27 July 2023
The 80th edition of the prestigious Venice International Film Festival will spotlight timely, socially conscious films crafted by seasoned filmmakers as they tackle pressing political matters head-on.
Article by Martin Kudláč for CZECH FILM / Fall 2023
In celebrating its 80th anniversary, the esteemed Venice International Film Festival welcomes a Czech delegation. While the previous year saw representation from the burgeoning new wave of Czech cinema and rising talents debuting their work, 2023 marks a resurgence of veteran filmmakers returning to the world's oldest film festival with urgent narratives.
Marking a return to the main competition of Czech cinema at this year's Venice International Film Festival, Polish director Agnieszka Holland, a three-time Academy Award nominee, will present her politically-charged migration drama, Green Border. The film is a collaborative effort with Czech producer Šárka Cimbalová of Marlene Film Production, following their recent success with Charlatan, a biographical drama that made the Academy Awards shortlist for Best International Film.
Green Border explores the contentious issue of migration and politics at the Polish-Belarusian border. Holland, in collaboration with writers Maciej Pisuk and Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko, has crafted a narrative based on painstaking research, including hundreds of hours of interviews with refugees, border guards, borderland residents, activists, and experts. Blurring the lines between reality and fiction, the film approaches the realm of documentary filmmaking. “In my view, engaging in art is pointless unless one fights for that voice and asks questions about important, painful, sometimes insoluble issues that put us in front of dramatic choices. This is precisely what's happening at the Polish-Belarusian border," the director said.
The film, directed by Holland in collaboration with Katarzyna Adamik ad Kamila Tarabura, follows a psychologist named Julia, portrayed by Maja Ostaszewska, who becomes embroiled in dramatic events at the border after moving to the Suwałki region. Alongside her story, the film traces the perilous journey of a Syrian family and an Afghan teacher, deceived and transported to a refugee camp near the border. The intersection of their fates with Julia and young border guard Jan, played by Tomasz Włosok, forms the crux of the narrative.
Filmed in black and white, a choice initially made to circumnavigate technical issues, Holland found this approach added a metaphorical layer to the storytelling. While the film speaks to the director’s personal and civic concerns, it aims to resonate with both Polish audiences, due to its immediate relevance, and a broader European audience, in light of its universal themes.
The film's international ensemble cast includes Jalal Altawil, Behi Djanati Atai, Mohamad Al Rashi, Dalia Naous, and Tomasz Włosok, with child actors from the Middle East as well, whose personal experiences of migration added authenticity to their performances. Moreover, the cast boasts professional actors from Belgium and France, enriching the characters with their own compelling stories.
Green Border is coproduced by Metro Films (Poland), Marlene Film Production (Czech Republic), Blick Productions (France), Beluga Tree (Belgium), and Astute Films (USA). The film has secured the support of multiple funders and broadcasters from participating countries, including the Czech Film Fund and Czech Television. Managed by Films Boutique, the film has already been sold to 20 territories ahead of its world premiere. Holland and Cimbalová continue to work on another Czech project, as the veteran Polish director is set to head up a new biopic, Franz, about the eponymous Franz Kafka's tormented life and the aftermath of his legacy.
Peter Kerekes and Ivan Ostrochovský, the award-winning directorial duo of the Velvet Terrorists triptych, made waves at the Venice International Film Festival in 2021 with their docudrama 107 Mothers, which won the Orizzonti Award for Best Screenplay. This year, Ostrochovský returns to Venice, having reconnected with the other Velvet Terrorists director, Pavol Pekarčík, on a new project, Photophobia. This compelling drama debuts in the independent sidebar Giornate degli Autori, an event dedicated to promoting high-quality cinema, showcasing innovative and independent works that defy traditional filmmaking norms.
Photophobia is a Slovak-Czech-Ukrainian collaboration between Ostrochovský's own Punkchart Films (producers Ivan Ostrochovský, Katarína Tomková, Albert Malinovský) and Czech Cinémotif Films (producers Tomáš Michálek and Kristýna Michálek Květová), in coproduction with Arthouse Traffic from Ukraine, Pavol Pekarčík's partizanfilm, Czech Television and Radio and Television Slovakia.
This unique hybrid drama explores the siege of Kharkiv from the perspective of children sequestered in the city's subway system. After arriving in Ukraine with humanitarian aid in the spring of 2022, the filmmakers spent four months on location, including filming.
