
It's very mixed up with all these ideas around reproduction, isn't it? Catholicism is very interested in controlling that conversation. Look at the history of our country, or any country--you begin with what they would call pagan beliefs, and then they paint over them with Catholic ones. Let's say there was a day of the year dedicated to chaos, or fertility--to the moon and witches and open sexuality. Christianity would come and reclaim the day as "ours" now, and it's from here on the day of Saint Whatever, you know, and it would obscure these weird traditions so people could still celebrate it because they knew they couldn't suppress their culture altogether, but they could at least make you forget what it used to be about. They steal these traditions. Everywhere they've been. I went to Peru, and you see these temples that are made by Incas and their walls are so beautiful, and then on the top of that is a church. It's so literal: Christianity building on the top of something that was there before.
And, look, just to tell you a little bit about the Catholic Church in Slovakia, it's very different if you look at it against how liberal the Pope might be right now. Their views are actually in opposition. You know, our church in Slovakia is just reinforcing the idea of how they are openly against everything that's not conservative. Like, Middle Ages conservative. They shout about how terrible LGBTQ+ people are, really anything that's connected with non-traditional perspectives on gender. They denounce humanism and publicly support Nazi politicians. Priests [tell] their parishioners to vote for literal Nazis on Sunday. Dangerous. I was baptized because everybody's baptized in Slovakia, but I stepped away from the Church because I was like, I don't want you to count me as condoning, much less [as] a member of this organization that for me is criminal. If you're reading criticism of the Church in my film, well... Right now in Poland, which is very similar to Slovakia, the Church is burning the Harry Potter books, because they think that's witchcraft and the Devil. In 2023. It's ridiculous. I want to make the big statements about how it's all wrong and scream it from the rooftop, but I thought it was more effective to bring it back to the small, to the personal. Where can I, as a woman in this kind of country, in this kind of society, where can I feel good? Where can I be myself? Where can I feel free? I think one of the ways is...connection through the stories we tell and the art we make. I want that to speak for me.
Your film is about a matrilineage--about things passed down through the women in a family. Are you in that line? And what are you passing down now through your film?
You know, most of the stories in our country are told by men. It's our turn. My generation, we have more filmmakers who are women. Our storytellers have always been women. I think that's more than good, that it's essential. We need these voices. Not just from women, but from every minority perspective or any group that has traditionally been silenced. What are their stories? Why aren't they telling them? We need different perspectives. We need all perspectives, not just one. If I can be one new voice, then maybe what I'm passing on is...even if it's just that you have a voice and you need to use it, that's important enough. People have come up to me after the film, and one of the things many of them have expressed is how they've been inspired maybe to try to tell their own stories--the stories of their people from their perspective.
Movies are dangerous.
Oh, film is the best tool for propaganda. It's so strong. It transcends borders and age and gender. You're in control, you have all the tools, you have visuals, you have sound... Film is powerful because it can overwhelm your defenses. Hitler knew it. Leni Riefenstahl knew it. All of these totalitarian figures knew it and used it. But when you're a voice coming from the minority, you have to appreciate how, as a tool, it's just strong. We can change people's hearts with this weapon. Right now, we have this window where if we want to do a movie, you need in my country the state fund to support me and then another European fund to support me. We got it done this time, they supported me, but maybe after the elections nine days from now, things will be different. You strike when you are able, because you never know when your voice will be taken away from you again.
Your film felt hopeful to me. Is it a hopeful film?
I hope so. (laughs) Yes. There was a huge discussion about this before we locked the edit. The film actually has, like, three endings, you know, and that's not great in terms of dramaturgy, but at the same time, I felt like [I] can't just end it without this hopeful scene in the end. I just wanted the characters to find what they were looking for, you know, and whatever it is, whatever you put there, didn't they earn this much? The actress we originally cast as Mira was a young theatre actor named Monika Potokárová. I really wanted her to play Mira because, well, I had worked with her before and we were friends. During the auditions process--I mean, not literally during it, it took over a year--she committed suicide, and it was...terrible. It was so hard to continue with the movie. But then I thought to myself that I really... I wanted the ending where Mira doesn't die, where Mira lives--and we dedicated the movie to Monika, too. In the end of all of it, I am speaking through my film, and that's, you know, if I don't have to do any interviews, it would be fine. Because I think the movie should really speak for itself. And, sure, I like to be asked [about it] and share and also hear what people feel, but I don't feel like the movie needs much of my explanations. I don't think any movie should need its creators to explain it, because if there's anything there in the movie, it will speak what it needs to say to the people who need to hear it.