When local is universal

dok.revue 1.20

Photo: Martin Mareček

“We’re living in a rare age… We’ve been given the chance to stop and consider things we usually put off… Strange times…” These are the thoughts of one Czech documentarian on the current pandemic. While some filmmakers are happy that they now have time to look back and reflect or to work on long-postponed projects, others were forced to interrupt filming or cancel pitches at festivals or trips abroad. The situation has also had a detrimental effect on cinemas and festivals, and the impact on the film sector as a whole will be visible for the next several years.

In our first English edition of 2020, we bring you a selection of articles from this year’s Czech issues of dok.revue which should interest our international readers. The articles in this digest can be divided into two groups. While the first is dedicated predominantly to events in the field of world documentary, the second set of texts maps out the Czech situation. In May we published an interview with organisers of major industry events in the field of documentary film. We spoke with Tereza Šimíková from Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival CPH:DOX, which took place in March just after the declaration of a state of emergency, Pierre-Alexis Chevit, the head of Cannes Docs at Marché du Film of Festival de Cannes, which happened at the end of June, and Jarmila Outratová, the head of the Industry Office at IDFF Ji.hlava, which will be taking place from the 29th of October to the 1st of November. They discussed the challenges faced by the film industry in the age of the coronavirus.

American documentarian Jeff Gibbs’ activist film Planet of the Humans, which criticises the way we treat renewable energy sources, has stirred up much controversy. It’s no surprise that the producer is well-known filmmaker Michael Moore, who released the film for free on YouTube on Earth Day, when the worldwide pandemic was at its peak. In our debate about the film, ecological economist Naděžda Johanisová commented that “Living through the pandemic has shaken our certainties, but it’s good to emphasise that this pandemic is the result of our unsustainable lifestyle – we’re destroying the last remnants of the rainforests and wiping out their biotopes, which leads to viruses and their hosts moving and coming into contact with humans. A change of lifestyle is one thing, but what’s needed is a change of narrative – it’s a mistake to think that the capitalist system works and that it merely needs a little tweaking. It’s not so. We need to re-evaluate our basic economic postulates, which goes against the interests of the powerful elites.” Biologist and Catholic priest Marek Orko Vácha and director of the cinema Kino Pohoda in Jeseník Pavel Bednařík also took part in our discussion of the film.

The film Honeyland, by Macedonian documentarians Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevská, touches on a similar environmental theme, albeit through a completely different mode of expression. It is a sensitive observational study of the harmony in life and nature and the possibility of its disruption. In their interview with dok.revue the directors note: “If the film succeeds in anything, it’s in showing how this mechanism of greed works. It’s important because in some ways we’re all (…) capable of destroying this harmony.”

Our English issue also includes an essay by one of the most prominent minds in film today, Timothy Corrigan, who presented his essay “Biopics and the Trembling Ethics of the Real” at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival in fall 2019 as a part of his lecture for students in the festival’s educational module Media and Documentary. An introduction to the essay was prepared for dok.revue by aesthetician Tereza Hadravová, which places Corrigan’s thinking into the context of other contemporary theories.

However, this issue is devoted local Czech themes as well. First of all, we present a debate about the Czech film event of the spring – Vít Klusák and Barbora Chalupová’s film Caught in the Net, which became the first Czech documentary blockbuster. The film shows how sexual predators behave toward minors on the internet, and the creators even prepared a special version of the film for schools, which is suitable for children 12 and over. However, it’s not merely a film, but rather a film-event, which aims to transform our reality, inform the youth, and discredit predators.

Film publicist Martin Šrajer once again looks into the feminist position of Czech female documentarians and compares the works of two directors, Olga Sommerová and Martina Malinová, who differ both generationally as well as in their poetics. At the same time, he also poses some more general questions: “Are women truly predisposed to making documentary films? Or is it that given the systemic circumstances, it is simply more viable for women to make documentaries, and their greater recognition in the field is merely the logical result of their greater representation. In order to better understand this dynamic, in the tradition of Bill Nichols we should ask who is speaking to whom about what and through what means and take into account the position of power, the context of the statement, and the possibility of what can be shared in the scope of a certain discourse. For the answers to these questions, the statements of individual creators will likely aid us more than any statistical data.”

