My Prague – Aleš Rumpel

Aleš Rumpel, photo: Ian Willoughby

Aleš Rumpel is the head of the Mezipatra queer film festival, one of the leading events of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe. He has also been involved in numerous other projects in the arts field and currently works at the National Film Archive. Our tour of “Aleš’s Prague” begins on Národní třída, or National Street, an avenue that is home to institutions, such as Café Slavia and the National Theatre, as well as shops and restaurants of varying standards. So, what does Národní mean to Aleš Rumpel?

Aleš Rumpel,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“It’s the very city centre for me. When I first came to Prague on business it was to talk to the British Council, which used to rent premises here on Národní třída.

“Then, this is a place where people meet, at the Tesco corner. Along with Wenceslas Square, by the horse, this is probably the second most popular place for people to just gather and then walk to somewhere in town.

“This is where I work. I work on [nearby] Bartolomějská St. – because my job is at the National Film Archive and one of our buildings is there.

“This is where the Velvet Revolution started.

“This is a place that could have more life and energy for daily users – there’s not many places where you could sit outside, but that has been changing and I’m glad about that.

“This is a place that’s very historic and very central. And I like it.”

You must have been, what, around 10 years old when the Velvet Revolution began? Do you remember seeing Narodni on TV?

“Yes, I do. Yes. I was 11. And of course I remember the news reports. But I first came to Prague only in 1991. I come from a small town near Ostrava.”

The street name means National Street. Is it grand enough for that name? There are some great buildings here like the National Theatre and the Viola building down the street, but there are also a lot of homeless people, there are some quite ugly shop fronts…

Národní třída,  photo: Daniel Baránek,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“I like that. It’s diverse. The look of the street, the chaos, the traffic. There’s a part of the street that has almost no life, which is next to the National Theatre and the Academy of Sciences.

“The upper part of the street leading to Jungmannovo náměstí is more where people shop and eat. And I like that. To me it’s suitable to the name.”

To me the mix almost represents Prague in general: you have the grand and the kind of shoddy.

“Yes, that’s true. You have a beautiful functionalist building that’s completely empty, because the user is obviously waiting for better times to sell it [Dům uměleckého průmyslu or the House of Applied Arts, at Národní 36].

“There’s a construction site, where there will be a five-star hotel – that site has been empty for years and the surrounding buildings have been used by graffiti artists.

“There’s Pietro Filipi, which is a Czech fashion brand…”

With an Italian name.

“With an Italian name, next to Tesco, which has in its name My, in English, which is a play on [original name] Maj. So it’s a crazy mix of everything.”

Are you at all aware of the efforts to enliven the space beside the National Theatre and behind the Nová Scena [New Stage, theatre]?

“Yes, around the piazzetta, you mean? It’s a great initiative. Marie Straková is in charge of the programmes there and I like a lot of the arts programmes that take place there.

The National Theatre,  photo: Kristýna Maková

“I worked for the Prague Quadrennial, which happened two years back. It’s a big festival of performance, space and design. And we built a project called Intersection, which was a maze of boxes for performance and installation art.

“I think it’s great that the national theatre is lending that space to arts initiatives. And it’s not only hardcore arts initiatives. There’s bars…”

There was a sauna there last year.

“Excellent. I love it.”

From the corner opposite the main entrance to Tesco on Národní, Aleš Rumpel takes me to the nearby Café Louvre, one of the finest spots in Prague to enjoy a coffee and/or mouth-watering slice of cake. It turns out my guide has a personal attachment to Louvre, which first opened its doors in 1902 and has had many famous regulars over the years.

“I like Louvre because it’s a great place. It’s a good place to eat – I like the food they serve. It’s also a great place for coffee – they have an amazing Turkish made in a cezve which is fun to have sometimes.

“I also have a sentimental connection to Louvre, because this is where I met my partner, then partner-to-be. I was doing an interview for a magazine and he was taking photographs for the magazine.

“We sometimes come here just for sentimental reasons and sit at the same table. We don’t do that very often. But we often come here, because it’s a good place to eat. They also have vegan cakes, which is not very common in Prague.

Café Louvre,  photo: Café Louvre website

“My partner is a yoga instructor and he teaches at Yogame, which is a studio here on Národní, and I go to his classes twice a week. So sometimes we come here to have a glass of wine or a late dinner.”

