16th International European Documentary Film Symposium
Is the New Documentary. That New?

Gogola Jan
Film Director/Film Theorist
Czech Documentary - Documental Film

1. Traditional Foreword

“Documentary is a clumsy description, but let it stand. The French who first used the term only meant travelogue. It gave them a solid high-sounding excuse for the shimmying (and otherwise discursive) exoticism of the Vieux Colombier. Meanwhile documentary has gone on its way. From shimmying exoticism it has gone on to include dramatic films like Moana, Earth, and Turksib. And in time it will include other kinds as different in form and intention from Moana, as Moana was from Voyage au Congo

So far we have regarded all films made from natural material as coming within the category. The use of natural material has been regarded as the vital distinction. Where the camera shot on the spot (whether it shot newsreel items or magazine items or discursive ‘interests’ or dramatised ‘interests’ or educational films or scientific films proper or Changs or Rangos) in that fact was documentary.  This array of species is, of course, quite unmanageable in criticism, and we shall have to do something about it. They all represent different qualities of observation, different intentions in observation, and, of course, very different powers and ambitions at the stage of organizing material.” (1)

The author of the quote above is not a post-modern thinker, nor were these words written recently, in our era of post-modernist thought. The person who casts into doubt the term ‘documentary cinema’ is none other than one of its founding authors and theoreticians, John Grierson, in a more than seventy year old article entitled “First Principles of Documentary” (1932), the first sentence of which I would like to quote here again: ”Documentary is a clumsy description, but let it stand.” As is evident, this “clumsy” term is one we have not only kept, but now use to signify an entire cultural-social domain until today, with television channels, program slots, festivals, university departments, encyclopedia entries, and its own historians, theoreticians, artists, and bodies such as the Institute of Documentary Film. 

On the initiative of the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague, a list was created last year of 27 important Czech documentaries of the last decade, which should serve as a starting point for an as-yet unrealized traveling retrospective to be sent abroad. This list of films is on the one hand the representative framework of this text, and also its appendix, but above all it is a testimony to the great diversity of films, that, quoting Grierson again, “represent different qualities of observation, different intentions in observation, and, of course, very different powers and ambitions at the stage of organizing material... So far we have regarded all films made from natural material as coming within the category... this array of species is, of course, quite unmanageable in criticism, and we shall have to do something about it.”

What I will attempt to do here is to employ the expression ‘documentary film’ in the etymological and encyclopaediac sense of the word: “documentary, from the Latin documentum, meaning that which serves to inform or to instruct...documentary film, a film montage of real, and not visual, images and audial facts.” (2).

What I will also do is paraphrase the Czech filmmaker and theoretician V?t Janeček, who proposes the substitution of the term ‘documental film’ for ‘documentary film’, since the situation being documented is always shaped by a consciousness conditioned to a particular manner of perception, and not of actual facts presented in a strictly informational way. Nonetheless, every human activity bears evidence of the human mentality, and thus I will also attempt to do is to make the word ‘documental’ more concrete in referring to Czech documental films: if, according to Grierson, “documentary has gone on its way”, then in our case Czech documentary films have also gone many diverse ways in terms of genre, forms, concepts and themes, similar to other branches of art, although we do not encounter terms such as documentary theatre, documentary music, documentary literature, or documentary visual arts.

So why then use the expression documentary film in its current form, if within the realm of the so-called documentary film our reality is not merely recorded, but also created in a number of different ways?


2. Genres


Variations on the creative principle are the result, among others, of different genre specifications of the so-called documentary film. In addition, we could respond to Grierson’s call that something should be done about the expression documentary film by simply ceasing to use it altogether, especially as we have at our disposal a perfectly adequate terminology of genres. Within the collection of the 27 so-called documentaries that I mentioned above, we may further perceive the following genres, which – as will also be the case in the category of forms, concepts and themes – overlap to various degrees with different films, but which at the same time appear in individual films with a certain predominance that allows us to use these categories to characterize both their concrete and general tendencies.   

