Nights of a thousand stars: Prague's open-air cinemas

Photo: www.kinematograf.cz

Summer in Prague means one thing - letni kino, or open-air cinema. The season starts in early June, and goes right on until mid-September. In this period, Prague residents and tourists alike are treated to the gamut of films, from Apocalypto right through to Zodiac.

But what is a letni kino? Well, in the most rudimentary of cases, it is a sheet tied to two trees and a projector beaming out some film in a park. But those in Prague are a slightly more sophisticated affair. The open-air cinema on Strelecky ostrov, near the National Theatre, has been running now for 11 years. As well as a big screen, it has a bar and grill. As beer is an integral part of Czech outdoor cinema, I decided to start at the very beginning, and ask the barman about his job:

"It's very nice but sometimes it is a little bit tiring, because I am here 12 hours a day, so if the weather is too good, then lots of people come here and I have more than enough work. So sometimes it is very tiring, but it is really nice to work here. The people are nice, the films are good."

So you get to see all the films?

"No no no. As you can see, from here, I can't see a thing! It's a pity, but what can you do? I'm here to do my job, and not to look at films. I'm doing my job and I can hear some things, but I can't see anything."

But now to the films themselves. In the middle of Strelecky Ostrov stands a bright yellow caravan. Inside are a couple of gigantic old projectors, and Honza Parizek, the cinema's technician. As he deftly handled yards of film, he explained to me he was doing:

"I'm just preparing the movie for projection"

So how do you prepare a movie for projection?

"On this table I put the movie onto the reels that go onto the projectors."

And is this a complicated process? The machines look rather complicated to use.

A view from Strelecky Ostrov
"No, it is really simple, a monkey could do it. The projector is for 35 millimeter film. It has to be big and strong because the lamp inside is very strong. It needs to ventilated. There are motors which pass the film in front of the projector. The machine has to be very heavy, because there can't be any vibrations."

Ondrej Kubista is one of the organizers of the open-air cinema on Strelecky Ostrov, he talks about what makes his cinema better than the rest:

"These summer cinemas all have a really nice atmosphere, because they are out in the open-air. In this sense, here on Strelecky Ostrov, we are no different from any other such outdoor cinema. What is special about us is that we are here in the centre of Prague, between Mala Strana and Stare Mesto. We are exceptional in this way. Another thing that is special about us is our programme. We try to put together a programme which will suit both Prague locals and visiting tourists. This means that the majority of things we show are Czech films with English subtitles."

Honza Parizek is the man responsible for putting together the programme:

"On Mondays we have films that are part of 'Projekt 100' - this is a collection of cult movies. On Tuesdays we have either documentary movies or music movies. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, we have quality commercial movies, chosen from those on general distribution. And on Sundays we have a profile collection of Jan Svankmajer's feature films, the best Czech surrealist director."

And of all of this year's films, which is your personal favourite?

"The Fountain, by Darren Arronofsky. It is a metaphysical, audio-visual symphony."

...Wow! Unfortunately, The Fountain has already been and gone. It was shown after a Legendary Pink Dots concert last Saturday.

Further up the river, in Karlin, is yet another open-air cinema. This one is organised by the town council, and Czech Radio, and has quite a different selection procedure. Organiser Karel Polacek explains his choice of films:

"I choose the films, this isn't the only cinema that I choose the films for. From my youth, when the Czech Republic was a communist country and we didn't have so many films, I have inherited the idea that outdoor cinemas are the place for lighter, entertaining films. That means that we avoid art films, which are better in an enclosed space. Quite simply, at an outdoor cinema there should be adventure, comedy, humour and, for those who are prepared to watch it, sex."

The open-air cinema in Karlin has quite a different feel to it. It is housed in the courtyard of one of Czech Radio's oldest and prettiest buildings, on Hybesova street. Strelecky Ostrov, on the other hand, is an island in the middle of the Vltava, with views up to the castle and the city's old town. The open-air cinema in Karlin is in its fourth year, and it surprised me to hear that it is the most popular of these cinemas in the Czech Republic. Last year it attracted over 14,000 visitors. The Karlinske filmove leto is, it seems, a little less publicized than the cinema on Strelecky Ostrov, so I asked Karel Polacek what his secret was:

"Money, money, money. Entrance is only 25 crowns, and that is why they come. The audience really depends upon the film that you are showing. If you show Spiderman, or 300, then you get a very young crowd, if you show Notes on a Scandal or the Czech film Empties, then you generally get people coming in pairs, in their thirties. So the audiences for these sorts of films are older, and larger."

Despite the healthy sounding audience figures for this, and other open-air cinemas in Prague, the Czech tradition of letni kino is finding it hard to survive. The season is only around three months long, and then these cinemas go into hibernation for the winter.

Simona Cadikova is in charge of the open-air cinema on Strelecky Ostrov. She comes from a family of mobile cinema owners, which she says sometimes is like belonging to a circus. She explains the problems faced by those in the industry:

"Nowadays, people love big American movies, and these movies are playing in big multiplex cinemas, in shopping malls and the like. And people forget that these small cinemas are a much nicer experience. At least for me. And so people are going to these multiplexes and little village cinemas are just dying."

Here on Strelecky Ostrov, you can't get any popcorn, and you can't get any Haagen Dazs, but what can you get instead, what typically accompanies Czech cinema?

"It's beer, lemonade, sausage, chips. But, definitely, in an open-air cinema, it's beer! You know, people love coming to a movie out of doors, having a beer, looking up at the stars, at the trees. It's wonderful!"