Some of the most important Czech films since 1989 have been screened in a kind of mini-festival that has just come to a conclusion at the famed Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Six days. 16 films. 10 guest speakers. The series? The Ironic Curtain. Czech Cinema since the Velvet Revolution.
Laura Blum is co-curator of the series, together with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. She told Barrette it was a real opportunity to introduce American audiences to the breadth of Czech film made over the last 20 years.
“Americans know about the Czech New Wave, that's very celebrated, and it made quite a world-wide splash. But films from 1989 to present, of course you have Kolya, and you have a hit like Beauty In Trouble, but otherwise they are not well known - and even these are not terribly well known. So it was a privilege to be able to bring this body of terrific work to the New York public and hopefully also catch the attention of others. I wanted to showcase this extraordinary set of skills that includes technical mastery, -- going way back, a wonderful tradition--, and a very rich story telling tradition, with this irony and this dark humor. I thought the combination of the tech mastery, the aesthetics - extraordinary camera work, and the storytelling, was really something to boast about.”
Given the large number of Czech films produced over the last two decades, Laura Blum said it was difficult to choose, but she had decided to select films that were emblematic of longing and unrequited desires. Other themes she looked for included the inability to master one's fate, an elusive sense of control, and the fine line between dreams and disillusionments.
Blum's partner Jeff Hush is a filmmaker and producer who has lived in Prague for the last 15 years. When they were putting the programme together, he said he wasn't sure whether the films would resonate differently in New York, for different generations of Americans.
“I think older Americans understand the problems of the Second World War - so they understand the darkness that the Czechs have lived through. It's going to be interesting to see how the younger Americans deal with the melancholy of Czech film. I suspect however, that with the crisis right now in America, a lot of younger Americans are more questioning of the "rah-rah" optimism of capitalism.”
The two pictures screened at Ironic Curtain's opening day - The Ferrari Dino Girl and The Kind Revolution - captured many of the dreams and disillusionments inherent in the years 1968 and 1989.
Martin Palouš is Czech ambassador to the United Nations, and one of the founding members of Charter 77. At the opening, he said that from a personal perspective, the films were a significant retrospective of events that shaped and formed his life.
“In 1968 I was a teenager, I had just finished my high school, I was getting ready to go to university, and then obviously this encounter with freedom in '68, had this very sad end. For all of us who stayed in Czechoslovakia, to live through the normalization period after that it was a real difficulty. '89 is obviously reversed - as I said, '68 upside down. The Velvet Revolution is a beautiful example of how things can get organized again through the encounter with freedom. In 1989 I think the presence of freedom in Czechoslovakia, I would say this almost physical presence, certainly can be compared with all revolutionary experiences of other nations and other revolutionary traditions - but there was something very Czech or Czechoslovak in it - and I think New Yorkers can get this Bohemian spirit in it, quite well.”
The Bohemian spirit was also surely evident in another film shown: Citizen Havel, a fly-on-the-wall documentary following former head of state Václav Havel through two presidential terms, filmed by the late documentary maker Pavel Koutecký. Koutecký was granted full access to President Havel from his inauguration as first leader of the newly established Czech Republic in 1993, to his retirement from politics ten years later. The filmmaker presents an extremely intimate depiction of the playwright and former dissident.
Michael Wolkowitz is one of Citizen Havel's producers:
“When I came into the project, it really was about to be at a crossroads that none of us had anticipated. I had had the benefit of several lengthy meetings with the filmmaker Pavel Koutecký. He was about to have the film digitized, and he was still doing one more interview with Havel to complete what he wanted to do. He had been the filmmaker from the start of the project, it was his idea, he was going to edit it -- it was very much his own project. I came back to the U.S. We came to a legal producer's agreement. I sent over some money and some notes as to what some of my initial thoughts were. Very shortly thereafter, tragically, Pavel had an accident while working on another film, and died. And so everything was in disarray. The Czech producers did a very good job of thinking about who might be able to take over the project and do it in the spirit of Koutecký as best as possible.”
It took the new team more than six months just to review the 45 hours of sync film footage and additional 90 hours of wild sound that Koutecký had recorded over the course of more than 10 years. Michael Wolkowitz:
“Koutecký was so far behind the scenes. He was in such extraordinarily private settings. This is not merely a behind-the-scenes type of documentary. It is almost exclusively a behind-the-scenes documentary. You are, generally speaking, backstage - the audience is effectively backstage because that's where Koutecký stayed.”
Michael Wolkowitz said he believes this is a key time for the film to be seen in the U.S. - 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, when a student demonstration helped bring about the end of communism.
"To have these echoes of it and for me to realize there are people in the Czech Republic who are now adults, who never knew what Czechoslovakia was like when it was effectively a colony of the Soviet empire, is just astonishing. So, I think to really understand Václav Havel's perspective - is very important.”
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