Prague-based documentary-maker Keith Jones

Keith Jones

My guest for One on One this week is Keith Jones, whom some of you may have heard on Radio Prague once or twice in his capacity as Programme Director of Prague's popular Music on Film, Film on Music festival. Besides his involvement with this annual showcase of music documentaries, Keith Jones is also a documentary-maker in his own right and has worked on acclaimed films such as Fighter, a poignant award-winning study of two elderly Czech Jews sharing their experiences of World War II and the Holocaust.

His latest film Durban Poison follows the efforts of a handful of artists trying to re-establish South Africa's first-ever black theatre against the murky backdrop of local politics in that country. Originally a native of Washington DC, he has lived in Prague since 1991 when he came to the Czech capital to study at the acclaimed FAMU film school. I started by asking him why he chose to come to this part of the world.

"I came here because I had been recommended to do so by one of my most influential and favourite teachers at university, who was a Czech émigré novelist and professor of literature. When I first encountered him, he already seemed interesting and notable as a person. He was a larger-than-life figure with amazing presence and great anecdotes and stories. And he was a good teacher, but in the fall semester of 1989, which was my first year at university, he somehow became distracted about halfway through the course and started to change his image and to become more presentable and aware rather than this sort of dirty old man but who was a lovable character at the same time. This developed to such a point that one day he emerged before the class wearing a suit and tie and announced to the class that he had to go back to his mysterious country of origin, where seeming a revolution had taken place and his very good friend had become president.

And so after this I think that everyone in that class realised that this guy who had been cool and interesting before was actually this amazing resource and someone who should be taken with much more seriousness and was someone whom we could probably learn a great deal from not just about things connected with European literature. So this professor, Arnost Lustig, who is one of the leading Czech novelists of his generation, then became a kind of mentor for me. Even though I had no family connection or prior roots in the Czech Republic, it became a place that I actually learned quite a lot about and became immersed in the culture of even before I eventually visited here through his influence."

You actually studied documentary film at FAMU. Do you buy into the idea that documentary filmmaking has a long and continuous tradition in this country, and that the baton has now been picked up by young filmmakers such as Vit Klusak and Filip Remunda who directed the acclaimed Czech Dream, which takes a scathing look at the growth of consumerism in this country or Linda Jablonska's equally well received Left, Right, Forward, which studies Czech political youth movements?

"I think very much that there is a tradition of Czech documentary and the documentary department at FAMU really teaches that and schools you in the fact that you are part of a longstanding tradition and that there are streams within Czech documentary that go back decades. But what you are talking about and pointing out is that in recent years there's been a wave of very interesting documentaries that have broken out of the traditional television ghetto of documentary filmmaking and are not just essayistic or journalistic approaches to filmmaking, but are extremely creative and have gotten into mainstream distribution in cinemas even internationally."

Speaking of mainstream documentaries, one of the first films you were involved in was the hugely popular Fighter, which was meant to be a reflection on the Second World War experiences of former Czech RAF fighter Jan Wiener and the writer Arnost Lustig, but which quickly became a study of the often torrid and prickly relationship between these two men, whose common experiences were overshadowed by their personal differences. How did you get involved in this film?

"I got involved with that because the director of the film Amir-Bar Lev was someone whom I had met previously - we had mutual friends in common. He brought me in as a consultant to sort of advise him on how to combine Wiener's story with some other angle that would make it more attractive and livelier. And we sort of collectively agreed to bring in Arnost Lustig knowing that he would be provocative and a little bit problematic and would cause Wiener to re-evaluate certain moments in his own personal narrative. We thought that we could partially control that and streamline that process into a certain way of telling the story with different points of view added to it.

But of course, as you pointed out, the relationship went out of control and became very tempestuous. The relationship between the two guys in the present tense soon overpowered and went far beyond talking about what had happened to them during the Second World War and the Nazi holocaust. In this sense, the film became much more an examination of historical memory and its impact on the psychology of individuals. Because it was unique in that regard, the film went on to garner a lot of praise and got several awards at different festivals. It became a film for which everyone who worked on it got a certain level of credit internationally, which allowed us to go on to do other projects."

Your latest film Durban Poison looks at the often corrupt world of art and local politics in contemporary South Africa and it's being hailed as the first-ever Czech-South African co-production. That's a rather strange-sounding collaboration...

"I think that's a common response from many people. When they hear it's a Czech-South-African co-production it causes people's eyebrows to raise slightly. It is a bit strange and it's a path that people haven't travelled before. But I think there are actually very strong connections between the historical situation of those two countries and I think that they have more in common and an easier ability to communicate than they realise."

I'm curious when you say that they are two societies that have a lot of connections. What exactly do you mean by that. Where would you see the affinity between South African and Czech society?

"The society of Czechoslovakia as an independent state and the Union of South Africa - the first unified South African state - more or less came into being at the same time. They came into being as a result of the turmoil around the First World War and the geopolitical situation of that era. And they were both in a way an odd early example of post-colonialism. The Czech Lands had definitely been economically and psychologically colonised by the Austrian empire - in a different sense than Africa was perhaps but I think in terms of the impression it left on people's attitudes and social structures, it can be measured in a similar way.

Then after the end of the Second World War, again there was a strong parallel between the historical situations of the two countries. Both of them had a quasi-democratic attempt to create an open society after WWII, but both countries slid into dictatorship, again at the same time in the year 1948. And they more or less emerged out form that shadow of dictatorship at the same time as well with the collapse of communism here and of the apartheid system in South Africa at the end of the 1980s.

Because that period of time spanned two generations in both cases, the issues of working through the transition and moving away from dictatorship to a free and open society have had very similar problems, especially as regards the generation gap in society and how people who came of age in the 1980s are very different, for example, to those who came of age in the 1960s in both societies. So I would say that the connections are historical and psychological and have been influenced by the same broader currents in world history."

Besides promoting Durban Poison and getting ready for this year's MOFFOM in October, have you got anything else in the pipeline?

"Right now, I'm working on putting together a DVD series for the Czech underground band the Plastic People of the Universe. Hopefully the proposal is to do three DVDs over a period of several years, which really map out and chart the entire history of the band by presenting rare archival materials, legendary concerts and so on. The aim is to provide a history of the band, not necessarily through a documentary film per se, but through the broader platform of a series of DVDs."