The most frequently seen genre of the so-called documentary film in the Czech context is the portrait, which is also the one most frequently represented in the selection done by IDF –  represented with nine entries. In five cases, this is a portrait of a person, in three cases a group portrait, and in one case the portrait of a place. The group portrait is created by several participants connected by certain social, generational, environmental or spiritual relationships; the portrait of a place is of a given space, along with its history, landscape, architecture, and inhabitants, and their community and individual histories.

Another major genre of the so-called documentary film in the Czech context is the factual film, which is actually the single genre – given its stated aim to inform and instruct – where it makes sense to use the term documentary; in the IDF list which I will refer to, this genre has a single representative, due to the fact that the dramaturgy of this selection was governed by the effort to represent the most creatively distinctive and original works – which also means that the rest of the genres listed here are, from the point of view of Czech examples of so-called documentary film, non-mainstream genres.

Another such genre is the essay, represented by eight films, reflecting general issues of both an everyday and an eternal nature through specific personal and public contexts.

The genre of the film poem is typified here by three imaginative films, of both figurative and non-figurative abstraction.

Two films correspond to the form of the fresco, representing spiritual-social phenomena, particularly when shown in a visually stylized manner. 

The remaining three genres of our list – the diary, the drama, and the étude – are represented by one film each:

-       in the first of these, the structure of the audio-visual adaptation, or film diary, is the result of the structure provided by a written script;

-       The second is a drama with an Aristotelian unity of time and space, as well as containing the stages of exposition, collision, crisis, peripethy and catastrophe;

-       In the third case we have études, or dialogue-based episodes that serve to characterize the relationships of the participants being filmed.

3. Forms


Variations on the creative principle are also the result of a standardization of so-called documentary films in relation to aspects of form. In the collection of the 26 so-called documentaries in question, we may outline the four following ways of audio-visual rendition, based on the degree to which and through what form the film itself demonstrates the creative transformation of the subject matter represented.

a)    Informational

This is the most frequent creative principle in Czech examples of so-called documentary cinema – and in the IDF list it is represented by one film, The Second Life of Lidice.  This documentary principle has as its aim to inform and instruct the viewer about real events, which means that the informational approach is used primarily in television films, cycles and series: here the authorial approach should be invisible, so that the reality becomes visible. That is also the case with The Second Life of Lidice, which shows testimony of a particular act of British solidarity from the Second World War. 

The film contains characteristic formal approaches of the informational principle, such as informative testimonies in the form of dialogue, and even more so of monologue, regarding the participants’ situation within the universal, everyday human experience. It employs aesthetic minimalism both in terms of image and sound; informative and unambiguous relationships between shots in terms of editing and montage; a commentary in the form of a summary or period quotes; the use of archive materials;  a linear – often chronological – narrative structure...

b) Mise-en-scene

As with the two following categories, this principle forms a majority in the IDF list of films, but at the same time these approaches are part of a minority trend in terms of the Czech production of so-called documentary cinema as a whole. 

As can be guessed from the term itself, the principle of mise-en-scene, or staging, obscures the boundary between the reality of so-called documentary and so-called fiction films. Here attention is drawn to that creative work which perceives life as film and film as life: quotidian existence becomes a kind of screenplay, according to which participants play their roles in life. For instance, the staged portrait Jazz War by V?t Klus?k is a dramatic slapstick about the relationship of the author of the film to his father, who is represented in the film by a double, because the director’s real father refused to participate in the shoot, just as he once had refused to bring up his son. Jazz War contains characteristics of the mise-en-scene approach; these include the use of conceptualized shots, with the participants being situated in a staged version of everyday reality, the use of objects as active props, and a linear and sequential episodic structure (which happens not to be the case with the non-linear structure of Jazz War) - to exemplify the overlapping of categories listed in this text.

