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.

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Gabriel M. Paletz
Gabriel Paletz, Ph.D (screenwriting), with a BA from Yale University and PhD from the University of Southern California, is the first PhD graduate from the University of Southern California to study film theory and practice at the same time. Dr. Paletz has taught film history, criticism and production at College of William and Mary, Duke University and USC.