Directors Emir Kusturica & Aki Kaurismaki main guests at Summer Film School

Emir Kusturica, photo: CTK

If you are a regular Radio Prague reader or listener, you will probably already be familiar with the Summer Film School at Uherské Hradiště. The long-running and largely unique festival in the Czech Republic offers audiences a rare opportunity to view new and classic films, as well as to take part in discussions, lectures, and even master classes with world-class film directors. In this edition, the festival’s artistic director Pavel Bednařík discusses participation by this year’s main guests, the highly-respected filmmakers Emir Kusturica & Aki Kaurismaki. And, he also told me more about the festival’s history.

Photo: CTK
“The basic difference is that our festival is a non-competition festival and that it is grounded in the 1960s when the movement of film clubs began to operate under the Czechoslovak state and film archive. Basically this is the main reason why people came for 20 or 30 years in Uherské Hradiště: it is an opportunity to gather and meet, watch movies and discuss them and of course it is specific to our festival that we offer master classes, round-table discussions, and workshops. It is a chance to encounter guests, film directors, film historians and others. That’s why we call it a ‘film school’.”

There have been many famous guests in the past: one of the most prominent and a sort of regular in the past was Terry Gilliam (the director of cult classics like Brazil and 12 Monkeys)...

“That’s right. He was a guest who loved Uherské Hradiště and actually he was one of the people who really spread the word about this festival, about its character and atmosphere and got others from abroad interested. That said it can sometimes still be difficult and hard work to get high-profile guests through their agents and so on because it is a small town in southern Moravia, about which nobody abroad knows! So we have to spread the word through guests who were here in the past and I think that it is something that we can be proud of that we have been able to attract big names.”

Emir Kusturica, photo: CTK
Historically, why is it that the festival took root in this town?

“The festival goes back to those meetings of film clubs in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the 1990s it was centred here largely by the festival’s former director, Jiří Králík, who was the head of the local cinema in the town. That’s why it kept roots there and the locals got used to the regular audience, four or five thousand visitors annually and responded: bars, restaurants and so on. And of course support by the municipality and local sponsors is a very important reason the festival has taken place in one town over the last 20 years.”

Last Saturday the Bosnian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, famous for films such as Time of the Gypsies or Underground) was recognised by the Czech Association of Film Clubs, as was the legendary Czech director Otakar Vávra, who turned 100 this year. There is an interesting connection between the two men, isn’t there?

“Yes there is: Otakar Vávra is the person who founded the directing programme at the Prague film academy, FAMU, and set it up the school as a top professional institution for filmmaker. Emir Kusturica was one of his students in the 1970s and, as Vávra used to say, he was one of his best students. So we just decided to offer a tribute to both of these filmmakers, to organise their meeting and give them special awards, as well as to recognise that FAMU was and still is an international school which helps new directors and helped directors like Emir Kusturica become who they are as artists.”

Otakar Vávra, photo: CTK
What was the moment of getting the award like? How would you describe it?

“It was quite surprising: actually, Emir Kusturica told us he had some bigger health problems now and we had to persuade him to take part in the ceremony. He doesn’t like ceremonies and just lives his own dream, his own utopia, and lives in this village he built a few years ago. Encounters with journalists and people who love his films is not that easy for him. But finally when he got on stage he was surprised and what he said was very heartfelt. I think he realised that was at the ‘right’ place, the right town where people love cinema, love his work and appreciate his films.”

I wasn’t aware of his health problems and I had read he had given performances with his band The No Smoking Orchestra both in Prague and at the festival...

“In that light his answer about health problems was also something we didn’t understand because later on he played that concert and it was one of the best in the history of the entire festival. So in a way ‘wild’ mood swings are something that probably a little characteristic of great directors. Definitely the No Smoking Orchestra is a project that he lives for and which he maintains and it was also one of the reasons why he came. Playing shows with the band is something that helps him get energy I think for other film projects.”

Talking about film directors at this year’s festival, another important special guest will be the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki I understand?

Pavel Bednařík, photo: CTK
“Yes. Kaurismaki is one of the biggest guests this year, attending this (final) weekend and I think that he is an important counterpart to Kusturica, to the Balkan inspiration. He will present his body of work, including a specific Finnish ‘melancholy’ so I think it is a balanced programme. I hope that people will appreciate of his new film Le Havre as well as his work from the 1980s and especially the master class on Saturday.”

Do you know the specifics of the master class, what Mr Kaurismaki will be talking about?

“We only just had the master class confirmed, so I don’t know the exact details yet. However, I expect that Mr Kaurismaki will probably talk about his new film, the topic of immigration and the beginnings of his work with his brother Mika in the 1980s. I think that it might be inspiring in many ways, on many topics.”

Important aspects of the ‘film school’ are of course screenings and film cycles: this year I know you are offering viewers films by the late Krystof Kieslowski: what films are you showing by the Polish director and, from your personal standpoint, how do you think his films have aged?

Photo: CTK
“The cycle explores the roots of documentary in his feature films, an important part of his body of work. A crucial moment in his career was to switch from documentary to feature films, so we decided to show documentaries he did when he was studying at the film school in Lodz and later on the features that were inspired by the documentary tradition. For this reason we decided not to screen his famous Three Colours trilogy but opted in favour of The Double Life of Veronique (La Double Vie de Veronique) which was shown in the past several times by Czech film clubs and enjoyed a lot of success among audiences. I hope that this is a film hasn’t grown old and I am certain Kieslowski’s legacy is just as important now as it was 20 years ago.”

I am familiar with at some of his documentary films including one (Szpital, 1977) which showed just how difficult it was to work in a hospital: is that film also being shown?

“Yeah, this film is also being shown and I think that it shows specific tendencies of his documentary styles. Thematically, it also shows what life was like under the socialist regime, where people felt helpless and hopeless in the institutions they encountered, where ideology and power showed up in specific ways. This is something that will be quite familiar for Czech audiences because the experience in 1980s Czechoslovakia’s was similar to Poland’s. The experience and history have a lot in common.”

Photo: CTK
It must be an enormous task for you and your colleagues to put such a festival together... what are your impressions so far?

“Every year the key question is money, because you have to have enough to technically put together a festival of this kind, to ensure that things are done properly. The budget is less than we would ideally need but I think we really do the maximum with what we have. As for impressions: this week the weather has been rainy and that has seen more people come in to take part, so hopefully even more will attend screenings and the numbers will still go up.”