Duo win top Czech documentary prize with film on women from both sides of mining divide

'Coal in the Soul'

Coal in the Soul by Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník last weekend won the main prize at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, the leading event of its kind in the Czech Republic. The original Czech title translates literally as Women of the North Bohemian Brown Coal Mining District, pointing to the film’s central theme: two women with diametrically opposing viewpoints on whether a small town named Horní Jiřetín should be razed to the ground to allow mining to continue in the area.

Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník
Martin Dušek says he had been trying to find a female excavator driver for a Czech Television programme when he first spoke to one of the protagonists of the award winning documentary, Czech Coal spokeswoman Liběna Novotná.

“She told me directly during the first minutes [of a phone conversation] that her deal in the company is very difficult, because she’s got the whole coal industry behind her and she’s the person who has to explain to the people that their homes should be destroyed, because of coal.

“I realised that this woman was the right character for this programme I was working for. Then I went there and I realised that the whole thing was even more interesting. There is this other woman, Hana Krejčová – she works as a castle warden at a chateau that was partly demolished during communism. It’s right above the mining field. You must imagine a mining field which is from horizon to horizon – it’s really a giant gap.”

The hour-long film offers a rounded portrayal of Czech Coal’s Novotná and anti-mining activist and former musical theatre backing singer Krejčová. While we get intimate glimpses of their private lives, the main focus is on their contrasting opinions. Co-director Ondřej Provazník says balancing the views of the two did not prove difficult.

'Coal in the Soul' (Hana Krejčová)
“We just gave them the possibility to say what they wanted. But it was really difficult to get close and deep in the relationship with them, because they are very strong women with very strong attitudes.

“In the first part of shooting they thought that they would use us as part of their propaganda. Then in the middle of shooting they somehow realised that we wanted something else, that we wanted to go deeper into the problem, into their lives. So they had some kind of crisis. But both of them started to co-operate again, and we finished the shoot.”

Provazník says the film doesn’t present either protagonist in a better light that the other – but its makers couldn’t help but form an opinion on the main issue.

“Of course, we don’t want this whole area destroyed and demolished by heavy industry. We don’t want heavy industry to continue, because it’s a big ecological issue. I think everybody who comes to this place and sees what man can do with the landscape…then you have to be on the side of humanity, you have to say, no, stop this, don’t go on.”

In 1991 the government imposed limits on mining in North Bohemia, a region that had suffered environmental devastation under communism. However, as reserves elsewhere have become exhausted, pressure has grown over the years for those restrictions to be removed. This summer the current Czech government won praise from green activists for promising not to rescind the limits, a pledge that will have been music to the ears of many residents of Horní Jiřetín. But there is more to the matter, says Dušek.

'Coal in the Soul'
“It’s not like if the government breaks the limits, then it’s sure that the people will lose their homes. Because they have to decide voluntarily and sell them to the coal company.

“But I think the company will use some strategy to achieve that. They have already founded a group called Dialogue – which means dialogue with the mining company…That’s the way they are going to do it, to buy house by house and finally persuade the rest.

“If the people really want to save Jiřetín, it’s mainly up to them, up to the community. They have to resist all the pressure. It’s not about breaking the limits.”

Dušek and Provazník’s previous film, their first, also turned the spotlight on a small community in North Bohemia. A Town Called Hermitage portrays the unusual mix of people living in Dolní Poustevna, a border town – not actually that far from Horní Jiřetín – that was resettled after the expulsion of Germans in the wake of World War II. The filmmakers explain the appeal of working in the region.

Provazník: “I think there are two reasons. One is for sure that my colleague, my co-director, was born in this area, and he is very interested in it. I wasn’t, but anyway, the second thing is that this part of the Czech Republic is very photogenic and you can come across very strong political, social and ecological issues in this area. That’s why we are interested in it.”

'Coal in the Soul'
Dušek: “Yes, and they are in a raw form in this area. Everything is in great contrast, the landscape, the stories of the people, the history. Everything is kind of enhanced there, and that’s why we like to shoot there.”

The duo’s debut took the top prize at the Jihlava film festival in 2007. Repeating that success has been gratifying to the 30-something directors, though they were disappointed to learn that the previous prize money of CZK 150,000 was not part of the award this year.

Provazník: “For me personally, it means that we’ve got some style that you can recognise. And that we should go on with film making.”

Dušek: “It also means some money, that you get from the Jihlava film festival. Usually. But not this year. This is what matters to us, because we could buy some equipment for example, or Ondřej and I could stay at home and write something or prepare something. Instead of that we got this iron thing, the award. Surely it will help us a bit, but for documentary directors the prize money is important as well.”

After making two successful documentaries together, the two filmmakers are looking to broaden their horizons with their next project.

The directors receive their award from the Jihlava judges. photo: CTK
Provazník: “I think we are step by step getting closer to a feature film. All the time we are discussing some topics, some stories that we would like to film as a feature. So I think the next step is to go into this area.”

Dušek: “Yes, since the documentary fortress has been conquered we have to find another target!”

The whole film can be watched here (without English titles): www.ceskatelevize.cz