b)    Situation

Another variation of the creative approach is the situation and its relationship to the transformation of actual reality: the role of the director here must be, within the given framework, more or less initiatory, the relationship between individual members of the crew, as well as between the crew and the characters in the film, is that of co-authors; a relationship which also implies the possibility of the participants simultaneously being able to influence the film. As an example we may cite Battle for Life by V?t Janeček, M?ra Janek and Roman V?vra, the result of more than a year of creative cohabitation by the filmmakers with the inhabitants of one Czech village, and which represents a community with a unique social and private life. The following characteristic situational principles feature in the film: the autonomous actions of the characters; responsive camerawork; long takes which follow the development of a given situation; music which originates within the given environment; aesthetic minimalism related to the vivacity of shooting conditions; and a non-linear structure of concretely related episodes. In regard to this, Mirek Janek is the author of an internationally  renowned film, a situational portrait of blind children with inner vision.   

c) Stylization

The last variation in creative approach found on our list is that of stylization: the author’s metamorphosis of the film’s subject matter is in this case demonstrated through particular aesthetic choices, or in the manner in which the film depicts its given theme. The form of the existence of the subject does not actually differ from the form of its everyday, nonfilmic existence, but an essential transformation occurs through the stylization of the film onto our perspective on what it is being filmed: the stylization here is a manifestation of an original way of seeing that manages to transform its context without intruding on it in the sense of inter-personal or social interaction. Jana Đevč?kov?, for instance, conceived her film Old Believers, dealing with the life of Orthodox Russians in the Danube Delta, as her own aesthetic-spiritual version of the local ritualized, religious world. In doing so, she used several characteristic principles of stylization, such as the use of visually exposed and composed images, nonfigurative and long takes, musical and sound collage, metaphorical montage, and a non-linear structure of shots often linked by association...


4. Concept


The framing of genres and forms, as well as the themes treated, is the category of concept, or that of an idea-based general worldview.

a) Analysis

Analysis as a starting point relates to the chosen theme as a whole, within the framework of which it then develops individual links and possible means of articulation. These connections and ways of thinking at the same time should not transcend the apriori given context of both form and content in terms of the subject being filmed. Thus the framework of analysis by definition is not transcended by certain genres or films carried out in the form of mise-en-scene, situation or stylization: for the situational approach of Battle for Life is the result of the situational everyday life of its characters, and the contemplative Old Believers derives from the religiosity of its environment. Even the distinctively stylized film Alexander Hammid: Aimless Walk by Martina Kudl?ček does not transcend its framework – the personality of avant-garde filmmaker Alexander Hammid – no matter how creative its aesthetic, it is a paraphrase of Hammid’s thought and vision, as well as his existence. The core of an analytical approach nonetheless lies in how many multiple layers of the reality of its subject matter the film is able to capture and then contextualize, which Martina Kudl?ček succeeds in doing through an organic overlapping of variations on Hammid’s almost phenomenologically depersonalized existence, intimately perceiving the moments of the world. 

b) Synthesis

The starting point of synthesis relates to the chosen subject matter much as the part does to the whole, the possible form of which will materialize only in the film itself, with contexts and ways of thinking that do transcend the apriori given context, both in terms of form and content, of what is being filmed. Again, this transcendence does not occur automatically with any specific type of genre or formal approach. The dimension of synthesis is achieved for instance in Jazz War, where a generalization of concrete interpersonal relationships occurs through employing the principle of mise-en-scene. By casting a double for the role of the father, the film becomes a general reflection about human identity, which itself becomes interchangeable when a person does not adopt their role (as the father of the author of the film refused to adopt it, refusing this role both when his son was born, and in the birth of the film).

The title of Karel Vachek’s film Bohemia Docta, or the Labyrinth of the World and the House of Happiness of the Heart (A Divine Comedy) already refers to the point of departure of its original synthesis. The framing device of this film is created through the use of shots with mushrooms and castles as analogies between the social hierarchy of the past and the present, when the vertical power structure has been replaced by a rhisomatic fungus structure, visualized by Vachek’s selection of representatives of the Czech elite at the turn of the millenium, in staged and situational encounters. As in his other films, Vachek creates an original generalizing synthesis, and the universalist model of social structure employed comes to being only in the film itself.


5. Themes


The most frequent themes in contemporary and recent Czech so-called documentary films, primarily those of a television-type informative character containing some elements of stylization and situation, are portraits (of elites and outsiders), history, architecture, travel and social issues.

