Matej Minac: award-winning film maker who proved his mother wrong


Matej Minac is a Slovak living in Prague. He is one of the most respected film makers currently working in the Czech Republic, well known above all for his documentaries, but also for his highly acclaimed feature film "All My Loved Ones", about a Czech Jewish family at the beginning of the German occupation and their agonizing decision to send their child to safety in Britain. His documentary film "Nicholas Winton - The Power of Good" takes the same inspiration, telling the extraordinary story of Nicholas Winton, the British banker who saved nearly seven hundred Czech Jewish children. The film recently won one of the greatest honours that can be given to a documentary film, a prestigious Emmy Television Award in the United States. Matej Minac, welcome to the studio.

Nice to be here.

Tell me something about your upbringing in Slovakia. Was film-making in the family?

Just the contrary. Despite my mother - she's a photographer and artist - my brother Jan, who is eight years older, is a mathematician, and my mother wanted very much for me a career as a manager of a hotel and that I would start to be a waiter. So for my mother it was a great disappointment when one day I said I won't be a waiter but will go to study film-making. For years she was telling me what a stupid thing I had done, that I didn't obey her and didn't study something that is more useful, practical and better for life.

You've worked a lot with another Slovak director, Juraj Jakubisko. Can you tell me something about him, his work and how you've worked together.

I had great luck in life that one of my teachers was Juraj Jakubisko, a very famous Slovak film maker, who shot "Millennial Bee" or "I Am Sitting on a Branch and Feel Well". Federico Fellini considered him one of the very best directors from this region. I had the luck that I could assist on his films and he really introduced me to the world of film and to the aesthetics. So this was my education.

It's very interesting that you've focused mostly on documentary films, because most people think of documentary films as a bit boring, as a bit high-brow.

Never mind whether it's a documentary or whether it's a feature or animation or whatever, the principal thing is whether you are telling a great story. This is absolutely obligatory, that when you are telling us in a film a story, that it should be a great story. I really don't understand this distinction - that one person can be a director of feature films and one can be a director of documentaries. For me we are doing the same job. We are always trying to tell a story.

And you went on to become very well-known in the Czech Republic and Slovakia for the film "All My Loved Ones", which is a feature film. How did that film come about?

My mother, who never talked about her experiences from childhood, suddenly, because she was doing some exhibition - the reconstruction of a family album - told me some very nice stories from her childhood, about her five crazy uncles who went to the casino - they were skirt-chasers - and she remembered that she had a very happy childhood and one day it stopped because of the war, and eventually most of the people from her childhood disappeared. Suddenly it struck me that this can be really a great story, which was actually never done before, that I wouldn't shoot a film about the wartime experiences, but I would shoot a film about what preceded the war from the perspective of a child. The child gradually starts to understand that something's happening and eventually he is the only one who is rescued. And because I was looking for a way - dramatically - how to rescue my child, I went to the Jewish Museum [in Prague] and I found a book by Vera Gissing ["Pearls of My Childhood"], and in this book she mentioned in two paragraphs Nicholas Winton - that he rescued seven hundred mostly Jewish children before the outbreak of the Second World War. I was astonished. You know, that's exactly what I needed for my story. So I wrote a treatment and I asked one lady, Alice Klimova, whether she can translate it for me into English, and the lady told me something that astonished me incredibly - Matej, I think you have a few mistakes in your treatment, especially the scene on the train station, when the children are leaving for Britain - and I said - how do you know? - and she said - well, I know because I was one of those children, of Winton's children. And then I asked her - Alice, so tell me how it was, so I can correct my mistakes. And she said - you know, I was only four-and-a-half years old. I don't remember it so well. Why don't you call Nicky, Nicky Winton? And I said - how do you mean Nicky Winton? He's still alive? - Yes, he'd be very happy to talk with you, he's a very nice person, and I'm sure that he would help you. So that's how I got to this story and two months later I visited him. We spent a beautiful afternoon together and I knew that suddenly I can't do only one film - this feature - but I will have to do also a documentary, to show him in a film.

When you decided to make this film - this documentary film - about Sir Nicholas, did you find it quite easy to get the money together?

Well there was not any interest at all, because they told me - look, you are doing a feature film. You know, you should concentrate on the feature film, and I said - you know, certain things you can't postpone in life and I have to do right away also the documentary because simply the man may die, and he's incredible. So I was thinking - what would Nicholas Winton do in my position? Because when he came here to Prague and he wanted to rescue all these children, and he had a plan how to do it, everybody was telling him here in Prague - you know, it's absurd. You can never manage it. The British won't let the children in. The Gestapo won't let the children out. You don't have the money, so how do you want to do it? It's crazy. And Winton says that anything that is reasonable can be achieved. So we said we'll use the same way. So we think that a film on him is quite reasonable, so there must be a way how to realize it. So we simply invited Winton here to Prague and we shot him a few days - all the interviews and so on - and eventually, about one year later, the Czech Television and Slovak Television got interested and they entered into the film.

And the film has been astonishingly successful.

I think that people identify with Winton, and they understood that his example is our way to the future, that people themselves - without the support of official bodies and so on - can achieve very important and fundamental things and can change the history of people.

"Nicholas Winton - The Power of Good" and "All My Loved Ones", the feature film, have obviously affected you very deeply and changed your life in many ways. Where do you go from here?

I definitely now want to do one film completely different from these Winton films, and it will be most probably a fairy-tale - a very funny fairy-tale with songs etc. I hope that I will get rested while working on this film [laughs] and maybe later I will return back.