Like everywhere else, Czech documentary films range in style and subject matter. One of this country's prominent documentary film-makers is Jan Sikl. He has a new project of eight films in the works, all of them based on amateur footage from private family archives.
"The distance Russian émigrés' kept from their immediate surroundings and the efforts they made to maintain their identity was visible in many facets of life. The approach reflected something of the confidence of a large and powerful nationality."
The clip you heard there is from Jan Sikl's new film, "Small Russian Clouds of Smoke," which tells the story of a wealthy Russian émigré family that fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and settled in Prague. The Popovs and their friends in the Russian émigré community are brought to life on screen more than 80 years after they first immigrated to Czechoslovakia, and this thanks to footage that family patriarch, Evgeni Popov, took himself. The original film footage is silent, but with the help of family diaries and digging in historical archives, Jan Sikl narrates the Popovs' story. It's a technique that Jan Sikl borrowed from his Hungarian colleague, Peter Forgacs, who started working with silent amateur film footage before the fall of communism in 1989; there is an extensive archive in Budapest devoted to the material Peter Forgacs has collected.
"Small Russian Clouds of Smoke" presents a window into interwar Russian émigré life in Czechoslovakia, and belongs to a new series commissioned by Czech TV. Mr. Sikl has named the series of eight films "A Private Century" and he told me about the first steps he took after uncovering the old footage:
"I discovered something quite basic in the process that I'd overlooked before. It became obvious that I had to research the background of the private footage, and get information from the relatives of those involved. On their own the silent films were lifeless—they showed streets, people, and a time about which nobody knew anything. So I began to search for the family members of those in the archival footage, and in this way I made the connection between the film material and people's memories, and I had a starting point for the films."
Among the stories in Czechoslovakia's "Private Century" series are two films about the Popov family, two films set in Sudeten territory, and another that tells the life story of a sculptor from the Moravian region of Opava and his artistic battles with the communist regime.
Since the aim of the films is to portray the private lives of people who lived in various periods of 20th century Czechoslovakia, I asked Jan Sikl how he found a balance between the individual stories and the ever-important backdrop of historical events:
"Czechoslovakia's twentieth century is a history of constant assault on human identity. Whether we talk about both of the World Wars, and then the communist system—there were many regime changes throughout the century. Even the communist era had different chapters, some harsher than others and people had to adjust to the reality of the time. I think that all of this history is typically viewed only through the lens of power-politics, and the individual histories of people get lost. This series of films gives us the rare chance to enter and perhaps better understand particular moments in history—through the story of someone's intimate life. So the people are in the foreground, but it's always the case that events of 20th century Czechoslovak political history enter each and every one of these lives, quite often in a dramatic way, changing them forever."
We can look forward to seeing Jan Sikl's complete series "A Private Century" on public broadcaster Czech TV at the beginning of next year.
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