Jan Spata: A documentary maker of everyday life

Jan Spata

Jan Spata would have celebrated his 74th birthday on October 25 if he hadn't died in August this year after a short and serious illness. A documentary maker, cameraman and professor at the FAMU film school, he made more than 300 documentaries and 107 feature films. Such as Carpe Diem, The Biggest Wish, Respice Finem, Is the Sun Shining?, Heart in Hand and many others. During his life he won 60 Czech as well as international awards.

"If you open a phone book and choose any name, you will for sure find a story. There is a story behind each name. Having an interesting and attractive subject is important, but what is more important for a good film, is what is going on in its creator. Whether he likes living and whether he longs for something. In that case he finds beautiful things basically everywhere." said Jan Spata in an interview some four years ago.

"He was a boy from a small town, from the mountains. Maybe it is better to say that he was a village boy in his soul. Although he was a philosopher and a very emotional filmmaker, he was interested in pure things, very simple things that showed something very nice and very clear. He was a philosopher of daily life. He didn't have any philosophical theories. He used to watch people, he used to study people and situations in normal life. His situations in films were normal, not catastrophic situations, for effect."

Says Milan Stoll, a student and colleague of Jan Spata.

"He made films about people who loved each other, how they are good to each other. Nothing is for effect only. And he was the same kind of person. He was a normal man, a normal guy who was interested in the shining eyes of children. The topic of his films was really only life, nothing more. But what is more?"

Milan Stoll met his idol, whose name he had known from the credits of films, during his entrance examination at FAMU. When asked who was his favorite Czech documentary maker, he named Spata, who was himself a member of the examination committee. After studying under Spata, Stroll co-operated with him as a cameraman and assistant. "Before I met him I knew that he was a classic of Czech film. Therefore I was very surprised that he was still living. When somebody is a classic you think that he must be dead but he was a living classic."

The movies of Jan Spata were most of all about positive things. He created profiles of many well-known actors, sportsmen and sportswomen, artists and ordinary people who despite difficulties came to terms with reality and found a positive aspect of their existence. He loved active and big-hearted people, and was uninterested in villains.

"It is better to show people who are bad, for instance people who are taking drugs. But he showed how good they could be. This was a new way to look at life. It was a kind of positivism in his films. When you are watching his movies you feel as if you were in a psychological clinic and he is saying, 'Yes, this is positivism and you must live like this'."

During his entire career Spata balanced on the edge of emotionality and sentimentality. His style has had a major influence on other Czech filmmakers since the 60's? but is nowadays challenged by documentary makers who prefer to look at the dark side of human beings.

Jan Spata,  photo: CTK
Video technology provided film makers with great possibilities. Finally directors were no longer restricted by expensive material, and could film for long hours. While many of those freed of limitations ended up with piles of material, Spata kept to his routine of 30 years. For a 15-minute film he set a limit of two hours of material.

"He took filming as a sports match. He used to prepare before it. He had a good night's sleep, he ate well before. When the filming started he was really like a sportsman in a match or a competition because for him it was a competition. If some filmmakers made a movie in four months and they had a lot of material, he had to do it in two weeks."

Milan Stoll continues talking about his teacher. He was demanding, modest and hard on himself more than on others. That is how he remembers Jan Spata. He recalls many occasions when he taught him a lesson by asking a subject a surprising question. That moment of surprise was for Spata priceless. For example when a heart surgeon admits that he would be scared to death to undergo a surgery he knows every single detail about.

"I saw that it was not possible to be the second Jan Spata. He could teach me, he could show me how he did it, but I can't do it like him. There was something I can't learn. He was filming intuitively. He could open people up, and that is a kind of art"

Spata made his final film in 1998, placing himself in an unusual situation - in front of the camera. The movie "Love I am Leaving" is the confession of a highly successful man.

"In this film he showed his work and he talked about it and he showed some situations from his films and so on. It is a kind of a textbook for documentary film makers."

Milan Stoll interviewed and filmed his idol, teacher and, as he puts it, "second father". He then rewrote and published all those memories in a book, "Moments of Joy"

"He really knew that it was his last film. Many people were very surprised why he was leaving the career at the very top. But I think it was a very good solution. He had a motto: 'It is better when people ask you why you are not filming than if they ask you why you are filming'."

Jan Spata retreated to the countryside the year he made his last film. Although many believed he would come back to the work he adored so much, he didn't even consider it. He enjoyed the life of a village man, the same way as he did in his childhood.