Les États généraux du film documentaire 2008 Doc Route: Czech Republic — And a detour by Slovakia

Doc Route: Czech Republic — And a detour by Slovakia

Czech documentary films like to present themselves as such to the spectator right from the opening titles: “a documentary film”, “a portrait”, indeed student films even announce the number of shots. This propensity to announcement is sometimes reinforced by a certain demonstration of the directors' methods and reveals the act of filmmaking, as if to certify the project's truthfulness. But the very common recourse to alternating and parallel cutting reminds us that behind the camera, a filmmaker is pulling the strings and that people are playing, in front of and behind the camera.
Playful, baroque, provocative, kafkaesque, free and critical, this was the New Wave of Czech cinema in the sixties with Ján Nemec, Vera Chytilova, Jiří Menzel, Evald Schorm… and Karel Vachek who is still pursuing a career of documentary work in his very unique style. His film, Moravian Hellas, “a report” on the international folklore festival of Strážnice in 1963 is a caustic treatment of the local artisans of folklore, musicians, jokers, inhabitants, organisers... With humour and derision, the film readily mixes truth and legend and inquires openly into the backstage dealings of this big celebration. The film provoked a scandal, like many others of the New Wave, and was forbidden for more than twenty years after the Soviet invasion of 1968. The trilogy The Little Capitalist (1992-2000) of which we have chosen to present the last episode Bohemia Docta, marked his return to cinema after a period of exile. In particular we can observe an ostensible staging of the film and discover how the twists of history have led the filmmaker to intervene ever more actively in his films, making the director's methodological choices always more visible, while adopting a sometimes exuberant style. Karel Vachek continues to influence the younger generation by directing the documentary department at the famous Prague Film Faculty, the Famu, source of most Czech documentarians. We will screen a panorama of some students' first films to communicate the great liberty enjoyed by both authors and films.
In contrast with a part of the country's production which seems tempted by a certain uniformity —perhaps less imposed by a national television company seemingly highly committed to original production than by a more general trend in world documentary— these student films remain free of the constraints of genre: international reports, investigations, hagiographic portraits, thematic series which empties cinema of all critical viewpoint, of all reflection and above all on the film itself. In this case, the staging can be reduced to effects, to poor and spectacular directors' tricks and showing the film being made, as in Vachek's production, is not enough to preserve the supposed ethical integrity of a method if this is adopted to the detriment of those who are filmed.
The student films we will show try to tell stories, each in its manner, but always in collaboration with those who are filmed. If History, perhaps too imposing, seems kept at a certain distance from which far off rumbles can be heard, young filmmakers examine attentively the people around them, close at hand both geographically and affectively, and from these modern stories emerge, softly, more essential questions. Portraits of people around them seem a compulsory exercice and are extremely present in Czech documentary cinema. Living portraits, for example of a poet in full health (Ivan Martin Jirous) or delicate posthumous portraits of artists in the eyes of their companion, modest and discreet inheritors of a past and an artistic work (Jiři John, Jan Křížek) or portraits of an exile with the magnificent film of Kateřina Krusová accompanying the preparation of the Return of Jan Vladislav from his Parisian Exile to Prague in the Summer of 2003. The young cineast invents a film which becomes a new land of refuge for the poet and herself, a reconciliation with time, that of History as well as that of cinema, for there is no “return” in this film. Prague remains an imaginary city. Alongside the large scale frescoes by Vachek, we view here intimist paintings where the embodied story composes a memory by procuration.
Another apparently risky hypothesis to approach reality: “get rid of” the camera as in Kha-chee-pae, by putting it in the hands of the children placed in an institution. The idea is difficult to carry off but its execution is born by the children's play, represented in animation sequences that punctuate the film with their inventions and daydreams, those that allow them to resist in the midst of turbulence and tensions.
All these portrait films, by restoring the integrity of the filmed body, once again allow stories to be told, the staging of which allows the filmmaker's body to efface itself. With Mrs Le Murie, a troubling and dizzying film, Petr Vacláv leads us deep into the woods to find a woman alone. In her enormous delapidated house, vestige of a family whose history has crossed historical periods, she tells us the tale of which her voice and body are the most faithful of memories. The stories of houses are those of the individuals who inhabit them and sometimes these individuals find themselves held onto forever, but stories of exile also continue to haunt certain houses and prevent their subjects from ever returning.
In Home, the director ends up giving a certain substance to the banality of family histories, through her insistance, through the questions repeatedly asked to her parents but which in fact are more addressed to herself: where do you live when you inherit property after an exile? With Sold the return to Prague is painful. The past is liquidated by emptying the building of the tenants who have become undesirable. The film uses derision to show the disarray of the inhabitants willing to participate in the game, for outside the film they do not believe in it any longer. In A House in Prague, the two last descendents can not bring themselves to part with their inheritance: they will not sell. Stan Neumann brings an exterior viewpoint even if he himself is part of this family whose history is closely linked to the country's political history. The film slides in this “in between” area, between involvement and distance, restoration and liquidation, staging and observation, between news archives and the intimate shots of today. On one hand, Jan Šikl meticulously recomposes in Private Century — Low-Level Flight a story based on amateur Super 8 films and personal diaries from the sixties and seventies, on the other Martin Sulik chooses to re-enact entirely the diary of a dead filmmaker, Paul Juracek, and to cast the filmmaker's son in the lead role. The result is astonishing.
This relationship to the truth, to what is said there, before the camera, crosses Czech documentary film like an echo of the “normalisation” which followed the Soviet invasion of 21 August 1968 smashing the Springtime of Prague and covering cinema with a tombstone of lead. Forty years later, on this anniversary to the exact day, the indispensible film by Evald Schorm, Confusion, is an essential reminder.
Finally, we take a detour via Slovakia beginning with the exciting Blind Loves, a little treasure devoted to the staging of difficult, delicate and dignified love stories (Cf. Open air screenings). The highly fictionalised short films of Milan Balog compose cynical and ubuesque portraits and paintings responding sometimes to commissions: “Europe around us? We in Europe!” (sic). In a classical yet more confrontational style, Hey You Slovaks! offers a highly contrasting view of the situations and ruptures experienced by the country's citizens at the dawn of a period of Europe-inspired hope that will surely by illusory for the poorer members of society. From this point of view, Soňa and Her Family makes a much needed correction. A fragile film and directed as if on a tightrope, the film takes us into the heart of a very large family in a Rom village. The young filmmaker via a discreetly intimate relationship with the mother, allows us to be present in the face of the overwhelming forces of life which submerge them and a society which scorns them, while managing to save her film from any excess. It is a brutal, vital, sensitive dive into a dark hole in the scenery, an indispensible counterpoint.

Christophe Postic

Guests : Débats en présence de Petr Václav. Une séance spéciale « Photographes » présente deux films sur le photographe tchèque Miroslav Tichý. Remerciements à Andrea Slováková (The Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival), Nina Numankadič (Doc-Air), Hana Rezková (Institute of Documentary Film), Helena Zajíková (One World Festival), Tomáš Petráň et Honza Šípek (Famu), Jakub Felcman (Fresh Film Fest). Avec le soutien de l’Ambassade de France - Déborah Benattar.