Vol 0, No 6
2 November 1998
F I L M :|
A Report from the Festival
of Czech Documentary Film
Last week the second annual festival of Czech documentary film took place in the small Moravian town of Jihlava. The festival is the brainchild of first year film student Marek Hovorka and his friends, many of whom are students at the local high school. After the success of last year's festival, which lasted three days and managed to attract some of the foremost Czech and Slovak documentary film directors, this year Hovorka and co. expanded the festival to five days (27 - 31 October 1998) and brought many of the same renowned directors back to Jihlava for a fresh showing of both old and new works.
Opening day started off a little slow, with only a few bodies filling the 400-seat theater. This was rather unfortunate as the first screening profiled the production team Epicentrum and offered not only a look at three of its films but a rare opportunity to talk to the people behind the cameras. Epicentrum was founded in 1994 by journalists Petra Prochazkova and Jaromir Stetina who have become known for their investigative reports from far corners of the world and sensitive conflict areas. Both worked as Russian correspondents for the Czech daily Lidove noviny in the early 1990s, and Prochazkova continues to report tirelessly from the region today. Aside from a short profile of Russian poet Sergej Jesenin, the festival's Epicentrum showing included two films from the front lines.
Till Death Do Us Part (1996) tells the stories of some of the dozens of Russian journalists killed by government authorities on account of their coverage of the war in Chechnya and portrays the precarious situation which most Russian journalists must still live and work in today. It profiles the vain attempts of colleagues, friends and family to investigate and seek justice within the chaos and irrationality that prevails in Russia. In the post-film discussion, Prochazkova pointed out that to date only one case (the one focused on in the film) has been, relatively unsuccessfully, brought to trial.
The second Epicentrum production, Hong Kong II - A Part of Red China (1997) documents the former British colony during the time of its return to China. Aside from scenes from the official ceremonies that accompanied the event, Stetina and team catch up with a young revolutionary -Leung- and follow him and his fellow activists of the small pro-democracy movement as they express their disapproval of the hand-over and demand the release of Chinese political prisoners. The juxtaposition of the somber official pomp and circumstance and the small protests and demonstrations, interspersed with Leung's explication of his revolutionary ideals - he is a self-professed admirer of Che Guevera and Vaclav Havel - and footage of daily Hong Kong life forms a captivating document which captures both the historical implications of a significant world event and the personal convictions of an individual.
After the film and before jetting off to their various far-off corners, Stetina, Prochazkova - who did the camera work on all three films, and the films' director Petr Janacek provided the small audience with some humorous anecdotes about surviving several months of filming in Hong Kong on an Eastern European budget (survival tactics included renting an empty apartment on an island and dumpster diving for furniture). Prochazkova fielded the usual array of questions regarding what it is like to be a woman on the front lines. She firmly but pleasantly stressed that she is not a unique case and pointed out that the proportion of male to female journalists covering the war in Chechnya was especially well balanced, and correspondingly many of the murdered journalists (including the very first victim) were female.
The theme of women on the front lines as well as behind sinks and stoves resurfaced two days later during and after the showing of two films by the well-known documentary filmmaker Olga Sommerova. The first, judging by its title, proclaimed to be about Feminism, Czech Style (1992) but turned out be a series of fairly uninspiring musings by some of Sommerova's friends - largely artists, musicians, authors and intellectuals (hence, as one audience member later pointed out, from one and the same social stratum). Moreover, most women in the film (there was one token male, a self-professed feminist with all of the stereotypical sensitive new age man fixings: soft unassuming voice, long curly locks, batik prints and synthesizers) appeared in the home, surrounded by hubby and kiddies. Despite questioning some traditional female stereotypes and asserting themselves as independent women, none of the women questioned the traditional mother role, automatically incorporating motherhood into the natural, even if "emancipated," path of every woman's life, rather than seeing it as only an option or rejecting it altogether. In many regards the film remained locked in old discourse, rehashing the infamous "balancing act" of career and family and adhering to worn concepts of masculine and feminine rather than the individual, thereby ghettoizing societal and human issues into "women's issues." The true cherry on the cake of Czech style feminism, however, came at the end of the film when in response to the question what she thinks of Czech men each woman offered up some version of the film's last poignant quote: "It sounds silly, but I think our men are the best in the world."
The second of Sommerova's films shown was Immortal Star Bozena Nemcova (1997), an hour-long portrait of the Czech 19th century writer and national icon. The author of the infamous and beloved tale of a wise village grandmother was a unique and independent woman who broke with the confining traditions and taboos of her time and was condemned by many, including her husband, for it. Sommerova's film focuses largely on these unique "pre-feminist" qualities. Commentary is provided throughout the film by various experts and admirers of Nemcova, including scholars, museum employees, authors, artists and other intellectuals. Unfortunately, by the middle of the film the healthy admiration begins to pile up and mutates into a gushing nationalism and fervent bolstering of national myths. All of the contributors end up speaking with one and the same voice: sharing intimate details of Nemcova's life (no doubt weaned from close readings of her published letters and countless documentary programs), favorite quotes and similarly sentimental anecdotes about Nemcova's significance to their own lives. All of this against the background of a black-capped, petite stand-in's reenacted snapshots from the author's life and melodramatic voice-overs of excerpts from her works and letters. One contributor speaks of the current day's lack of a "healthy pathos," obviously this is someone who was not watching the daily rushes during the film's production.
The end of the film yet again brings with it a pearl, which acts as a sort of complement to the previous film's closing line: "In every true Czech woman there is a little bit of Bozena Nemcova." Perhaps what is most telling, however, is not this old man's sentiment or Bozena Nemcova's firmly established position as a national folk hero, but the fact that even for a self-declared feminist like Olga Sommerova she remains, in 1998, the one recurring mascot, the truly immortal star, of Czech feminism.
To be continued?
Kazi Stastna, 2 November 1998
Read Part II
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