The themes of the films listed by the IDF list are non-mainstream themes, since they as often as not concern the larger context, and operate primarily within the non-linear structure of an anti-story, thus going against the prevailing demand for films whose theme is the story or situation of a concrete person, or the demand for non-fiction films with a linear and informative character.

             Among the themes of a general, i.e. social-philosophical nature which are present there appear, apart from those already mentioned, also the following: people who embody a universal experience of the world – a surrealist, a visual artist, a filmmaker, a villager, an architect, a philosopher, a physical poet; genius loci – of a festival, a housing project, a village, a landscape; the infinity of the highway connecting Brno and Prague; globalization in the form of the summits of global institutions held in Prague; weather forecasts as the personal records of a life; scenes from the life of a family; a conversation with a deceased mother conceived as a self-portrait; a dialogue with parents and elites as a portrait of modern Czech history; a drama of secondary school students in the revolution of 1989; the myth of the communist hero of World War II...

A frequent tendency in recent years has been to thematize the situation of the author in his or her film… 



6. Traditional Conclusion


The diversity demonstrated above in speaking about the contemporary Czech production of so-called documentary cinema corresponds to the diversity of its traditions. Essentially, all the categories of genres, forms and concepts outlined here have survived intact in the Czech context since the 1960s, appearing with the arrival of an auteur prominent in many genres, Jan Đp?ta, whose emotional perception of the everyday experience was continued by entire generations of filmmakers, such as for instance Olga Sommerov?, who eventually became a public authority in the field of human empathy. Analytical, stylization and mise-en-scene approaches in the so-called documentary cinema were also developed in the 1960s by feature film director Evald Schorm, who was soon followed by a number of other leading figures of the so-called Czech New Wave, such as V?ra Chytilov?,  Drahom?ra Vihanov? and Jaromil Jiređ – so that once again auteurs enriched the so-called documentary film with the principles of analysis, mise-en-scene and stylization. The founding figure of anti-illusionism within film synthesis since the 1960s has been Karel Vachek, whose work has inspired a number of young filmmakers of the 1990s. The current manifestation of the continuity of Vachek’s situational way of thinking within an open film structure can be seen in, among others, this year’s film reality show Czech Dream by V?t Klus?k and Filip Remunda, which analyses the overall context of advertising as a filmic-social event: the film itself becomes in this case the situational biography of a specific advertising campaign.


Timeless essays, in terms of both ideas and form, were made in the 1970s by V?clav Hapl, whose film One Does Not Die of Thirst is not only a reflection of the culture of drug abuse, but also an analysis of an alienated civilization. At the beginning of the 1980s, Helena T?eđt?kov? made her first, unique, time-collecting sociological analyses, and at the same time Pavel Kouteck? made his first films, which, apart from their other aspects, combine the language of cinema with the language of the visual arts. 

Perhaps the most prominent personality of non-fiction cinema in the Czech lands, from the dawn of film until the 1960s, was Ji?? Lehovec; the author of an inter-war film poem conceived as a folkloric musical, The Earth Sings, was Karel Plicka; and one of the founding filmmakers of a meta-realistic perception of the concrete in Bohemia was Alexander Hammid, the author of (amomg other films) 1930’s Aimless Walk, a variation on which was made nearly seventy years later by above-mentioned Martina Kudl?ček.

At almost the same time as Hammid’s film poem, a descriptive film was made which celebrated the tenth anniversary of Czechoslovak Republic through prominent personalities, symbolic loci and nationally significant buildings, and at the same time Grierson wrote: “Documentary is a clumsy description, but let it stand.”  In the comparison of Hammid’s filmic stylization with this informational reportage lies the diversity, present since the very beginning, of the Czech so-called documentary film, and this comparison also demonstrates that ‘documentary film’ truly never was and is not now an appropriate term, and I daresay not only in the Czech context.  



