Berlinale 2024 review: I’m Not Everything I Want to Be (Klára Tasovská)

“A beautiful and striking documentary that proves that simplicity is always a valuable asset.”

“And I return to where I once needed to disappear from… home.”

These words are spoken by Libuše Jarcovjáková, a name that may not be familiar to many viewers, but one that we will certainly come to appreciate after spending some time with her. One of the most important photographers to emerge from Europe in the 20th century, her work is striking and beautiful. It is reminiscent of the likes of Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, both artists who used their position as women in challenging times in American history to comment on society through the lens of their camera. Her extraordinary story has been told in the form of I’m Not Everything I Want to Be, in which director Klára Tasovská (a radically exciting voice in her own right) takes a journey into the past. A singular artistic voice, Jarcovjáková spent decades behind the lens of her camera, capturing small but significant moments; her own journey as an artist was almost directly correlated with the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, which is present in her stunning work. The intention behind this film was to offer Jarcovjáková the opportunity to tell her own story, which leads to an intimate conversation between the subject and the director, as the former takes us through her life, accompanied by the images that she captured concurrently. A beautiful and striking documentary that proves that simplicity is always a valuable asset, I’m Not Everything I Want to Be is a complex and engaging work of non-fiction dedicated entirely to telling the story of a truly incredible artist, paying tribute to both her creative endeavours and the life that inspired her to become such an integral artistic voice in her country.

There is a statement by Arbus that I inevitably find myself returning to whenever encountering a piece of media that centres around photography: “A photograph is a secret about a secret: the more it tells you, the less you know”. This poignant and thought-provoking sentiment is extremely applicable to what Tasovská set out to achieve when crafting I’m Not Everything I Want to Be, particularly as a portrait of an artist undergoing something of a later-life retrospective. The general premise of this documentary is to present an account of Jarcovjáková’s life, as told by the photographer herself. However, rather than filming footage, the director chooses to entirely compose the film from photographs taken by the subject, and enlists her to narrate her life, which essentially entails recollections taken from her diaries. An entire film consisting of still photographs may not sound particularly invigorating in theory, but it doesn’t take long before it becomes a revealing, complex and engaging narrative in which these images take on a life of their own. In isolation, a single photograph may not tell us much, but the concurrent sound (which includes the voice-over narration, as well as music and a few sound effects) works together with the images to create a vibrant tapestry of Jarcovjáková’s life over the decades. We constantly wonder whether the photographs guide the narrative, or vice versa – but the way Tasovská structures the film around a loosely chronological account of the subject’s life from the 1960s to the present day creates an incredible and poignant depiction of her growth, told entirely in her own words and through the images of her surroundings that she spent her life capturing.

The unique structure of I’m Not Everything I Want to Be essentially exists in service of some broader themes, which are quickly revealed as the film begins to explore its subject’s fascinating life by engaging with her on a profoundly personal level. This film is as much a tribute to the artistic process and curiosities of a photographer as it is a revealing portrait of her existence, forming an unconventional but deeply moving coming-of-age story. The director captures the most intimate moments of a woman who has been undergoing her own individual revolution for over half a century. As an artist and a woman at a time in history when both were viewed as marginal groups under this draconian political system, Jarcovjáková dared to wage a one-person war against the status quo. Judging by her longevity and the fact that she looks back on her journey fondly, she has clearly succeeded. Throughout the film we find Tasovská paying particular attention to the images and discussions around identity – in a film that crosses decades and continents, the idea of questioning yourself and where you belong in the world is perhaps the most fundamental theme, informing much of the narrative. This kind of candour and genuine complexity would not be possible had Tasovská not made the effort to encourage Jarcovjáková to revisit some of these difficult chapters in her life. The subject’s willingness to not only reminisce about the past but speak with such unfiltered honesty is the primary reason the film manages to be such an extraordinarily engaging and revealing depiction of her journey over the years, both physical and metaphorical.

The final words we hear Jarcovjáková utter in this film are “I think I’ll never stop asking myself who I really am“, which perfectly reflects the major themes of the film. I’m Not Everything I Want to Be is a film that asks many questions, but none more vital than trying to decipher who one is beneath the surface. It is rare to find a documentary that is entirely guided by the subject – but considering this film is composed solely of images taken by Jarcovjáková, as well as her voice being the only one we hear, it becomes an exercise in seeing just how authentic a film can be without needing to rely on heavy-handed narrative tactics. The simplicity of this film is its greatest asset – it presents a series of images, accompanied by words spoken by the person behind them. Some of the photographs are discussed, others exist on their own without context – and it all constitutes a beautifully poetic and deeply moving portrait of a singular artistic voice, who opens herself up in a way that we rarely find in even the most intimate and thorough of biographical documentaries. Honest and forthright, and genuinely bold in both conception and execution, Tasovská achieves something quite special with I’m Not Everything I Want to Be, a film that is both intimate and sprawling in vision, and a tremendous odyssey into the trials and tribulations of a true pioneer.

Image copyright: Libuše Jarcovjáková