A look at developments in the Czech film industry / A sneak peek at the 16th Prague Writers' festival

02-06-2006

Czech film industry "up in arms" over failure of bill

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK The Czech film industry is up in arms after the recent failure of a law that would have tripled the size of the State Fund for the Support and Development of Czech Cinematography. In response, students at Prague's Academy for Performing Arts put up two creative protest displays this week.

Disappointed with the vote in Parliament, students posted a sign advertising their building "for sale - cheap", listing President Vaclav Klaus' phone number. On Thursday, they added another three banners depicting caricatures of President Klaus, the Culture Minister Vitezslav Jandak, and the leader of the country's largest opposition party, Mirek Topolanek, wearing sporting attire, along with the words "Thank you, guys!" - a typical cheer at Czech sporting events and a sarcastic response to some of the political figures who withheld their support for the law. Loudspeakers blasted the sounds of a crowd of sports fans.

As they unfurled the massive banners, a tram filled with teenaged cheerleaders passed by encouraging pedestrians to vote for the Civic Democrats. The irony was not lost on the small group of students and onlookers who had gathered across the street to watch the banners go up.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK Students had hoped that the law would rejuvenate a film industry that has been increasingly dominated by foreign blockbuster productions, rather than domestic projects. They also fear that, without state support, their training and the school itself will become obsolete. Film academy dean Michal Bregant says that the students' disappointment is understandable.

"The law was formulated to ensure stable support for independent film production in the Czech Republic. Filmmakers in this country still have the worst and the weakest system of support for the national film industry and the students, they feel betrayed by the political representation of the country because they don't live in artificial conditions, they are part of what independent Czech filmmaking is fighting for."

Along with the protests, students also issued an open letter to the government and political parties, asking for a clearer statement about their policies on Czech culture and film, as well as a more coherent explanation for the failure of the law. Film student Radovan Sibrt feels that President Klaus' decision to veto the law on the grounds that film is a "commercial branch of culture and should not receive public funding" does not address the fact that most art films are not made for profit.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK "Well it works like that in the United States, in Hollywood, but it has never worked like that in Europe. There are a few films that earn money, while the rest have to be supported by the state. I think it would be maybe interesting for him to read, and to go through the budgets of certain Czech films. Hardly any of them are profitable. And I'm not saying that all of the films that have been made in the last years need to exist but some of them are good and if there was more support, there would be maybe more better films than there are at the moment, as you could see in the Sixties."

Films, then, benefited from guaranteed state support - a far different situation from the one we see today. After 1989, Czech filmmakers and the entire film industry had to adapt to a new reality. To a great extent, many productions have been buoyed by public broadcaster, Czech TV, but critics have complained that allotted funds have dwindled and are no longer enough. The law on cinematography would have been a much-needed boost.

What does the failure of the law mean to Czech filmmakers? Documentary-maker and teacher, Miroslav Janek, puts it simply.

"It means no money. It means difficulty to make films."

The approach the Czech government will adopt to resolve the crisis in the film industry ultimately depends on the outcome of this weekend's election. One thing is certain: film students will not allow their voices to remain unheard.

Stage set for 16th Prague Writers' Festival

After sixteen years the Prague Writers' Festival has become a well-known and highly anticipated event in the Czech cultural calendar, a chance to meet some of the most interesting authors today. Past guests have included Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting fame, Yann Martel, of Life of Pi, Michel Hoellebecq, the author of Atomised, and the late US critic Susan Sontag, author of Against Interpretation. Czech authors who have taken part have included well-known writers like Eva Kanturkova and Ivan Klima.

The festival is now back, and I had a chance to speak with the its president Michael March ahead of the event. As before, the festival will have an overarching theme:

"Well, we're focusing on Arthur Miller - there's no life without ideals. Arthur Miller was going to come in 2001 but was unwell and of course later passed away. So, we want to honour his memory. He honoured this country in many, many ways, indeed he honoured the 20th century. There are ideals and you have to sacrifice for them and some of the writers who are coming have made the sacrifice. There's Soyinka who was in prison. These writers are very exciting."

As in the past, the festival should unfold in a somewhat informal manner, where visitors can hobnob with authors if not at book-signings than following readings or perhaps even at the venue's bar, named after Becherovka - the famous Czech aperitif:

"It's at the Theatre Minor - a very fun place. Now you can wander between five or six floors! I'm not even sure how many they now have! There's the Becherova Bar - it's free! And for some that's even more attraction than the festival! Well, the writers are here for five nights, I mean that's the whole point! It is a very great social atmosphere! "

Along with Nigerian author Wole Soyinka other writers attending will include Spanish author Jorge Semprun, Hebrew poet Aaron Shabtai, and the US's Sarah Churchwell - author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. Since the festival is dedicated to the memory of Arthur Miller, it also focuses briefly on the legacy Marilyn Monroe, his second wife. More than anything the star - who died under mysterious circumstances in 1962 - became a symbol of an age and, says March, her mysterious death the "progenitor" of assassinations that followed in the 60s including the killing of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.

One discussion - apparently already sold out, looking at the circumstances of Marilyn's death - will be a must for conspiracy theorists.

Unfortunately, one author who was meant to be one of the main attraction at this year's festival but has had to cancel is Michael Cunningham. Famous for "The Hours" - also made into a film with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman - he was slated to attend events on his newest book "Specimen Days" - a haunting book set in New York City that takes inspiration from American poet Walt Whitman. Say festival organisers, Mr Cunningham was forced to cancel for personal reasons. Hopefully, the author will find better circumstances to visit Prague at some time in the future - or perhaps even find time to take part in the festival's New York leg: a series of discussions titled "Café Centrale" to be held at the New York Public Library in the Big Apple this November. I asked Michael March - a native New Yorker himself - how he had felt about the Prague Writers' Festival's taking Manhattan:

"There's an old Chinese proverb: the longest way, is the way back! We have very great ties to New York and we want to see those ties deepen in a cultural sense - that Prague becomes acknowledged as the gateway to Central Europe. "

Back in Prague the PWF begins this Sunday, June 4th, continuing through Wednesday. Information about tickets and book signings can all be found at www.pwf.cz

02-06-2006