Czech Documentary Joys in 2019

16. 10. 2019

Author: Martin Šrajer

Each year, the Ji.hlava IDFF’s Czech Joy section serves as a semi-definitive survey of new Czech documentaries. Showcasing a variety of approaches and topics in the participating films, the competition also provides a good opportunity to look back on documentary releases over the past months. 

This year’s Czech Joy features several films that were (co-)produced by Czechs but directed by non-Czech filmmakers – e.g., Kings of Šumava by Kris Kelly, Solo by Artemio Benki and Never Happened by Barbora Berezňáková. This also helps to open up Czech documentary film to the world. Czech filmmakers continue to confront, both explicitly and implicitly, local political and social situation with the material and philosophical world beyond Czech borders.

Last year, this trend was represented by, for instance, Illusion, Central Bus Station and Feral. This year, Viera Čákanyová introduces an “audiovisual requiem for homo sapiens” in her film FREM that was shot in Antarctica. In #sandrainuganda, director Filip Remunda captures a young Instagram influencer’s tragicomic clash with the reality in today’s Uganda. Filmmaker Greta Stocklassa returns to native Sweden to follow residents of the mining town Kiruna and their reactions to the scheduled relocation of their homes.

While Kiruna – A Brand New World pits the locals’ perspective against that of a Swedish expat, On Thin Ice co-directed by Rozálie Kohoutová and Tomáš Bojar shows a much more heated clash of mindsets and cultures. A hockey exchange trip organized for young Czech and Moroccan players generates awkward as well as bitterly amusing situations that reflect the irrational hostility expressed by parts of Czech society toward foreigners.

Czech glassmaker Zdeněk Lhotský likely experienced a more peaceful encounter with officials of the Danish monarchy who commissioned him to make a glass case for the Queen of Denmark. A Sarcophagus for a Queen follows the genesis of this extraordinary piece of art. The inability to establish transcultural dialogue and to understand why kitschy elephants and dachshunds should guard the queen after her death adds another layer to this meticulous movie.

A vast geographical and emotional divide separates the protagonists in Martin Mareček’s documentary road movie Over the Hills that was screened at the Karlovy Vary IFF and later nominated for the Silver Eye Award. Teenager Gríša and his father Vít, a former financial advisor, travel from Brno to Russia to reunite with the rest of their family. Though the trip may seem daunting, it will not be nearly as difficult for Vít as bridging the distance to his son, wife and daughter.

Over the Hills was initially planned as a feature film. With its tight structure, a clearly defined setting and purpose and several staged moments, the film still skirts the border between documentary and fiction. Filmmaker Tomáš Krupa also uses stylistic devices of fiction cinema in his Slovak-Czech film The Good Death. Capturing the last days in the life of an Englishwoman who opts for euthanasia in order to put an end to the suffering caused by hereditary muscular dystrophy, the film alternates between a procedural documentary and a visually refined family drama.

The Czech Joy section also features a couple of films that follow protagonists with health issues trying to live their lives to the full. In I Want You If You Dare, Dagmar Smržová explores the life of a rural family with two adult children with physical disabilities. For several years, director Radovan Síbrt followed the band The Tap Tap made up of students of the Jedlička Institute for his movie Two Roads. Both films encourage us to have more empathy with people for whom everyday tasks can often be challenging. Topics like this are still almost non-existent in Czech fiction cinema.

Dan Přibáň’s Trabant: There and Back Again is the last instalment in “the yellow circus” series of hilarious adventure documentaries that convey the joy of travel rather than a better sense of foreign places and cultures. Backed by heavy marketing and a lot of Přibáň’s fans, the film drew over eighteen thousand moviegoers on its opening weekend, making it the most successful Czech documentary release.

Another familiar name is behind Marriage Stories: New Generation. Yet, this time it was not directed by Helena but by her daughter, Hana Třeštíková. Hana has taken up the series of long-term observational films and decided to follow several married couples of her own generation. One of the stories detailing the intimate and professional troubles of millennials, supposedly the one with the greatest number of twists, was released in cinemas earlier this year. Others will be scheduled for TV broadcast.

Documentary portraits of famous people, especially artists, have long been a favorite genre with Czech audiences. Helena Třeštíková and Jakub Hejna made a documentary about filmmaker Miloš Forman who passed away last year. Focusing mainly on Forman’s early career and life, Forman Vs. Forman was first screened at the Cannes IFF and then was a part of the KineDok alternative distribution platform.

Another Czech film great is the subject of a film by festival programmer Jakub Felcman and producer Tomáš Michálek. Featuring interviews with a number of Czech and international professionals, the portrait celebrates the work of cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera. Compact and stylistically sparse, Jaroslav Kučera A Portrait introduces Kučera as a pioneer in optical special effects, a bold experimenter and innovator who never left anything to chance, as attested to by a number of excerpts from his movies.

This year, filmmaker Olga Sommerová expanded her series of sympathetic portraits of Czech sports and culture celebrities. Following her films on gymnast Věra Čáslavská, singer Marta Kubišová and opera singer Soňa Červená, this time Sommerová explores the professional and private life of Jiří Suchý, co-founder of the Semafor Theatre. The combination of the two celebrities (before and behind the camera) certainly made an impression on the audiences at the Karlovy Vary IFF where Jiří Suchý – Tackling Life with Ease beat the competition and earned the KVIFF Audience Award.

Adéla Komrzý made a film about her grandfather Radek Pilař and about the beginnings of Czech videoart. Her documentary film VIVA VIDEO, VIDEO VIVA will be screened in the Czech Joy section this year. Thematically related, Johana Ožvold’s first feature documentary The Sound Is Innocent is an essayist reflection on the past, present and future of electronic music. The film has been released in select cinemas.

In addition to travelogues and portraits, another common thread running through Czech documentaries is the concern for current systemic problems. Vít Janeček and Zuzana Piussi directed and produced University and Freedom that captures some of the most serious flaws in Czech higher education. Shot over the course of eight years, the film follows the transformation of Czech universities into businesses fighting for their place in the market economy. As if to prove the film’s relevance, a fresh scandal recently broke in the news, involving a partnership deal between the Charles University and a company owned by the Czech billionaire Petr Kellner.

The film captures the academic world as at once open to critical thought and overly sensitive to criticism. It is framed by Janeček’s own story when he had to quit his teaching job at FAMU following the publication of his text that touched a nerve with its critique of the film school. Filmmaker Zuzana Piussi found a story close to her heart in her investigative documentary The State Capture that is set in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak. The movie uncovers disturbing links suggesting that Slovak politics is run by an increasingly more arrogant circle of oligarchs and mobsters.

Kateřina Turečková’a short documentary Why Do I Feel Like a Boy? also deals with a compelling story that does not generally get much attention. With her own share of experiences as a lesbian who grew up in a small town, Turečková made a sensitive portrait of Ben, a transgender sixteen-year-old who faces a lack of understanding and empathy from his classmates, teachers and even his loved ones.

Visual artist Barbora Jíchová Tyson drew on her own experience when making her feature debut Talking About Adultery. In this essayist collage that premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest, Jíchová Tyson uses her own relationship history as well as testimonies from people in the United States, the UK, Italy and Germany to reflect on the possibility and value of pursuing close relationships.

Czech audiences will get to see Jíchová Tyson’s film for the first time at the Ji.hlava IDFF. Along with another more than two hundred and fifty short and feature documentaries, the festival gives quite a clear idea of the issues and approaches favored by Czech filmmakers and it also encourages us to confront Czech documentary output with that of other countries.

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