Veronika Lisková
Photo: CTK, Šimánek Vít


By Pamela Cohn

On Daniel’s World (Czech Republic, 2015) by Veronika Lišková

When we meet him, twenty five year old Daniel is a student at the literary academy in Prague and in the midst of encountering his problematic sexuality head-on. He is a virgin and has never dated a boy or a girl, as he tells us. But he does have love in his life even though he knows that it is the kind of love that can never be realized. Czech filmmaker Veronika Lišková followed Daniel for one year as he introduces his family, friends, and the society in which he lives into his world living as a pedophile. An exceedingly empathetic and human-scale story, Daniel’s World captures both the public and private moments of his confessions. This young man’s charm, marvelous sense of the absurd, and propensity to exaggerate give this portrait a lightness and humor one would never naturally affiliate with this kind of topic, one that is so horrifying and objectionable that very few want to broach the subject in the first place. Initially, neither did the film’s director.

I first learned of it from a fellow programmer who had seen the film at its début at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival last October. It had left him speechless and a bit bewildered, but deeply impressed. This coming-out story is not about Daniel’s homosexuality, but that of his sexual disorientation of pedophilia. I sat with Lišková in Berlin on the afternoon of the film’s international premiere in the Panorama Dokumente section at the 65th edition of the Berlinale:

Pamela Cohn: Why did you want to make a film on this topic?

Veronika Lišková: This was actually the idea of my good friend and the producer of the film, not mine. He called me one day and said that he wanted to shoot something on this topic. My first reaction was that it was going to be extremely hard for me to imagine doing a film on something that dark. I told him to let me do some research and to think about it. Another thing I insisted on was that it would be a one-person portrait and if we found the right person willing to be filmed, I wanted to be one hundred percent sure that he had never acted out on his desires in any way.

The idea came because Zdenek had seen something on TV about this child abuser. The report, as so often happens, was presenting this condition of pedophilia and child abuse as one and the same – in other words, if you abuse children sexually, this makes you a pedophile. He wondered if there was someone born with this disorientation that never did anything criminal or anything wrong towards a child. In Czech Republic, there is a community, a network made up mostly of young men between the ages of twenty and forty. As a group, their mission is to change the opinion of society and to fight against this very typical stereotype that all pedophiles are criminals, or that they abuse children. They want to also prove that it’s possible to be born with this disorientation. They love children; children are like little gods to them and they don’t want to destroy or damage what they love the most.

When we met with sexologists and other doctors, it was kind of a big awakening for us because we came across one important item of research made on the issue of child abuse. In 90% of cases of child abuse, the perpetrator is not someone who has this condition. They are mostly people with more “normative” orientations who prey on children, the easiest victims. There is almost a complete lack of knowledge about this condition and it’s always used in this way to describe a criminal act – that the perpetrator must be a pedophile.

PC: Did you have a narrative structure in mind when you started?

VL: It was always a very intimate crew, just me, a DoP and soundperson and so part of our work was just based on situation – following Daniel throughout one year in as natural a way as possible, capturing moments from his daily life. The narrative spine is in the voiceover and what really pulls us into his world. When I met him the second or third time to talk about the project, he told me that he sometimes writes in a diary, but then also sometimes he records himself talking, his thoughts, imaginings, fantasies, and dreams. So I immediately gave him a professional recorder and asked him to record some of these for me so I could listen to them during the filming process. Those recordings helped me build the narrative. They were spontaneous and at his discretion, but once in a while I would ask him to talk specifically about something from his childhood, let’s say, and he would do this, as well.

Daniel’s World - Daniel?v sv?t by Veronika LiŠková
Daniel’s World  by Veronika LiŠková

PC: He’s an exceedingly intelligent and articulate individual – this helps always, I think, to pull a viewer in, creates an innate trust in a way, which is especially important when dealing with this kind of subject matter. He’s a good storyteller, in other words, so it’s not just a confessional we’re listening to.

VL: Besides all this – and you’re absolutely right that Daniel was the most intelligent person from this community we spoke to – he was the only one we met who was willing to show his face. It’s a really risky situation and I don’t want to underplay how brave it was to decide to do it because no one else would – for very understandable reasons. However, Daniel was an emerging writer and when we met him, he had already published a novel based on his own life and experience. In a sense, it was already public knowledge. So when I asked him if he’d be willing to do a film and that his face would be shown, he said yes. He saw it as a natural extension of his artistic practice, his biography and his social activities. He was very active, working a lot with younger people from this community, counseling them, and listening to them as they were trying to overcome this most difficult period when they are realizing who they are and how to face it.

PC: You film various encounters he has with his family and friends in counterpoint to the scenes where you film him in isolation – in his very dark apartment, in his own safe world. The scene with his mom is really, really funny for all kinds of reasons, but mostly because it’s just this typical mother/son scene where they have absolutely nothing to say to one another but have a nice tea together while she’s doing his laundry and he goes out to walk her dog, quite mundane stuff, but the setting and the awkwardness are so charming.

But there’s a scene towards the end of the film that I found extremely moving and that is Daniel’s conversation with the head of the largest LGBTQ organization in your country about being part of the yearly parade. The theme of the parade that year is “Coming Out,” and Daniel wants his group to be part of it, including being allowed to carry a banner stating who they are, the fact that they are organized, and want to be accepted into society. You captured one man’s awakening to this issue in his own community and they both acknowledge that the conversation represents way more than the one-day parade Daniel and his group want to be a part of.

VL: This was an instance where Daniel came to me with this idea of filming a meeting with someone from this community, someone with decision-making power. Daniel and his group had been discussing for two years the idea that someday they would love to go to this parade. But they hadn’t found the courage yet to do it. This guy he met with is the public face and main advocate of the LGBTQ community in the Czech Republic. Daniel wanted to use this opportunity to ask this guy if he and his group would be welcome. When we contacted him, the only thing we told him was that we really liked the theme of the parade and that we have a friend’s story that we are filming who is going through an extremely complicated coming-out and he wanted to meet in person.

