Czech Documentary Filmmakers Out in the World – Bára Jíchová Tyson

14. 12. 2019

Author: Martin Šrajer

Documentary films made abroad or with an international co-producer (or both) were among the most interesting in the Czech Joy section of this year’s Jihlava IDFF. Two of them – The Sound Is Innocent and Kiruna – A Brand New World – had been screened at Visions du Réel in Switzerland, while the winning film Sólo got into the spotlight earlier this year in May when it had its world premiere in the L’ACID section in Cannes.

Other films from the Czech Joy section also show the ambition to move Czech documentary film up in the international landscape. For the first time this year, the section was open to Czech films by non-Czech filmmakers. Director Bára Jíchová Tyson who made Talking About Adultery has lived in the United States since 2002; Kris Kelly who made the animated documentary Kings of ­Šumava comes from Ireland, and FREM, one of the most talked about movies in Jihlava, was shot in Antarctica by Slovak filmmaker Viera Čákanyová.

It is difficult to say whether the higher number of Czech films with international involvement is just a coincidence or whether it is the result of strategic planning of local professionals who reached out to producers of the above-mentioned films. In the first interview, we talked to Bára Jíchová Tyson. The director and producer of Talking About Adultery – a movie that presents multiple perspectives on relationships, marriage and infidelity – offers her views on how to fund creative documentary films in the United States.

Could you briefly outline the production history of your film?
Talking About Adultery didn’t at first have any script, budget or an experienced producer. It was just an idea and a great deal of determination. The movie relies on interviews with people talking about infidelity that I was shooting on my own over a period of five years. I made the decision early on to use only audio recordings of the interviews, which made the shoot easier and more manageable. In addition to film, I also work in 2D collage and photography and I’m used to taping or recording whatever I find interesting and whatever I might use later on. I made this movie in a similar way. When I first moved to New York, I worked as an editor. The fact that I was able to edit the movie into the shape I’d envisioned and try out different versions, was really a luxury from a financial point of view. It was just very late in the process that I hired another two script editors and editors.

Did you get any help from networking programs, workshops or grants...?
In 2016, when I completed an 80-minute working version, the movie was selected for the Docu Work-In-Progress Lab in New York where I live. That year, the program was run by two film professionals – Iva Radivojevic (Evaporating Borders, 2014) and Charlotte Cook (the then program director of Hot Docs). Then I received the MacDowell Fellowship, which allowed me to continue working in a group of talented writers, filmmakers and other artists.

The last production stage was very important. I started working with a producer, script editors, editors and a composer. Since we needed more money for post-production, we launched a crowdfunding campaign, which was exhausting both mentally and time wise. In the end, we managed to collect around seventeen thousand dollars.

I applied for grants in the U.S. in different stages of production but to no avail. Maybe it’s because people prefer different topics today. Or maybe it’s because the applications weren’t written well. Or maybe the board members thought a movie without a producer and a larger crew wouldn’t be feasible. In general, there’s a great competition out there. At the same time, I think that creative documentaries aren’t a priority in America; preference is given to documentaries that will have some kind of a measurable impact.

Do you see it as an advantage that you were also the producer?
It certainly made everything more complicated. But it was my first feature so it’s possible I wouldn’t have known how to get my vision across if I’d worked with more experienced producers or investors. It took a long time for the movie to mature properly and for me to get a clear idea what it should be and what I want it to say. To a great extent, its development was organic with a lot of lucky accidents and helpful decisions.    

I think that today, especially in America, films are made to sell well and to be more accessible to broader audiences. But that wasn’t my main intention. So I had more time and more freedom to experiment.

How difficult is it to get funding for feature creative documentary in the U.S.?
It’s quite hard to fund creative documentaries in America. There are no film funds; most money comes from private foundations and investors, which can be good in some ways. Ideally, you want to get a grant but they are hard to come by. If you win, though, you keep your creative freedom. Then there are private investors, which is more limiting. Perhaps that’s why a lot of films turn out to be so predictable.

How significant for its further reception was having your movie in Sheffield?
Sheffield Doc/Fest has an excellent reputation, so the world premiere was a great surprise. It also helped that the movie was nominated for the New Talent Award. Since then, other festivals and distributors have reached out to me, and more people know about the film.

What was most challenging about Talking About Adultery for you as the producer?
The most challenging was the fact that I was the director and producer for so long. That’s also why the film took roughly seven years to make. It was just in the last three years that we got more crew members.

How important was having your movie in the Czech Joy section of the Jihlava IDFF? What part do you think will this festival play in the distribution of your film?
I’d certainly be happy if the movie was released in the Czech Republic and more people got to see it. Czechness is really important in the film but I’m not sure yet what kind of distribution we’re going to have. I met a couple of great people at the festival who then introduced me to other people. Actually, I’ve realized how much different the European funding model is and that I should make use of it in the future. I’ve lived in America since 2002 and I’m not really familiar with the film landscape in the Czech Republic so the Jihlava festival was an interesting experience for me.

How difficult is it to get a documentary film to audiences today? Did you think about distribution with the project still in development and production?
Now that I’ve heard back from some distributors from Europe and the U.S., I’m finding out that it’s a bit of a muddled territory. At least here in the USA. There is a number of new distribution models and it’s really up to you, what you expect from the movie and what path you take. It depends on whether your priority lies with return on investment, awards and nominations, career boost, having as many viewers as possible... For instance, it’s often pointless for films to be released in theaters when they’re better suited for online platforms. An interesting path is to offer films to schools or run niche distribution aimed for target audience groups. It depends on the movie. There are a lot of possibilities.

The other important thing is marketing and social media. It’s important whether you already have some audience, how much money you have left for distribution, etc. I was in talks with a few smaller distributors that were wondering if the movie’s connected to another marketing campaign that would draw people to theaters. Apparently, it’s no longer enough for films to be just good. People want a theme park-style experience.

It’s like planning a start-up strategy. Distribution is a new thing for me. At the moment, I’m in negotiations with an American distributor so we’ll see how it turns out and what it means for the movie. Really, the entire project has been like a film school for me.

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