My Prague – Marek Hovorka

Marek Hovorka, photo: archive of MFDF Jihlava

Marek Hovorka is only based part-time in Prague. The rest of the time he lives in his hometown of Jihlava, where he has been running the Czech Republic’s most important documentary film festival for nearly two decades. When we caught up Hovorka was super busy, putting the finishing touches to the programme before the start of this year’s Jihlava in under a fortnight’s time. So instead of the usual My Prague format of visiting various spots, we discussed his relationship to the city at a café at Letenské náměstí in Prague 7, the district where he lives and works.

Marek Hovorka,  photo: archive of MFDF Jihlava

“I like Prague 7, because it’s like a small town within a town. You feel like you’re part of some neighbourhood. It’s also very open, in terms of parks.

“Also it’s close to the centre but it’s across the river, so there aren’t so many tourists.

“On the other hand it’s not very far out, like Prague 6. So I have to say Prague 7 is a very nice place to live and not surprisingly in recent years it has become one of the places in Prague where many young people want to live.”

Are there places in Prague where documentary filmmakers congregate, where they go out or work?

“You find many of them around the Film Academy [FAMU]. Because they have lectures there – they’re part of the documentary department or they’re in touch with some students.

“Then directors who work more for Czech Television can be found at Kavčí hory [Czech TV HQ] and around the television studios. These are the two most common places for documentary makers, related to their work.

“But of course, because they’re film people, they usually go to the cinema – or if not usually, at least they still try to go to the cinema [laughs] – so cinemas like Světozor, or the cinema Oko in Prague 7 are key places where they spend time.”

Bio Oko,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Have there been many good documentaries made about Prague?

“Of course there have been some attempts in past years. Some of them were part of a special documentary series for Czech TV, based in different locations. Others were in the famous Šumná města series about architecture.

“And from the not so deep past but the 1980s there was a great film done about Prague by Věra Chytilová. It’s interesting how you can feel from it the changing of the atmosphere – it’s pretty grey but the atmosphere is changing.”

What’s it called?

“Praha neklidné srdce Evropy [Prague the Restless Heart of Europe, 1987]. It’s very interesting in terms of form but also captures the spirit of that time. And Věra Chytilová was one of the best filmmakers we’ve had.

“There were also very nice films done by Alexandr Hackenschmied in the 1930s, or by Otakar Vávra, with the feel of avant garde film.

“Bezúčelná procházka [An Aimless Walk, 1930] by Hammid [Hackenschmied’s pseudonym] is a great film that at first look is about nothing serious.

“But then you realise it’s about the moment when you have a free afternoon at the weekend and you spend it having a walk around Prague or in the suburbs. It’s really a masterpiece in the way it’s done, with a free spirit.

“Also there’s a famous film by Otakar Vávra inspired by this avant garde filmmaking about Prague at night. There are many neon signs and lights – it’s a beautiful piece. These films for me describe Prague the most.”

'Bezúčelná procházka',  photo: National Film Archive

What parts of Prague have you lived in the past? What have you found the best places to live in Prague?

“For a couple of years I lived in Roztoky, a small town near to Prague. Then I moved to Prague 7. I move from street to street, but I don’t change the location.”

What places do you like to go out in Prague?

“Of course working in the art space means meeting many people in cafés, so I try to discover new places. I have to say that finding a good place for coffee in the Czech Republic is not so easy – but it’s changing.

“Then I like going to bookstores or to shops with old books and to galleries. If I have free time, which is not so often, I find these places.”

What about pubs? Where would you go for a drink?

“Often I really don’t want to waste time moving from one place to another, so what’s closest to my office or my home is the best. So usually I go to the cinema Oko, for example.

“Also you can find Lokál [retro style pubs] by Stromovka or on Dlouhá St. So there are a couple of places where me and my friends go if we have a free night.”

Oko is part of the fantastic chain that also features Aero and Světozor. Are you also connected with those in some way?

“Yes. I have to say Aero 10 or 15 years ago was a real discovery and miracle. The programme they had at that time completely changed the art film environment in Prague. I spent many nights there, eating fried cheese with tartar sauce.”

Lokál pub in Dlouhá St.,  photo: Ian Willoughby

As somebody who works in the cultural sphere and is very active in that area, how lively do you find Prague as a city for culture? How vibrant is it in that regard, compared to other cities?

“It’s not easy for me to compare, because when I travel I usually have work and I’m watching films, meeting people.

“But what I’ve heard from many foreigners who spend some time in Prague is that they really enjoy it. The variety of culture we have here is for many of them surprising.

“What might be the problem is that there’s a strong culture movement in some parts of society, but it’s not a real part of the whole society.

“There are many people who are really doing great work – creating some spaces, theatres, clubs, hubs, whatever – but it’s more underground.

“It still feels more like it’s for me and my fellows, my friends, than an open space or an open institution.”

What do you find are downsides to living in Prague?

“Prague is a very safe place. Of course, every place is dangerous, all around the world.

“But still as a person who knows the rules I really think you can feel very safe, compared to many other places I’ve been.

“Also what I like about Prague is that you can move about pretty easily. The public transport is something that really isn’t anywhere. So of big cities, I think Prague is one of the very few where you can really feel comfortable.

“The problem is that the people don’t behave in a very friendly way. I’m very sad when I see how they don’t help others – for example if you travel by tram and you see a woman with a child and a pram and needs help, nobody wants to help her.

Letná,  Prague 7,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“People are tense. They don’t want to talk so much to other people, don’t want to live outside. This Czech phenomenon is maybe stronger in Prague than in small towns.”

Did you have to get used to that when you came here and be a bit less friendly yourself?

“[Laughs] I hope not! Because I’m still surprised. You know, it’s something like the tale with the frog. If a frog jumps into a pot of hot water, it jumps out immediately.

“But if the frog jumps into a pot with cold water but you heat it underneath, the frog doesn’t realise it and then it’s too late to jump out.

“Having said that, I think it was different 10 years ago and now it’s changing. I hope the tension in society will maybe decrease and that the new generation which maybe travels more will not continue this not so open way of living and sharing the city with others.”

I guess you must travel quite a lot in your work. What are the things you see in other cities that you would love to come to Prague?

“For sure the way people live outside buildings. Having cafés or restaurants on the street, on squares, is something nice.

“Why not enjoy time outside? Because you’re always in buildings, in the office, at work, shopping, living, sleeping, always inside.

“I think it’s always good to spend more time outside. And to take care about places, to think about parks, about the space where you want to be and where you feel comfortable.

Kino Aero | Photo: ŠJů,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0

“This is something that’s changing. There’s a fashion of new architecture and you read about it many newspapers and magazines. But I believe it’s not only about reading but about changing and that there will be more and more places like this.

“Of course it comes from the communist times. People were not free to speak so they didn’t have a reason to be outside in towns or cities. Maybe they did at dachas or in the countryside, but not in cities or towns.

“It’s crazy that it’s 25 years after the revolution but the feeling of being unsure and unsafe is still here. This frightens me – that when you make some change in society, healing it takes a really long time.”