Promising Documentaries at FAMU

12. 12. 2019

Author: Martin Šrajer

If you want to get a comprehensive overview of student films at FAMU, you can attend either the public screenings of their works or the FAMUFEST festival. Each year, the festival has several sections and categories to showcase films made by the students of the leading Czech film academy. However, the upcoming 36th FAMUFEST won’t take place until March 2020. Members of the general public who would like to get up to speed with Czech filmmaking talent must for now rely on other sources.

As far as the number of presentation platforms, FAMU students with the Department of Documentary Film (KDT) have a slight advantage because they are regularly given space at the Ji.hlava IDFF. For many young filmmakers, the festival is often the first encounter and confrontation with the public. In the case of TV broadcast or online streaming, which are the most frequent platforms for short films, filmmakers are inevitably missing the kind of immediate feedback that is available at festivals.

At this year’s Ji.hlava IDFF, FAMU films were found in several sections. In “FAMU International”, non-Czech students in the master’s program presented their vision of reality alongside students of the one-year course who had been tasked with making a film portrait. The “FAMU Presents” section offered works by first-year students of the KDT supervised by documentary filmmaker Jan Šípek. Films by more senior students were presented in a separate sub-section. The following is a closer look at these as well as some other documentaries scattered across different sections.

Vojtěch Petřina transferred to FAMU from the Film Academy of Miroslav Ondříček in Písek. While in Písek, he made the fiction film Requiem and a portrait of the rapper Řezník (“Butcher”). In Jihlava, Petřina presented a portrait of another strong figure in Czech art scene, artist František Skála. The 15-minute film Little “Shits”-Details follows the member of the Sklep theater group during a painting session in his Prague studio or as he is working with found objects at a country farm. This compelling portrait of an artist fully dedicated to his work has all the makings of a feature film that would certainly be well-deserved for somebody as charismatic as Skála.

Filmmaker Kateřina Dudová, who already has a degree in stage directing from DAMU, picked a much more eccentric person for her portrait Blow-off! The catalog synopsis describes him as “a poet and modern-day king living outside the system and conventions.” Dudová’s candid and revealing film that benefits from her close access to the artist’s private life, focuses on the specific expressions of his offbeat ideas and behavior, including shoplifting or participation in coprophilic sex play.

While the first two portraits from “FAMU Presents” rely mainly on the undeniable originality of their protagonists, films by Anna Petruželová and Marie-Magdalena Kochová immediately draw one’s attention with their style. Last year, Petruželová’s movie Puddles, I Don’t Know received a Special Mention in the Fascinations: competition section. Her portrait of the French film collective MTK If You Place One Spaghetti on Second Spaghetti is also experimental, with its fragmentary and impressionist glimpse into the film lab that serves as a playground for experimenting with various film techniques. The film also approaches the work of its protagonists in that it was shot on 16mm color film that was also screened in Jihlava. Kochová, on the other hand, opted for a more consistent style. Her portrait of the cinematographer and ham radio enthusiast Ladislav Prajsner OK2PAY was shot in black-and-white, which endows Prajsner’s world of film and radio equipment with a greater appeal.

Man’s close connection to technology and its possible consequences are also the subject of Kochová’s short experimental film Apparatgeist that was included in the Czech Joy section. This was Kochová’s second time in the competition. In 2017, her movie Will the World Remember Your Name? also dealt with devices that allow us to see and be seen and that transform our reality.

In Apparatgeist, named for the concept of the same name, reality is created solely by cell phones. The barren landscape that contains nothing but cell phones, is a stark metaphor of the present. Birth and death occur only on the screens of cell phones that help people decide what to wear, what to eat, disrupting their everyday activities and generating emotions as strong as our real interactions with others. Although we live in the illusion of one giant network, Apparatgeist’s camera floating over the devices shows that each of the stories in fact takes place in its own world. Seemingly, we’re all in it together, yet we’re really on our own.

