Like the dog on the beach...

American film historian Alice Lovejoy writes her remembrance of Karel Vachek, the remarkable Czech documentarist to whom we dedicate this English issue of dok.revue.

Karel Vachek. Photo from Alice Lovejoy's archive

I first met Karel Vachek in 2000. A foreign student at FAMU, fascinated by the Prague Spring, I had watched Elective Affinities (Spřízněni volbou, 1968), Vachek’s chronicle of the 1968 presidential elections in Czechoslovakia. I made a film about him, an awkward student production that Vachek patiently tolerated, and two years later, I brought him and his post-1989 “film novels” to the United States. On this tour, and another one seven years later, we walked through a New York very different from the city he’d known in his difficult years of exile. He taught filmmaking to my students. In late winter on a rocky Rhode Island beach, he smoked his trademark hand-carved pipe, and ordered our family dog to retrieve a duck for him.

I was fairly starstruck by it all. Here was this major figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave, the head of FAMU’s documentary department, a director whose shortest recent film was longer than three hours, but his office door at FAMU was almost always open. A trail of pipe smoke was the telltale sign, the students and colleagues drifting in and out. When I asked him for an interview, for permission to use one of his films in a DVD, if he wouldn’t mind company as he walked to a used record shop, the response was always the same: to víte, že jo. Of course.

Vachek was devoted to his students, his colleagues, his collaborators. But I think that wasn’t the only reason why he found time for all of us. From his March 1965 segment of the Army Newsreel (Armádní filmový měsíčník), to Elective Affinities, to the work he made later in life, when he was making up for lost time, his films are, perhaps more than anything else, collections of people. So are his paintings: bright, wall-sized, intricately geometric constellations of individuals who were the lodestars of Vachek’s personal philosophy. So, too, the office hours and the weekly “open seminar,” a class whose topic wasn’t exactly film. Instead, Vachek would stage a conversation—usually as provocative as the ones in his films—with someone in politics, culture, public life. Sometimes he just played records (Trini Lopez, Woody Guthrie); those weeks, a piece of paper would be pinned to the classroom info board with the word “DISCOTHEQUE”.

If you’ve seen Vachek’s films, you know that they are not “documentaries” in the usual sense of the word. I remember a chance meeting between him and Jonas Mekas at Anthology Film Archives in 2002. Vachek had just introduced one of his films, and as we were walking out, suddenly, there was Mekas with a glass of wine, and there was Vachek with his pipe, and these two towering figures in East European nonfiction film didn’t have very much to say to one another. Of course they didn’t. They were different generations: Mekas’s shaped by the war, Vachek’s born into it, and as émigrés in New York, their experiences were wildly different. Vachek struggled to find work, let alone make films, and returned to Czechoslovakia—where, like many of his generation, he had been forced into manual labor after 1968—in 1984; Mekas became the catalyst for much of what happened in the American avant-garde from the 1950s onward. But it was more than that. From the beginning of his career, Vachek put little stake in the idea that films could chronicle the world in the way Mekas’s diary films did. This is the very point of his FAMU thesis film Moravian Hellas (Moravská Hellas, 1963), in which he equipped the Saudek brothers with a Nagra and a microphone and sent them to the Strážnice folk festival to send up the idea of cinéma vérité. Nevertheless, Vachek is no less personally present in his films than Mekas is in his, on screen, as in the classroom and elsewhere, bent over his pipe, thinking, arguing, often acting—always directing.
 

Karel Vachek in his film Communism and the Net or The End of Representative Democracy (2019). Photo: Ji.hlava IDFF.
 

We didn’t always know it. Or at least I didn’t, until we were in a crowded screening room in upstate New York in 2009. Vachek was introducing Moravian Hellas, and I was interpreting for him. He used a word whose equivalent can sound offensive in English, and so I translated around it. Vachek stopped talking, looked at me, and said sharply, Alice, přeložte to. Alice, translate it. His English, I realized then, was better than he’d ever let on—and there I was, like the characters in his films, like the guests in the seminar, like the dog on the beach, being (unwittingly) directed.

Vachek and I lost touch over the past couple of years. But I thought of him this January, when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Insurgents had surrounded a pile of Associated Press cameras, tripods, and sound equipment, which they were kicking, smashing, attempting to burn. Years ago, Vachek had told me a story about filming during the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, and of a Soviet soldier taking his camera, opening it, unspooling the film, and peering at the strip as the images he sought there were exposed into oblivion.

