Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 8
16 November 1998

Kazi Stastna F I L M :
Wandering Eyes
A Report from the Festival of
Czech Documentary Film [Part II]

Kazi Stastna

In the last week of October, the second annual festival of Czech Documentary Film took place in the small Moravian town of Jihlava. The festival is the brainchild of first year film student Marek Hovorka and his friends, many of whom are students at the local high school. After the success of last year's festival, which lasted three days and managed to attract some of the foremost Czech and Slovak documentary film directors, this year Hovorka and co. expanded the festival to five days (27 - 31 October 1998) and brought many of the same renowned directors back to Jihlava for a fresh showing of both old and new works. In Part I of the report from Jihlava we looked at the showcase of the production team Epicentrum and Olga Sommerova's take on feminism, Czech style. This week we take a closer look at the festival's two premier showings and two of this year's rather unusual spotlights.

There were two premiers at this year's festival: Miroslav Janek's Hamsa, ja jsem (Hamsa, I am) and Jan Spata's retrospective look at his long career as a documentary filmmaker Laska, kterou opoustim (The Love That I Am Abandoning). Janek's film received by far the most positive and enthusiastic reaction at the five day festival, from filmmakers and audience alike. The film's screening was a rare treat since, because of a lack of funds to repair the misprinted copyright date, it will not be widely released until 1999. The hour-long documentary from this filmmaker who identifies himself more as a film editor than a filmmaker is a sensitive but not sentimental look at the life of several students at the music conservatory for the blind in Prague. Janek and the co-author of the screenplay Ivan Arsenjev visited the conservatory for several months before they began filming and, as Janek admitted in the post-screening discussion, they were tempted to start filming on several occasions but waited to run the idea by the actual participants first. The end result is, in essence, a film about a group of the filmmakers' exceptional friends talking about their lives, their hopes and expectations. Within the span of an hour, Janek and Arsenjev manage to portray five distinct personalities, five individuals whose talent, charisma and active involvement and pursuit of their interests are enough to keep the viewer fully engaged and leave her with a healthy feeling of personal insufficiency. The strength of the film is the way in which it manages to be immensely inspirational, while avoiding all tendencies toward cheap sentiment or pity. This is undoubtedly due to the strong talents and characters of both filmmakers and the individuals featured in the film.

The second premier offered a reflective look at the profession of documentary filmmaking from a legend of Czech documentary film Jan Spata. Laska, kterou opoustim represents Spata's official farewell to his long-loved and long-practiced profession. The film consists of a series of clips form Spata's documentaries, interspersed with Spata's own commentary about the art of documentary film and his own particular experiences with his craft. The love which Spata is abandoning is in fact documentary film itself and although in his pre- and post-screening comments he reinforced several times that he was vary of making the film into a form of self-promotion, in many respects the film is little more than that. Despite Spata's claims, the film nevertheless comes off as too much of a pre-planned, self-orchestrated self-portrait. It reveals nothing new about documentary film nor Spata himself and, in contrast to Janek's very engaging film offers nothing which truly endears the viewer. In short, it is a relatively uninteresting review of one man's career. Both on and off camera Spata makes much of the notion of the art of knowing when to leave, but his explicit, self-congratulatory reiteration of this notion make the actual exit seem inauthentic. One tends to think that the art of knowing when to leave also entails not talking about it so much. When after the film's screening Spata sat on stage, in front of a full auditorium of attentive teenagers one might add, and bemoaned the modern day media onslaught and the modern viewers inability to endure classic documentary film, both film and filmmaker floated further and further away in a fog of self-centered whining sentiment

Aside from these two premiers and the showcases of particular directors, this year's festival also brought its predominately young audience two peculiar treats. One was a series which ran bright and early every morning from 9:00 to 11:00 am entitled "Ordinary Fascism." Taking its name and ironic flavor from a film made in 1965 by Russian director Michail Romm, the series featured a range of original documentary films dealing mostly with the period of Hitler's fascism. The series included well-known propaganda films like Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, but also lesser-known works such as Alain Resnais's treatment of the 1937 German attack on the Spanish town of Guernica, in the form of a dramatic sound and visual collage of Picasso's famous painting and texts by the French poet Paul Eluard.

Romm's film itself is an interesting confrontation with a gruesome theme. Composed entirely of archived material and accompanied by the narrator's highly ironic commentary, Romm's two hour film juxtaposes authentic footage of concentration camps, various Nazi propaganda films along with images of daily life both in Nazi Germany and Russia of the 1960s. It is the uncommon combination and context of the often familiar material which gives the film an eerily effective resonance. Romm's film is considered to have injected new life into the technique of collage documentary film which was largely seen to be exhausted, especially with respect to World War II footage, in the mid-60s and remains an exemplary showcase of that art form today.

All films in the series while being visually stunning - Riefenstahl's footage of massive Hitlerjugend parades, for example - and often employing interesting film techniques, at the same time allowed for deeper reflection not only of the material presented but of the actual events themselves.

Another series of films which offered a unique take on a delicate and potentially disturbing theme were seven short films presented under the collective rubric of "Life at the Graveyard." But, just as Romm's film from the fascism series approached the topic with a little humor so too did this second set of films. Most of the seven films focused on the routines and daily goings-on at various institutions occupied with the processes and necessary rituals which accompany a death, as well as the people who carry out these rituals as part of their daily work. Since even in our up front and in-your-face society death and the deceased are still predominately treated from a distance and uncomfortably tiptoed around, often it is simply the very straightforward and matter-of-fact way that these people present their profession which accounts for the films' absurd comedy.

There is no doubt that the films owe alot to the personalities which they feature and there is no doubt that the audience favorite in this respect was the star of Roman Vavra's 20 minute look at a jolly gravedigger entitled Bylo, nebylo (Was, Was Not). This short documentary, filmed in 1994, profiles an oddball character who divides his time between tending to a small graveyard and repairing shoes for the local citizens. As he points out, the two professions often go hand in hand: many of his customers approach him during funeral services, thrusting a pair of broken pumps in his hand as he helps carry a coffin to its final resting place. Accompanied by his two loyal companions - a dog who delights in pulling wreaths off graves and using them as chew toys and a wily goat by the name of Liza who seeks refuge upon graves when said dog chases her around the cemetery - the man cheerfully relays details of his profession and his own simple yet slightly surreal lifestyle.

Other inside looks into the afterlife included in the series are: Vera Chytilova's documentary Jak se zije s neboztiky (What it's Like to Live with a Corpse) in which the camera follows the tracks of a corpse's journey out of the earthly life - a cemetery, a funeral home, and crematorium (including a view inside the actual ovens) - through the eyes of the people who help move it along on this journey; and Sasa Gedeon's Blatoslap (which could be loosely translated as A Sorry Soul, literally one who is always stepping into mud) which paints, in striking black and white, a rather sadly tragic-comic portrait of another oddball gravedigger whose fate is summed up in the film's title and his earned nickname.

This small sampling of some of this year's highlights demonstrates not only the varied scope of the festival but speaks for the admirable effort on the part of the group of Jihlava high school students who managed to offer such a scope and who succeeded in bringing, for the second year in a row, several key representatives of Czech documentary film both to the festival's screen and onto the festival's podium.

Kazi Stastna, 16 November 1998


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