Czech film I, Olga Hepnarová gets UK premiere

'I, Olga Hepnarová', photo: Black Balance

The Czech film I, Olga Hepnarová – which opened the prestigious Panorama section at this year’s Berlinale – has now premiered in London as part of the Made in Prague Festival, and is being offered in the UK by the global video-on-demand website MUBI. The film, which tells the story of a mass murderer in the former Czechoslovakia, is also being shown on the big screen.

'I,  Olga Hepnarová',  photo: Black Balance
Czech Radio’s correspondent in London, Jiří Hošek, attended the premiere and spoke to MUBI brand director Amy Basil. He began by asking about what was planned for the film.

“It will be available to our whole membership base of 100,000 subscribers, we are just going to be releasing it in the UK in this instance. The cinema release will be on Friday, November 18, and it will be fairly limited. The film landscape is fairly challenging for foreign films but that is really why we are interested in this idea of theatrical distribution. We want to bring films to the public’s attention which would otherwise really only be stuck in the festival circuit. Even if it is in a small way, we want to make these films accessible to audiences on the big screen.

“Obviously, having the digital platform means it is accessible to everyone in the country no matter where they are and to see movies like this they don’t have to travel to Berlin or Cannes or Toronto. So we are very proud to be releasing I, Olga… and really think that it needs to be seen.”

Jiří: If we go back to the 1960s you had the Czech New Wave and it was a time when Czechoslovak cinema was cutting edge and a force to be reckoned with. Do you think that Czech cinema has the same reputation today? Because I think that it doesn’t have quite the same weight. Today you have Taiwan cinema, you can talk about Iranian cinema… does Czech cinema still strike a chord?

“I think that what is interesting about cinema today, including national cinemas, is that they is accessible to everyone and you can be interested in all kinds of films and film traditions as well as different genres and sub-genres. There is a wealth of choice and the endless exploration is very exciting for audiences. That means that there is a very passionate and engaged audience that has access to all this different work: online has made all that possible and that is really where we come in. You have classic Czech cinema and now a new voice and we help connect all of those things and bring them to the audience. Our aim is to help cut through all of the noise and really bring gems out.”

Olga Hepnarová,  photo: Czech Television
Not all viewers will be familiar with the setting of 1970s Communist Czechoslovakia, for a British audience, that there is a danger that some points might be lost?

“I think that with this film, it is an unknown story, certainly, and it is a fascinating corner of history and a fascinating story. I think that audiences have been very fascinated by the idea of who this woman was, wondering why they’d never heard of anything like this before. It is amazing that a film like this got made and shed a little corner of light on the story.”

Hepnarová, with a history of psychiatric problems, killed eight people with a truck in Prague in 1973, for which she was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging in 1975. She was the last woman executed in Czechoslovakia. Czech Radio’s Jiří Hošek spoke to Polish actress Michalina Olszanska, who played the lead in the film. In her view the Czech film tradition remains strong, in no small part thanks to Prague’s respected film academy.

“Especially the FAMU school in the Czech Republic is still considered one of the best for film directors and that is not going to change in my opinion. Of course, there is an interest in more exotic films now but I think that we have a strong tradition of Mitteleuropean film.”

What is it like for you, as a Polish actress, to work with Czech co-stars and film crews?

“I love to work with Czech crews because they are so cheerful, so open-minded and totally different to what we have in Poland. I filmed another movie in the Czech Republic also this summer and I certainly hope to work in the Czech Republic again. I loved it and it was a chance to get a taste of another culture which is close by so similar in some ways, but I really enjoyed it.”

If we have topics related to communism in film, there is always a danger that something can be lost or missed when the film is shown in the West? Do you think that is the case?

'I,  Olga Hepnarová',  photo: Black Balance
“I don’t think so. I hope not. This film, in my opinion, is not political at all, that is what we wanted to avoid and to connect her deed to that era. We wanted to make the movie universal. Even though she did what she did, I had to find something human in the role to play her. That helped me to look differently at these kinds of things. She wasn’t a terrorist, like we see today, but she did what she did.”