In this English digest we also bring you three texts in which the individual filmmakers share the origins of their projects. However, all three extend far beyond Czech borders. Novice Russian director Dmitrij Bogoljubov tells dok.revue about the circumstances surrounding the origin of his new film Town of Glory, a co-production with Czech production company Hypermarket Film and Czech Television. The film uncovers the mentality of Yelnya, a provincial Russian town that is one of the most depressing in the country and where the legacy of the Great Patriotic War still lingers – something Putin’s establishment has successfully exploited to gain the support of the local citizens. Viera Čákanyová, a Slovak filmmaker working in the Czech Republic, writes about the development of her documentary essay FREM, which was selected for the prestigious Forum section at this year’s Berlinale. The director describes what it was like to film in Antarctica, whether it is possible to get into the head of an artificial intelligence, and what exactly GAI is. Czech-based Ukrainian visual artist Anna Kryvenko, who was chosen for this year’s Berlinale Talents thanks to her successful film My Unknown Soldier, describes the documentary essay she is currently preparing entitled Sun of the Living Dead, which will be composed of archive materials. She writes, “The thing that troubles me most from the past five years is how I’ve grown desensitised. When you watch endless recordings of the suffering of people you don’t know (and occasionally also people you do know and like), you start to get the feeling that the limits of your sensitivity are shifting and you’re afflicted by a kind of occupational hazard. A recording of a person’s death becomes merely visual material that either is or is not ‘interesting’. It’s a dilemma I attempt to draw attention to with this new film.”

The next English edition of dok.revue will come out at the end of this year.

25. 09. 2020

from current issue:

Situational reviewThe creators of Havel didn’t know that they don’t know. And that’s the worst kind of not knowing!Is director Slávek Horák’s film Havel truly chaos that says nothing at all about the recent history of our Czech nation or its first president? Or are the filmmakers entitled to artistic license and allowed to create whatever they like, despite giving the film and its main character the name Havel? And what does it say about the times we live in that from the legacy of the influential playwright, intellectual, politician, and master of words, the filmmakers chose to focus solely on his slightly sensationalised private life?Kamila BoháčkováNew releaseHeaven over Today’s ChinaWhat is the story behind the feature-length documentary, Heaven, focusing on a Chinese Christian-run orphanage that is also a testimony about today’s China? Director Tomáš Etzler sees the film as a logical ending of his seven years in the Middle Kingdom. The second contribution was written by editor Adéla Špaljová who describes her collaboration with the director on the creation of the final cut of the documentary.Tomáš Etzler, Adéla ŠpaljováNew releaseAs Far As Possible Ukrainian documentarian Ganna Iaroshevych describes how she has been preparing her new film called As Far As Possible. It´s a portray of a man who decided to leave Germany and lives in the Ukrainian mountains fighting against the extinction of water buffaloes. „Our film tells about an alternative way of slow living close to nature and animals, and in harmony with yourself. And it seems to us that now this topic is especially relevant to many people around the globe,“ says Ganna Iaroshevych.Ganna JaroševičNew releaseThe Alchemical FurnaceJan Daňhel describes the concept behind his documentary film Alchemical Furnace that portrays the figure and work of Jan Švankmajer.ThemeIt 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.PoemGramsci’s NotebooksMike HoolboomInterviewKarel Vachek: Films Just Have to Make You Laugh!A doyen of Czech documentary filmmaking Karel Vachek unfortunately passed away on the 21th of December 2020. We publish here the interview he made in 2019 just after releasing his last film, the ninth film novel called Communism and the Net or the End of Representative Democracy. Fifty years after Prague Spring and thirty years after the Velvet Revolution, Karel Vachek “with his inner laughter” looks back on the evolution of our society and predicts a transformation to direct democracy based on the possibilities of the internet that will allow for the engagement of the whole mankind without the need of representatives. Kamila BoháčkováNew BookArmy Film and the Avant Garde?American film historian Alice Lovejoy discusses how her book Army Film and the Avant Garde: Cinema and Experiment in the Czechoslovak Military came to be. First published by Indiana University Press in 2015, the book will be published in a Czech translation by Jan Hanzlík in 2021 by the National Film Archive. The idea for the book emerged during the years the author lived in the Czech Republic.Alice LovejoyIntroductionLiving with inner laughterDok.revue 2.20Kamila Boháčková