My Prague – Martin Dušek

Martin Dušek at Bubenská 1, photo: Ian Willoughby

Among the small number of Czech directors in competition at the Karlovy Vary festival, which gets underway next weekend, will be documentarian Martin Dušek, with his latest work Into the Clouds We Gaze. The witty filmmaker, who comes from the North Bohemian town of Česká Lípa, suggests as the starting point for our tour of “his Prague” the place where he works. One of the city’s most distinctive Functionalist structures, it’s a large building by Vltavská metro station owned by developer Orco and currently home to rather rough and ready office spaces.

The Functionalist building at Bubenská 1 where Martin Dušek works,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Right now we are in kind of a big hall in an amazing building which was built in the 1920s, I think. It used to be a central place for some electrical company but now it’s been turned into offices for independent designers, artists, maybe journalists and these kinds of people.

“They can meet here and work in their offices. And pay rent that is a bit too high for some of them and enjoy bad air conditioning which makes the place very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer.

“The air conditioning system comes from the ‘20s [laughs], and I think the whole building is kind of protected by some authority, because of its historical value. That makes it unique, but also very unpleasant, like these days.”

I was here maybe five years ago at Designblok – they used what are now offices as little rooms to show design items in. Is this space temporarily being used by people like yourself as offices? Or is it going to be permanently like this?

Inside Bubenská 1,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“We don’t know really. It’s been said two or three times during the last few years that the whole project is going to end very soon. But still it’s working like this, so we don’t know. But we have heard rumours that it will be closed next year, next spring, so we will see.

“I think the developer, the company, they want to turn it into posh offices with high rent and everything. So we will have to find other places.”

I’ve seen this place used several times in films and on Czech TV.

“Yes, in the series Czech Century and in some advertisements, because it is very designy and still in its original state.”

It reminds me a little bit of a ship in its design, and also of a prison – it looks a bit like a prison with these single rooms and kind of walkways overlooking a large space.

Martin Dušek at Bubenská 1,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Yeah, it’s a ship full of prisoners floating on the Vltava river – and we don’t know where it’s heading.”

You were saying that many people work here like designers, journalists, filmmakers like yourself. Is there a kind of community here?

“I think there were some attempts to get people more together – some film project that everybody would participate in. But I think it depends on people, and they are developing some groups.

“I’m sharing an office with the editor Janka Vlčková, who is one of the best Czech editors doing documentaries and feature films. We met here these graphic designers who call themselves Ex Lovers; they’ve become our friends and we are working on projects together now.”

Main hall at Bubenská 1,  photo: Ian Willoughby

What about outside the building? When you go out you are basically on the magistrála, the main road that runs through Prague.

“Yes. It gives the whole place an industrial or independent touch. We don’t expect that we will be in the centre of a park – this is much cooler. But it’s better to have an office on the opposite side of the building.”

A couple of streets away from his office building at Bubenská 1 is another place Dušek spends a good deal of time: the sparely decorated, airy and very pleasant Kavárna Liberál in Holešovice. Over a cool glass of Únětice beer, the 30-something documentary maker explains its appeal.

“It’s a café but it’s furnished and designed in a very sober way, very simple. It’s not a posh, designy place – that’s what I like about it.

“During the day it’s quite empty, so one can sit here and work on a notebook. In the evening it’s quite crowded and you can meet lots of people here, friends, and it’s like the natural centre of this quarter. It’s not far from the office building, so for us it’s our favourite evening target.”

Liberál in Prague's Holešovice district | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

Also it strikes me as not being a typical Czech place. It reminds me of somewhere, I don’t know, in another European city, maybe Berlin.

“Maybe. It’s a Vienna type café a bit, right?... And also they have started to cook here – only some pasta but it’s really good and for a good price. And the beer is great here, also.”

They have my favourite beer, Únětice.

“Yes, Únětice. There used to be this Únětická kultura, the Únětice Culture [laughs], in the Bronze Age [2300–1600 BC], so the beer has been tested for a very long time.”

Generally speaking, what do you think makes a good café?

“I like places which are not pretentious – they don’t pretend something that they are not. And with good beer and coffee, of course, because it’s still not natural to have good coffee in a café…”

In this country in general, you mean?

“Yes, in this country [laughs]. Not in Italy, of course. Also it must be a place where people you know go, so you can meet naturally – and a place you can always meet somebody.”

What about old-style pubs? Have you got any favourite pubs in Prague?

“I have to think. I haven’t been in a pub for a long time. We used to go U Houdků in Žižkov, when I was studying at journalism school. They had good beer and good fried cheese with fries.

Interior of Liberál,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“But I’ve always been more of a café person than a pub person. But what’s interesting is that my beer belly has developed in cafés as well.”

When I first came to Prague I loved all these old style pubs. But there came a time when I realised I just don’t like those places with the green table cloths, very smoky, smelly toilets.

“Yeah, when you get older you need some more cultivated environment. Especially when you are very often in those places and you are spending most of your time there.”

For the final stop on our trip around “Martin Dušek’s Prague”, he and I hop on a number 17 tram from Holešovice down to the Náplavka embankment on the River Vltava. There we enjoy decent and inexpensive fish soup at a narrow wooden restaurant simply named Vltava – a spot that long predates the riverside strip’s relatively recent elevation to hipster hangout.

The Vltava restaurant,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I’ve been here only a few times. I came here two weeks ago with our editor and we really like the stuff here: the fish soup, the atmosphere and also the pickled herring – it was one of the best pickled herrings we ever had.

“There is also Mirek, the waiter, who can be very unpleasant to the guests. It’s partly fun, it’s partly an old Czech waiters’ tradition – but his incorrectness is refreshing [laughs]. You have to negotiate with him.

“Right here where we are sitting one wall of the restaurant is open and we are sitting literally next to a little boat on the river, which I think is amazing.

“It’s right in the middle of Náplavka with its cool bar stands. We used to go to Náplavka a lot two or three years ago when the place started. But now it’s a bit too much of a hipsters’ place or a young people’s place.

“We now feel much better sitting in this fish restaurant having fish soup and a beer and watching boats than being among these people in these crowded places.”

Do you know who used to come here back in the day? Havel came here.

“Yes, I know, it was a favourite place of Václav Havel’s. I heard that some nasty developers and the City of Prague wanted to get rid of this restaurant and Václav Havel kind of helped to make sure it’s still here.”

He used to live here – his house was maybe 100 metres from here.

Martin Dušek at Vltava,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“That’s true… You know, you don’t really have any fish restaurants in the Czech Republic, which I think is a bit weird because we have all these fish pond areas in South Bohemia.

“Or even in North Bohemia, like near my home city of Česká Lípa there’s Máchovo jezero, which is in fact a fish lake or fish pond.

“So I wonder why Czechs don’t work with fish more. You could have good fish soup in every restaurant at this quality. It would be amazing. It has big potential.”