Intensive study of Czech for free tuition at film school pays off, says FAMU International head Vít Janeček

Photo: archive of FAMU

Last month Prague’s FAMU placed a very impressive fourth in a Hollywood Reporter list of top international film schools. How has the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts, to give it its full title, managed to acquire such a reputation around the world? That’s one of several questions I discussed the other day with the head of FAMU International, teacher and documentary maker Vít Janeček. But I first asked Janeček how the range of subjects in his programme compares to the “regular” Czech-language FAMU.

Vít Janeček,  photo: archive of FAMU

“FAMU International and its programmes are in a way different; they are a kind of synthesis of methodology, subjects and approach derived from the Czech programmes at FAMU.

“Also they were designed later than, for example, the history of the development of the field, so I think in a way it profits from not having this kind of tradition of structure.

“So it’s more freely designed, but there are main accents towards directing, screenwriting, cinematography, and also let’s say editing and post-production.”

The Hollywood Reporter in a list of best international film schools placed FAMU fourth. How do you think FAMU has managed to create such an international reputation?

“Maybe first it’s good to say that in previous years too we were always listed in various positions. In previous years The Hollywood Reporter made it mixed with US schools and international schools but this year they separated it.

“I think number one is that there’s a kind of big tradition of the presence of US students at FAMU, which basically started after November ‘89 and increased and stabilised in the first years in the ‘90s.

“There is a certain notion at a few key American universities and in the filmmaking environment that FAMU is here and many people have practical experience with it.

“We also have many teachers or professionals coming to FAMU, so there is this kind of contact. I think that is one thing: It’s visible because there is this really intense contact.

“Also the way that FAMU is organised is a reason. Mainly that it’s quite individual, the school and the programmes are quite small… so I think the people who come experience, let’s say, an atmosphere and approach which is quite individual in comparison with more important or bigger schools. It’s very different and for the creative development of people – they appreciate it.”

Photo: archive of FAMU
In its piece The Hollywood Reporter mentioned the fact that Milan Kundera had taught at FAMU and that Miloš Forman had studied there. But I was wondering – do those names mean anything to young people today?

“Sometimes people make fun of FAMU that whenever it gets good notices these names from the past are mentioned. But on the other hand it’s kind of part of the gold that FAMU has.

“Miloš Forman is definitely known to students and they have a reference to his work. Also the way of filmmaking, let’s say this kind of realism connected with dramas rooted in reality is something which I wouldn’t say is prevailing, because students have freedom to choose, but it happens quite often that films which come out of FAMU and get some awards are in the kind of range of this realist drama tradition. So there is a kind of spirit which follows it.”

How much is the fact that FAMU is in Prague part of your attraction? I noticed on the front page of your website there are even photos, “The view from FAMU”, across the river to Petřín, which is really beautiful.

“Yes, definitely if FAMU were in, I don’t know, some industrial city in North Bohemia it would have a different image.

“If we talk about what school is, school in general, maybe 50 percent of any school is the community, that students learn from each other. That’s one thing.

“Then you have some cultural environment where, for example, architecture and the whole surroundings is part of it.

“Then maybe 35, 40 percent is the curriculum itself and what people get from let’s say direct teaching. But the whole inspiration really comes from the things that happen in a certain place.”

Miloš Forman,  photo: Petr Novák,  CC BY-SA 3.0
I know as well as the regular FAMU International course you also have summer courses. I met some of the students this year at Karlovy Vary. Could you tell us about those courses?

“Our main course is something which we call Initial Filmmaking Campus. It was designed and opened for people with basically no specific filmmaking background. Those who apply are mostly people who are maybe thinking about switching to filmmaking studies after studying something else.

“The work is collective, which is also a challenge; for example this year we had a group of people where there were no two people from one particular state. They were from Africa, Japan, the United States, Canada, Sweden, Turkey. So just imagine that there are 10 people coming into one group and they must collaborate.

“So it’s a kind of a challenge which is very intense… It’s also maybe not as strict as the long-term courses – it’s more playful I would say. Also the output is mostly collective. It’s not only that everyone is fighting for one individual project but people collaborate.”

If students go to FAMU and they speak Czech, it’s free. If they study on the international programme, they have to pay for it. Do you find students from elsewhere in the world desperately trying to learn Czech so they can get in and do it for free?

“I wouldn’t say desperately trying in large numbers, but in nearly every year there is someone who tries.

“For example, last year we had two students. One Italian student was accepted after a one-year academic preparation programme to the documentary department. He ended up in second place in a very competitive environment.

“And one Venezuelan student also succeeded in entering the cinematography department. So it happens…”

That’s how to learn Czech – you need a really big motivation.

FAMU,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“Yes. I think so. But money-wise, I think it’s cheaper to learn Czech and try. Definitely the entrance exams are really fair – it’s based on talent. If a person has talent, there is a chance.”

How do you find teaching at FAMU International compared to the regular FAMU?

“There are some advantages and disadvantages. For example, international students are not so rooted in reality so in some cases they might, like, touch reality in such a way that is not for example credible in terms of understanding how things are [in the Czech environment].

“On the other hand they are not chained… for them, many things are very surprising, very fresh.

“Two years ago we introduced documentary portrait into the curriculum of one of the main programmes. Documentary was not introduced before because there was a kind of fear that not every one of, for example, 10 students would be able to find a subject.”

Because they’re outsiders?

“Because they’re outsiders. And suddenly there is quite interesting output, which we will be presenting for the third year at the international film festival in Jihlava.

“It really happens in at least 30 percent of cases that the students come out with unique revelations, I would say, that they either find Czech people and look at them through a very interesting view or they find internationals who are outside the focus of for example Czech filmmakers. They reveal interesting personalities and show them in a way which is very meaningful.”

You yourself are a filmmaker, and you make documentaries often on social issues. How do you manage to combine your own work as a filmmaker with working at FAMU International?

“Well, since I took charge of FAMU International, which is for three years, I had to decrease my creative work. However, I make one full-length film a year, for example.

“Plus I work with my wife, who is a filmmaker, and we have one programme on Czech Television’s Art channel which is focused on student films.

FAMU,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“It’s a kind of synergy between teaching and research, what the students are making and, let’s say, turning into this programme. So there is a combination.

“It’s usual also at FAMU that people who are in charge of departments don’t do it as a whole life job; everyone has a contract for three years basically, so after three years I might turn back to only teaching and working on the creative side.”

For examples of FAMU International students’ work (in English) go to: