Xova Film: Developing talents of tomorrow

17 May 2021

Film Industry Introducing

Xova Film: Developing talents of tomorrow

Film Industry Introducing

Xova Film: Developing talents of tomorrow

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Debut and early-career Czech filmmakers are blossoming under the aegis of independent production outfit Xova Film. Run by emerging producer Marek Novák with a keen eye for talent and authenticity, the company boasts an eclectic slate of works in progress that are reinventing traditional storytelling.

Article by Martin Kudláč for CZECH FILM magazine / Summer 2021

As the pandemic put the audiovisual industry on hold, production pipelines backed up to the bursting with new projects. And the loaded pipeline is the case of emerging independent outfit Xova Film is no exception, even though the Czech Republic was the first country in continental Europe to restart the gears on its AV industry.

Co-founder Marek Novák is the sole producer and CEO of Xova Film, and all its projects are driven by his focus on authenticity. In particular, Novák is interested in the various types of authenticity that are unique to our time, location, and language, and his aim is to transform them and construct them into universally understandable “glocal” stories.

In pursuit of this vision, Novák’s producers’ strategy includes scouting new talents and shepherding them onto the international stage of feature filmmaking under the umbrella of Xova Film. The early-career producer at Xova is matched with an early-career writer-director. “It makes more sense to grow together,” Novák explains. To date, Xova Film has finished four feature-length films, and currently Novák is single-handedly tackling several feature projects at different stages of development, production, and postproduction.

Although his big break is still on the horizon, Novák’s zeal and effort have not gone unnoticed in the industry. As a next-generation European producing talent, he was chosen for Emerging Producers 2020, an industry project run by Ji.hlava International Documentary Film, while European Film Promotion (EFP) selected him for the 2021 edition of its initiative Producers on the Move.

Documentary Beginnings

Xova Film dates back to 2014, when Novák traded his law degree for film production studies at FAMU and cofounded the company with up-and-coming director Michal Varga. Originally conceived as a documentary film and TV production outfit, Xova Film stepped onto the scene with Far From Maidan (2014), a short documentary for Czech Television, focusing on testimonials by Ukrainians about the wave of demonstrations that began on Maidan (Independence Square) in Kiev, in November 2013.

The year 2018 was very eventful for Xova Film, with the introduction of two feature-length documentary projects: Circus Rwanda (2018, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival) and Vienna Calling (2018, Sheffield International Documentary Festival). Once again helmed by Varga, Circus Rwanda, a traditional observational documentary, maps the unlikely collaboration between two international circus troupes, Czech and Rwandan, as they prepare a joint performance. Varga captures the clash of cultures onstage while juxtaposing the artists’ vastly differing personal backgrounds, in particular the fact that many of the Rwandans were survivors of genocide.

The experimental docufiction hybrid Vienna Calling charted a new direction for the company. A stylized road movie featuring a horse-drawn carriage trip across three states, Vienna Calling introduces the life and philosophy of the eccentric Slovak Ondrej Jajcaj. Jajcaj and his sidekicks undertake a quest to return two sets of dentures to Johannes Brahms and Johann Straus. The story-arc follows Jajcaj’s noble mission of teaching people about death with the intention of inspiring them to lead better lives. The unorthodox project undermined a handful of documentary conventions while initiating creative collaboration between the film director, edgy visual artist Petr Šprincl, and Xova Film.

Creative inner circle

The year 2018 also marked a new chapter for Xova Film as Novák felt a strong pull toward fiction while Varga preferred to focus on documentaries as a director. They parted ways amicably, making Novák the sole mastermind behind the company’s operations. He seized the opportunity diversify the production slate. As one result of this, in 2019 Xova completed its first international coproduction, the Romanian drama Heads & Tails (2019), Nicolae Constantin Tanase’s sophomore fiction feature.

Novák continued to work with Šprincl, this time on a project even more radical than Vienna Calling. The feature-length film Moravia, O Fair Land III (2019), a production they describe as punk, is the third installment in Šprincl’s provocative film cycle of the same name, combining DIY aesthetics, folklore, heavy metal, brass music, and zombies in an undiluted, tongue-in-cheek docufictional sociopolitical satire.

Novák’s vision of close collaboration between filmmakers and artists is not solely to discover new talents, but also to help them develop. This approach leads to tighter creative alliances such as the one with artist Peter Šprincl. Their next collaboration will result in a hybrid cinematic feature-length experiment Blue Box (2021) where Šprincl continues to merge avant-garde genre filmmaking with lo-fi aesthetics in his signature style of Moravia, O Fair Land and his other videoart works.

The guerrilla project Blue Box incorporates an array of genres, including mockumentary, noir, crime-mystery, and sci-fi to tackle the topic of extremism. Šprincl’s codirector on Blue Box is Marie Hájková, and they spent several weeks shooting the film in New York City and the Bible Belt of the United States. Though conceived as a feature-length film, the completed project will include nonlinear and partially interactive bonus content for site-specific and online screenings.

This type of creative union makes sense for producer and director alike, a strategy that has proven fruitful for both sides in the Czech film industry. Jiří Konečný of endorfilm, a coproducer on Berlinale 2021 Golden Bear winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021), is a shining example of this. Novák considers Konečný to be a producing role model, and consulted him on a variety of practical matters as he was getting started.

But Šprincl is not the only one in the Xova Film inner circle. Novák also had material of his own that he was looking for a creative partner on. Fortunately for him, he found the budding Hungarian-Romanian filmmaker and visual artist Cristina Grosan and teamed up with her to co-pen the script for the short film Along Came a Prince (2020, coproduction with Romania), which Grosan helmed as director.

Now their partnership is evolving as Xova Film develops Grosan’s sophomore feature, Ordinary Failures, a psychological drama with a dystopian premise: three female protagonists—a teenager, a thirtysomething, and a sexagenarian—grow out of their routine lives as mysterious explosions rock the city.  The company is currently readying principal photography for a summer shoot so the film, which has already generated a positive buzz on the industry circuit, can be done in time for an early 2022 premiere.

Novák considers Ordinary Failures to be the most ambitious project of his career so far. The film is a coproduction between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, and Slovakia. It has support from the Czech Film Fund, the Prague Film Fund, EURIMAGES, Italian MiBACT, and Fondo Audiovisio FVG, and is being prepared in collaboration with ARTE and Czech Television.

In pursuit of new talents

Ordinary Failures brought yet another emerging talent into Novák’s orbit, screenwriter Klára Vlasáková. They knew each other from FAMU days and together developed Vlasáková’s graduation project Ordinary Failures while searching for the right fit for director. The script was then vetted in a domestic screenwriting competition run by Film Foundation, which awards unproduced scripts and spotlights emerging screenwriters.

Vlasáková was named a Star of Tomorrow (for writers under the age of 33 with no feature-length script produced yet) in 2018. Moreover, she is already working on her next script, The Most Diligent of Us All, set in the corporate milieu of an insurance company where automation is set to drastically cut the number of human employees. The story follows the fallout of this decision over the course of a single day. The project is currently in development, with Grosan again tapped to direct and release expected in 2023.

Vlasáková’s was not the only award-winning script from Xova Film. Film Foundation also spotlighted one other Star of Tomorrow in 2018, up-and-coming writer-director Vojtěch Strakatý and his script for Eternal Peace. Novák offered to produce the story, a minimalistic eco-dystopian drama set in the near future, now poised to become Strakatý’s feature-length directing debut. The project, currently in the script development and financing stage, with expected release in 2023, is looking for international coproducers. Novák says he is personally hoping Croatia will be one of the potential partners.

One project on the Xova Film production slate that was derailed by the COVID-19 outbreak is the observational documentary Building Europe (2023). The project, a return to Novák’s roots, is currently in the development stage. FAMU dropout Ondřej Šálek, who rose to prominence with the mid-length documentary Good News (2019), which took a bow at One World Festival and won an award at the FAMUFEST film festival, is already attached as director.

Šálek’s humane depiction of the protagonist in Good News, a disseminator of conspiracy theories and hoaxes, led Novák to believe he was the right director to portray privileged young middle-class white Europeans interning in the European Parliament. Building Europe follows the next generation of elite EU bureaucrats in a collective portrait that will resume development and shooting in Brussels once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Newcomer Jan Březina also belongs to the Xova Film troupe of future talents. His feature-length debut, Erhart (2021), a psychological coming-of-age arthouse drama, managed to wrap production before COVID-19 hit the country, so the project is currently in the editing room. In Erhart, writer-director Březina explores the fallout of wildcat postcommunist privatization on the millennial generation, as the titular character returns home after his mother is hospitalized due to a mental breakdown. A series of events leads him to discover that his mother’s house belongs to an anonymous offshore company, and he then starts to doubt all sorts of things he previously took to be unquestioned truth. The film, coproduced by the Czech company IS Produkce, is expected to premiere later this year.

Reinventing traditional storytelling

In addition to Grosan’s sophomore feature, Ordinary Failures, Novák is also producing the second feature-length film by Czech writer-director Michal Hogenauer, Last One Turns Off the Light, recently introduced at Les Arcs Coproduction Village in France. Set in the Czech countryside, Hogenauer’s chamber drama about a neighborhood conflict gone overboard won the Film Foundation competition, with the jury praising its “Kafkaesque atmosphere.” The project, blending violence and dark humor in the mould of Coen brothers’ films like Fargo (1996), is envisioned to be a coproduction between the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland, with Novák actively seeking partners in these countries.

Another Xova project halted by the pandemic is the TV docuseries Investigators (2022), directed by Peter Pokorný, now slated to resume shooting in May 2021. Xova Film is serving as minority coproducer on this project from Slovakia. The series aims to scrutinize and debunk pseudosciences and esoteric phenomena. The director, who has been involved since 2013, demystifies topics through experiments that produce objective proof for the viewers. Czech Television has approved Investigators for its broadcast lineup, and the series is being shopped outside of the Czech and Slovak territories.

While Xova Film remains an outfit that primarily produces auteur projects, Novák would also like to engage in producer-driven projects in the near future. He envisions branching into episodic storytelling and potentially even pursuing projects that target streamers. Several years ago, he started down this path with a post-apocalyptic horror titled The Camp, and though the project is currently on the shelf, it is ready to be brought out again when the time is right.

Pondering further diversification of the company’s portfolio, Novák has voiced the desire to venture beyond auteur territory and work on mainstream projects for a wider audience, such as an intelligent romantic drama in the vein of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019). In the meantime, though, he’ll stick to traditional storytelling, where he still sees never-ending possibilities for reinvention.

Czech Film Center

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