«Visual artists are the quickest ones to reflect on what’s happening in society»

JIHLAVA IDFF: Marek Hovorka on the festival's place within the wider industry landscape, his thoughts on the art vs content debate, and on its extensive film and event programme.

For its 26th edition, the 2022 Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival meets from 25 October to 30 October 2022. As the largest festival of creative documentary films in Central and Eastern Europe, Ji.hlava IDFF draws attention to documentaries notable for their innovative visual style and a deeper social reflection and confrontation.

Now, with 2022’s edition commencing today, Modern Times Review spoke with Festival Director Marek Hovorka on its place withon the wider festival landscape, his thoughts on the art vs content debate, and on the festival’s extensive film and event programme.

after two decades, we decided that it’s not Eastern and Western Europe anymore. There is only one Europe.

What place does Ji.hlava occupy in the broader continental documentary landscape, in particular, given it is an autumn festival when many others occur? And how have you seen the festival evolve over the years into this place?

From the beginning, we’ve had a festival representing the region of Central and Eastern Europe and getting these filmmakers together during this first competition from the region. But after two decades, we decided that it’s not Eastern and Western Europe anymore. There is only one Europe. That led us to several changes in the programming. Last year, we merged three sections into one, but also underlined the identity. We want to be a European film festival in terms of identity. It’s very important to connect filmmakers from the north, south, east and west. This is the mission of the festival. If we go deeper into the programming of most documentary film festivals, we see that they are very Western-oriented. That’s also why we founded the East-West index. To follow these numbers and reflect that this is happening. It’s also interesting information for filmmakers. Of course, in one way, it’s natural because it’s based on cooperation for the last 50 or 60 years in terms of when it was the time of building film festivals, film institutions, film funds, and creating the whole structure of productions and cooperation in incorporating public TVs, and other sources into non-fiction filmmaking. But still, I think we have to face that this is not the world anymore. I think the event should reflect it. The best way how to reflect it is through art. Art is the way we can understand society. How we can understand differences and the times we live in. Documentary filmmaking is even closer to this. This is one level.

The other level is the way how we approach cinema. For us, from the very beginning, documentary film is cinematic. I have to say, I think this is not the case today. But many years ago, this was a big difference between Ji.hlava and IDFA, for example. IDFA, as a key documentary event in Europe, was very much oriented on the TV market. When I was there for the first time in 1999, I was very shocked at what kind of films were being screened. But as I said, this has changed. Luckily also at other festivals. I think today, documentary is a really strong and cinematic way how we can express ourselves and think about today’s times. For Ji.hlava, it’s important to give voice to newcomers, the young generation, outsiders, and those who are brave in experimenting and trying to find new ways of using the cinematic language coming from different cultural contexts. Not to create just one language but to support diverse ones, and also to put this European experience or perspective in the context of other continents. We have specific focuses and films in the competitive sections from North and South America and Asia. We try to get something from Africa. It’s really not so easy. But again, this is something we also addressed to East-West Index that Africa is mostly missing in the film festival landscape in Europe.

For Ji.hlava, it’s important to give voice to newcomers, the young generation, outsiders, and those who are brave in experimenting and trying to find new ways of using the cinematic language coming from different cultural contexts.

There are a few things there that I would be interested in asking you about. But let’s go with my next prepared question. Because you touched a little bit on it…

When I was talking about IDFA, it was not only them. We can also say it was the European Documentary Network, which was very much connected to the TV industry. And this was stopped by the first crisis we had in the 21st century, the financial crisis in 2008/2009 when most TV budgets were cut. Filmmakers realised they needed to get other funding. Then, these festivals and other parts of the traditional documentary industry also reflected it. For us, it was from the beginning. We started this Emerging Producers programme because we trusted producers as key elements of filmmaking. If we don’t have brave and smart producers responsible for cinema, we have cinema like before.

I feel that the US festivals are still like this, in a way. They’re only replacing TV with streaming. You’re also one of the few European festivals opening the door and embracing US documentary filmmaking. What is your mission with this? And can you talk about the differences in documentary presentation between European and US films?

Interestingly, you mentioned streamers because they definitely want to use this space for themselves. They look at documentary cinema the same as many in TV still think of it, as cheap production. They can easily finance one-hour or two-hour slots for 1/10 of the budget for fiction. This is, of course, wrong. The great thing is that documentary is much faster reflecting contemporary times. Karel Vachek, one of the Czech filmmakers and teachers from the film academy, said it was always interesting to carefully watch what’s happening in the visual art scene. Visual artists are the quickest ones to reflect on what’s happening in society. I think this is very smart.

It’s also a metaphor. It’s the difference between documentary and fiction. Documentary is much, much faster and is less expensive. It, therefore, is quicker in being a direct reflection of the times we are going through. So in a way, it’s also a good thing that these streamers have these cheaper non-fiction programmes because they can be a bridge to all who don’t know what documentaries look like.

