Czech documentaries full steam ahead!

12 July 2020


Czech documentaries full steam ahead!


Czech documentaries full steam ahead!


While the COVID-19 pandemic has put the brakes on the film industry, documentaries in the post-production phase are still being completed. This includes new works by such well-known filmmakers as Helena Třeštíková, Erika Hníková, and Miro Remo, as well as first and second films by new directors Martin Páv, Francesco Montagner, and Jindřich Andrš. When the festival season reopens in full swing, these films will be ready for it.

article by Vítězslav Chovanec for CZECH FILM magazine / Summer 2020

Czech docs in search of God

Surprising as it may seem, given the level of atheism among Czechs, directors here are increasingly turning their attention to the subjects of faith and God. Two films are now in the finishing stages. In Once Upon a Time in Poland, the tried-and-tested duo Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda (Czech Dream) look at the different — in fact, diametrically opposed — attitudes of Czechs and Poles. While most Poles are highly religious and the Catholic Church holds perhaps too much sway over their country, Czechs just cynically laugh at their neighbors to the north, preferring to bank on pragmatism instead.

This sensitive probe into the soul of the Polish nation was introduced at Docu Talents KVIFF at the Karlovy Vary festival in 2016, and was presented a year later at the East Doc Platform and CPH:FORUM. The main producer is Jana Brožková (Vernes), with coproducers Hypermarket Film and Czech Television in the Czech Republic, Plesnar & Krauss Films in Poland, and Peter Kerekes Film in Slovakia.

The other upcoming Czech film exploring issues of faith is recent FAMU student Francesco Montagner’s debut, Brotherhood. His anthropological probe into a rural Bosnian family reveals religious bigotry, fraternity, adolescence, and fraught relationships with authority—in this case, the father. The film was presented at the When East Meets West platform at the Trieste Festival in Italy, home to coproducer Nadia Trevisan (Nefertiti Film). Main producer on the project is Pavla Janoušková Kubečková of nutprodukce, in collaboration with FAMU and Czech Television.

Debuting filmmakers

The Czech Film Fund supports new filmmakers, and several feature documentary debuts from the up-and-coming generation are now on their way to fruition thanks to the CFF. In addition to the Montagner project mentioned above, viewers can soon look forward to the first film from Ondřej Vavrečka, Personal Life of the Hole, which took part in dok.incubator, an international workshop focused on the editing and post-production stages of documentary films. A unique philosophical essay, characterized by its distinctive view of the world and specific sense of humor, is being produced by Alžběta Janáčková (Silk Films) in cooperation with Czech Television.

Director Jindřich Andrš is at work on the follow-up to his short documentary The Last Shift of Thomas Hisem (2017), in which the title character filmed his last shift at the Paskov mine before he and his 1,300 coworkers were laid off. Andrš decided to stick with Thomas and follow his efforts to adapt to the changing labor market. Can a miner become an IT specialist? The director’s feature-length debut, A New Shift, attempts to answer this question, while also covering the history of labor through the story of one person in the space of just a few years. The film is produced by Miloš Lochman and Augustina Micková under the moloko film label, with the cooperation of Czech Television and FAMU film school, where Andrš initiated the project. He then took it through the Ex Oriente Film and IDFA Academy workshops, and is now preparing the film for its festival premiere.

Slovak director Mária Pinčíková is currently putting together her first feature documentary, the Slovak-Czech (PubRes-Cinepoint) coproduction On Your Marks! Amid the preparations for a huge collective gymnastics event, held under the banner of the Sokol movement, Pinčíková sniffs out the details of minor hardships and minor victories, using the fragments of everyday life to build a larger human comedy about contemporary society. The abstract geometry with which she shoots the final performance resonates in the viewer’s mind, reinforcing the director’s credentials as a visual artist.

