Central Europe Today

Czech film 'Dark Blue World' directed by Jan Sverak

In this week's Central Europe Today, Dita Asiedu examines the latest developments in filmmaking - the changes made in the past ten years, problems currently faced by directors, and the new trends in film.

Czech film 'Dark Blue World' directed by Jan Sverak
The work of Central European film directors has always been respected all over the world. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, culture and the way of life were often featured in films from the region. Today, however, the memory of that different culture may well be all Central Europe is left with, as old-fashioned movies are no longer in demand. But Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi notes that this was once not the case:

"Twenty-five to 30 years ago, Europe had enormous attractive power because Europe was offering more modern, or open-minded, or a more generous vision of life. Suddenly this has somehow stopped, not continued. So, European cinema is not offering another vision of the world and I think it is temporary, it will change very soon. I hope that it will come back to a better form."

With EU membership getting closer, the hopes of Central European film directors for a more open film-industry are growing. Whether that will bring them in line with Hollywood, however, is not so certain:

"We're under tremendous industrial pressure from American cinema, we're under tremendous industrial pressure from American distribution - American distributors don't want to see or give space to national films. And they very greedily want their money to go back to America where their money originated, and we have to fight for a little space for us."

And the only way to fight for that little space is by making entertaining movies. Indeed, in order to compete with Hollywood, the use of special effects and lighter stories is necessary - a path that many Central European directors do not want to follow - but one that producers, however, are more inclined to accept. Polish director, Robert Glinski, notes that the problem is therefore not this new, and for him unacceptable trend, but also the lack of financial support:

"It's very difficult mostly to find the money for films and to build a budget and a few months ago, I found the idea to make the film called 'no budget'. We have the high budget, low budget, but nobody made a film called "no budget". So that is the problem, to find money - especially for films that would like to tell something about the place and the time that are living in now... about nowadays, it's very difficult to find the money and the only one sponsor and producer is television."

Robert Glinski was one of the luckier ones - his most recent film, 'Hi Tereska' - a black and white drama about the life of a girl on a gloomy housing estate - was sponsored by Polish television. Mr. Karpinski is its representative, and he believes that such funding has saved many Polish film directors:

"Today, I suppose the moment arises when we are all keen of a deeper reflection and that is why films like 'Hi Tereska' are coming to life and then Polish television comes to the rescue because we produce films by young filmmakers, films sometimes designed for television itself, sometimes for cinema as this one which are less expensive, do not require such a high cost to be involved and which by this reason have a certain bigger freedom of search and freedom of artistic, ethical, philosophical research."

Mr. Glinski, however, does not believe that movies of the old-school can count on TV sponsorship in the future:

"Television is now looking for audience too. Looking for audience means to make stupid films and films for fun...not for thinking and more ambitious films. So, there are a lot of problems to make films but from time to time it works out. Then you start to talk about the exact idea of the film and then it's okay - so it's not like TV proofs every scene or every step of your work."

The 90-year-old Czech film director, Otakar Vavra, is also nostalgic for the good old days when making a movie was much, much easier:

"During the first Republic - before the dictatorship - it was so easy. There were some 13 film production companies. Together they made some 30 to 50 films a year. When I had an idea I just brought it to the company and then we made a contract right next door in the next office, wrote a script and then directed it. Now it's all controlled by TV."

'Chico' directed by Ibolya Fekete
In Hungary, the film industry is partially financed by the state - Hungarian director Ibolya Fekete believes that the system in her country is better than in the rest of Central Europe:

"There is a committee of totally independent people, mostly selected by the film profession or at least accepted by them and they work as a jury and they get all the scripts and they choose who they give it to. Those people who get money are happy, those who don't get money are saying it's a terrible committee but it's not a kind of a film they are giving money to, they are very different films getting the support, let's hope that the basic point of selection is the quality of the project."

But, as Mrs. Fekete adds, a director like her needs more than simply state support:

"Well, it has two phases. One side is that we still get state support for our films, which is great and almost exceptional, on the other hand the state support is very small. If you want to put together the budget of your film, you can get one third of your budget. Then you run after the rest, try to find the co-producers and this is of course very difficult."

In a region that has produced so many beautiful films, it is a huge pity that it is now limited due to the lack of willing investors and producers. Insufficient funding therefore results in less movies which then means greater unemployment within the film industry. Robert Glinski:

"In Poland we have a lot of professionals in the film industry. They have no work because now we produce less films than before and they can find quite a cheap crew to make a film and the crews are quite good so a lot of film-makers from Western Europe or from the States, came to Poland to make film. Now Polansky make a film in Poland a few days ago, Spielberg made 'Shindler's List' ... "

In fact, more and more foreign filmmakers are coming to the region to make their movies. John Herzfeld, the U.S. director of "2 Days in the Valley" and "15 Minutes" says this new trend is not only because it's cheap:

"The country is so visual and picturesque that I think you could shoot almost any type of picture here and I understand the crews are really good because the studio I just worked with just shot Blade II here, so there's a good chance that I could be here soon."

Norman Reedus is an up-and-coming actor and star of "Blade: 2" - he was also impressed by what the Czech Republic had to offer:

"You can make it look like a lot of different places. The set on Blade looked amazing - you know a movie that costs 5 million dollars to make in the states costs 2 million to make here. It's cheaper and great quality, the sets are amazing, I've never seen sets so cool and everybody on the movie were just blown away."

Although Americans are not too fond of Central European movies, they seem to admire its film crew who they find to be more laid back, professional, and more than qualified. So what are Central European filmmakers to do in order to get back on the market and not lose their technical people to other countries? Furthermore, how does one capture both the European and the American audience - two groups that couldn't differ more in preferences and culture? Krzysztof Zanussi does not believe that a balance is at all possible:

"There is no way to be accepted in both worlds and you know, European or non-American films are less than 0.2% of the American market. America is a big continent and there's not the slightest interest to watch the life of other nations and other people and people who speak different languages and not English. We may say it is very selfish, but America is big enough and the American spectator believes that he lives in the best of the worlds."

Although there is little room for hope, Krzysztof Zanussi remains optimistic and believes that there is no cause for despair:

"We must find our place on the screen, on the market but in depth, we must find our place in people's hearts and they have to love us and pay money to see what we do and here I see no difference between Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and Russians. - we are all fighting our way to our screens in a very unstable situation, society is changing, institutions are changing. But I don't complain, I think we are winning - or at least we are keeping some values, so why should we complain?"