Febio demise marks the end of an era in Czech documentary filmmaking

Fero Fenič, photo: Febio

Perhaps the most successful Czech documentary film studio, Febio, has produced over 1300 programmes since it was established in Prague in the early 1990s. At the height of its activity, its authors made over 100 film documentaries a year that were mostly screened by the country’s public broadcaster, Czech Television. But this week, Febio’s founder and director Fero Fenič announced the studio’s closure.

Česká soda
For most Czechs who watched TV in the 1990s, the opening tones of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathrustra do not evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey but rather, another kind of show. Entitled Česká soda, or Czech Soda, the satirical bimonthly programme produced between 1993 and 1997, was an instant hit with Czech audiences, and became the flagship of Febio, an independent Prague-based film studio.

For more than 18 years, Febio was a trademark of high-quality TV programmes. Besides Czech Soda, it produced a long running series called GEN, which stood for Gallery of the Nation’s Elite. The 181-part series portrayed some of the most outstanding personalities from all walks of life; around four million viewers saw the first part about Václav Havel, in 1993, and the final one, about Václav Klaus, in 2002.

Other series produced by Febio include Cestománie, or Travelmania, which took Czech TV viewers to more 150 countries around the world. Another show, called Jak se žije…, or How They Live…, was a series of sociological portraits of various groups of Czech people, from grave diggers to bell ringers.

But on Monday, Febio’s founder Fero Fenič announced that after 18 years, Febio was closing down.

Fero Fenič,  photo: Febio
“Febio was a typical product of post-revolutionary times when it was possible to make certain ideas happen, to gain space for them in public TV, when the enthusiasm of people, including that of filmmakers, was so great that you could try and do things that would normally be deemed impossible. But the times have changed; people began to appreciate the value of money more than that of ideals, and it was increasingly difficult to survive.”

Slovak-born Fero Fenič, who is 59, graduated from Prague’s Film and TV School Academy, FAMU. He founded his studio in 1991. Febio’s success soon took everyone by surprise.

“Whenever I talked to my colleagues abroad, they were amazed how it was possible that such a small studio was able to produce some 120 documentaries a year; they were shown in prime time on major TV channels and that we got two to three million viewers… For most of our colleagues in western Europe as well as in post-communist countries, this was stunning.”

During the communist rule, film in general and documentary film in particular, was an important tool of propaganda. After 1989, there was a huge space to be filled, and Fero Fenič was in the right place at the right time – with the right ideas. Hana Rezková works for the Documentary Film Institute, a Prague-based NGO which promotes Eastern European documentary films.

“I think they found a gap on the market. In the 1990s, Czech TV underwent a major makeover and there was a sort of vacuum which Fero Fenič managed to fill with very reasonable programming. He had great contacts and attracted great authors who were able to grasp the spirit of that time. Nowadays the market is much more established and it’s much more difficult. I’m not saying Czech TV has taken the right course but it would be much harder to do something like this nowadays.”

For most of its production, Febio relied on the Czech Republic’s public broadcaster, Czech TV. It co-produced most of its long-running series, and the cooperation continued until 2004. By that time, Mr Fenič, says, the new management lost interest in buying Febio’s programmes.

“About six years ago, Czech TV got a new management that began doing less and less original work. Until that time, our programmes were distinct and with very high ratings; all of our programmes were shown in prime time. But then, we became one of the first producers they stopped working with, so I had to start looking for other clients and other financial resources, such as grants and so on. But it turned out that after years of euphoria, documentary filmmaking in the Czech Republic has gotten where it’s been in other European countries for a long time –out in the cold.”

This sounds unlikely, given the recent national and international success of several Czech documentaries – Czech Dream and Czech Peace by Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, films by Helena Třeštíková who followed her movies’ protagonists over decades, and other landmark films that recently got into theatrical distribution. But Fero Fenič says this is mainly due to new technology.

“That’s what it looks like to you but the reality is different. When young filmmakers today spend two years working on their film, they want to get it into theatrical distribution, which is nowadays easier because half of Czech cinemas have the equipment to play DVDs, which means you don’t need a celluloid copy. Major cities also have art cinemas that show these films. But with a few exceptions, like the film Citizen Havel about the former president – the most popular documentary film last years had about 5,000 viewers. Our documentaries had four million.”

Fero Fenič,  photo: Febio
Hana Rezková works closely with the Czech Republic’s biggest festival of its kind, the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival. She says Czechs are still interested in original Czech documents, but Czech TV as well as Czech commercial TV stations have taken a different course.

“I think the 1990s saw a great need for reflecting what was happening in society because we were living at a time when we realized the need for introspection, and the documentary film was seen as the right tool. We can still see today that documentary film festivals are packed with young people. The programming of Czech television stations is more focused on entertainment, but the need for a reflection of the society is still big, you can still see that at festivals.”

The bulk of current Czech TV documentary production focuses on life style issues and programmes that some see as tabloid. One of the most popular ones is called 13. komnata, or Secret Chamber, which presents the life stories of popular actors, singers and the like.

I asked the head of Czech TV documentary programming, Jana Škopková, for her take on the demise of Febio, which produced hundreds of shows for the broadcaster. In an email, Ms Škopková said, “I have never come across any project by Mr Fenič, and therefore cannot comment.”

Unlike public broadcasters in some other European countries, Czech TV does not have a transparent production system, which, as Hana Rezková points out, makes it very difficult for independent filmmakers to get airtime.

“Some European broadcasters have always given much more responsibility to the so-called commissioning editors. These are people responsible for the budget for a certain programming slot but also for its content. They either buy, commission or produce the programme for their own slots, and their responsibility is therefore clear and transparent. In Czech TV, the responsibility is divided among a number of units, which makes it difficult to predict – also from the point of view of authors – what they will buy or co-produce.”

Meanwhile, Mr Fenič says he sometimes questions his early decision to keep away from commercial activities and advertising. This might have provided Febio with funds that could be used to finance the production of documentaries.

Also, in 2006, he received a licence for his own digital TV station which he was hoping could screen Febio-produced shows. But a series of lawsuits followed by a drain of investors made it impossible for Febio TV to enter the Czech television market.

In his office in the centre of Prague, Fero Fenič looks at the stills from the film he produced, and says that despite his decision to close Febio as a day-to day-operation, he still hopes some projects will go ahead. One of them is planned for next year.

“It’s an ordinary film about the ordinary life of ordinary people who cannot understand why something happened to them. It’s a simple story of a young couple from Moravia. No one does films like this; most documentary filmmakers are not interested in things like this because they think it would not be enough for a film. You need more effort, and more talent, to make a film about such an ordinary topic which will make people stop breathing for an hour. I believe this will highlight the possibilities of the genre again, and show the potential Febio has always had. And we might do something like that in the coming years, too.”