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DOCUMENTARIES ON THE BRINK OF MILLENNIUM
proceedings of the International Documentary Film Symposium held on September 11 - 16, 1999 in Riga, Latvia


Czech Documentaries Today
Martin Stoll
Prague
The situation in Czech documentary cinema is not as bad as it might be, I must say. Two channels of Czech public television support it quite strongly. There are many documentary projects shown even in prime time, especially on the second channel which may be considered a channel for intellectuals. We have also the National Film Archive as a separate institution. They don't have much money but they are doing a very important work: starting from 1992 they issue year books of Czech films.
So, as I said, the situation is not so bad. What is worse that other possibilities of financing films are very slim. We have the state fund of cinematography for all kinds of films including animation films. There is a law issued by the Parliament according to which one krone from the price of every ticket is going to this fund. But this is not enough. Documentary filmmakers can apply for grants, to Soros, and also to other foundations. However, they support only their interests. Thus, the main possibility to make films is still in Czech television.
From 1994 we have also private television Nova. This is a real commercial television and there is no possibility to make documentaries on it. When the television has been just set its director declared that "documentary" is an ugly word for him. However, he tried to show National Geographic but he saw that their audience was extremely small and ceased it. Thus there is no documentary on private TV.
Now I would like to present some thoughts which are topical in Prague at the end of the century. I'll try to do it from three different points of view. The first one is historical. The next one is the position of a teacher (I read lectures at the Film Academy). And the third one is the author's or the director's point of view.
After 1989 we had an extremely wide discussion on film and video. They were compared and it was a very interesting discussion which took for years. Meanwhile documentary films were disappearing from cinemas. Now there is no possibility to distribute documentaries. You can show them in some clubs or special cinemas for fans once or twice and that is all. There is no audience even for documentaries on video cassettes. Of course, a documentary filmmaker can go on television to make "series".
In the 90s series became extremely popular in our country. They are devoted to very different topics - ecological problems, social life and so on. The most popular series were made by Febio, a private and independent studio. It was founded by Fero Fenic, one of our documentary filmmakers, as a posibility for his colleagues to make films. He realized that the series shown once a week for a couple of years are expedient economically and the spectator is used to watch them. So he produced fifteen-minutes long films which were shown every week. He started with the portraits of prominent persons: politicians, writers, actors called GEN. His next series entitled The Eye contained the author's personal reflections on social reality. It was also demonstrated once a week during two years.
At the beginning (before Nova started) some of the volumes had 70% (!) of auditorium. Now we are glad if we have 10%...
Naturally, some Czech documentary filmmakers did not join the series as they hated this kind of documentaries. They were trying to collect money in other way. Among such directors I would like to mention Karel Vachek, a very famous film director starting in the 60s. Now he makes very peculiar films not only in form but also in their length - they take more than three hours (he calls them novels). The author is just observing the reality and then arranges the material in accordance with his idea. One of his first films shot after the revolution was New Hyperion telling about the atmosphere in Czech Republic during the first free elections. This is another stream in Czech documentary opposed to series. I must say, at home Karol Vachek is very well-known; he has his own workshop, and some young directors seem to be interested in his philosophy.
Another classic of Czech documentary cinema is Jan Spata. He was one of the first Czech film directors who started to shoot on video because he realized that video is the future of documentary. Besides, if you are Picasso, it does not matter whether you paint with oil or draw with coal. And he really shot on video as brilliant films as he had made before. In 1998 this man decided to finish his career. In the film world this decision seems strange and very original. He is not unwell, he is not very old (he is 67 now), he can hold a camera, he has no problem with observing topics. However, suddenly he said: "The century is going to the end. My life is connected with this century and I finish my work. I am not going to work with modern equipment like web cameras". He made two-volume film Love I am leaving including short episodes from his previous films and he was telling before the camera how he had been making one or another film, what he was thinking about it and so on. It was a very significant event in the last years. (There are some Czech directors who could leave the film branch as classics if they decided to do it now. But they are still filming and in some cases the quality of their production, unfortunately, is going down.) Now Jan Spata does not film, he teaches and sometimes makes short reflections for newspapers. Besides, I help him in preparing his memoirs for publishing. I hope this work will be finished soon.
In the second part of my report I would like to speak from the point of view of a teacher. It has been said that nowadays everyone who has a camera may film for television. This is not a problem if you have money, a digital camera and, perhaps, some connections in television. Thus, what for do we need film education? Earlier the role of film education was very important but it was a peculiarity of the socialistic system: you could not make a film without graduating from a film institute. Today you don't need a special education for making films. So, what is the difference between the people who bought a camera in the street and those who have got film education?
To my mind, film education has the following advantages: you can meet colleagues (it is very important in the film world). Besides during the studies you have a possibility to communicate with professionals or classics of filmmaking, while you cannot do it in the street. And two more things: students can try something on film material and watch the films from the film archive. Usually students do not appreciate this opportunity, they see nothing rare in it. Meanwhile, it is very useful for them to watch the classics of documentary (and I say not only because I am a teacher) as they can see that something has already been discovered before them and, perhaps, in future they would make their films with some kind of modesty being aware that they are not the only filmmakers in history.
Thus now FAMU is trying to teach the students to be personalities, first of all, not simply educated people who know how to use camera. The students coming from the department of documentary should know everything what they can use in this time: to be a designer, an editor of the film, a cameraman, or to work on radio, to know how to make webs and all such things. I think, it is a right direction because we really must think about the new era in film education.
And the last thing I am going to speak about is my personal reflection as a documentary film director. In the documentaries of the 60s I admire the visuality, very strong social topic, new technologies as portable cameras and synchronized sound. All these things were a real miracle of the 60s. Nowadays, when you are watching films you can see that mainly they are talking-heads films, with some visual illustrations at best. (Now I am talking about the form, not about the content). We could see it in the film about Fucik: there were talking heads plus some fragments from an old feature film. Unfortunately, in the 90s visuality was almost lost in Czech documentary film. It may be explained by the fact that usually we more listen to TV than watch it. And really television seems to be made for people in the kitchen, when they hear something interesting they stop making their coffee, watch some pictures and then continue cooking. It is quite depressing for the authors and especially for the cameramen that the picture is not valued nowadays.
Then there is a trend to make films without commentary. (Perhaps, this is a consequence of socialistic system when commentary was obligatory in every film; it is as an opposition to socialistic propaganda.) And maybe it seems more objective. But the way how everything is put in the film reflects the author's personal opinion, the author's position. That is why I really appreciate what the colleague from Germany said yesterday, how important it is to have personal relationship to the material. Because in this overcrowded audio-visual era it is really important to say that this film is mine, it is my point of view, not for showing off, for proving that your point of view is the best, but to be sincere towards people and to take responsibility for everything you say. In this time everything we watch is subjective, even the news that seems to be objective, is subjective too as regards the choice of the way a reporter presents the information and so on. But the most dangerous thing, to my mind, is that people trust it as the objective truth. The American television is like God; what hasn't been shown on TV, didn't happen. That is why it is so important to say in this era: "It is my point of view, especially because I know that nothing is objective". In this sense the film about Fucik (I shall tell to its director about the discussion that was here) is on the border line; it should be shown more as a subjective thing, as a provocative opinion. Meanwhile it tends to look like an objective historical resume.
That is all I wanted to say. I would like to thank the people who have invited me here. I am a true friend of Latvia. I have made film Latvian Song for Chech television where everybody was speking in Latvian; it was the very first film for Chech television. Thank you very much and I hope to see you again.

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