When you ask about the US and European industries, it’s very different. In Europe, we have a strong infrastructure. We have diverse film funds, but the missing piece is a common language. Across Europe, so much is rooted in diversity, diverse culture, and diverse history. This can hardly can be breached. It really takes time. For this, there is a story. The European Commission said we share one continent so maybe let’s create one education. They started with a history book for pupils in school, which would be the same for France and Germany. Immediately they realised it wasn’t possible. There is so much difference in interpretation. This somehow illustrates the weaker parts of Europe. That we are living so much in our history, in our past. For the US, it is completely different. There is almost no financing. Probably only a few sources for such a huge country with so many talented filmmakers. But US filmmakers have a very good distribution channel. When you are successful, you can easily be seen all around the world, and the system is designed for successful people. If you are successful, you are super successful. This is the case for our project called US Docs. To shine a spotlight on independent US documentary films. We wanted to create a spot where everyone interested in American documentaries can come every year and see who the new faces are and their projects, meet producers, and visit a place for cooperation. Of course, there are different industry platforms where few projects are presented, but it doesn’t have that institutional background.

The difference between this year and last is that we started cooperating with this AmDocs Film Festival in Palm Springs, California. They financially support this forum in terms of supporting the winning film. There will be a jury, and they will award the best project from US Docs. It’s so important because for these independent filmmakers, until the moment they are successful, they are completely fragile. Their situation is not comparable between Europe and the US. It’s not surprising that many of them are immigrants. They come from Europe, but their parents moved to the US. They simultaneously feel at home but not. They have these split identities.

It’s not only about the US and Europe but also about the US and South America, for example. Or US and Asia. It is what the US is today, the mixture of culture and many talented people. But as I said, the biggest thing that makes the difference is the market. The potential of the market and business capacity. I think this is a more general question but, for example, for science in Europe, there are many great universities, but if you want to make a step and change your scientific project into a business project, it’s not possible to do it outside of the USA. Maybe it’s possible to do it in China, but not Europe. It’s interesting to see these differences and to work with them. We organised a special educational programme for participating filmmakers of US Docs, presenting them with the system of financing, distribution, and festivals in Europe. They were so eager to know more. Even though they are experienced filmmakers, they did not have information on how the European audio-visual system works, how to deal with festivals, and who the sales agents are. This is part of the project, all about connecting Europe and US through these problems, training US filmmakers, and adapting them to European habits.

Also, the magic power of Oscar is so strong in Europe. It’s always there. Of course, you must love the project you want to work on. But if you’re a European producer and you want to work on a US documentary, there is always also this chance of being nominated for the Oscars. There are several cases, even in Europe, of nominated films that changed these filmmakers’ lives. As I said, there is this business power, and it’s good to combine it and navigate it well.

Marek Hovorka
Marek Hovorka

This correlates to one of the most interesting aspects of the Inspiration Forum that I wanted to ask you about in another question. But before I do that, I wanted to get your thoughts on the debate between art and content. You use words like art and cinema a lot in describing your programming approach. Thinking about these business models we’re talking about, that’s also a stark difference. In the US market, from a business perspective, it kind of is content. It is content when you fill up Netflix with 10 serial killer documentaries in a year, and someone’s got to make those films. This is not necessarily looked at as a bad thing there. But as I talk to many people within the artistic director, festival director, or programming spaces in Europe, it is very much a dirty word. What are your thoughts on the art vs. content debate?

The key is the position from which perspective you think about it. When we think about it from the perspective of a film festival, their role is, in a way, to create a safe space for fragile projects, for what’s new in cinematic language, and in how we approach ourselves or our society. Of course, it’s very much linked to gender, environmental questions and many things that are part of a changing world. But done from this creative author’s perspective. When you use the business language too much, you blur the line between business and the art scene. This is the problem. It is important to say that our role is completely different from that of Netflix. We can create authors, or we can give space to authors, which in the end, might be successful on streamers, but in a position when they are successful and when they are creating something taken by the wider society. It’s the same as I was speaking at the beginning about TV because the biggest problem of TV, like 15 or 20 years ago, is that they want the product. They want something which fits into their slot. It’s a completely different perspective to create something for the slot than to create artistic reflection. As I said, fragile, brave, extreme experimental, and different. If we want to create a space for experimenting and thinking, we need to leave this language of projects, slots, or content. In the end, they take this narrative and new ways of filmmaking from those who were successful. They just take it and use it as their own language. But they don’t do anything to create this space.

It’s a completely different perspective to create something for the slot than to create artistic reflection.

Interestingly, you say that an overreliance on business-related vocabulary blurs the line between cinema and art. Similarly, in my view, it’s similar, is the fine line between community and industry. There’s a trend where many players brand it as a community regardless of industry. I’ve always found that the concepts of industry and community are antithetical. Yes, an industry is an ecosystem. But industry is also a competitive system, while a community is an inclusive system. It’s understandable why we want to look at the industry as a community and also that we can strive to get there. But through, as you said, an overreliance on business language and an overreliance on embedded neoliberalism, it does blur that line.

