Since his studies, Indian filmmaker Shivendra Dungarpur has been fascinated by the work of Czech director Jiří Menzel. Eight years ago he started making a documentary dedicated to the Oscar winning director as well as other Czech New Wave filmmakers. The seven-hour-long documentary is called ‘CzechMate: in Search of Jiří Menzel’ and features 85 interviews with close to 20 Czech movie makers, including Miloš Forman and the now deceased Jiří Němec and Věra Chytilová.
“I remember the very first time I saw ‘Closely Watched Trains’, when I was studying in western India, very close to Bombay, where I live in now.
“I couldn’t believe how a film can have such light humour while talking about such a serious subject. I was fascinated, because the story was about ordinary people and an ordinary train station, and I have never seen a film like that.
“Jiří Menzel was very popular not only in the film school but also in the film society movement. And I actually had the privilege of watching three filmmakers at that point: the early films of Miloš Forman and then Věra Chytilová. Her ‘Daisies’ is a film I continue to watch even today.
“So that was my first initiation of the Czech New Wave. But unlike the French New Wave and the other new waves, there was very little known about the Czech New Wave.”
Was that the reason why you decided to make a film about the Czech New Wave?
“There were two reasons for it. I was doing extremely well in my career as an advertising filmmaker (I was making commercials), but I wanted to get back into film.
“I wanted to remember the masters of cinema whom I learned filmmaking from. I wanted to travel and meet them. I first met Jiří Menzel in 2010 and I think the only reason he met me was that there was someone coming all the way from India to Prague to see him.
“What I discovered in that conversation was the extraordinary range of filmmakers we haven’t heard of in India. Filmmakers who were senior to him and who were predecessors of the Czech New Wave, such as Vláčil and Jasný, and the filmmakers to follow with him in the New Wave and also the Slovakian new wave filmmakers, like Jakubisko and Hanák.
“I remember the very first time I saw ‘Closely Watched Trains’. I couldn’t believe how a film can have such light humour while talking about such a serious subject.”
“So I wanted to discover the extraordinary talent of the Czech New Wave and the oppression they were fighting. And I think the research was an organic process, which meant that I was meeting the filmmakers and discovering as I went along.
“I was meeting not only the filmmakers, but also the actors of that time and the writers of that time. One of them was Ivan Passer, who wrote for the Czech New Wave writers but also directed one of the most beautiful films, ‘Intimate Lighting’, whom I met in Los Angeles.”
How difficult was it to actually get in touch with all of these filmmakers and convince them to speak with you?
“Well, it was difficult. We had several people in Prague who could help us with that but many times we had to make the call. I remember the wonderful struggle we had with Jan Němec, how many times he called us or cancelled us or refused to make interviews.
“I even lied to him, claiming I wanted an autograph of his photograph so that I could get an interview. I waited outside his house and when he came out to do some shopping, I reached out with my cameraman and said: I need your interview. He said: You are impossible! You are following me and chasing me.
“The eight years went by just trying to convince people that what I am doing is something that will be important for the future generations to see.
“It was a great band of filmmakers who made films in this most extraordinary time, films that we loved and which were deeply inspiring. I think the only reason I can keep on doing films when I think of these wonderful filmmakers I spent time with.”
Which of these meetings has made a particular impression on you?
“Or when I was sitting with Juraj Jakubisko at his office in Prague, or the wonderful time I spent with Jiří Menzel at his house with his family, or the little time I spent with Věra Chytilová at her house interviewing her, shooting with her, talking to her about her life and her film.
“Traveling all the way to meet Drahomíra Vihanová, finding her in her village in that beautiful house of hers. I think with each one of the New Wave directors or each one of the actors, there cannot be a time when I can say that one was more wonderful than the other.”
Do you think the Czech New Wave films have any relevance to Indian viewers today?
“Art is such a strong medium, and in Czech New Wave there is such a strong sense of an artistic expression, which has meaning in any time, in any place and in any part of the world. And I think India was no exception. We loved the Czech New Wave filmmakers, or the filmmakers of that generation.
“But what is more important is that through my film I think India will be able to discover a whole range of other filmmakers which they have never heard of. For instance, we never knew the mastery of František Vláčil. I think he is the most extraordinary filmmaker I have discovered. If the world would have seen Vláčil’s work, I think he would have been considered one of the greatest filmmakers.
“So have been so many of the other directors. I talk about Vihanová, I have spoken about Hanák, Juráček or Schorm. These are names that are not popular in India. These are the filmmakers whom I dealt with in this film. Some of them were alive and I was lucky to interview them. Some of them were not alive and I got the response from other people.
“Through my film, I think, India will be able to discover a whole range of other filmmakers which they have never heard of.”
“You won’t believe it, but Jiří Hrabal is a very popular figure in India. People really revere him and there are many clubs which talk about Hrabal’s writing. I think my film established a link between his involvement with the Czech New Wave and his writings and that will give a new perspective to people in India.”
As you said, your documentary film is seven hours long. Who is it actually intended for?
“For me. I never make films keeping that in mind. I hope that if I have enjoyed making it and I have learned a lot while making it, other people will enjoy it the same way.
“I think it’s a research piece for people who are passionate about films, people who love films, people who want to discover the Czech New Wave, who want to discover that period.
“For me the most interesting documentary filmmaker was Karel Vachek, who made a wonderful documentary about that time. For anyone who wants to understand that period of time right from 1948 when Czech cinema was nationalised right to 1989 when the Revolution took place, this would be the film to see.
“Through this film you will be able to see the entire history of not only the Czech New Wave but also of what was happening in the country at the time.”
Do you have any other plans into the future concerning Czech cinematography?
“I wish I had other plans. For me, I am a man of a moment, spontaneous. For me it was important to understand Czech cinema at that point of time. I wanted to learn from it and I just went by that instinct.
“I have also tried to tape interviews of the younger generations, such as Ondříček, Špaček to see how they view the older generation and how they look the future of cinema. I also tried to connect it with what is happening politically in the Czech Republic at this point of time. I hope people will be able to get this perspective.
“I call it my journey. I spent eight years of my life making this film and it was a beautiful journey.”