Maker of miner retraining doc: We had to learn Baník songs to blend in with fans
A New Shift is a captivating new documentary about a laid-off Czech miner who, approaching 50, attempts to retrain as an IT specialist. The film started out as the graduation work of student Jindřich Andrš – but still managed to win the national Czech Joy award at the recent Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival. I spoke to the director, who is in his mid 20s, about the experience of making the ultimately uplifting A New Shift at our studios last week.
How did you get into documentary making in the first place?
“To be honest, when I started to think about studying film, I didn’t really think so much, is this documentary or is this fiction?
“But I always really liked telling stories and I was also a technical kind of person.
“I really liked that film somehow combines these two things.
“So I was looking for what I could do and I really liked the people who were teaching at FAMU, the Department of Documentary Film, so I tried to get in there.
“Also I have always really loved jazz. I’m also a jazz musician; I play saxophone, but not like a professional.
“And I really always enjoyed the fact that documentary film is kind of jazz improvisation.
“Because you have to improvise all the time and you are kind of creating the thing on the place.
“So this is what I later found I really like.”
You recently won the Ji.hlava film festival’s Czech Joy national award for your film A New Shift. It’s about a miner who is laid off and then requalifies and tries to enter the workforce again as an IT guy. What attracted you to the subject of that film?
“I think that one of my big topics is if we are not losing some kind of authenticity when all of this technological development is happening.
“So I was really interested when I found in the newspapers that this retraining programme was going to happen.
“I was really interested not only if this guy, or anybody, can make such a shift – such a career and life shift – but also if this person from this kind of authentic, rough kind of work can fit into our world full of technologies.”
Your protagonist Tomáš Hisem turns out to be a really great character to follow. He goes on an interesting journey. Was he the only miner who you began profiling? Or did you just choose him and then kind of get lucky?
“I think I was very lucky that I actually met him.
“When I read in the newspaper that this was going to happen, I just went there, to the first course, which was just at the mine – and there I met all the miners.
“On the first course they had to make some kind of small website, a personal website, and they also had to answer some questions.
“One of them was, What is your relationship with the computer?
“And Tomáš replied, Well, I think a good relationship, if a human can have a relationship can build a relationship with a machine [laughs].
“Documentary film is kind of jazz improvisation.”
“So I thought, Oh my God – if some guy, after 25 years of digging coal, is thinking like this then I really need to meet him.
“And it was actually Tomáš.”
Wasn’t it the case, though, that you had earlier done a short film with him when he was doing his actual final shift in the mine?
“Yes, but this happened as a kind of miracle when we were working on this film.
“Because we started to film with him one month before the mine closed, so we were also able to film his last shift and last days.
“But we were not allowed to go underground, because it was dangerous and everybody was nervous.
“So we put a camera on his helmet, a hidden camera, and he filmed underground for us.
“But what he brought was so interesting that we decided to make a separate short film, just from that material.”
How much was he a typical miner? He seemed like he had some skills that maybe other miners wouldn’t have.
“Yes. The thing is, if you say ‘miner’ there’s a certain stereotype, but miner really can mean a lot of kinds of people, or very different education.
“I mean, you have some engineers at the mine, who are also considered miners.
“Tomáš specifically didn’t have any university or anything – he really started as a manual worker at the mine.
“And after 25 years he developed into a kind of leadership position – he was a technician.
“He wasn’t like the typical miner who was doing physical work – he was working with his head also at the mine.
“Imagine you are going on your first interview and there is a film crew with you.”
“So he was kind of special in this way.”
Why do you think he agreed to be filmed? We see him trying to make a new start in life – was he thinking that the presence of a film crew could help him? Or make him more interesting on the jobs market or anything like that?
“To be honest, he was more kind of scared of that.
“Because when you are going to a job interview and there is a whole crew behind you, then as an HR manager you are not hiring just the guy but also the full film crew to your company, which is very scary I think for most companies.
“But I must say that when we started to make this film it was still a student film, so we approached him as students.
“I think he was just happy to help us and he couldn’t imagine what will happen – that the shooting would happen for years.”
Did he ever get sick of you guys? Or did you have to learn some, I don’t know, strategies of how to best deal with him and follow him?
