There are not many bigger names in European filmmaking than Věra Chytilová.
One of the New Wave directors to emerge from FAMU in the 1960s, along with such illustrious company as Ivan Passer, Jirí Menzel and Miloš Forman, the “first lady” of Czech film was known for her radical and innovative style. Her movies – an intriguing mix of social realism, experimental documentary and moral comedy – often fearlessly critiqued the communist society that was trying so hard to silence her.
To mark its 15th birthday, Doclisboa will screen Věra Chytilová’s entire back catalogue. Between 19-29 October at various locations around the Portuguese capital, movie goers can enjoy over 30 of her films – from her Kafka-inspired debut Catwauling (1960), to her controversial tour-de-force Daisies (1966) to her final film, Pretty Moments Without Guarantee (2006).
"Chytilova was an uncompromising and stubborn filmmaker who at all times recognized the true value of freedom," says festival curator Boris Nelepo. "For me personally, it is primarily a mysterious director, whose work is still waiting for detailed decryption or even a mere viewing. It is an example of an unthinkable and difficult to define individual artist."
One of the retrospective’s highlights is the chance to watch almost all of her documentary films.
Her first foray into documentary filmmaking was a short called Green Street (1960), a look at an over-loaded freight train departing from Prague. Though only nine minutes in length, Chytilová’s astute editing ensured a visual spectacle. A later short film, Time Is Inexorable (1978) focuses on the individual stories of elderly people. This sensitive exploration of ageing, the fragility of life and life’s overarching meaning is a theme she would go on to explore in more detail in her other films.
Her 1984 documentary, Chytilová Versus Forman was an intellectual yet intriguing offering, which pitted herself against her Czech New Wave contemporary, Milos Forman – a director who, unlike Chytilova, fled Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968. Both similar and different, the two directors share their views on their profession and their different cultural freedom. Shot while Chytilová was visiting London and New York – where Forman was shooting Ragtime – the documentary is informal, affectionate and at times tense, as the two furiously debate the real nature of filmmaking. In 1994, her documentary, The Hits and Misses of Ivan Vyskočil trod similar territory, showing an impassioned dialogue between herself and Czech writer Ivan Vyskočil, whose Theatre on the Balustrade had served as a sanctuary from New Wave directors oppressed under communism.
Four years later, Chytilová made Prague: The Restless Heart of Europe – a film which tries to capture the beauty of an almost “uncapturable” city. Part of an Italian TV series on cultural cities in Europe, Chytilova’s “restless” camerawork echoes the title, her jerky handheld lens showing the Czech capital in frenetic yet gorgeous snapshots. In 2003, in her documentary, Troja – Changes in Time, she zoomed in on one particular district of Prague – an area now most famous for Prague’s incredible zoo. Having lived there for 30 years, Chytilová knew every nook and cranny, and by interweaving footage with paintings, testimonies from locals, and scenes from her other movies, we get a real understanding of just how much Troja had a place in her heart.
Flights and Falls (2000) explored Chytilová’s homeland through the lives and lens of three Czech photographers – Václav Chochola, Karel Ludwig, and Zdeněk Tmeje, and in it, she returns to the locations from her 1965 vignette collection, Pearls of the Deep. Her final documentary Looking for Ester (2005) sees Chytilová turn her attention to Ester Krumbachová, the director’s long-term collaborator who worked with her on Daisies and Fruit of Paradise. Embodying the heart of the New Wave, Krumbachová was a huge influence on all she worked with, and through a series of interviews with friends, colleagues and lovers, Chytilová seeks to uncover who the true Ester was.
This retrospective is a collaboration between Cinemateca Portuguesa, Institute of Documentary Film with support of Czech State Cinematography Fund, FAMU and Czech Film Center.
For more info on the Věra Chytilová Retrospective, go to www.doclisboa.org