My Prague – Šimon Holý

Šimon Holý

Young director Šimon Holý this week sees his film And Then There Was Love enter Czech cinemas. It is the second feature film by Holý, who in addition composes music for films and until recently was also a presenter on alternative station Radio Wave. Our tour of “his Prague” begins on the square Náměstí Míru, one of the centres of the Vinohrady district.

“I live half the time in Prague and half the time in Hudlice, which is a town near Beroun, but not so far from Prague.

“I can’t imagine moving somewhere else.”

Why do you also live in Hudlice?

“Well, it’s a long story of my father wanting to have a farmhouse and then buying another farmhouse and then just moving farther and farther from Prague [laughs].

“I actually like this, that I can be in the nature whenever I want – and then to move into the city whenever I want.”

Vinohrady is a big area. I discovered looking at the map earlier that it runs all the way from Folimanka to the Main Train Station and out to Hagibor. What’s your favourite part of the district?

“It was very interesting to me as well to find this out, because I didn’t know that.

Náměstí Míru | Photo: Prokop Havel,  Czech Radio

“I’m just now writing a script that takes place in Vinohrady and I also wondered, What is Vinohrady?

“Because I thought it’s Náměstí Míru, it’s Jiřího z Poděbrad, maybe it’s Flora, where I live. But is it all?

“And then I found out that even the State Opera is Vinohrady, which doesn’t necessarily make any sense to me [laughs].

“I thought, This is amazing, because the quarter is really huge.

“So I was thinking about all the places I like and to me I have all the places connected to some memory, some history.

“Náměstí Míru is very much my childhood, because I spent a lot of time going to elementary and high school here – and I spent most of my time in the afternoons sitting here with friends.

“And Jiřího z Poděbrad is more of the adult life, when you go for a wine or a beer and just talk with friends.

“Then also there is Korunní Street, which is a street where you can buy the best food, have the best coffee and generally go to good bars – so there are a lot of places that I actually like.”

Korunní Street | Photo: ŠJů,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Have you filmed in this neighbourhood?

“I actually did. With my feature debut, Mirrors in the Dark, we did it in Jiřího z Poděbrad; there are two scenes, on the square and behind the church.

“And then in Café Fra I shot a scene for my second film And Then There Was Love.”

You’re quite young, you’re in your late 20s, but have you got any sense that Vinohrady has changed much over the years?

“I realise it did! Even though I’m young [laughs].

“It’s scary – it’s actually what the script is about, that gentrification really pushed Vinohrady from this residential zone for elderly people to now a hip quarter for very rich people.

“And that makes this really odd atmosphere: artists want to live here, rich people want to live here, elderly people want to live here, but the apartments and everything are getting so much more expensive with every year.

“So it’s this dream that we are losing, in a way.”

It’s funny, I always thought Vinohrady was already an upmarket area of Prague. Do you resent this gentrification, as you see it?

“Well, yeah, it doesn’t help anything, but what can we do about it?

“It makes sense. This quarter is really good for living, and if you want to live in hip quarters, its either Letná or Vinohrady.

“That’s the risk of living here.”

Jiřího z Poděbrad Square | Photo: Jolana Nováková,  Czech Radio

But don’t you feel you benefit from the gentrification? I’ve been living near náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad for many years and it’s much better now, with all the cafés and the French bakery and so on.

“That’s true, but most of the time you cannot afford a coffee there [laughs].

“No, I’m joking – sometimes I do buy coffee there.

“But yeah, it’s better in many ways, but also I lost some grungey clubs and places I really loved, just because of the gentrification.

“Because now neighbours are living there and there cannot be clubs, there cannot be bars.

“And that’s sad, because that’s what I loved about the quarter the most.”

Is there anything that this district is lacking, for you? Is there something you wish was here?

“It’s very sad that way back in the ‘60s and ‘70s there were so many cinemas in the quarter – and now we have basically none.

“We only have Flora, but that’s a big multiplex.

“But in terms of art cinemas, there are none.

“Yes, we have Kino Pilotů in Vršovice, very close, but still on Vinohradská we had four cinemas before – and now we have zero.

“So I lack cinemas here.”

Generally speaking, would you regard yourself as a Prague patriot?

“Yes. When I was 14 or 15 I wanted to move.

“I always thought, I’m going to Paris, I’m going to Tel Aviv, I’m going to New York, whatever.

“And [laughs] the older, I am the happier I am here.

“Yeah, I can’t see myself right now moving away from here, even though I deal with it every day – I think, Maybe I should move somewhere.

“But the city is great for living.”

From Náměstí Míru it’s a very short walk to the next port of call on our trip around “Šimon Holý’s Prague”: the Lauder School on Belgická St., the sole Jewish school in the country.

“I was thinking, This is a place that no-one else would show you [laughs].

“It’s the school where I grew up. It’s the only Jewish school in Prague.

“It’s like a community place for all the Jewish communities around Prague, because there are many Jewish communities and there is just one school, so they have to come to this one place.

“My grandpa kind of took me here, and told everyone that I have to go here, so I did for elementary and high school.

“It’s a very formative place for me. You spend 15 years of your life there, so it makes sense [laughs].”

Lauder School | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

And why your grandpa? Why not your parents? Why was it your grandpa who brought you here?

“The father of my grandpa was Jewish and he died in a concentration camp and he was still in touch with the Jewish community during communism.

“My mother wasn’t, my father wasn’t, and he kind of wanted to have someone still connected to the community.

“And I’m very grateful, because it really changed my life in so many ways.”

