Onwards and upwards for the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

Photo: CTK

In the twelve years since it was established, the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival has quickly become the biggest showcase of creative documentary films in the Central European region. Over 30,000 people attended 240 film screenings at this year’s event, which attracted high-calibre guests such as the American pioneer of “fly-on-the-wall” documentary Frederick Wiseman and the controversial Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl.

Frederick Wiseman with Marek Hovorka, photo: CTK
Jihlava’s rapid development is remarkable considering that it was founded by some secondary-school film fans who just wanted an opportunity to watch documentary films in their home town. One of these people is the current festival director Marek Hovorka:

“It’s like a mythical story or fairytale. Once upon a time there was a 17-year-old student who wanted to study documentary films and it wasn’t possible to see them in the cinema and they were hardly ever on the TV, so he and some friends decided to organise a small festival of screenings for themselves. And they were surprised at how many people attended these screenings. And that’s basically how it started.”

The Jihlava festival’s success also owes a lot to the fact that, despite a rich tradition of documentary film, Czech documentary-makers had never had a proper forum for presenting their work. Consequently, many of them were more than happy to come to Jihlava and show their films despite the youth of the event’s organisers. Marek Hovorka again:

“They were happy for this opportunity, because they also could screen their films in the cinema, so it became a very nice meeting between the most important Czech directors in one place, screening their best films of the past decades. It became something of a celebration of Czech documentary.”

Despite its somewhat humble, impromptu beginnings, the Jihlava film festival has since become firmly established on the Czech cultural calendar. One regular attendee is leading Czech documentary-maker Tomáš Kudrna:

“I think it’s the best place for Czech filmmakers, especially documentarians, because a lot of TV producers, distributors and filmmakers come here. It’s becoming more and more popular. The Jihlava festival, particularly the film industry part of the programme is already well established and has quite good prospects, so it’s worth coming here.”

Czech film critic Vojtěch Rynda also says Jihlava has become a major event for documentary films, and it now attracts more than just regular filmgoers, but major industry players as well:

“The speciality of this festival is that it covers documentary film from the cradle to the grave, so to speak. Besides screenings for the general public, they have pitching forums here. They have a huge market for documentaries from Central and Eastern Europe. So compared to other festivals, it is not just something for the general public. It’s also the best festival here in terms of international connections with other festivals all over the world.”

The new film Czech RAPuplica, which takes an entertaining look at the hip-hop scene in the Czech Republic, was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.

Some of the movies shown at Jihlava this year actually first got backing at the festival’s special “pitching forum”, which gives Central and Eastern European filmmakers a chance to sell their movie proposal to potential backers. Since the pitching forum was established in 2001, 45 film projects have seen the light of day here.

Photo: CTK
Jihlava now also runs a major film market for Central and Eastern European documentary film. This now attracts buyers and distributors from all over the world, who see the festival as the place to go to see what’s happening in the region. Yugoslav-born Czech director Ivana Milošević works with the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague, which is involved in organising the pitching forum and the film market. So does she think that Central and European documentary film has any common characteristics or unique selling points for audiences elsewhere?

“For us living in this part of the world, we would say no, because we are used to this kind of storytelling and visual style. But when one compares it to the films that can be seen in other festivals, I think we have our way of telling stories and telling things, which includes qualities like social feeling, the length of shots, absurdity and black humour. I’m putting it very concisely, but these are some of the main things that characterise East European documentary.”

Among those attending Jihlava and taking part in its film industry events this year was the associate director of the documentary film programme at the Sundance Film Festival Rahdi Taylor. She says Jihlava has now become a major event for those working in documentary film:

“Actually, it’s a very important festival and an important pitch forum, which is growing every year. It’s regional so it brings together artists and films from throughout the area, which is very nice, because it doesn’t just focus on one place. The range of stories and storytelling is very fresh and interesting. It’s really becoming a ‘must-attend’ festival on the international circuit. We at Sundance are looking for really original voices that are dealing with contemporary social issues in the documentary film form, and that’s what we are finding here at Jihlava.”

Naturally, like most festivals, Jihlava is more than a film event. Communications director Andrea Slováková says that visitors can look forward to many things besides movie projections and post-screening debates:

“Naturally the screenings and the follow-up discussions are the most important thing for us. But we also organise some other events for people who don’t want to watch five or six films a day. So we also organise readings by Czech poets and writers. We have theatrical productions and we even have a music programme comprising two concerts each evening.”

Although its rise has been meteoric, the Jihlava festival intends to keep developing rapidly. One new departure this year innovations it is a new Doc-Air online portal, which allows both potential movie distributors and ordinary film fans to download documentaries shown at Jihlava from the Internet.

Such innovations seem set to ensure that the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival will keep going from strength to strength.

Nevertheless, Andrea Slováková says the event will never lose its relaxed, informal attitude thanks in part to the special atmosphere generated by this small town in the Bohemian highlands:

“The festival is connected with the town since its beginning so it belongs here. We think it’s much better to have festivals in smaller towns because when the audience comes here they are here just for the festival. They really live with the festival from morning to night. And the atmosphere is very intense. People are still talking about movies and they get to meet the directors here. There is no division of festival guests on one side and audiences on the other. They still mix together here. This is very important for us.”

If you are interested in finding out more about the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival and related subjects, check out the following websites:

Jihlava film festival: www.dokument-festival.cz

Doc-Air portal: www.doc-air.com

Sundance Film Festival documentary programme: www.sundance.org/documentary