Martin Horyna is a member of the Program Department at the Karlovy Vary IFF, one of the three main brains deciding which films will compete for the best documentary award. But isn't it quite outdated to separate documentary films? Do documentaries have a decent position at the festival? And do Czech films get any special treatment?
What's the status of documentary film in Karlovy Vary?
Undeniable, I hope. The documentary competition has been a solid part of the program since the 90s. But it is definitely interesting to watch other festivals dissolving their documentary sections as they put documentaries together with fiction films. For example, Berlinale awards documentaries again since not so long ago, but it does so through the whole festival, not in a separate category. We also discuss the situation of documentary cinema in the program because the worst thing to say is: “We'll do it just like last time.” That's a sure way to stagnation.
But there are precedents to separate these two forms of cinema in Czech environment. For example, we have a special documentary department at FAMU film school – we single out documentary filmmakers from the moment they enroll in FAMU.
I do believe this separation still has its meaning. It would be confusing for juries, viewers and professionals to lose the documentary section altogether. The other question is: Should the approach to documentary films be as strict as it is now, with documentaries excluded from the main competition? Because right now they can't compete outside their special section. Which, of course, can be seen as an ambivalent decision. This is also a great topic of our debates. Especially when we encounter a border movie whose status of “documentary” or “fiction” is obviously not mandatory. A few years ago, we classified Velvet Terrorists (2013) as a fiction film. Even though it used authentic situations, it was also evident people actively played their roles. On the contrary All These Sleepless Nights (2016) had a script but it had a great amount of authenticity of action. As you can see, this is in the end an intuitive process that can be quite flexible on a case-by-case basis.
We had a film like that just last year – in my mind, Everything's Gonna Be Fine by Robin Kvapil was a documentary. But the Czech Film Critics' Awards placed the movie in the section for fiction films.
And it was screened at the documentary festival in Jihlava. It really isn't a matter of one final decision. In the program department, we focus on our ability to articulate the specifics of every movie as much as possible so it can reach its audience. It should be stressed that this problem is in fact quite immaterial because the movie remains the same no matter its placement in the catalogue. On the other hand, bad placement cost some of its audience who might not recognize it or be drawn to it. This year, for example, we have the movie Walden, which is a very demanding conceptual work of art usually occupying a spot in the Imagina section. We decided for the risk move and placed it in the documentary competition. Now it is necessary to communicate the specifics of this piece to the audience. Otherwise, it could turn out to be counterproductive to show this type of film in this section.
Do people visit documentary films a lot at Karlovy Vary?
It's hard to gauge the interest of audience for the documentary genre alone, because usually every screening at the festival is automatically sold out. Of course, we can see that some movies sell out faster than others and documentaries aren't dominant from this point of view. But still, every premiere for 250 people and a second screening for 130 is full. The selection of an adequate cinema hall is also an important way how to communicate with the audience. There are some quite formal halls but others are small and cozy, away from the main festival rush. Those venues are great for documentaries. And that’s where you can usually hear the greatest applause.
There are two Czech films in competition - Breaking News and In Mosul. Can we say the festival uses the privilege of a host to promote home cinema?
This is a frequent question, especially this year when we have two Czech films in almost every main section. And even more if we count co-production. But I can honestly say that we don’t take it as a matter of course that Czech films must be included. If we believed that no Czech films should compete, we would proceed without Czech presence. But of course, we are glad we can involve Czech films and it makes sense that there are enough of them. The reason is simply that a lot of Czech producers submit their work. We can communicate with them, see early cuts of their work and so on. But we include only those films we are absolutely sure have international relevance. Needless to add, this is easier said than done and we as Czechs ourselves must be influenced by our own set of information which is the same as the filmmaker's. With other films, we are in the same position as an international audience so it is easier to look for the overlap than with Czech films.
Czech documentaries in this year’s lineup offer an interesting contrast. Breaking News by Tomáš Bojar is just as conceptual as his previous works, which is not usual for a film observing local politics. That's the reason he found some timelessness in this topic. And Inside Mosul focuses on an international story, which is still new for Czech filmmakers. Jana Andert’s sharp journalistic style leads to a very straightforward experience, and I mean it in a good way. Her approach reminds us of the contemporary style of “documentary blockbusters” we often see at international festivals.
How many documentaries were submitted?
I believe there were around six hundred. Twenty-five of them were Czech, if we count co-production.
Were the two films strong candidates the whole time or was the decision hard?
Breaking News was the first movie submitted, we've seen it already at the beginning of the year. So it was in our minds the whole time. On the other hand, we weren't sure whether Inside Mosul would be completed in time so there was this logistic uncertainty. It’s also the kind of movie where you need to see the final cut to know if it’s any good – editing is everything here. But when we heard Tonička Janková was the editor, we remained calm – we know she’s a true professional. We just waited and hoped the crew would make it. When it was done it was almost over, we had only two spots left. And none of the other candidates was a Czech film.
You already described the position of documentaries in Karlovy Vary. But what about the place of Karlovy Vary in the world of documentary cinema?
Filmmakers know about our documentary competition and our program. But of course, documentary filmmakers prefer their own specialized festivals like Jihlava in the Czech Republic or IDFA internationally that are the centers of discourse. The role of traditional festivals is a bit different but I believe even here important events can take place. For example, we run the Work in Progress section, for the first time without Jihlava’s assistance, which is an interesting part of the industry program. We try to offer originality and something that hasn’t been seen anywhere else. As other festivals, we too are pushed for the “premiere policy”. We often reject good movies already screened at, for example, Amsterdam in favor of an at least European premiere.
They say Karlovy Vary is a great festival for people from the West to learn about cinema of the East. Yet when I look at this year's documentary competition I see mostly Western films. How come?
This time it simply turned out this way. But it’s no deliberate plan on our part, it just happened to be this particular pile of movies we generated this year. I can't find a more sophisticated answer – it’s as simple as that. These are the films we deemed best. But Karlovy Vary remains open to the East, especially non-documentary sections are fully connected with Central and Eastern European space. Lately also with the Arab world as we expanded our flagship East of the West section. So this year's dominance of Western documentaries is no more than a coincidence.
Czech documentary cinema is quite local in its focus. Is it a problem for you as an international festival
It isn’t because we try to stand alone and approach Czech national cinema as any other we communicate with. It is of course an unreachable ideal as we always must be influenced by the environment that surrounds us. But as I've said, we try to involve only internationally relevant films. Also, many Czech journalistic films still fit the big screen, but more often in non-competition parts of the program. The competition itself focuses on stylistically interesting films while the other are important for the issues they deal with. Personally, I should add that I’m much more open today to stylistically conventional but meaningful films than in the past. I used to demand style before anything else. Today I feel distant to films that are well made but empty. Form and meaning are siblings and we must deal with them together. This is one of the things we often discuss.