The 11-minute film received a Special Mention at the Ji.hlava IDFF. The jury highlighted its potential to create different reactions and praised Kochová as “a fresh talent.” Apparatgeist is a good example of a movie that has a superb concept and is able to capture a very complex issue in a short running time and on a tight budget. Filmmaker Kateřina Turečková, who had to deal with similar constraints and had to rely on a nuanced approach, also presented her short film Why Do I Feel Like a Boy? in the Czech Joy competition next to more expensive feature documentaries.

The filmmaker, whose previous films include Strip (2015), Tradition (2017) and Illusion (2018), continues to set herself apart as an activist author who is not afraid to delve into difficult social issues and stimulate discussion that goes beyond film. Her sympathetic portrait of a transgender youth named Ben also documents the beginning of a friendship between the protagonist and the filmmaker and promotes a greater understanding of the difficulties facing people who have to deal with a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity.

The movie captures the feelings and desires of a teenager who receives acceptance only in the online world. In the real world, he cannot seem to find any kind of meaningful understanding. At the same time, he struggles with his own body and his idea of how he should act and what he should look like as a man. When Ben’s mother mentions that they have to travel eighty kilometers to see a psychologist, it becomes clear that the problem does not affect just individuals or families but has greater social implications.

The film’s central theme is Ben’s self-presentation as he tries to be involved in directing the movie and shape his own media image. Using the green screen, he is able to turn into a biker or a soccer player. At the end, the worlds behind and in front of the camera merge. Ben abandons his stylization, becomes emotional and gives Turečková a hug. At that moment, Turečková is no longer just a director but also a friend who has helped him realize that being trans is normal. Though it wasn’t its primary goal, the film helps to educate the public about problems facing transgender people.

While Apparatgeist was screened before The Sound is Innocent, an audiovisual essay on electronic music, and Why Do I Feel Like a Boy? was paired with the touching documentary about family and sex I Want You If You Dare, the student movie Nekyia: Inner Portrait of the Poet Hradecký had a joint screening with the “folk-style zombie horror” Moravia, O Fair Land III by Petr Šprincl. Both films defy traditional constraints of documentary film. In its radical blend of satanism, Moravian folklore and speed metal, Šprincl’s movie is more of a comedy than documentary. Nekyia by Albert Hospodářský, currently in his third year at FAMU, is heavily stylized with some staged sequences. 

In several black-and-white, horror-like episodes, Nekyia depicts the feelings of anxiety, absence of purpose and suicidal thoughts of the poet Daniel Hradecký. Hovering on the periphery, Hradecký keeps sinking deeper into his own world and his restlessness is represented in excerpts of his texts, expressive lighting, shot composition and dramatic score. This second-year film shows the director’s talent for working with a variety of devices in order to capture the artist’s troubled soul.

In the student section Between the Seas, the Ji.hlava IDFF screened the latest film from Nikola Krutilová who is in her first year of the KDT graduate program. This wasn’t Krutilová’s first time in the Jihlava competition. In 2015, her microportrait of the stage director Petr Lébl The Perpetrator and the Bystander (2015). This year, Krutilová presented her documentary film Daily Manure that captures one year in the life of a plant that produces fertilizers and feed for farm animals. The changing cycles and the focus on a garbage pile of discarded food, turns this sparse silent observation into an insightful document on the nature of decay and death in an age of excess. Her minimalist film that depicts one of the local aspects of the global environmental crisis received Special Mention.

The Silver Eye Awards were also presented at the Ji.hlava IDFF. The KDT student and composer Eliška Cílková received the Award for Best Short Documentary Film at the East Silver Market for her Pripyat Piano. The film is the latest output of her multiple-year site-specific project that involves recording the sound of musical instruments abandoned in the radioactive zone in the vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. In her short, technically refined film, she paired the recorded sound with images. The despair of dilapidated and deserted places creates a poignant contrast to the uplifting music that infuses the barren land with some semblance of life.

In the festival catalog, the Czech Joy section was described as “a celebration of the diverse range of new topics and the adventurous spirit of cinematic expression.” The same label could be applied to student films included in the program. Their diversity shows in the choice of topics and formal devices, as well as in their willingness to go beyond the borders of the Czech Republic and documentary genre. Let’s hope that these promising talents can soon shape a Czech documentary future that will be as diverse as the first works of the KDT students.

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