This year's international representation of Czech cinema is led by Helena Třeštíková and her retrospective at the IDFA festival in Amsterdam. Třeštíková is an interesting island in the middle of the Czech documentary scene, a step away from personal activism and towards “ordinary stories of ordinary people.” This makes her approach universal and timeless — and her technique of long-time observation makes it hard to resist the respect that must be felt towards her. No wonder no Czech documentary filmmaker has achieved this kind of honor up until this case.
But the big success of Třeštíková shouldn't hide the international presence of other Czech films. When the War Comes by Jan Gebert will be also screened at IDFA in the section Best of Fests. The title is proof in itself that this film is not a newcomer. Gebert follows a young man in Slovakia who dreams of becoming a great nationalist leader, and without the reaction of the public, openly raises a literal army of supporters.
Festival DOK Leipzig will hold international premiere of My Unknown Soldier by Anna Kryvenko. This film is a personal take on the darker part of Czech, Slovak and European history — the crush of the attempt to reform the Czechoslovak Communist regime into a more humane system by the invasion of the Warsaw Pact Army in 1968. Kryvenko’s great-uncle was one of many Ukrainian soldiers who were part of this invasion. This gives the author a reason to look at the events from a new point of view — a view of a young man who must invade a strange foreign country he doesn't care about because his orders tell him to. The act, viewed today as a manifestation of pure malevolence, becomes something else.
At Leipzig, My Unknown Soldier will be followed by Czech minority co-productions, the Berlinale winner Touch Me Not by Adina Pintilie and the important political documentary Putin's Witnesses by Vitaly Mansky.
My Unknown Soldier will also be available at the DOK Film Market alongside with Central Bus Station by Tomáš Elšík and Empire Builders by Andran Abramjan. Central Bus Station covers the microcosms of the once-glamorous largest bus station in the world that eventually becomes the disgrace of Tel Aviv. Empire Builders tries to find answers to many of the hardest questions: Where do leaders of radical movements come from? What are their real motivations? What is their past? Are there any “real” people with some redeemable qualities behind those terrible ideas?
It is always interesting to watch which documentaries from small national cinemas rise to represent the whole system. Last year we had films such as Nothing Like Before, The Russian Job and The White World According to Daliborek that showed the crossroad which many Czech documentary authors stand on. The contrast of local vs. international appeal, the importance of authenticity vs. craftsmanship, and the choice between utility vs. artistry.
Last year we observed the artistic conflicts inside of the Czech documentary scene — this time we can find much more harmony and parallels. Empire Builders, When the War Comes, and My Unknown Soldier especially show the attempt to find new nuances in the lives of people who we, the festival audience, usually find irredeemable. These movies, just as Helena Třeštíková with her patient observation of human normality, lean towards a less sharp but more empathetic and humane face of the Czech cinema.
Read also Guest of Honor Helena Třeštíková at the IDFA, Helena Třeštíková: I have my doubts all the time. That’s a good thing (Interview)
Note: On the date this article was published, the IDFA Main Competition line up wasn’t yet revealed.