Documentary filmmaker Martin Dušek on why his native region continues to inspire him

Martin Dušek

Martin Dušek, who often works with co-director Ondřej Provazník, is a two-time winner of the main prize at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, the Czech Republic’s most prestigious documentary award. His films “A Town Called Hermitage” and “Coal in the Soul” were both shot in the former Sudetenland in North Bohemia, a border region whose Sudeten German inhabitants were expelled from Czechoslovakia after the war. Martin Dušek ’s latest film deals with his own Sudeten German heritage – in a humorous and provocative way. I caught up the director to speak about why this part of country continues to inspire him and how he discovered his love for making documentaries.

“Everything comes from my grandfather Leo, who was a great storyteller and when I was young, I would listen to all his stories and somehow, I always wanted to be like him. And maybe I also watched too much TV in my childhood, so those two things resulted in me becoming a documentary filmmaker.”

You collaborate a lot with your friend Ondřej Provazník. How did you two start working together?

“We met during our time as journalism students in Prague. Then, we started studying the television program within the journalism studies, and that was when we started to work together. After our studies, Ondřej went on to FAMU to study scriptwriting and I became a film journalist, I was a staff writer at the Czech version of Premiere magazine. I ran into Ondřej on the street, at Malostranská. We hadn’t seen each other in some years. I told him that we must do something together, a film connected to Germany or Czech-German relations because this country is too small to make films just about this country. And that is how Poustevna, Das ist Paradies was born, which we did together with our producer Sasha Furtula from the Netherlands.”

In English, A town called Hermitage. Can you describe what that first film you two did was about?

“It was a portrait of a small city on the Czech-German border. We portrayed this sort of uprooted town, which was inhabited by ethnic Germans until after the end of the Second World War, and then there was the expulsion of the Sudetengermans and new people arrived. We discovered this city in 2004 and there were several different groups of people living next to each other, rather than with each other, really. Vietnamese people, mentally retarded people, because the communists send a lot of mentally ill people from all of Czechoslovakia to this area, which is surrounded by mountains and quite far away from everything. So we chose several different lonely characters from these lonely groups of people.”

The film had a very unique subject matter and I believe it was quite well received at festivals and so on, is that right?

“We won the Czech national prize for best documentary at the Jihlava Film Festival, and we went to the Göteborg International Film Festival in Sweden, quite a big event in Scandinavia. And then we travelled all around the world thanks to the Czech Centers network, so that was very nice.”

Later, you two released another documentary, Coal in the Soul. I believe this film explores a conflict of interest by juxtaposing the positions of two women. Can you explain that a bit?

'Coal in the Soul'
“We found another subject, also in northern Bohemia, which is a very special region, because of the expulsion of the Sudetengermans, the heavy industry that was brought there by the communists and now, a high rate of unemployment. The issue we explored was coal mining, because there are a lot of open lignite mining places, with giant excavators literally eating up the countryside. And now, one of the last small cities there is endangered by mining. It is called Horní Jiřetín. But we were not focusing on the subject directly. We were lucky to find two different characters, Liběna, a PR manager for the coal company and her protagonist is Hana, an unsuccessful singer and green activist who lives in the castle right above the mining place. And these two ladies and their very different attitudes to life and the subject matter are what made this film so great, and it was also quite successful.”

That film was shown in Tel Aviv – how did foreign audiences react to it?

“I think for Israelis, it was very interesting and it was well received there. The subject is not coal mining in the Czech Republic, but more about the relationship of humans to landscape, attitudes to life and so on. So it was well received I think because the subject is quite general.”

You live in Prague but you were born and raised in a little town called Česká Lípa. And a lot of your films deal with your native region – the Sudeten region of the Czech Republic. What fascinates you about that part of the country?

“It is my homeland and when I lived there, when I was in school, not many children could say that their grandparents and great-grandparents had lived in that area, for years, for generation. And I can say that, on both sides of my family, the people had lived in that area for a long time. So I really feel attached to North Bohemia. And for a documentary director, it is a region where everything is so concentrated all the issues and problems that play a role in the Czech Republic. So it is natural for me to find subjects there for the films Ondřej and I are doing.”

'Mein Kroj'
Your latest movie, Mein Kroj, is very personal, and provocative. Can you describe the premise?

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to have a folk costume, because we went to Moravia for our family holidays, and I would see men on horses with these costumes. And I was wondering why we didn’t have any in Česká Lípa. The only folk costume, in Czech we call them kroj, was my pioneer kroj, which was a communist Boy Scout organization.

Two years ago I found out that there actually is a folk costume from Česká Lípa. And I learned that it was an artificial creation that dates from after the Second World War. It was simply assembled by the local people from the museum, from different costumes from around the country. I thought I cannot identity with this fake costume, so I thought that I should make my own folk costume, to have something I can identify with, which I did really. I took an old blazer from my grandfather, even the rear lights from the old Skoda Octavia I had inherited from him.

“So I created this folk costume and went to a Sudetengerman con in Augsburg, the Sudetentag. Because my grandfather was half Sudetengerman and his friends always invited him, but he never went. So I thought I could use his invitation. So I went to Augsburg and talked to lots of Sudetengermans and most of them are very nice and have nothing against Czechs. But there is this Sudetengerman Landsmannschaft, a political organization which is right-leaning and quite Christian, and I think that they exploit the history and the expulsion for their political agenda, which is not good. But the old people quite liked my idea; I told them all about my family and where I come from. And we were laughing together. I even was dancing among them, and a young girl in a folk costume came to me and said: ‘You are our Sudetengerman Borat.’ But the next day, unfortunately, I was kicked out from this nice event by the Sudetengerman Landsmannschaft, and so the theme was expulsion.”

Martin Dušek, Ondřej Provazník
What do you say to people who think you went too far, that you mocked people?

“I think that the film shows different reactions, an old guy who liked the idea and we talk about expulsion. So I was not just mocking people. Of course, it crosses the line of what you might call good behavior, but why not? If I hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about. And I really liked the experience, wearing the costume and dancing with a Sudetengerman, it was like in a dream.”

You and Ondřej are also working on a feature film right now. Can you talk a bit about the project?

“We had always wanted to make a film that deals with communism. So we came up with the story of two old guys, an action movie with two old people, which also deals with the communist past.”