Czech documentary filmmakers in exile

Milos Forman of "Amadeus" fame is without question the most famous of directors to have emerged from the Czech New Wave movement of the early 1960s. Along with Jiri Menzel, Ivan Passer and others, he produced internationally acclaimed work throughout the decade, known as the golden age of Czech film, and enjoyed success in the West. Lesser known is the documentary film work of such Czech feature filmmakers, while documentaries made by Czechs in exile - those who fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, after the communist takeover in 1948, or the Prague Spring two decades later - have, until now, never been screened as a body of work.

Film historian Jiri Vorac
There is a PhD thesis in there somewhere: the Experience of Exile as a Source of Documentary Inspiration. This year, the International Festival of Documentary Films in Jihlava (Moravia) included a special three-day programme of screenings dedicated to the work of Czech documentary filmmakers in exile. The event was the brainchild of film historian Jiri Vorac, author of a new book on the genre.

"In this programme we tried to introduce the concept of 'exile documentary'. It was arranged so that various historical periods of exodus, that is after the Munich Agreement of 1938, the Communist takeover of February 1948, and the Prague Spring of August 1968 were represented," says Jiri Vorac.

"The programme also took into account different formats, genres and topics reflecting the film in exile. So, on one side we can see here documentary magazines by the Ethnic television which existed in Canada and on the other side the poetic documentary by Vojtech Jasny."

Vojtech Jasny's best-known popular film is "All My Good Countrymen" - or "Vsichni dobri rodaci" in Czech - which tells the story of a close group of friends living in a Moravian village in the 1950s. Made in 1968, it was openly critical of collectivisation policies - and banned by the Communists after the Warsaw Pact-led invasion that year. Jasny left the country in 1970 and became a committed anti-communist. But as a young film school student, he was shot several films singing the praises of the system. One of them was Bajecna leta "The Extraordinary Years" - a documentary he made in 1952 with another director, Karel Kachyna who later became a Czech film legend.

"The Central Committee of the Communist Party was very interested in this film and than they told us what must be there; 'There must be Stalin, there must be Gotwald and this and this....Without that - no film.' So I said to my colleague Kachyna, we filmed these people and what is good in them will remain. But what a pity we didn't shoot that in sound -- because it was manipulated by the narrative commentary."

Director Vojtech Jasny, now in his eighties, spoke to Radio Prague about his transformation - politically and artistically - after trips to the Soviet Union and Communist China:

"When I came back from the Soviet Union and China I decided that I will never more make dogmatic or stupid films. I promised this to myself and I found this courage."

Among the rarely shown documentaries by Czech exiles presented this year in Jihlava were for example "The Fighter Pilot", a 1943 short by Jiri Weiss about his countrymen serving in the RAF, the British Royal Air Force. Festival organiser Jiri Vorac says that such documentaries should prove of great interest to film historians:

"I was myself quite surprised by the tone and diction of the reports in the World War II-era Czech-authored documentaries made in Great Britain - in particular, because these films were emphasising the continuity of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile of President Edvard Benes. In that sense, these were political documentaries which were meant to draw attention to the plight of the occupied homeland. The second thing which surprised me with these war films was the fact that they were actually very amusing. It is amazing how the commentators were capable of making funny remarks throughout the films although they were concerning very serious matters."

The year 1939 was perhaps the most significant in the life of Austrian-born, Czech-raised artist Alexander Hackenschmied. Having collaborated with American director Herbert Kline on "Crisis," a film about the rise of Fascism in Europe, he was fled under fear of imprisonment and death. Under the professional name Alexandr Hammid, he settled permanently in the United States, and produced a number of documentaries for the Armed Forces.

The Jihlava festival screened one of his most famous films - "Israel: an adventure," shot in English in 1957. The film is a striking collage with scenes of Jews and Muslims at worship and leisure, in coffee houses smoking hookah pipes, on kibbutzim and the like. The film starkly contrasts ancient rites against the backdrop of modern influences and urban blight.

Another rarely screened documentary filmmaker feted in Jihlava was Vaclav Reischl, who began as a photographer and immersed himself in film after immigrating to Germany after the Prague Spring.

Film historian Jiri Vorac again:

Photo: CTK
"Reischl made both feature films as well as documentaries, but all of his work has avant-garde or had experimental features. The two documentaries shown here- 'This is Cologne Calling Cairo' and 'The Park' - are very unusual. Cologne Calling contrasts a trivial telephone conversation between two young German mothers with television image from the war in the Persian Gulf. 'The Park' was radically different. It was made over a decade and depicts the history of a city park -- and at the same time German history - beginning in the early 1980s. All of this in 6 minutes."

The Jihlava festival was nothing if not eclectic, for it incorporated the work of dozens of great and lesser known filmmakers spanning decades and generations of Czechs in exile. The most contemporary entry was the work of screen writer Jan Novak, whose biographical novel about the Masin brothers, controversial figures who fled communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s, this year won the coveted Magnesia Litera prize for literature.

Jan Novak's 90-minute documentary "Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Holiday" made its world premiere here. It retraces former president Havel's summer holiday to Slovakia in 1985, during which the celebrated dissident was followed by the communist-era secret police, the STB, and repeatedly interrogated. Shot in 2004, Novak managed to interview dozens of people who Havel encountered on the journey.

The Czech documentary filmmaker Helena Trestikova found it a fascinating reflection of the society as seen from the outside looking in, perhaps the single element uniting the rich Diaspora of "Czech-in-exile" films.

"I have a feeling that this film is seen through 'American' eyes, especially the reality of the 80s, which for us is not so distant. I can see how Mr Novak is fascinated by mass staged events like the Spartakiada and the unbelievable machinery of the STB - the secret police -- which is here very well documented. I think it is a very interesting film which might remind us here of what we went through. It can be a bizarre experience, not only for a foreign audience, but also for our own young people, who may now see that period of history in a different light, from a perspective they maybe never have encountered before."