Whether or not it was true, it was the kind of story Vachek would tell. Even if the footage had been developed, he might have said, it would have amounted to just pictures—neither truth and evidence nor fake news. And the hapless Soviet soldier, unschooled in photography, would have been very much at home in Vachek’s films, which were populated as much by pitiable innocents and holy fools as they were by prophets and misunderstood geniuses. But the image of Vachek on the streets of Prague during the invasion is also one of his devotion to the promise and energy of 1968, a devotion that persisted into our dystopian present. In exposing the weirdness of the world, after all, he also hoped to make it better. And for many of us, he did.





more articles from a section:  Theme

1.21Every human being should get to wear comfy shoesThe Czech documentarist Karel Vachek was a chairperson of the jury at Yamagata international documentary film festival (YIDFF) in 2009. The board member of YIDFF and the former director of this festival, Asako Fujioka, has a remembrance of him smoking his pipe and going to the mountains with Japanese poet and filmmaker Yoshimasu Gozo to recite poetry to the skies.Asako Fujioka
1.21Never stop laughingPaolo Benzi, the Italian film producer and founder of the independent film production company Okta Film, describes for dok.revue how he met famous Czech documentary filmmaker Karel Vachek, who passed away last year. Paolo Benzi is also the main tutor of the Emerging producers in Ji.hlava IDFF.Paolo Benzi
1.21Nest in the bedroomPeter Hames, well-known British film historian and author of the book The Czechoslovak New Wave sent his remembrance to Karel Vachek to our magazine.Peter Hames
1.21Behold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightenedIn this English issue of dok.revue we have collected some remembrances to Karel Vachek, the respected Czech documentarist who died in December 2020 at the age of 80. One of the contributors is Olaf Möller, a well-known film theorist and critic collaborating with many renowned film magazines (Film Comment or Sight & Sound), film museums and festivals (e.g. Il Cinema Ritrovato or International Film Festival Rotterdam).Olaf Möller
2.20It comes right from the bellyIn this personal essay, a Danish sound designer Peter Albrechtsen remembers one of the world's greatest and most unique modern film composers, Jóhann Jóhannsson. This article was written in 2018, shortly after the Jóhannsson´s death, but has never been published.
1.20There’s more than one feminismA reflection on women documentarians inspired by Barbora Baronová’s book Women on WomenMartin Šrajer
1+2.19Emerging Czech female documentariansIs there a new tide of emerging female documentarians in Czech cinema? What’s fascinating about the work of Czech female filmmakers like Johana Ožvold, Greta Stocklassa or Viera Čákany?Will Tizard
1.18Exprmntl.cz Through Eyes of American Journalist Daniel WalberAmerican freelance critic Daniel Walber focuses on a bunch of Czech experimental movies which were screened at the 21st Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival in the Fascinations: Exprmntl.cz section.Daniel Walber
2.17Why Series SuckCritical essay about the phenomenon Quality TVHanjo Berressem, Nadine Boljkovac
1.17Haptic/Visual Identities – A project between art and researchAgata Mergler and Cristian Villavicencio about their haptic camerasAgata Mergler, Cristian Villavicencio

starší články

1.21DOK.REVUE
18. 03. 2021


from current issue:

New releaseShooting About KunderaDocumentarian Miloslav Šmídmajer describes the process of making a documentary about Milan Kundera with the working title “Milan Kundera: From the Joke to Insignificance.” Miloslav ŠmídmajerThemeNest in the bedroomPeter Hames, well-known British film historian and author of the book The Czechoslovak New Wave sent his remembrance to Karel Vachek to our magazine.Peter HamesThemeNever stop laughingPaolo Benzi, the Italian film producer and founder of the independent film production company Okta Film, describes for dok.revue how he met famous Czech documentary filmmaker Karel Vachek, who passed away last year. Paolo Benzi is also the main tutor of the Emerging producers in Ji.hlava IDFF.Paolo BenziThemeBehold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightenedIn this English issue of dok.revue we have collected some remembrances to Karel Vachek, the respected Czech documentarist who died in December 2020 at the age of 80. One of the contributors is Olaf Möller, a well-known film theorist and critic collaborating with many renowned film magazines (Film Comment or Sight & Sound), film museums and festivals (e.g. Il Cinema Ritrovato or International Film Festival Rotterdam).Olaf MöllerThemeEvery human being should get to wear comfy shoesThe Czech documentarist Karel Vachek was a chairperson of the jury at Yamagata international documentary film festival (YIDFF) in 2009. The board member of YIDFF and the former director of this festival, Asako Fujioka, has a remembrance of him smoking his pipe and going to the mountains with Japanese poet and filmmaker Yoshimasu Gozo to recite poetry to the skies.Asako FujiokaSportPandemic as an opportunityJi.hlava's Emerging Producers discuss the opportunity that can emerge from crisisSteve RickinsonInterviewThe times of lifelong careers are overAn interview with documentarian Jindřich Andrš, whose film A New Shift won the Czech competition section Czech Joy at Ji.hlava IDFF2020.Vojtěch KočárníkInterviewGoing to the Polish Turf with Our Own TeamInterview with documentary filmmakers Filip Remunda and Vít Klusák about their latest joint film project Once Upon a Time in Poland that shows how religion and faith are misused in contemporary Poland for mass manipulation and political purposes. The film‘s Czech premiere was held as part of the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival 2020.Kamila BoháčkováIntroductionDok.revue 1.21This issue is dedicated to the doyen of Czech documentary filmmaking Karel VachekKamila Boháčková