As an immigrant to the United States, Gabriela Bulisova has a complicated relationship with her native Czechoslovakia, returning at least once a year to visit her family in her mother’s hometown, a small village of 800 people in southern Slovakia called Chl’aba. Along the way, she began a very personal project documenting her family’s life – and the village around them – in what is by far the most personal of her documentary projects.
After the project was underway, she met and married Mark Isaac, also a photographer and video artist, and in an unplanned but steadily more consistent manner, they began to collaborate on the project – and to appear in it personally. The result is a complex portrait of Chl’aba – drawn from the dual perspectives of Gabriela, who grew up spending summers there, and Mark, who was viewing it for the first time. Returns considers the full panoply of family and village life, including: the penetrating beauty of the vineyards, wheat fields, and the nearby Danube River; the lingering simplicity and longstanding traditions, even in an era of cell phones and the internet; the complex relationships among family members; and the tragic loss in recent years of several loved ones, including Gabriela’s father.
Returns also considers something more. For many people in Slovakia and other former Communist states, the last 20 years have been decidedly a mixed blessing. While freedom of thought and expression are restored, the advent of corporate capitalism undermined small businesses, created high unemployment, hastened a movement of young people to cities and wealthier nations, and ushered in a disquieting sense of vulnerability. Of course, Europe currently faces a host of serious problems, including weak economies and an immigration crisis, which threaten its unity and its open borders. While Returns is fundamentally personal, the story of Chl’aba is also a story that raises questions about the future of the entire continent.