Pictures of the Old World (1972, Dusan Hanák)

I recently happened upon a neologism that elegantly described a feeling that often sweeps through me on a day-to-day basis. It’s called sonder and the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines it as:

The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Couple this with my affinity for the elderly and Dusan Hanák’s Pictures of the Old World appears to be my ideal film. Hanak’s documentary follows, very briefly, the lives of a small community of elderly farmers in an impoverished Slovakian village most people have probably never heard of.

It is all very unassuming yet quite beautiful. One man amusingly rambles on and on before bringing out a traditional Slovakian instrument to play for the camera (it’s difficult to know if he’s doing it properly). Another group of men have a band practice, the camera closes in on their pained expressions as they play and sing every note but the correct ones – there’s something truly touching about their imperfection.

Many are simply asked what is the most important thing in life. Some say work, some good health, a few don’t know, some say love. There’s no great wisdom here, no great Tarkovsky-esque revelations about existence.

As it seems with most films centred around old age, death is an unavoidable subject. These are people with young minds in bodies that no longer befit their energetic personalities. A fragile old man takes a fall in town, he simply says: ‘I was strong and now I’ve had it.’

But the subjects in Pictures of the Old World do not wish for sympathy. They did not require it as the socialist ‘utopia’ of Czechoslovakia passed them by decades ago and would not wish for any now. The triumph of the human spirit is the take-home message, as is the beauty found in every life – big or small, important or not – from every corner of the world.

Pictures of the Old World is a short documentary that seems to pass by as quickly as it arrives, yet the impression it leaves after it’s done is indelible. A precious work of great humanity and sonder. (8)

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