“Yes, many times.
“Because we put extreme pressure on him in certain situations.
“Like, imagine you are going on your first interview and there is a film crew with you.
“I think very few people would be happy about this situation.”
Also it’s his first job interview for I guess decades – and his whole life could change if he does or doesn’t get the job?
“Yes. He had never attended a job interview before.
“So we had to find some way. At a certain time during the shoot I found out that I had to be absolutely honest with him.
“I had to start to tell him what we were going to shoot, what we wanted to achieve with a scene, because the relationship started to be very difficult, in a way.”
Did he ever say, OK, I quit, I’m out of here, I don’t want this?
“Yes, he said that once.
“It was when we were shooting at a football stadium when he was already a computer programmer.
“We really had to learn all the Baník songs, for example, just to hide among the fans.”
“I think it was also that at this time he felt quite an uncertainty in his life, because he was on two chairs.
“He was still with his old friends from the mine and visiting like a radical football fan his club Baník – and he was a starting computer programmer.
“And we made a mistake. We were shooting at the stadium, which was OK, but we forgot a wireless microphone on one of his friend’s chest.
“Then we all went to a pub where all the Baník fans were and he just took off his shirt and there was the microphone.
“So it looked like we were some KGB or whatever – it was very strange.
“All the friends got very angry with us, and also with Tomáš – and then Tomáš was very angry.
“He said, I’m quitting, you can’t use anything that we have done.
“But after two months he called back and said, OK, now I’m cool [laughs].”
Yes, we see him in the pub with his mates, we see him at the Baník stadium. How did those people in general respond to you, this group of Prague students coming into their territory?
“It was quite terrifying [laughs].
“Just at the stadium it was sometimes quite difficult, because they really hate the media.
“Because the media show football fans only when they do some conflict.
“But most of the time they’re not doing any conflicts, so they really hate the media.
“And we really had to learn all the Baník songs, for example, just to hide among them [laughs].
“Or we were also using some kind of cover.
“We always took, like, football club t-shirts and all the things possible so we would look official, like part of the football club, like some PR filmmakers at the stadium – which quite worked.
“But even still a lot of people were shouting at us at the stadium, like, Fuck off with the camera, etcetera.”
We’ve heard a lot in recent years about how Czech society is divided and we’ve all seen President Zeman creating this concept of the “Prague café”, which basically means the elite. Was that something you encountered, or you felt, in Ostrava?
“These people would be probably Brexit voters in England, or Trump voters in the USA.”
“Yes. You know, the Moravian Silesian Region, where Ostrava is, was the region that actually voted for President Zeman the most.
“So for us it was really interesting to meet these people – who would be probably Brexit voters in England, or Trump voters in the USA – and to spend so much time with them, and to try to understand them.
“That was really interesting for us.”
You also won the Audience Award at Ji.hlava for A New Shift. What do you think it is about this story of this working guy from Moravia Silesia that appealed to what I presume are an audience of young intellectuals?
“I’m not really sure.
“When we were making this film, we really tried to make so it would be enjoyable to anybody, not just to intellectuals.
“Our ambition really is to also show it with miners and working class viewers.
“But I think the Ji.hlava audience enjoyed it because it’s, in a way, a very general story and a very general topic which everybody is connected to these days, somehow.”
This was your student film, is that correct?
“Yes. It started as a student film but in the end we were financed and we have Czech Television as co-producer, so it built up to a feature film.”
So what’s next for you after this big success? You’re only 26 and you’re already winning Ji.hlava.
“To be honest, we also won all the prizes at DOK Leipzig [laughs].
“Well, I don’t know. I hope I will be making more films.
“I have some projects in development and so we will see in future years.”
Your film has been a success in Ji.hlava and was also a big success at the documentary film festival in Leipzig. Are you hoping for the film to have some kind of international career?
“Yes, we already have quite a lot of international requests for the film, including from television stations abroad.
“We also were working on this film with that ambition – that this is not just a Czech topic.
“This global shift of work is happening all around the world.
“For example, there is a prediction that 800 million people will be forced to change their job.
“So I think this story we made can give some hope to these people.
“And we really hope that it will also be shared internationally.”