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How Jihlava Doc Fest is Raising its Profile in a Crowded Calendar

By Tom White

The 18th edition of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival ran October 23-28, and no sooner had I disembarked from my crisscrossing the international date line twice in five days to cover the Taiwan International Documentary Festival when I was on a plane again, on an epic journey to the other side of the world.

Jihlava, an industrial town in the Czech Republic, two hours east of Prague, plays host to the annual five-day event in a fall season packed with doc fests. Running concurrently with the Jihlava fest was Dok Leipzig, and just around the corner would be CPH: DOX.

The Czech Republic itself is a quarter-century removed from the Velvet Revolution and three years away from the passing of its first president, Vaclav Havel. Last year saw the nation’s first presidential election in its history. En route from the Vienna airport to Jihlava, we passed the border between Austria and the Czech Republic—once a foreboding entry to the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc, but now, instead of a checkpoint, this passenger beheld a dazzling phalanx of casinos, on the Czech side. With the Czech Republic not tied to the euro, the country has seemingly dodged the recession bullet and is one of the post-Cold War success stories.

And the festival itself has capitalized on its remote location from a major city to create a rich program of venturesome docs from Eastern and Central Europe, as well as work from Western Europe, the US, Burma, Syria and Israel, among other countries. The festival also spotlighted the work of such masters as Godfrey Reggio, Filipino director Kidlat Tahimik and the late Alain Resnais. Reggio and Tahimik were on hand to teach master classes, along with such luminaries as Nicolas Philibert and Bing Wang. And as if film weren’t enough for Czech audiences, Jihlava also presented a selection of radio documentaries, a slam poetry night, a cabaret, documentary theater, a nightly music program and a photography exhibit. And of course, this being a festival, Jihlava presented its Industry Programme, including markets, forums and workshops. All in just five days!

I participated in a conversation on festival identity, in which my fellow panelists, all of whom represented online or print publications, portals and blogs, advised festival directors from Eastern, Central and Western Europe, as well as Russia and the Ukraine about how we covered festivals, what our priorities were, what we like to see in a festival and how festivals can position themselves to enhance their profiles. I was heartened by the plethora and range of doc festivals represented in the room. I cited fests like True/False and Camden as examples of the kind of innovation and ingenuity in programming and curation that would both build on local audiences and attract a larger community of filmmakers and journalists alike. Andrea Pruchova, the head of PR for the Prague-based Doc Alliance, moderated the discussion. Doc Alliance was founded in part by Jihlava festival director Marek Hovorka in 2004 to create a consortium of European documentary festivals, including CPH:DOX Copenhagen, Doclisboa, DOK Leipzig, FID Marseille, Jihlava IDFF, Planete Doc FF and Visions du Réel Nyon, to pool ideas and resources, and mainly to make available a section of films for online distribution through its portal,

To cover Jihlava in the three days I was there, you sample what you can from the vast smorgasboard and share some of the delectables. First stop among the films was a selection from the Czech Joy competition, a showcase of the best docs from the Czech Republic. Lean a Ladder against Heaven, from Jana Ševčílková, profiles a Catholic priest, Marián Kuffa, who takes into his parish outcasts from the village of Žakovec and the surrounding Slovak Tatra Mountains— ex-convicts, drug addicts, alcoholics, and the poor. Father Marian recalls Pastor Jay from Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters, as someone who follows a principled path, and who is as open about his own flaws as he is tough and tender with his parishioners. Although a bit on the long side, with a number of endings that sufficed well before the final ending, Lean a Ladder against Heaven reveals a cast of characters who are as candid about their despair as they are about their determination for redemption.

Daniel’s World, also part of the Czech Joy competition, drew a large crowd, considering the subject: Daniel, a self-described pedophile. This 25-year-old writer/student shares his musings and reflections, his struggles and his fantasies through his journal entries, his therapy sessions, his on-camera monologues, his public readings, and his conversations with friends and fellow pedophiles. As a parent of a nine-year-old, I was naturally hard-pressed to empathize with Daniel, as candid and honest as director Veronika Lišková enabled him to be. But to her credit, Lišková patiently takes us into Daniel’s world, and I came away with at least a better, albeit unsettling, understanding of him—and although he describes his fantasies throughout the film, he never acts upon them. In an interview with Radio Prague, Lišková elaborated on filming this particular subculture of nonactive pedophiles: “I think it is important to sometimes show that there can be somebody who is born with this orientation… Because each person deserves to be regarded in relation to the presumption of innocence.” The film won the Audience Award at Jihlava.

As part of the Between the Seas competition of Central and Eastern European films, Tristia: A Black Sea Odyssey, from Polish documentarian Stanislaw Mucha, takes us on a wild road trip through six countries along the shore of the Black Sea. Starting in Odessa, Russia, and ending in Romania, Mucha introduces us to a sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, sometimes bizarre tableau of storytellers, hustlers, historians and poets. Mucha is a conscious presence throughout this travelogue, goading the locals to not only regale him with tales, but to perform and pose. The result is a rich panorama of not only Putin Era realities, but also echoes and refractions of the centuries-old work of the 8th century Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to the Black Sea, and whose elegiac poem “Tristia” inspired the title of the film.

Part of the International Competition, Ming of Harlem: Twenty-One Stories in the Air takes a tabloid story from 2003 about New York resident Antoine Yates, who kept a Bengal tiger and an alligator in his Harlem apartment as pets, and renders it into a meditation on human-animal relationships. British director Phillip Warnell not only tracked down Yates to provide the narration, but built a replica of Yates’ apartment and convinced a zoo to lend a Bengal tiger and alligator to let them meander around the set, making for a dreamy, almost fairy tale mediation.

I was not familiar with the work of Serbian director Zelimir Zilnik prior to my visit to Jihlava, but the filmmaker was on hand to present a selection of his oeuvre, which dates back to the 1960s, during the Tito regime. Tito was regarded as a “benevolent dictator,” and Zilnik and his contemporaries enjoyed an uncustomary degree of artistic freedom for that era. His films offer a wry take on homelessness, poverty and unemployment. In one short film, he rounds up a corps of homeless men and invites them to spend the night in his apartment, much to the consternation of his wife and young son. This touch of absurdity informs his work through the end of the Cold War and beyond the tragic breakup of Yugoslavia.

Zilnik was the lone juror in the International Competition—an indicator of the frivolity that would enfold at the awards ceremony that closed the festival, most of which was in Czech. The festival had run out of headphones for simultaneous translation, so I laughed along with the audience and the witty MCs, who I imagined to be the far more sophisticated cousins of fictional dissidents George and Yortuk Festrunk, those wild and crazy guys from the early days of SNL.


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.