This place has a great history. Does the fact that people like Kafka or Einstein or Karel Čapek used to come here add anything to the atmosphere, for you?

“Not as much as the fact that Russian immigrants who fled the revolution in 1917 used to come here. It’s all written in their marketing materials, which is a little funny.

“But they have a long history to boast of. And the fact that it’s almost always full and it’s basically one long room with tables, it’s always buzzing with conversations, there’s no radio – it’s a great place.

“It has a great atmosphere, even without you knowing about the history of the place.”

Is it my imagination or does this place have a greater mix of clientele than a lot of Prague’s cafés?

“It might. I think there are some people who come here because they’ve found the place in a tourist guide. But it’s not I think primarily a tourist destination. I think there’s always a bit of an expat community.

“But then you have older ladies who come here for their cakes, young businessmen who come here for meetings.”

Apart from Louvre, what are your favourite cafés or bars in Prague?

“Not far from here there are two bars that I sometimes like to go to. One of them is Erra. It’s a gay bar that used to be very popular with a lot of entertainment and arts people.

Velvet revolution memorial at Národní třída,  photo: Tomáš Adamec

“Some of them moved to Q Café, which was built about two years ago. Erra is on Konviktská, Q Café is on Opatovická. They’re both gay bars but also the mix of people is quite nice.

“And Q Café, apart from being a bar, they always lend their space to various events like talks and debates and small exhibitions. So it’s always a nice and fun place to go to.”

Generally speaking – and this is a very big question to answer in a minute or so – is Prague a gay friendly city?

“Yes, I think it is. There’s enough to do in terms of entertainment. There’s very little violence towards gay people. So yes.

“The question is different when you think about the legal status and all that. But for everyday life, yes, it’s a friendly city.”

Our final destination is another Prague institution, albeit one whose grandeur has faded in a way that Louvre’s hasn’t. But while the café bar of the Lucerna historic cinema could perhaps do with a little sprucing up, when it plays host to film festivals – including Aleš Rumpel’s Mezipatra – it becomes one of the liveliest spots in the city.

“Kino Lucerna is one of the cinemas that we use for Mezipatra, along with Světozor, which is conveniently located across the street.

“So this is a place where I’ll spend a week of my life every year during the festival. Because although we have screenings in the afternoons, we have meetings during the day to plan what’s ahead.

“Also I used to work for the One World human rights documentary film festival for many years and it takes place here. So that would be another week of my life, here at Lucerna.”

Lucerna Palace,  photo: Oleg Fetisov

And during those festivals, the bar here is the place to be every night?

“It is. It gets really crowded. The service never can accommodate all of the requests, so it can be a little frustrating, but I think that it adds to the atmosphere.

“It’s always full. Sometimes we have DJs playing. And it becomes a really attractive place to be.”

What is the reaction when you take directors here? The cinema is over 100 years old.

“They love it. It’s 112, I think, this year. It’s still in its original design. It looks like an old theatre, but it was always planned and constructed as a movie house. All the theatre masks and Art Deco decorations and stuccos are incredible.

“And people from cities that used to have cinemas like this are always very sad when they come. Because not very many survived in Europe or anywhere else.

“So we’re very lucky to have a cinema that is not only this old but still retains its original design and it’s spectacular.”

Can you recall the reaction of any particular directors who you’ve brought here to this place?

“It’s always the same. They’re always surprised and they all love it. We had people here like Todd Haynes and they’re all very jealous. Because it’s not common.”

Do you know much about the history of this place? It was built by the grandfather of Václav Havel.

“Well, the Havels were a really influential family. Miloš Havel [Václav’s uncle] founded the Barrandov Studios, and he was actually queer.

“That’s lovely I think, that there’s this connection, maybe a distant connection, but there’s a connection to the past of queer film in the Czech Republic and our festival, which takes place here in a place that the Havel family built.”

Kino Lucerna,  photo: website of the cinema

What’s this bar like outside of festivals?

“It’s very different. And I think it’s the people who are different. The thing about Czech festivals is that the audience for most of them is very young.

“And here at the Lucerna café during the year there is a strange mix of some tourists, taxi drivers, people who work in money exchange shops. And some old people who love Lucerna.

“The atmosphere here is completely different. They’re also showing a football match as we speak. I think that adds to the confusion. Because this is a rather glamorous place, and it’s also quite expensive. But not everything is in harmony with the image of the place, I think.”