PC: That’s all you told him?

VL: Yes. The reason why we weren’t more specific is because then we would turn up and get this “public relations” face on things because he would be prepared. The power of that scene, as you indicated, is his shock at what Daniel has to tell him and his grappling with trying to understand and stay open. We got a very natural and nuanced reaction. If he had asked us to be more specific on the phone, we weren’t going to hide it; we would have told him more. But he didn’t. When we were filming that scene, I must say that I was fully expecting the director of the parade to say no.

Daniel’s World - Daniel?v sv?t by Veronika LiŠková
Daniel’s World by Veronika LiŠková

PC: You could see that he very much wanted to say no – imagining the public relations nightmare for his organization and his leadership that would ensue, perhaps. But Daniel, as he does in all these encounters, just completely wins him over. And it’s not through equating this group’s experience with the gay community at large at all, but just the reiteration of inclusion – in other words, put your money where your mouth is by saying that no matter who you are and what you’re about, you’re welcome.

So let’s talk then about this other scene where you film a small group of pedophiles, including Daniel, in the public park, amongst children playing. You and your crew set yourselves quite far away and put a microphone on everyone – so we see the guys from a long distance as they’re talking about the children around them. Again, it’s an unexpectedly funny scene, as well as being quite creepy and weird.

VL: I would say this is probably the most controversial scene in the film.

PC: These guys are standing in a circle and we’re listening to them talking about their “cuties” as they call them – what they like about what they’re wearing, etc. And they do use the possessive “mine” or “my” so we understand that each of them has a particular child in mind. Daniel himself is very open about the object of his desire, a little boy of some friends of his. But it did also remind me of how a group of guys would be gathered looking at a group of girls and commentating like this – although it would probably be a lot nastier, actually. But it is the only scene where you’re putting them in a space where there are children.

VL: From the beginning, I was insistent that there be no children in the film, or take the risk of exposing any child. But I also felt that I did want to show that there is a community, to shoot their meetings in an authentic way, and to listen in on what they talk about when they’re together. There are around 400 registered members in this group in Czech Republic, only two of whom are female. I met with one but she refused to be in the film at all, even with her face and voice disguised. She was extremely scared that someone would recognize her. But she did meet with me to talk. It was interesting to know that there are females with this condition although it’s much more rare than it is in men.

When I asked these people from the community where they usually meet, they mentioned that they often go to these shopping centers and have coffee near where you have those children’s play areas. So if this is the real situation of how they meet and where they meet, I had to film that this way. When we went to this park, there was a playground nearby and so I set my camera way back and waited to see what would happen.And what happened was, they stopped in the midst of this playground and started talking and commenting on the children. Even though I was partly listening to this conversation when we were shooting, I had a slightly different reaction when listening to it later and looking at the footage. I didn’t feel 100% comfortable while listening to the way they commented on the children. Even though I was listening to this conversation when we were shooting, I had a different reaction when listening to it later and looking at the footage. There was a lot of discomfort. But what I noticed, as you mentioned, that if men comment on groups of girls this way – the objects of their desire – I’m sure the commentaries would have been way less fragile. What they say is not sexual. They comment on what they’re wearing, the color and style of their hair, how they laugh and smile. But, nonetheless, it’s something already way beyond the border for all of us.

PC: The amount of exposure, as the film goes on – and this is a credit to great dramaturgical instincts on your part – only intensifies, and wavers between total acceptance on the part of some of his relatives and friends in counterpoint to what we know has been a very violent reaction on the part of others. As you stated before and as I felt while watching his story, Daniel is one of the bravest individuals I’ve encountered in film.

VL: There is a lot of organic development as he emerges and I understood that this film would act as a kind of final station for Daniel in terms of his development as an activist. He had spent the last seven years in this community and become very active, one of its leaders, helping to run the website. I think he got to the point where he felt that if he wanted to live a somewhat normal life he had to change something about the way he’d been living. In other words, to not be completely and totally focused on his disorientation, just this one dimension or aspect to the whole person he is.

When his public coming out in this film was done, he wanted to step aside and try to find out if it’s possible to live a life apart from this community. This, of course, took tremendous energy for him to do this, to go for this full development and eventually individuate from the others. He told me he didn’t want to be this public person anymore, this representative. He wanted to have a full life.

And he has, because now when we meet from time to time for a coffee, we don’t really talk about that much anymore. From the beginning, I knew I wasn’t interested in making some kind of activist film, and neither did he. As we see, he can speak quite eloquently for and about himself and he didn’t need anyone to help him do that. From the beginning, therefore, we shared a lot of things and I allowed him to get to know me as a person, just as he was allowing me to get to know him. Otherwise, this common platform would not be possible without the sharing of intimacy – things like the fact that my husband and I were about to start a family and sharing with him my fears and doubts about having my first child.

Some journalists have asked me a question that I know they think is very clever, and that is, would I be prepared to let Daniel be around my little boy in my home and spend time with him? I don’t understand this question. Yes, I made this film and yes, Daniel and I have become friends, but I met him as a pedophile first, not as a friend. I would be completely fine with him being around my son if that were to happen naturally, but to be asked in this kind of provocative way is not really a fair question, is it?

This experience was a huge lesson in tolerance for me, reminding me once again that there are so many people who have much more complicated destinies than the average person. So far, audiences have embraced the film for what it is, a portrait of a complex human being. The biggest doubts most people have about the film are before they actually see it. Just as I had my biggest doubts about making this film before meeting Daniel and others like him.