Pavla Fleischer - a life in film touched by tragedy

Pavla Fleischer, photo: www.pavlafleischer.com

Pavla Fleischer is a young documentary maker who was born here in Prague but has been living in London half her life. Her best known project is the award-winning film Blues on the Beach: it was originally intended to show life could be normal in Israel, but that all changed when a bomb ripped through the bar where she was filming, killing three. When I spoke to Pavla Fleischer at Prague's Café Slavia, she first told me a bit about her father Jan, a director and screenwriter who now teaches in the UK.

"Before we were, here during the communist period. My father was, as far as I can remember, he was kicked out of the Barrandov Studios for political reasons. He's done various films, I mean, five or six films were actually realized, he's written scripts - Tim padem [Therefore], Pavilon seliem [The Pavilion of Wild Cats], Stek [The Bit Part], I can't remember them all.

"He wanted to move outside of the Czech Republic, it just never was easy. When he was offered a job, he didn't want to bring the whole family to another country and risk that they would not be able to get a good education, and so on."

And when you were a kid I guess filmmaking was all around you?

"Yeah, as children we would be taken to film sets. I started as an extra, as a child blowing bubbles in Katapult, I think, with Jirka [Jiri] Bartoska, who I loved very much. And there were all these parties in our house, wrap parties, and actors, actresses, directors and filmmakers, in general. So yeah, it was normal."

And at the age of 14 I think it was, you went to England. Was that a bit of a shock to you, in your teens, moving to another country with another language?

Blues by the Beach, photo: www.pavlafleischer.com
"It was, it was. I was really looking forward to it. I didn't have any problems about leaving Czechoslovakia - what was then Czechoslovakia - but I did not expect, I don't really think forward, so I didn't expect it to be so hard. And I didn't speak any English when I moved to England, and I did not have to the chance to receive any special lessons. I was, as you say, thrown into the deep end and had to swim.

"At the age of fourteen, when you have all sorts of other problems of growing up, it's difficult to have the extra problem of communication to deal with, but it worked out in the end."

And you are Pavla Fleischer, not Fleischerova, why is that?

"I have two passports: one says Pavla Fleischerova, the Czech one, and English one, Pavla Fleischer. I don't know how it came about; I don't know whether it's legal even (laughs). But it's just too long and it's difficult for the English to pronounce, so I would always say Fleischer and also they don't have the '-ova' (laughs), so it's just easier."

Pied Piper of Hutzovina, photo: www.pavlafleischer.com
Now, you're a filmmaker yourself and a couple of your films focus on music. You made one film where you filmed the Czech gypsy band, Bengas, and your most recent project is called the Pied Piper of Hutzovina, and it's about the charismatic leader of the Ukrainian band Gogol Bordello, called Eugene Hutz. What attracted you to those stories, to those people?

"First of all, Bengas - I didn't make a documentary about them, I just did a photo shoot of them, like a photo-documentary. I've always loved gypsy music. I've always loved music in general, but gypsy music I grew up with, because my mom would get drunk at parties over the weekends at our country house on weekends and she would sing gypsy songs, so I have this connection to it. It's music that people respond to, that people love.

"With Eugene, I was interested in him because he had a vast knowledge of gypsy music. He introduced me to the gypsy music of Russia and Ukraine, and it was such a wonderful world that I fell in love with not just that world, but Eugene as well. So I decided to make a film about him."

You also made an award-winning film called Blues by the Beach in which you went to Tel Aviv to make a film about a bar on the beach in Tel Aviv to show that life could be normal in Israel...but that didn't happen. Tell us please about that experience.

Pied Piper of Hutzovina, photo: www.pavlafleischer.com
"Yes, I went to Israel to follow my then boyfriend and together we were commissioned to make a film about a small bar on the beachfront of Tel Aviv, Mike's Place. Two weeks into the filming I was there with a camera when a bomb exploded in the bar, so obviously the whole intention of making a film about the happy side of Israel went in a different direction and yeah...it's been quite an experience."

Tell us about the bombing: if people were killed, how close were you yourself to danger?

"We, me and Joshua, were standing about six meters away from where the bomb exploded. We were standing by the stage, where the musicians were singing and the bomb exploded just outside of the bar. Three people were killed, one of whom was the chief protagonist in the film, Dominique, and two other musicians died in the explosion."

And also you yourself became the focus of perhaps even world media attention when that happened because of this unusual story. What was that experience like?

"It's the last thing you think about - yourself - when something like that happens. Obviously the media immediately became interested in us as well as the film we were making. It wasn't an easy experience and I still find it very difficult to talk about it.

"I've had a lot of difficulty, even in the production of the film, because in my experience, a thing like that can affect on a physical level but it also definitely affects you on an emotional level. It's actually a film that I prefer to forget, in a way."

What are you working on now? What's next for you, or even where do you see yourself being in a couple of years' time? I know at the moment you're swinging between Prague and London.

"I am at the moment trying to catch up on what I missed, which is film training. So I am applying to the National Film and Television School in England, hoping to get in.

"I'm also preparing another feature documentary which is set in Pulia, in Southern Italy, and has the soundtrack of traditional music of that region. And at the same time, I'm still also representing a company that does commercials... that's my bread and butter."