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Keeping Itself in Czech: Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

By Gabriel Paletz

In the reflections of its guests, the International Documentary Film Festival in Jihlava, Czech Republic, has established itself in the course of 12 years on the documentary scene. A student and native of the town, who witnessed the event develop through middle and high school, recalled how the city council once expressed displeasure at the festival banners draping buildings on October 28, the Czech Independence Day. But this year, the national colors hung around the city, stamped with the festival's name.

Jihlava has similarly become integrated in international documentary networks. A Prague-based filmmaker noted that, while he was not pitching at the festival's East European Forum run by Prague's Institute of Documentary Film, Jihlava has become a good place to meet commissioning editors, especially from German TV. The ties to Germany are particularly strong this year, when both Jihlava and DOK Leipzig adjusted their schedules for the two events to run over the same days. For the second straight year, buses shuttled international guests between the festivals (a preview of package tours for documentarians?). The transport also helped to coordinate the premieres of the two festivals' co-sponsored films, launched under the ZIPP Czech-German cultural project "Breathless: Dominance of the Moment."

However, order can divide, as well as distinguish, festival sections. As at many events, earnestness and a definite style marked the awarded movies. The Islamic militants of the Iranian opposition made soft-spoken subjects, while the sincerity with which filmmaker Tamadon Mehran approached them made Bassidji the best of international documentary, in the view of the lone judge and festival honoree, Jørgen Leth. The best Czech picture was one of the five Breathless works. While the unbroken, flowing camera movements of Jan Gogola Jr.'s I Love My Boring Life stay in mind for their gracefulness, they were perhaps not entirely organic to Alena Němcová's domestic reflections.

How different the awarded films were from the popular, sensational digitized offerings at the East Silver Market. Director Miloš Forman was more outspoken than the Islamic militants in Miloš Forman: What Doesn't Kill You...(Miroslav Šmídmajer), although the portrait was marred by the score, tugging sentiment out of his return to Czech life. Through the protests of Auto*mat (Martin Mareček), the Audience Award winner, festival guests learned why it takes three times as long as necessary to drive on the main Czech highway from Prague to Jihlava.


From Martin Marecek's Auto*mat, which won the Audience Award at the Jihlava Internaitonal Film Festival.


Auto*mat has the virtues and deficits of an activist film, such as The Yes Men Fix the World: the recognition of the sources of global blight, and a strong identification with the activists, with a lack of access to their political and corporate nemeses, through whom change might come--or, at least, whose obstructions might be better understood and counteracted.

A settled festival also confronts the yearly challenge of putting together a well-knit program. Jihlava focuses on Czech, Central and Eastern European, and then on the best of world documentaries, while expanding into doc hybrids with the recent section "Fascinations." As the festival's contacts have widened, so have its program's ambitions and permutations. This edition included sections on the last 20 years of Cuban films, and screenings marking the 50th anniversary of the Béla Balázs Studio. While each series represents a Czech premiere, it is not easy to find the subjects or styles that might connect the commemorations. As at other festivals, one comes to a choice between blocks.

Jihlava going the way of other doc festivals need not be a cause of mourning, as documentary events are committed to more than egos and shekels. Still, how might its offerings be refreshed?

The festival made some adventurous choices this year. Another section, under the title "When Czechs Had to Heil," trawled up an uncomfortable part of the Czech past, with documentaries from the National Film Archive from the long period of the Nazi occupation known as the Protectorate (1939-1945). Here were examples of pernicious propaganda, such as the transit camp disguised as a cultural idyll in Terezín (1945), and here also were acts of documentary courage, such as the recording of the extermination of the town of Lidice in reprisal for the assassination by Czech pilots of Riechsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich (Lidice, Czech Village, 1942).


From Lidice, Czech Village; 1942).


There was also a short retrospective of films dedicated to the Stuttgart Film und Foto (FiFo) exhibition of 1929. One can imagine the works by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy well complemented the original event's survey of international and avant-garde photography. But what place do Emak Bakia, Anémic Cinéma and Ballet Mécanique have at a documentary festival?

The avant-gardists might have seized the opportunity to show their works through Jihlava's online distribution portal Doc Alliance, a partnership since March 2009 with CPH:DOX Copenhagen, DOK Leipzig, Planete Doc Review Warsaw and Visions du Réel Nyon, that provides documentary and experimental films to a range of viewers outside of traditional markets. But we should then ask how contemporary documentarians might render the avant-garde's uses of changing light, lack of clear identifications, and alternation between stills and human and machine movement, to make the most of the past in the freedom to experiment on Doc Alliance's new avenues.

Now established, Jihlava has the opportunity to make other advances through associations that open the scope of its national heritage. The two fathers of contemporary Czech documentary are Karel Vachek, current head of the documentary department of the national film school FAMU, and Jan Špáta, who died in 2006, but who was also a FAMU professor, and who, with his wife and fellow documentarian Olga Sommerová, was a speaker and guest of the festival in its earliest years. Several of his films, including Největší Přání I a II (The Greatest Wish, I and II, 1964, 1990), Okamžik Radosti (Moment of Joy, 1965), a 17-minute study of Czech mountain-climbers with brilliant camerawork, and Máňa (1993), a portrait of an alternately exuberant and despondent, nearly toothless female thief, deserve international showings.


Jan Spata (left), making his 1965 film Moment of Joy.

For the first time since Špáta's death, the organizers of the festival showed two of his works, to coincide with the release of a four-disc set of his films on DVD. In the festival's most memorable screening, Největší Přání II (The Greatest Wish II), two generations of young Czech people, from 1964 and 1989, were asked by the filmmakers, "What is your greatest wish?" While some of the past fashions and manners provoked laughter from the young Czechs watching the film, Jihlava's core audience listened raptly to the values expressed by the generations of youth who came before them. It was an event between young people on and off screen that could only have been fully realized at Jihlava.

The Špáta screenings marked a recovery of a Czech documentary tradition, which may reemerge in time beside Vachek's influential and probing ruminations. Perhaps another Jihlava program could pair the works of the two filmmakers from the 1960s, when they simultaneously, if briefly, thrived. Perhaps another expansion of context could show the commonalities between Czech and European documentarians in the seminal period when technological changes allowed filmmakers to capture immediate responses on the streets, whether a Parisian's answers to "Are you happy?" in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's Chronicle of a Summer (1961), or a Praguer's consideration of their greatest wish. (Olga Sommerová told me that Špáta was not influenced by, and may not have even seen, the French film).

Perhaps the appeals for more dynamic correspondences within the parts of a festival, and through the traditions of documentary are too much to ask of a newly established event. But they are fair inquiries to make of an institution.

Gabriel M. Paletz is on the senior faculty of the Prague Film School in Prague, where he teaches documentary and screenwriting.