Legendary Czech filmmakers celebrated in two upcoming Czech documentaries

15. 9. 2017

Author: Mark Pickering

This month we would like to inform you about two upcoming Czech documentaries which showcase the life and achievements of two bastions of Czech film-making: Jiří Brdečka – a pioneer of anti-capitalist animation and subversive comedy, and Jaroslav Kučera (featured in Understanding of Context) – a highly-regarded cinematographer whose striking visual style brought him plaudits from all over Europe.

Jiří Brdečka is directed by Miroslav Janek, creator of the compelling and highly praised 2007 documentary, Citizen Havel, which detailed the life and political dealings of the late Czech president, Vaclav Havel. Produced by Evolution Films (with co-production by Czech Television), Janek is able to replicate the same personalized and warm approach, skillfully merging moments of intimate archive footage of Brdečka and his friends, with timely snippets of his classic films. 

For some Czechs and Slovaks, Brdečka is most notable as the author of iconic comedies such as Lemonade Joe or Adela Did Not Have Her Dinner Yet. But as well as this, he was also the creator of 34 short animated films – almost all of which were produced by the famous studio Bratři v triku. At the time, he was renowned among animators throughout the world as one of those who transformed animation from Disney-style “cartoons” into artistic pieces. His poetic and subversive style served as a welcome counter to the capitalist propaganda churned out by Hollywood. Brdečka used the imagery of paintings he loved as a basis for his films to create rich and vibrant artistic pieces – a task obviously made difficult by the attentions of a Soviet regime that favoured uniformity over uniqueness. He was forced into what his daughter Tereza describes as an “inner exile” – a social entrapment in which you “must find your own inner world, take care of it and draw from this world as you create.”

For the majority of Czech citizens, however, it is his 1964 western film Lemonade Joe, that defines his legacy. This parody of the Hollywood western genre, of which he wrote the screenplay, took great delight in comically savaging American Dream ideology and the corporate mentality that was brainwashing the rest of the world. Centred on a clean-living, fizzy pop drinking cowboy, the cliché-bashing musical comedy, was also a thinly veiled attack on communist sterility.

This film – and the majority of Brdečka’s work – was almost always subliminal, a remarkable achievement considering the scrutiny of the communist censorship boards. And upcoming Janek’s film is to explore the difficult tightrope walked by him – and his friends – in trying to create meaningful art against a barrier of artless hostility. “You should never betray what is unique in you,” daughter Tereza says of her father’s philosophy in her biography. We can certainly feel, this spirit is prevalent in the footage shown in Janek’s future film, but fittingly, also in the essence of Janek’s film itself.

Understanding of Context has a similar thematic focus – only with a different subject. Directed by young filmmaking duo, Jakub Felcman and Tomáš Michálek (MasterFilm) and co-produced by Czech Television, the documentary is set to explore the Czechoslovakian cinematography that emerged out of communist, post-war politics, and in particular, the contribution of pioneer, Jaroslav Kučera.

Kučera – like Brdečka – made his name working at Barrandov TV studios in Prague, and between 1957 and 1985, was a cameraman on a number of important Czechoslovakian films. In the 1970s he also worked with Oldřich Lipský , director of Lemonade Joe – and for one such collaboration, Adela Has Not Yet Slept (1972), he was awarded the Best Camera Award at the Sitges International Festival of Fantastic Films and Horror.

Felcman and Michalek’s film is a poignant tribute; a visually stunning patchwork of everything that made Kučera and his cinematic contemporaries so intriguing. Backed by a hypnotic soundtrack, the film is a kaleidoscopic tapestry of archive images. From the close-up of an eyelid to the anguish of a sexualized Red Riding Hood woman desperately fleeing a forest, the presentation of material is poetic and artistic, fleeting glimpses into a world of torture and beauty.

It was exactly this juxtaposed reality that both Brdečka, Kučera and the rest of the Czech film-makers at that time were having to live with – and one in which they tried to replicate in their films.

Jiří Brdečka
Czech Republic | 75 min. | colour / b&w | Digital | DCP, MXF
DIRECTOR: Miroslav Janek
PRODUCTION: Ondřej Zima (Evolution Films)
CO-PRODUCTION: Alena Müllerová (Czech Television)
ORIGINAL IDEA: Tereza Brdečková
EDITING: Tonička Janková
FINANCIAL SUPPORT: State Cinematography Fund

Understanding of Context (Vědomí souvislosti)
Czech Republic | 70 min. | Digital, Film | DVD, Blu-ray, DCP
DIRECTORS: Jakub Felcman, Tomáš Michálek
PRODUCTION: Tomáš Michálek (MasterFilm)
CO-PRODUCTION: Alena Müllerová (Czech Television)
ORIGINAL IDEA: Jakub Felcman, Tomáš Michálek
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Jaroslav Kučera, Peter Zeitlinger
EDITING: Jiří Brožek
FINANCIAL SUPPORT: State Cinematography Fund, Kreativní Evropa - MEDIA

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