Famufest showcases emerging talent in Czech cinema

Famufest, which was held in Prague last week, is the annual showcase of films made by students of the Film and TV School of Prague's Academy of Performing Arts, or FAMU as it's known. In the Arts this week, Radio Prague looks at the highlights of this year's festival and assesses the contuining importance of this school to Czech cinema.

The FAMU school has a special place in Czech society, because practically every Czech filmmaker of note, from Milos Forman to Jan Sverak, learnt their trade here. A fact which is emphasized by one of this year's Famufest participants: student and budding screenwriter Iva Jestrabova:

"FAMU is not only famous in the Czech Republic, it's also famous all over Europe, because it's where the Czech New Wave emerged. For a long time it was the only film school in the Czech Republic and a lot of foreigners - especially from the Eastern Bloc - came to study at FAMU. Basically all the [Czech] filmmakers you can think of started here, because there was practically no other way to start besides FAMU."

This year's Famufest paid homage to its proud tradition by including a special section showing student films from the vaults. Movie buffs were treated to an intriguing collection of old films made by Czech cinematic luminaries such as Vera Chytilova, Jiri Menzel and Jan Nemec when they were just students.

Nevertheless, despite this special attraction, the main focus of the festival, as always, is the presentation of films by current FAMU students. Movie producer Vratislav Slajer, himself a FAMU graduate, says that Famufest plays an important role in helping the Czech moviemakers of tomorrow find their feet in the cinema industry.

"The FAMU festival always served as an opposition to the school, where the students are judged by the teachers. So they organized a festival where they made up their own jury that judged the films. So it's always important as a second view on the films. And it serves the school itself. It's the one time of year when all the students meet and see each other's films. So that's important. And also it's getting bigger and bigger and more open to the public so people get to know these school films or FAMU films."

Well known Czech film critic Tomas Baldynsky is another person who acknowledges the importance of Famufest on the local cinema calendar:

"It's important professionally for me, because I can see the films of the future and the directors I'm going to write reviews on. This is really important because otherwise we wouldn't see those films because they're only screened in the school itself. So it's like FAMU opens up and let's people see inside at what's going on there. Each year we can see what FAMU has done and which way in is going, which is nice."

One of the hits of this year's festival was Okupantka, a film which analysed the feelings of a Russian living in Prague towards the 1968 occupation. This movie was directed by documentary student Sarka Slezakova. She says Famufest is an important opportunity for her to get some critical feedback on her work:

"I think that Famufest is a really great space for showing films. I think the best thing is that you see films by your colleagues. In Famufest there are people whom I know and they are really hard on mistakes in my film and so on. In other festivals it's different because there are people who don't know anything about film and so they have different ideas and thoughts about film. It's quite different."

Sarka's fellow student director Jan Foukal also appreciates the chance to show cinematically literate audiences what he has been working on:

"I think Famufest is very important for us as students to show each other the films we made. It's the biggest lease of life our films get both in our school and in the society of this city."

As the birthplace of the much-vaunted Czech New Wave of the 1960s and with three Oscar-winning directors among its alumni, the importance of FAMU to Czech cinema in the past is undisputed. Nevertheless, as it is now no longer the only film school in the Czech Republic one could say its significance to Czech film is not what it once was. Sarka Slezakova, however, is confident that its importance is undiminished:

"I think that FAMU is a really great school - maybe the greatest in Europe. I also think that documentary-making is a really great part of FAMU. There are very interesting directors and very interesting people here. I think the standard of FAMU is still very high."

Despite FAMU's exalted reputation, the students attending FAMU will undoubtedly find it harder to make their way in the cinema industry than their illustrious predecessors from the state-supported socialist era. Sarka Slezakova admits that financing her films in a cutthroat capitalist environment will probably be the worst difficulty she faces:

"To make a film is really hard because of money. That's the great problem with making films. But maybe I'll make or shoot a film at FAMU and afterwards maybe some people will see my film, say I'm very good, and perhaps give me some money."

In addition to teaching its students to make films and giving them an opportunity to showcase them, Tomas Baldynsky says that there are other less tangible but equally valid reasons for the FAMU school's importance to the future of Czech cinema.

"FAMU is not just a school that teaches you how to make films but gives you contacts as well. So it's much easier to start shooting your first movie when you have gone to FAMU because you know all the people you should know. If you are coming to the business from the outside, you have to start shooting commercials and whatever. You have to establish yourself. I think the school helps very much in this way. It's better to have gone to FAMU` it's easier."

Considering the fact that FAMU casts such a long shadow over the film industry it might seem unfair that aspiring filmmakers who don't manage to get through it's notoriously difficult admissions process will have great difficulty starting a career in film elsewhere. So does producer Vratislav Slajer think that one has to be part of a so-called "FAMU mafia" to really succeed in Czech cinema?

"Yes. Sometimes it seems that anybody who was something to do with film in the Czech Republic had to go to FAMU before. Even people who tried to start a film or TV career without FAMU usually end up at FAMU anyway after a while, because it's the environment that gives you the chance to do something, to make some films that you can present. You can build up a little filmography. Also you meet people that you can work with, not just the people you can get money from later. So it's very important to have FAMU."