How do you think the education you received here would compare to at another Czech school, at a regular Czech school?

“There are Jewish religion classes, so you know more about the Torah and the Bible. You know more about the religion, the history and Israel.

“Also you learn Hebrew, so that’s where I learned Hebrew.

“And that’s a lot [laughs], that’s very different from a usual Czech school.”

I presume the classes were smaller also?

“In my times they were, because I was in one of the first classes to attend the school, so there were about eight to 10, 12 kids in a class.

“It’s about 30 now, from what I’ve heard.

“I haven’t been in the school for about two years now.”

And the school opened in the late ‘90s, is that right?

“Yes, I think it was, like, 1997, 1998. Then it transformed, because it also had a different address and then it moved here to this street next to Náměstí Míru.”

There’s a security barrier outside – these kind of bollards. Also if you enter the school the security is quite tight. Is that something that feels weird to a child attending the school?

“It feels very weird. But it’s also the situation of anti-Semitism in the Czech Republic right now.

“I don’t want to say that people should be scared, because they shouldn’t be, but it’s good to take precautions in order to have everyone safe.

“When I was a kid there were policemen standing outside. Just now there are two men standing here next to the building!

“It feels odd and you realise that there is something different happening.

“Now it’s better, I think, even though anti-Semitism is now rising, thanks to the politicians and because of Kanye West [laughs] and everyone…

“In 2000 it was a very different time, and it was dangerous.

“I remember one time as kids we were even running away from some these Nazi guys.

“Yeah, it was wild times in 2000.”

Generally do you take an interest in Jewish culture? Are you active in the Jewish community in Prague?

“I kind of left the community.

“But right now I’m writing a feature film called Thinking David, which is exactly about a gay guy coming out to the Jewish community.

“I’m working with a lot of people from the Jewish community, and this school as well.

“I hope I will even cast some kids from the school.

“So I’m now getting back to the roots.”

Café Fra | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

A couple of streets away from the Lauder School is the very cosy Café Fra. The young filmmaker, who had works competing two years in a row at the Karlovy Vary festival, has been a regular here for over a decade.

“This coffee place is somewhere I’ve been going to since I was, like, 15.

“Every time we ended school, me and my friends came here.

“It’s funny because I shot one movie here and I’m actually writing a scene in this place again for another film.

“Yes, it’s a place that really is influential in so many ways for me.”

Thank you for bringing me here. I’ve known the name for many years but never made it. I’m surprised how small it is, but it's really very pretty. What kind of a place is this? Or who comes to Café Fra?

“I think it’s students, it’s writers – because you have readings from poetry and literature here.

“So artists, students, expats, people from the arts – generally a really interesting bunch of people.”

Café Fra | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

As for writing, you are a screenwriter as well as a director. Do you write in cafés?

“I did before. Not so much now, because when I was young I could kind of zone out from all the loudness and just have the atmosphere of people working around me.

“Now I really like to write in some calm, silent place [laughs]. That’s why I now like to write in Hudlice, because there are just forests.

“I know many people who write in coffee places and I wonder how they do it, because I just couldn’t concentrate.”

Many people seem to use cafés these days as a kind of co-working centre. You see that a lot – a lot of people sitting alone at a table with their notebook.

“Yes. For me it’s a co-working place for meetings.

“You can do, I don't know, budget planning or financing planning, meetings with actresses and discussing their roles – but not writing.

“Actually it’s funny, because now I realise that the first meeting I had with [lead actress] Alena Doláková for Mirrors in the Dark was in this place.

“That’s where I told her I was planning to do this movie.”

A few months ago you and a couple of other relatively young Czech directors came out with a manifesto. What was all that about?

“So there are three texts that we wrote, together with Tereza Vejvodová and Tomasz Winski, and they are opening a debate on whether the Czech film is moving in the right direction, and what are the directions we are taking.

“We are kind of questioning the genres we are shooting right now, and also we are trying to show a way we can move forward; us three, not everyone.

“We are not pushing to change what they are doing but we three feel like we should do something that is more about current topics, more about our inner feelings, emotions – and just generally movies that are more connecting to the Czech audience right now, not 20 years ago.”

Cofee & Bistro Moment | Photo: Google Maps

Getting back to “your Prague”, what other bars or clubs do you tend to go to?

“In Vinohrady I go to Bullerbyn quite a lot. I like Coffee Room and Moment, as well as Sandokan, if you want to get good Indian vegan food.

“It’s important also to mention that Vinohrady is also known as the gay quarter of Prague, so there are many gay places you can go to and party.

“If people want to party on Friday, they go to Termix, for example.

“So these are the places I can go to sometimes, too.”

Club Termix | Photo: Club Termix

Recently there was a terrible shooting of two young gay men in Bratislava. How do you feel that has impacted your community?

“A lot. I think a lot.

“We’re recording right now on a day when there will be a big demonstration on Wenceslas Square… not a demonstration, but more like a meeting in support of the community.

“I also take part in Prague Pride as a music programmer and I see that right now the team is working very heavily on changes and talking to politicians.

“There are so many different collectives around Prague who are now trying to make things better for queer people all around this country.

“I think there is a topic of mental health issues.

“There always was this topic, but now it’s more present than ever because people are just very scared about their lives.

“Because yes, it was Bratislava, it’s a different country, but it’s very close and we don’t think that differently and people are not that different, so it could take place in Prague as well, and what if it were to happen?

“Yeah, it’s a very emotional thing for me to talk about, because it’s just a very scary idea that this could happen to you.

“And it happened in Oslo this year, during Pride.

“Yeah, queer people are in danger now.”