The documentary “Every Single Minute,” which had its world premiere in competition on Saturday at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, is a nonfiction film with the power to leave some viewers thrilled and others infuriated. A doc about a system of child-rearing that seemingly leaves not a moment for parent or child to relax, it presents its characters in a defiantly nonjudgemental way, leaving the audience to decide whether the couple at the center of the film are maximizing their son’s potential or engaging in a form of abuse.
It’s difficult to walk away from “Every Single Minute” not feeling at least a little of the second option, which means it’s hard not to wish that director Erika Hnikova would come down a little harder on her subjects now and then. But neutrality also makes an artistic statement, and you have to give her credit for giving everyone involved enough rope to either reel us into their system or hang themselves.
The film follows Michal and Lenka Hanuliak, a couple from Slovakia who are raising their son, Misko, in the Kameveda system, which was created in the Czech Republic and popularized by Pavel Zacha, who abandoned his own job to rear his son in a way that turned every waking moment into a time to be “training,” both athletically and intellectually.
Zacha’s son went on to become a hockey and tennis prodigy who now plays for the New Jersey Devils in the NHL, and the Hanuliaks consider him their guru in raising Misko, a child we meet three months before his fourth birthday.
Their devotion to Kameveda begins in flashbacks to Misko as an infant, with his parents encouraging him to use his legs to push off the walls of the small tub in which they’re bathing him, and then soon after, when Michal tries to teach him situps before he can walk.
Does it all seem a bit much, and at times a bit ridiculous? Sure. And it also seems a little scary, particularly when you consider that a region Central Europe just across the border from Germany gave birth to a system described this way on its official website:
“Kameveda is a ‘science’ whose ‘graduates’ will be able to move the limits of human possibilities in many attractive disciplines in the future. Kameveda can also be a very effective instrument in fighting the advancing degeneration of the population with its return to perfect physical condition, personality harmony, strong immunity and hardiness created in early childhood.”
For the Hanuliaks, there’s nothing sinister about Kameveda; instead, it’s a way for two clearly hyper-competitive people to completely devote themselves to making their child fit and hyper-competitive himself. So breakfast turns into a quiz on long words, there’s a chin-up bar in Misko’s room long before he has the strength to do chin-ups and a typical day might be swimming and running in the morning and piano lessons, tennis and ice skating in the afternoon.
It’s safe to say that the physical training takes up almost all of “Every Single Minute”; they may be training little Misko mentally when the cameras are off, but what we see is almost exclusively sports-related. And the parents are so driven that they’ll reach out to Zacha himself on a video call to give updates and ask which direction their son’s palms should be facing when he tries to do pull-ups.
He says it doesn’t really matter, which seems to disappoint the couple who are obsessively looking for the absolute best way to make their child a champion. (Michal scans YouTube looking for videos of ice skaters who are 3 years and nine months old, to see if anybody out there is better than Misko.)
The family refers to letting Misko “play,” but that mostly to seems to involve some kind of training: When they go to the beach together, other kids build sand castles while Misko runs sprints to and from the water, Michal alongside him encouraging him to lift his knees higher. And when the child hurts his knee and cries, “I don’t want to train with you!” to his father, Lenka turns it into a competition and declares, “That’s because dad doesn’t do it right. Train with me.”
Hnikova’s cameras take it all in at a distance; there are relatively few closeups in “Every Single Minute,” and lots of scenes where the camera sets up on the other side of the ice rink from the Hanuliaks, or at the bottom of a steep hill where Misko runs up the steps every day, or in a corner of the room where the family is eating or training.
Despite the studied neutrality, we see signs of stress by the end of the film: Michal has to spend a day away at his job, Lenka halfheartedly oversees a lackluster session and then sighs, “I don’t feel very good today” and Misko occasionally rebels from the nonstop training.
But the film doesn’t leave things there: Instead, it takes us to the Kameveda Summer Children’s Games, where Misko is the big winner and the family walks away arm in arm as he sings, “I’m gonna win, I’m gonna win.” It’s a better fanfare, perhaps, than the theme from “Rocky,” though disquieting nonetheless.
“Every Single Minute” is currently featured on the official Kameveda Facebook page, which calls it “a film that makes it possible to watch education by the Kameveda method in practice” and then adds a happy face. By laying back and never tipping her hand or pushing the viewer in any specific direction, Hnikova makes it possible for the film to draw that kind of reaction – but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that most viewers will be quite so pleased with what they see on screen.