Since 2001, the Institute of Documentary Film (IDF) has been supporting Central and East European creative documentary film in all stages of production. It helps both established and up-and-coming filmmakers in the early stage of project development; producers receive support in funding, distribution and marketing, as well as assistance in navigating the international market. Each year, films in IDF programs earn a number of international awards. Yet how are Czech filmmakers recognized in the local context?
Every film award has its own specifics, its supporters and critics. While some might consider an award snobbish, others might claim it came with professional credit. If an award turns out to fit the taste of a majority audience, some cinephiles might see it as overly commercialized. The term ‘best’ always remains relative, whether it is at an institutional level or in an argument between friends.
Awards also come with a considerable amount of social capital, an important variable that makes getting funding easier for some filmmakers. This is especially true for documentary filmmakers who, due to the status of documentary films in cinemas, cannot fall back on box-office success. Getting recognition with a nomination or an award can be priceless, which makes the existence of a respected award very valuable.
Unfortunately, documentary filmmakers still tend to take a back seat when it comes to awards. Documentary cinematographers and editors are rarely nominated in the relevant categories, documentaries do not win ‘best film’ awards. In some cases, it is a matter of award rules and eligibility but in most cases it is just convention. This is an issue at an international level as well, reflecting the status of documentary filmmaking across the world.
Czechs have two major film awards that have separate categories for best documentary film. The Czech Lion Awards are decided by three hundred film professionals, while the Czech Film Critics’ Awards are handed out by the fifty members of the Association of Czech Film Critics. The Czech Lion Awards were established in 1993 and have a solid tradition, despite being often controversial. The Czech Film Critics’ Awards were launched in 2010 and are not yet too well-known among the general public.
During the existence of both awards, i.e., seven years, film professionals and critics voted for the same ‘best documentary film’, with only two exceptions. Katka (2010), Solar Eclipse (2011), Love in the Grave (2012), Lean a Ladder Against Heaven (2015) and Normal Autistic Film (2016) earned the best documentary film award from both the ‘insiders’, i.e., film professionals as well as from critics, i.e., ‘professional viewers’.
What does the shared choice imply? Does it add to the legitimacy of both awards or does it discredit them? In general, academy awards tend to be more conservative, giving more value to technical quality and long-term professional credit of the nominees, while film critics awards tend to be more progressive, with a greater emphasis on original, distinct voice and new talent. This is roughly the difference between the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, or between mainstream ceremonies and best film selections in film journals. To prove this point, let us look back at 2014 when the Czech film professionals and critics picked a different winner. While the critics recognized Martin Dušek’s Into the Clouds We Gaze, a documentary film in keeping with current European trends, the Czech Lion Award went to Miroslav Janek’s Olga, a prototype of a conventional quality portrait.
The second clash occurred in 2013 when the Czech Lion Award was presented to Silvie Dymáková’s Crooks, a documentary with widely debated artistic merits but a strong social relevance. The Czech critics handed out the award to the more sophisticated Show! by Bohdan Bláhovec. The 2013 edition might be an outlier because Crooks became part of a tabloid campaign that skewed any relevant discussion: Why should a documentary be good when it is effective? If the filmmaker succeeds in making their film an instrument of change, what is the point of discussing its creative merits? For the moment, members of the film academy and critics took opposite sides in this argument, yet it is not clear whether this could set a precedent for the future.
In five out of seven cases, however, both awards picked the same winner, which suggests that both give preference to established names and conservative approach. This is especially problematic for the critics' awards that have built its reputation on being the antithesis of the Czech Lion Awards that, according to the critics, tend to be too safe and non-representative. Does it mean that instead of offering a more reflective choice, critics are happy with an easy winner just like the film professionals? (unintentionally, since the Czech Lions are presented two months after the Czech Critics Awards). Or is there a general lack of quality documentaries and the critics simply do not have a broad enough selection?
The latest results of the Czech Critics Awards show that critics seem to have trouble finding quality Czech films. The best documentary film award went to the predominantly Slovak portrait Richard Müller: This Is Not Me. Similarly, the lesser-known Trilobite Award was given to the mostly Slovak The Lust for Power. The popular narrative about quality Czech documentaries seems to be unraveling. While we might celebrate the achievement of having three Czech documentaries at IDFA, we must remember that Poland, for instance, had seven films in IDFA’s lineup, and nine films the year before.
The truth lies somewhere in between. Outstanding Czech documentaries come few and far between and, according to many people, last year’s documentary output was particularly weak. Two films premiered at IDFA – Nothing Like Before and The Russian Job – will be released in cinemas and eligible for awards next year, which will give them some disadvantage because their media visibility will have long diminished.
At the same time, there are always several nominees to choose from. If critics claim to be an alternative to the Czech Lion Awards yet still pick the same films, it is no cause for satisfaction. It seems that they also fail to pay enough attention to documentaries. It is something of a consolation to see that in a category dedicated to TV and online forms, the award went to Apolena Rychlíková’s The Limits of Work – a documentary winner in a category not specifically designed for documentaries. That’s a good step to achieving a more equal representation of documentary and fiction films.
Best documentary feature Czech Lion Award nominees:
Cervena (dir. Olga Sommerová, prod.Pavel Berčík – Evolution Films)
The Limits of Work (dir. Apolena Rychlíková, prod. Vít Klusák, Filip Remunda - Hypermarket Film, Petr Kubica – Czech Television)
The Lust for Power (dir. Tereza Nvotová, prod. Kateřina Černá – Negativ Film Productions, Zuzana Mistríková – PubRes, Tereza Polachová – HBO Europe)
Let Misik Sing! (dir. Jitka Němcová, prod. Viktor Schwarcz)
The White World According to Daliborek (dir. Vít Klusák, prod. Filip Remunda - Hypermarket Film)