What Do the Films Selected for Hot Docs Say about Czech Documentary Scene?

13. 4. 2018

Author: Martin Svoboda

Canada‘s Hot Docs is the largest documentary festival in North America. This year's 25th edition includes two Czech films, which marks yet another success after the unprecedented presence at the 2017 IDFA in Amsterdam. For a long time quite unlucky, Czech documentary scene will be represented in Toronto by The Russian Job by Petr Horký and The White World According to Daliborek by Vít Klusák.

As all large festivals with a strong industry program, Hot Docs can face criticism for concentrating on documentary mainstream. Even the best and the most honest efforts on the part of the organizers cannot eliminate the unavoidable temptation. This kind of dissatisfaction makes sense especially for members of big and healthy cinema systems. Critics from large countries do focus on nuances, experiment and auteurs, and rightly so. But for a small national cinema, this ostentatious style of documentary blockbusters can be useful. The rise to public prominence of a single film from an unknown system can lead to the production of other great works as a result. This principle was described by Přemysl Martinek, former Czech Film Fund board chairman. As an example, Martinek cites Hungary and Romania and their worldwide success in fiction cinema (but applicable to documentaries). According to Martinek, the Czech scene lacks precisely these strong single films that can build an environment for others, which is one of the reasons for the weak state of Czech cinema.

That's the reason movies selected for Hot Docs should be closely examined. As a matter of fact, both of them were screened at last year's IDFA, which indicates that both are becoming a “documentary blockbuster”, at least from the Czech perspective.

The White World According to Daliborek by Vít Klusák is considered Czech mainstream even without its attendance at large foreign festivals. It is the work of a well-known director, lecturer at the FAMU film school, and the creator of The Czech Journal, a Czech TV influential activist TV series, used by Czech documentary filmmakers to express their opinions. Moreover, Klusák's previous work was presented at IDFA and Hot Docs. Klusák stands right in the middle of Czech documentary cinema.

Klusák's name is, just as his latest movie, quite controversial. The White World became the topic of a great and often emotional discussion on the state of Czech documentary cinema – its strong and weak spots. It is an observation on a haunted and a bit silly village neo-Nazi Daliborek with strong presence of Klusák himself. Some consider the movie to be a brisk, pointed and much needed reflection of Czech petty xenophobia and racism, others argue it is just an amoral abuse of a simple and mentally unfit man arranged to be a comedy without any deeper meaning.

For Czech moviegoers and filmmakers, The White World According to Daliborek became a strong media event before anything else. The complexity of the discussion is in some ways lost in translation for a foreign festival far away from local disputes of intellectual and even personal character. In the end, North American viewers will see a very different movie than Czechs, even though the pictures and sound are the same. The clash between daring observation and shameful exhibition is picked up on in foreign reviews as well, but never as strongly as in the Czech media and conversation. Non-Czech critics with cooler heads offer a more considerate praise or criticism.

The Russian Job by Petr Horký could be considered a polar opposite to Klusák and his film. The movie follows a Swedish manager trying to save the Russian cult car factory Lada. It is also an observation with a comedic tone but everything else is different. Most importantly, the film is made by amateurs and beginners. Horký is a journalist who found the topic while he was working on a magazine report from Russia. His crew is made up of his friends, some of them fresh out of film school, some not even that. While film production and crew effectivity weren’t perfect, with almost everybody learning on the go, the quality of the film was a great surprise. But on the other hand, the crew’s limited experience led to a more dynamic and fresh approach.

Horký doesn't appear in the film, which is not usual for Czech auteur documentaries. The fact he chooses a foreign topic is also quite new – Czech documentary cinema focuses on local topics. Horký didn't avoid a certain journalistic look but that's understandable due to his field.

For Czech cinema, The Russian Job is important for its non-system origin. Everyone can make a documentary film if they have a bit of talent and patience with funding – isn't that the real ideal of documentary filmmaking?

Locally, The Russian Job was welcomed relatively quickly. It was released in March 2018 and everybody more or less liked the film, which is perhaps not as intriguing as the love-or-hate relationship people have with Vít Klusák. But that's also relevant for festival viewers.

The two Czech films at Hot Docs are like night and day in terms of the author's situation, creative approach and status. The White World According to Daliborek is a controversial, locally focused film by the most prominent Czech director. The Russian Job is a work of newcomers, searching for international appeal. It's hard to say whether these two movies can change Czech documentary landscape but they certainly reflect its current conflicts and atmosphere.

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