We try to create space for both ways, if we just say there are two. When we are talking about streamers, they are successful at the moment. They need to have films which work today. And they don’t care much about what they will stream in one year or month. It’s necessary to have these films. Even film festivals need this kind of cinema, which attracts wider audiences. But also you need the second or third level of production, which is much more oriented in the future. And that’s significant for art. Today, when we go to art museums, some artists were completely not recognised during their times. But now, they are the period’s heroes who created their own language. This perspective of time, which is changing the value of art, meaning non-fiction cinema, is, again, the position of film festivals.

Competition is something that’s also a problem. It’s good to not compete so much. And we have experienced this through Emerging Producers because many prior trainings were competitive. We could see how this completely changed the atmosphere in the group. Just the decision not to make it competitive completely changed the event’s atmosphere and value. Participants really created friendships and networks, which lasted since that time.

An appropriate segue into the next question, which is about changing mindsets. It’s like the old saying that all politics is local. These things start at the smallest, grassroots place, but to build up, you need the spark. So you also need the spark to facilitate such conversations to ultimately change minds. One that I see from the Inspiration Forum that does this is the Giorgos Kallis seminar on “DeGrowth”. What is this concept, and why in the Inspiration Forum for 2022?

I’m very curious about this day, and I’m part of one panel related to growth or degrowth in the film industry. So we will see what comes up from this talk. In general, the pandemic helped us understand that random success is not the only thing we should do. The mental level of things is important. This is also related to ethical programmes we have during this festival as this experience through the pandemic has changed the general mindset in terms of thinking much more about well-being than being super successful and super-rich.

The war in Ukraine and the future of Europe compared to what we thought one year ago has also changed our motivations and focus on ethical questions. It’s why we will focus on ethics in documentary filmmaking, in terms of power between the director and social actors or the director and the crew. This is not so obvious, but it’s very important. These questions are increasingly important because society is more sensitive to manipulation or others’ profit.

It’s good to not compete so much.

Country of focus programmes have always been a personal favourite aspect of festivals. This year, yours is Filipino cinema. So why is The Philippines the country of focus in 2022?

In general, Filipino cinema is very strong. It is really colourful and powerful. In the beginning, there was this question of where are the rules of this film. Of course, as Ji.hlava, we are strongly connected Khavn de la Cruz, who is not only a filmmaker but also a poet and musician. This year, he did his first theatre play in Berlin. I always was fascinated by the total energy dedicated to expressing himself through art. It has very dynamic aspects. It has very tender aspects. It’s not just one way of presenting yourself. That’s why we asked Khavn to be in the future of our academic programme, which is oriented toward young filmmakers and students of film schools. This is also the difference between Europe and the US. In Europe, we are a society where we have a feeling that not being successful is a failure. In the US, you can make mistakes and start again. But in Europe, it’s very problematic. This means that even young filmmakers are obsessed with the final version of their films. They are very much obsessed with their careers, which is something new. We remember European festivals from the 70s and even 80s, Werner Herzog; these filmmakers were anarchists. They were rebels. They were going against the system. In Europe, we now have business-oriented artists doing what they are asked for. That’s also why I think that this curator role is so important.

You try to find those not pushed so much in this way of life, or at least you can show them that it’s not necessarily the only way to be an artist. And when I spoke with Khavn earlier, he said he had done 200 films. And I said that’s great. Imagine that. We are obsessed with these 4/5/6 titles in our filmographies, and he always says to the participating filmmakers, “I did 200 films, and now we will do five more”. In the beginning, they are shaken. Then they realise that there is no stress. They just learn to enjoy the step-by-step.

We remember European festivals from the 70s and even 80s, Werner Herzog; these filmmakers were anarchists.

Finally, I wanted you to assume the role of an audience member. What would you buy a ticket for if you opened up the programme?

It’s tough because speaking about concrete titles in competition would be unfair. But I’m very happy about the very strong competition. It really shows the richness and the diverse levels of creative non-fiction cinema. I’m curious what the audience, writers and professionals will command the selection. In general, I’m always somebody interested in using the chance to watch retrospectives or unique screenings. I’m very happy that we have these Shirley Clarke and Lionel Rogozins retrospectives.

What I would say specifically for this edition is that we were thinking about how to reflect on the war in Ukraine. We have selected several Ukrainian films. We gave them a space in the industry programme and seriously discuss issues related to filming in war. Ethical issues like what propaganda is, what you as a filmmaker should do, and what you as a human should do. Many filmmakers became members of the army last month, so it’s a tough thing to think about, but it’s important. We also have one day of the Inspiration Forum dedicated to Ukraine and its future. We realise this experience of war happening nearby changed our thinking, and many people who were pacifists stopped because they realised that when an invasion is happening, there is no other option than to fight for your country. This is also changing how we think about films shot after the Second World War related to, for example, Cold War issues. They are key films in cinema history, but now we watch these films differently. It’s interesting to watch these films through this new experience. Still, it’s also interesting to realise how much our perception of art is limited by our experience. It’s related to what we talked about a couple of minutes ago: we need different things in art at different times. It’s important to create a safe space for artists with this talent, vision, sensitivity, and intuition to focus on things that others might understand decades later.

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