New series maps changes in Czech film industry over last 20 years

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The public broadcaster Czech TV has begun airing a new 20-part series looking back on Czech film and the film industry since 1989. Called Rozmarná léta českého filmu (The Capricious Years of Czech film), the documentary looks at difficulties and changes in the Czech film business during the transition from the state-controlled economy to the free market.

The transition from a state-controlled film industry to an independent market was not an easy one in the early years following the fall of Communism but makes for fascinating viewing. One example? How directors were paid by the state, not before but only after film projects were completed. Feature films approved by officials were well-paid, up to 40,000 Czechoslovak crowns, but directors of duds or projects that were shelved for whatever reason received much less, only around two thousand. The three-part Rozmarná léta českého filmu, which talks to some 200 people in the industry including well-known actors and directors, was directed by Jan Stehlík and Petr Vachler. A little earlier Petr Vachler told me the time was ripe for a look back:

“We decided to map the development of the film business because nostalgia has begun to set in, and people are looking back. I think it is always good after a period to look back to reassess events and see them with a new eye. It can take five, ten, twenty years or sometimes just a week. But things can look very different when you have some distance.”

Petr Vachler, photo: Lenka Paličková
The director notes that one of the major changes in the early years after the Velvet Revolution was an initial drop in overall interest by cinema goers: Czechs, not free to travel under 40 years of Communism, had more important things to discover, namely, a wider world they had been missing. Petr Vachler again:

“It’s important to remember that in ’90 and ’91 we all travelled outside of Czechoslovakia and were completely fascinated by what we saw, even something as banal as flower pots on peoples windows. There was Venice, the sea, Paris, so many of us really weren’t interested in the cinema for a while. Meanwhile, the production system at home was stopped, it completely broke down. The only films that drew large audiences were projects which had been completed on the cusp of the revolution or shortly thereafter, often rooted in themes close to viewers’ hearts. Czech film would have to look for new beginnings.”

Filmmakers, says Vachler, had to look for new themes and humour relevant in the new period, when there was no longer a Communist regime to secretly ridicule and oppose but new-found freedom which carried greater risks and responsibilities. But a number of emerging filmmakers, says Petr Vachler, started successful careers while other talents floundered.

Jan Hřebejk's 'Kawasaki’s Rose', photo: Bontonfilm
“Two filmmakers come to mind: Saša Gedeon and Jan Hřebejk. The former hasn’t made a new film in eight years and has had a tough time in current economic conditions, while Jan Hřebejk has been luckier: his films have been commercial successes, enabling him to be productive. Gedeon is still waiting for his next chance. Today the industry is such that we still see a lot of debuts, but only a few directors follow through with a film every two years or so. That’s how things have changed. Under Communism, the political system decided what got made; today, it’s economics.”

On average, 15 – 30 feature films are made in the Czech Republic annually and film, despite difficulties in the 1990s has not disappeared or been abandoned, on the contrary. But Vachler says it is still a labour of love, in most cases not about the money.