  1. Grierson, John, “First Principles of Documentary”, in The European Cinema Reader, ed. Catherine Fowler, London, Routledge, 2002.
  2. Souriau, Étienne, Encyklopedie estetiky, Praha, Victoria Publishing, 1994




Short clips from the following films will be screened during the course of the lecture:


The Second Life of Lidice / Druh? ţivot Lidic (2002) – Pavel Đtingl

Jazz War / Ocet (2001) – V?t Klus?k

Battle for Life / Bitva o ţivot (2000) – V?t Janeček, Mirek Janek, Roman V?vra

Old Believers / Starov?rci (2001) – Jana Đevč?kov?

Alexander Hammid: Aimless Walk (1996) – Martina Kudl?ček

Bohemia Docta, or the Labyrinth of the World and the House of Happiness of the Heart  (A Divine Comedy) / Bohemia Docta aneb Labyrint sv?ta a lusthauz srdce (Boţsk? komedie) (2000) – Karel Vachek

One Does Not Die of Thirst / Člov?k neum?r? ţ?zn? (1970) – V?clav Hapl

Aimless Walk / Bez?čeln? proch?zka (1930) – Alexandr Hammid

October 28, 1918 / 28. ??jen 1918 (1928) – collective authorship / kolektiv autor?









List of Films Composed by the IDF in Prague for an International Retrospective

By Theme:


Portrait of a Person:


Martina Kudl?ček - Alexander Hammid: Aimless Walk


V?ra Chytilov? -  Rises and Falls / Vzlety a p?dy


Theodora Remundov?:  No Regrets / Ničeho nelituji 


Petr V?clav – Madame Le Murie / Pan? Le Murie


Olga Sommerov?: M??a After Ten Years / M??a po deseti letech


Drahom?ra Vihanov? – Daily I Appear Before Your Face / Denn? p?edstupuji p?ed tvou tv??


V?t Klus?k – Jazz War / Ocet



Portrait of a Place:


Jana Đevč?kov?: Old Believers / Starov?rci 


Pavel Kouteck?: Dear Maestro / Drah? mist?e


Jan Gogola -  A Panel House is a Friend / Panel?k je kamar?d


Jan Đp?ta -  Between Light and Darkness / Mezi sv?tlem a tmou


Filip Remunda: Village B. / Obec B.


V?t Janeček, Mirek Janek, Roman V?vra – Battle for Life / Bitva o ţivot



Essay – the Phenomenon of Czech Documentary:


V?t Janeček, Petr Marek –  Within the Centre of Film (Within the Luxury of Home) / V centru filmu (v teple domova)


Karel Vachek – Bohemia Docta, or the Labyrinth of the World and the House of Happiness of the Heart  (A Divine Comedy) / Bohemia Docta aneb Labyrint sv?ta a lusthauz srdce (Boţsk? komedie)


Miroslav Janek – Unseen / Nespat?ené 


Tom?đ Hejtm?nek – One Hundredth   / Jedna setina


Martin Mareček – Dust Games (also known as Money Games) / Hry prachu 


Jan Gogola – Nonstop


Ji?? Fedurco – Circus, Chaos, Minaret / Cirkus, chaos, minaret


Jan N?mec – Night Conversations with Mother / Nočn? hovory s matkou 



Major and Minor History:


Ji?? Krejč?k – Graduation in November / Maturita v listopadu


Jan Gogola – The Diary of Grandmother N?mcov? / Den?k babičky N?mcové


Helena T?eđt?kov? – People, I Have Loved You! / Lidé, m?l jsem v?s r?d


Pavel Đtingl – The Second Life of Lidice / Druh? ţivot Lidic 


Robert Sedl?ček – Once Upon a Time 3 – Hus?k’s Silence / Tenkr?t 3 - Hus?kovo ticho


Pavel Kouteck? – The Solid Point Seekers / Hledači pevného bodu
 - Home
Materials published in this web site are subjects to copyright. No copying or
publishing permitted without written authorisation from authors of this material.
Information provid
er: Baiba Urbane EDKSGILDE. Information provider is responsible for the contents of published materials.
Design and sequence © Gilde film studio, 1998