Czech Film Industry: Beloved and Beleaguered


The Czech Republic is a country with a huge film-making tradition, and the New Wave of the 60s has gone down in film legend. With the end of communism, many predicted that the film industry would collapse, especially with the sharp fall in state subsidy. But, as Kate Barrette reports, the Czech film industry is very much alive and kicking, despite only very limited state support.

'Year of the Devil' | Photo: Negativ
You're listening to the soundtrack of Czech director Petr Zelenka's 2002 film "Year of the Devil," a film which won great acclaim here in the Czech Republic, winning seven of the country's Film and Television Academy awards, including best film.

While Czech films are not often shown abroad, the film industry here is an extremely active and creative one which produces nearly 20 films every year, that's in a country with a population of just 10 million.

And Czechs have a particular passion for home-grown cinema. Director Petr Zelenka:

"What's special here in the Czech Republic is that the audience really likes Czech film, which is great because we really have massive support of the audience. When you have the top ten films every year, I think at least five of them would be Czech, and sometimes the top two or three of these films would be Czech, which means a successful Czech film gets a bigger audience here than Star Wars or whatever..."

The Czech share on the domestic film market is high, at 25 per cent. I asked Jana Cernik at the Czech Film Centre in Prague just what it is about Czech films that have audiences here so captivated.

"I think I would say this is because of a certain longing for stories they know which are close to them, and to see their own actors and actresses on screen. They are sort of distinguinshing between Czech films and the rest of it..."

At 30, Vratislav Slajer is one of the youngest producers in the Czech Republic. He has produced three and half films over the last three years. His latest film is called "Shark in the Head" and revolves around the daily life of a simple man who interacts with the world as it unfolds outside his ground floor window.

"There's a certain type of film that works on a Czech audience - it's always sort of a drama-comedy, something nice, funny, maybe shows some terrible things, but still you can laugh, and that's what we like here, that's why it works."

So finding an audience is not a problem in this country. But finding money to produce films, is. The political and economic transition has hit the film industry particularly hard. The only supporting institution for the production of Czech films is the State Film Fund, and it provides just 2.5 million Euros. The average budget for a Czech film is between 500,000 and 1 million Euros.

Michal Bregant, the dean of the Czech Republic's internationally renowned film school FAMU, says the lack of financial sources in the film world here is a big problem, but that new solutions need to be found.

"Well this is what is limiting all the projects. People in this country, as well as in other former socialist countries, are used to the conditions for work in a nationalized or state monopolized film industry. These conditions have changed profoundly. But I always say, it's been 15 years - so we have to be a little bit more relaxed already, we should be working on a new level. We can't complain all the time about how difficult times we are facing are, and how terrible the situation is."

But Bregant says the government is uniquely unsupportive of the film industry.

"On the other hand it's true that in the Czech Republic we have little support, compared to for example Hungary, which got 13 million Euros from the state budget into the film industry just recently. But it's very, very far away from what we are experiencing here, because the Czech government isn't giving a single cent into the film industry. You know probably that there is this state fund for the support of Czech film, but it's state by name only. The state is not putting anything into it."

Bregant says the money in the state film fund just comes from the royalties from older Czech films (1963-1990) and one crown from each movie ticket sold in theatres.

Last year brought more bad news. Czech Television, which co-produced at least 90 per cent of Czech films, drastically reduced its co-production activities. Commercial television station TV Nova moved in to fill the gap, but not to the same extent. A new audio visual law which would provide more financial support is making its way through parliament at the moment - but it's still unclear whether it will pass.

So how does this show go on? And how does the film community here produce so much with so little?

Jana Cernik again:

"This is a kind of Czech miracle I would say, because people work for very little money on Czech films, and they earn lots of money when they work for foreign production companies. They have lots of energy, they are enthusiastic and they want to shoot Czech films, but this is a little bit of a time problem, and I really don't know how long this is going to last."

Martin Posta is a production student at FAMU. He talked about the importance of the legacy of film in the Czech Republic, and the effect that the film makers of the New Wave, directors like Vera Chytilova and Milos Forman, have had on keeping the film industry alive through the present financial crisis.

Roman Polanski filming Oliver Twist
"Maybe we're still living with this Wave, and have it in our minds that Czech film is something good and really important. That's why there are two prices that you charge as a labour person. When you're shooting a commercial you charge a different price than when you are shooting a Czech film. That's a kind of loyalty to Czech film I guess."

Most Czech filmmakers keep their budgets understandably low. It means that even for well established filmmakers like Petr Zelenka - you have to be fiscally creative. Roman Polanski was recently in Prague filming Oliver Twist at Barrandov Studios. He said the studios were so fantastic that they should be protected and considered a national heritage site. Ironically, talented locals like Zelenka cannot use them. Petr Zelenka:

"The films we make are sometimes so cheap that we can't afford the studios. So they're basically very often shot on location, not inside studios. Well, I've never shot, myself, in a studio. Never. I couldn't afford it. Because you have to build a set there, rent it for the building period, then you shoot it and you have to dismantle it again, so you end up with at least two weeks of renting a studio, and that's too much."

'Shark in the Head'
Despite the challenges, Czechs continue to produce interesting films with a particular efficiency and strong will to make it work.

Martin Posta again:

"I think there is such a big film tradition that people have it in their hearts, in their minds. They're really willing to do something for Czech film. And that's why it's possible. And there is as I said, a lot of enthusiasm put into this, a lot of effort. Otherwise it just... I don't know if it could work in France, I don't know if it could work in England. I'm not sure."

We'll leave you now with music from another new Czech film. This time it's from director Marie Prochazkova's feature debut, "Shark in the Head."