The narrative centers on 12-year-old Niki and his family, who seek refuge from the constant bombings underground. Niki and hundreds of others live under the unchanging glow of neon lights, where daylight equates to a deadly risk. Despite the confines of their makeshift refuge, Niki encounters Vika, a girl who helps him discover a sense of hope and courage. The filmmakers used nonprofessional actors for the film, even living with their families in the metro.
Ostrochovský and Pekarčík chose to counterpose the timeless, aimless life of Niki and his family against the chilling scenes unfolding at ground level, utilizing Super 8mm film footage to do so. The resultant observations of a war-torn country appear as though they could be distant ideas from a traumatized child's fever dream, if it were not for the fact that they reflect the current reality of Ukraine.
Photophobia has garnered support from the Czech Film Fund, as well as benefiting from the Czech film incentive system. The filmmakers are currently in talks with potential sales agents.
In 2022, over 100 short films from FAMU students made their way to more than 70 countries, earning 300 nominations and taking home 50 awards, including those from A-list festivals like Berlinale and Locarno. These student works became the largest exposition of Czech cinema globally, a testament to the capabilities of the next generation.
This trend has continued into 2023, as many Czech short films have premiered at the prestigious film festivals such as Berlinale, Festival de Cannes, Annecy or Locarno. Another such talent is Lebanese director Leila Basma, who will present her short film, Sea Salt, in the Orizzonti short films competition in Venice. The film is produced by the young and talented FAMU student Natália Pavlove through her Czech production outfit, Other Stories, and coproduced by FAMU, Stairway Films and Road2Films from Lebanon. The film was supported by the Czech Film Fund, the DOHA Film Institute, and Filmtalent Zlín. Basma is presently pursuing film directing studies at FAMU in Prague.
Sea Salt is a coming-of-age drama set in Lebanon. It centers on Nayla, a 17-year-old resort waitress who is grappling with her future on a scorching summer day, as she navigates her self-discovery, familial dilemmas, and societal expectations following her first sexual encounter. With this film, Basma challenges the societal norms imposed on women while offering a portrayal of Arab towns and Muslim characters that defies stereotypes. The narrative is inspired by her own experience of growing up amid the contrasting influences of liberal individuals and conservative family members. Sea Salt not only showcases the promising young talent of the director and producer, but it also highlights the Czech audiovisual industry's appeal to foreign creatives looking to develop their careers in the country.
The Czech Republic continues to be a prime destination for major international and Hollywood productions, as well as for streaming giants. Following the success of Netflix's All Quiet on the Western Front, which was shot entirely in the Czech Republic and garnered four Oscars and seven BAFTA awards, more high-scale international projects with Czech involvement have premiered.
Most recently, the Czech Republic has hosted the second season of Apple TV+'s epic sci-fi adaptation Foundation, which is set to shoot its next season in the country as well. Another project to spotlight is Nikolaj Arcel's latest period drama The Promised Land, which is competing in the main competition of the Venice International Film Festival. Arcel's previous historical drama, A Royal Affair, was also filmed in the Czech Republic and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Promised Land, produced by Louise Vesth of Zentropa, who is known for her collaborations with Danish auteur Lars von Trier, stars Mads Mikkelsen as Danish soldier and explorer Ludvig Kahlen. The film tells the true story of Kahlen's exploration and cultivation of Denmark's wild Jutland in the mid-1700s and his mission to transform a barren heath into a source of wealth.
The Czech company Sirena Film, which also worked on All Quiet on the Western Front, reunited with Arcel for this project after their collaboration on A Royal Affair. The film was shot across 16 days in the Czech Republic and involved local talent, including heads of departments even for shooting in Germany and Denmark, as well as the first assistant director and the camera crew.
"We were happy to join Nikolaj Arcel on this project more than 10 years after our collaboration on A Royal Affair. I believe The Promised Land will be similarly successful, as its selection for the Venice Film Festival's main competition proves," says Sirena Film's head producer Pavel Müller.
The project received film incentives from the Czech Film Fund totaling €491,000. After its Venice world premiere, The Promised Land will head to the Toronto International Film Festival, where it will be joined by the drama One Life, a biopic about Nicholas Winton starring Anthony Hopkins and Helena Bonham Carter, which was also filmed in the Czech Republic under the auspices of Sirena Film.
10 September 2022
On a cold February morning, 12-year-old Niki and his family arrive at the Kharkiv metro station to take shelter from the terrifying war raging outside. For Niki's family, daylight is synonymous with mortal danger, and the boy is…