This year the Jihlava documentary festival took “reconstruction” as its theme, and the programme sparks consideration of the types of renewal that are possible in documentary film. Like a building that is renovated, the form can remake individual experience or the sense of an environment, and bring new historical understandings. A film festival itself can potentially question the organisation of its own events, and restore audiences’ experience of nonfiction pictures through time.
While becoming increasingly established, Jihlava’s origins as a student event remain in the energy of its young staff, and the inventiveness that new Czech and Slovak filmmakers bring to the permeable borders of documentary.
National film school student Viėra Čakányová read online of an elderly woman’s blog describing her life with Alzheimer’s. Čakányová then wrote a script, using people from the woman’s life, on the theme of living in a post-communist society. While the resulting film, Alda, is largely staged with actors, the lady with Alzheimer’s, Oldřiška Ševelová, performs all the voice-overs. Since she had difficulty remembering lines, she would improvise based on Čakányová’s descriptions of a scenario and the scenes shot for the film. The sympathy with the young filmmaker gave Ševelová’s experiences new life, with the housing estates that still stand on the East European landscape, becoming part of the film’s structure somewhere between documentary and fiction.
Documentary further turns familiar environments into new arenas of debate. The lucidity of a documentary like Auto*mat (director Martin Mareček) explains how it is possible for a one-hour drive between the capital Czech city, Prague, and the festival town of Jihlava, to take three times what it should due to the congestion of cars, a traffic jam that many festival-goers experienced firsthand. The film’s convincing plea against the domination of Prague by automobiles is lessened by a lack of access to the political arena where improvements could be initiated, if accompanied by expected absurdities.But it is an optimistic sign that the movie won the festival’s audience award, as its portrait enables people to map the sources of Prague’s traffic blight.
Revision also appears an ongoing task to square with uncomfortable history. This year featured archival screenings of Czech films made under the Nazi Protectorate from 1939-1945. They represent a rare return to a typically bypassed period of the country’s cinema – although the documentary programme was coincidentally simultaneous with the release of the fiction film Protektor, the country’s nominee to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. At Jihlava, Terezín (1945) – a filmed record of the infamous staged “model” concentration camp – illustrates the importance of reconstructing the past, by both using and transcending its materials. Despite its 15-minute length, and benevolent classical music without much voiceover, the footage makes a study of insidious imagery: A nurse enters the frame where a woman sits smiling, cross-legged, reading on the bottom of a spacious bunk bed. Appreciative faces of spectators at a concert, workers checking vegetables in wide furrows of a sunny garden, and other images contribute to the presentation of a carefully contrived daily life, with no sense of the massive over-crowding of a human junkyard in Bohemia.
The festival programme shows the fundamental importance of documentaries, and our revision of their information, in trying to grasp the past. When talking about his film on the ostracisation of Jews from Czech society and their transport to Terezín, in the still undervalued film The Long Journey (1949), Czech director Alfréd Radok said that one has to learn to penetrate the times. His advice remains true today through both the illuminations and the illusions of documentary.
The archive films also compel appreciation of careers. Young Czechs were forced into filmmaking by the Nazi closure of their universities in 1939, and the simultaneous conversion of the Czech Barrandov studios into a planned German film production centre, even if it was finally completed after the Protectorate fell. Czechs – like Italians, Germans, Russians, and others – began or flourished as filmmakers under regimes which honed them in their crafts, expecting returns for cinematic skill in the perpetuation of authority.
Reconstruction can entail a return to the roots of national and personal histories, as well as to the structure of a film festival. Jihlava’s organisers are surveying the development of festivals before their dedication to movies. As a result, shorts from the Stuttgart Film und Foto exhibit of 1929 stood out in the programme: why were Ballet Mécanique and Regen (English title: Rain), both films typically classified as avant-garde works, screened among documentaries? According to Andrea Slováková, who programmed them, they represent the period when films were part of expositions of other media. The retrospective of experimental, avant-garde films produced outside the commercial world also highlights how modern documentary festivals have become inextricable from documentary markets, for example in the tutoring and pitches of the thriving Ex-Oriente workshop, run by Prague’s Institute of Documentary Film. The workshop has been a boon to the region’s documentary production in the pitches it develops for the East European Forum held during the festival week.
But picture, for example, Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens1 at a podium presenting Rain to a group of TV commissioning editors. He shows a trailer for the first section of his study of water and light: the rooftops, streets, and canals of a Dutch city under sunny, then overcast, skies:
German commissioning editor: “The footage is beautiful. But how is the piece going to develop?”
Ivens: “I’m going to get shots of people in the city during the rain and after it stops.”
French commissioning editor: “To appeal in my territory, we could have statistics about the composition of French rain, or rain on Paris landmarks, or pedestrians cursing in French..”
Ivens: “I want to shoot it in Holland, using no dialogue, only music.”
French commissioning editor: “That’s an interesting choice.”
Workshop Moderator: “So it’s a universal story.”
English commissioning editor: “It looks great, but in the UK, if you pardon the expression, we’re deluged with projects like this.”
Finnish commissioning editor: “Unfortunately, we’re in talks with an Irish team for a rain film, to go with our snow studies.”
Czech commissioning editor: “Can you mix Czech with Dutch showers?”
Yet Jihlava’s dedicated heads are trying to ensure networks for contemporary films like Rain. This is done by developing the Doc Alliance project, the association of five European festivals. It arose from the insight “that new initiatives are needed to promote remarkable films to a general market that is less permeable to their circulation and commercialisation,” through formats including film, TV, DVD, and VOD.2 The project, digitised collection of the East Silver Market, and the East European Forum make up Jihlava’s overlapping layers: a design for the festival’s future incorporating its recent investigations into the documentary past.
The most enjoyable and revealing screening at Jihlava was The Greatest Wish II – a film that, like a church in Rome, combines layers of time visibly upon one another: two generations of young Czech people, from 1964 and 1989 respectively, were asked by the filmmakers: “What is your greatest wish?” The film was part of the release of the work on DVD of one of the pillars of Czech documentary from the 1960s onwards, Jan Špáta. His films deserve broader distribution for their engaging curiosity, and the filmmaking skill that satisfies it, particularly in the camerawork that renders impressions of people indelible in seconds, and the sensitive use of sound.
During the screenings, young Czechs in the festival audience, laughed at the gawky dancers of the sixties in black-andwhite, followed by the coloured mullets sported by eighties heavy-metal fans. But they listened intently to the values of past generations: wishes ranging from the never-realised dream of a young man in the sixties who wanted to travel to Paris; to football fans in the eighties who wish their team Sparta would win the cup (and that’s it? That’s all); the soldier who wants to finish his service quickly; and the nurse who wishes that no more children would die from hunger. Other wishes were voiced by tramping campers, punks, a boy in a wheelchair and a blind girl, dissatisfied students, and female textile workers dedicated to the socialist state that guaranteed their employment (although on the threshold of the Velvet Revolution).
Such documentaries’ challenging reconstructions of identity, environments, and history may keep them from winning mass popularity. But without its shared, sometimes humorous, reflections on what is and what ought to be, our solitary tendencies may too easily fall in line with the more sightless drives ahead.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).