Another burgeoning filmmaker is Martin Páv, whose first film, Kibera: A Slum Story, won the audience prize at the 2018 Ji.hlava IDFF. Now Páv is releasing his second feature documentary, Wolves at the Borders, like the first, a production of Zuzana Kučerová and Frame Films. After an absence of over two centuries, wolves are returning to the Czech borderlands, igniting a passionate debate. Do people have the right to decide which animals live in nature? Is nature subordinate to humans, or the other way around? The film examines people’s relationship toward the land and nature in general, as well as their relationships among themselves.

After participating in the Ex Oriente Film workshop, the filmmakers of Wolves at the Borders presented the project at the Docs in Progress showcase at the 2019 Karlovy Vary Festival, then took part in dok.incubator, and won an honorable mention at the One World festival’s East Doc Platform 2020. They are currently in the process of lining up the premiere, and seeking distributors and a sales agent.

Established filmmakers

There are also exciting new films in store from the stalwarts of Czech filmmaking. Helena Třeštíková continues her string of long-term documentaries with Anny, the story of an older Prague prostitute fighting for her dignity and happiness in the face of life’s travails. As with Třeštíková’s other films of recent years, Anny is produced by Kateřina Černá of Negativ.

One of the most prominent contemporary Slovak documentarists is Miro Remo, who first grabbed attention with Arsy-Versy, the most successful Slovak film ever, in terms of awards. On the heels of audience hits Comeback and This Is Not Me, Remo is now completing At Full Throttle, in cooperation with the Czech production company D1film and producer Vít Janeček. The director himself is also a minority coproducer on the Slovak side.

The central protagonists in Remo’s latest film, Jitka and Jaroslav, have known each other since childhood. But it is only in their midlife years, after previous failed marriages, that they become a couple, working toward fulfilment in their relationship and in car racing, where Jitka bucks convention by being the driver while Jaroslav provides whatever support she needs.

A third experienced filmmaker with a project soon to hit the circuit is Erika Hníková, whose previous documentaries — The Beauty Exchange, I Guess We'll Meet at the Eurocamp, and Matchmaking Mayor — screened at major international festivals, including DOK.Leipzig, Hot Docs, and the Berlinale. Her latest, Every Single Minute, sees Hníková continuing her collaboration with producer Jiří Konečný of endorfilm, a company with a track record of success in documentary and fiction alike. This time out, Hníková focuses on a family raising their son using the “Kamevéda” method, in which the parents sacrifice literally every minute of their lives in order to breed a top athlete and perfect person in general. But the method raises questions about how much we really can — or should — plan our children’s lives. A rough cut of the project was presented at the ParisDOC Works in Progress platform, during Cinéma du Réel 2020.

International portraits

Bio-pics are the most popular documentary genre in the Czech Republic, often raking in domestic awards and drawing the biggest audiences, at least compared to other types of documentary. Resonating abroad is more of a challenge. The key to success is either to have an internationally known figure as the subject, or to create a work conveying universal ideas beyond the scope of the subject itself, as well as an aesthetic that meets international standards.

Two films that satisfy these criteria are about to take the international festival circuit by storm. Roman Vávra’s Mucha: The Story of an Artist Who Created Style reconstructs the life of painter Alphonse Mucha, who, having made his name in Paris, returned home to Czechoslovakia at the height of his fame to create a monumental work for his nation: the Slav Epic. Diaries, letters, and biographical details from the artist’s son bring to life this world-renowned personality and the time in which he lived. The film is a coproduction between the Czech Republic (Punk Film, Czech Television), Germany (Maxim Films), and France (ARTE). Distribution is being handled by the German company NEW DOCS, and the film is available for screening at international festivals.

Director Erik Knopp is about to release his debut, Blood, Sweat and Tears, about a family of performers, the most well-known being Rostislav Novák, head of the new circus ensemble La Putyka. Knopp’s film is not just a portrait of an artist, but a testament to obsession and the willingness to work oneself to the bone in pursuit of excellence. The producer is Dagmar Sedláčková of MasterFilm, which is coproducing the film with Czech TELEVISION, ScreenFabric, and Knopp himself.

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