An old man is packing his things away, assisted by a young woman. Now they’ve reached the books.

From 1998-2003 Allan Berg was documentary film consultant (commissioning editor) at The Danish Film Institute, a continuation of the Film Board. Since then free lance consultant in documentary matters.

The conversation is practical: “Would you hand me a few of the big ones over there first? Thanks. They’re just about the same size. Another layer of big ones? Or don’t you have any more? That’s okay, don’t bother… there’s no need to look for any. Just hand me the small ones please…”. She’s taking down books from the shelves, a lot of them, and handing them to him. He’s bending over the cardboard box putting them in, carefully. They’re also talking about something else. She has asked him about something, and as the film begins he’s in mid-answer. Involved in this everyday occurrence, furnished with equally familiar props (tape, a knife for an important cut in the box, felt-tip markers, some newspaper) he’s in the process of answering her, explaining another purely practical piece of work, something literary – which is what the story is actually all about.

And then we watch as journalism transforms into filmic poetry right before our very eyes, as he is packing and cutting and taping and writing down the contents on the outside of the box, as we’ve all learned to do, as he talks about his lyrical work, i.e., the otherwise well-known fact that writing rarely involves an inspiring, fortunate moment, but is regular drudgery, day in and day out – an everyday, practical technique with its own props and personal approaches. Like packing removal boxes, we think.

And then something wonderful happens, as it always does in a good film: in the midst of a familiar activity involving these ordinary objects we learn a commonplace lesson on an existential subject in an astonishing context. As a result we are discovering something new on more than one level: an experienced author’s professional approach and objective view of great writing — sort of in passing.

Jan’s Return from His Paris Exile to Prague in the Summer 2003 /Jan Vladislav/

The first scene is an uncut sequence lasting eleven minutes. A suddenly poignant archival remnant from the intimacy of private life is followed by brief scenes of the packing activities and cheerful, wise and painful fragments of memory are interwoven into a single, coherent act performed by living presences, scenes that cannot be grasped as account of something, but only achieve true meaning as filmic poetry.

The film was awarded a prize in April at the “Finále I Plzen” festival (in the less-than-30-minute-documentary category), and one of the reasons cited was this transformation of a TV portrait into a cinematographical poem.

Jan Vladislav, Czech author, co-signer of Charter 77, publisher of the “samizdat” manuscript series Kvart, and a translator of Dante, Shakespeare, Michaux and Eliot, was harassed into exile by the authorities in 1981. Now he’s back in Prague.


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