Tramping to freedom

'Amerika', photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

A new Czech documentary called Amerika, which has recently premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Festival, explores the unique Czech pastime known as tramping, inspired in part by the vision of the American Wild West. But instead of providing a detailed description of the movement, the film takes its viewers on a journey through the Czech countryside, giving them an opportunity to experience the emotions one feels when wandering through the landscape. We have more in this week’s edition of In Focus.

Barbara Adler, Jan Foukal, photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary
Music composed by Jan Foukal, director of the film Amerika, underlines the introspective mood of this staged documentary, which defies any easy genre classification. The director steps out in front of the camera, and together with a Czech-Canadian student Barbara sets out on a journey through the Czech countryside, meeting people who have escaped the hustle and bustle of modern life in order to find their own freedom.

When I met with Jan Foukal and Barbara Adler after the premiere of Amerika in Karlovy Vary last week, I first asked Jan how he got interested in tramping:

Jan: “My personal motivation was music, which belongs to tramping. So the basic motivation was to explore the phenomenon and the next step was to find the way how to do that.

Have you two met before you got the idea to make the documentary? And what was your motivation, Barbara, to take part in the film?

Barbara: “I am a student in Canada, and as part of my studies I was researching tramping last summer here in the Czech Republic. I was trying to find tramps and interesting parts of their culture for my research and I was having a hard time finding things that really interested me.

“I ended up at one of the Potlach event. There were only older tramps and the one guy who was younger than say fifty, was Honza and I was probably the only woman there who was also under fifty.

“I wanted to make a movie where you can feel on your own what tramping is about.”

“So we caught each other’s eye and started talking and because we are both musicians we got along pretty well and from that accident I think it is how eventually my being in the film came about. So it is really this very lucky accident.”

How did you actually come up with the form? Because it is not a traditional documentary: as well as being a director you also stand in front of a camera, but not as yourself, but rather as an actor…

Jan: “I wanted to make a film about the phenomenon of tramping without having only talking heads describing the movement. I wanted to make a movie where you can feel on your own what tramping is about. So it is as if you go to the forest yourself, you are basically following me and Barbara on the trip.

“I also tried to use all the definitions of tramping as a form of the movie. For instance, it is very common in tramping that if you meet someone new, you follow them, even though you have never met before.

“For me, the movie is like an organic montage of pictures. It doesn’t have the same style and it develops in different directions. And the most important thing for me is the element of game. In tramping, everyone is acting: once they are in a forest, they assume a new identity. They have their roles, their nicknames and they form new relationships.

“So I tried to put all these aspects of tramping into the film and I hope it conveys a true impression.”

'Amerika', photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary
Barbara, you say at the beginning of the film that when you came here to the Czech Republic, you felt like a tourist everywhere you went. And it was only through the experience with tramps that you felt something real. So what did you find so interesting about the tramping phenomenon?

Barbara: “I think for me it is sort of connected to what Honza was saying about this game that tramps are playing, where you can use your imagination and your friendships to create a new persona or identity. So you can be completely yourself in the forest but also someone a little bit different, because you are experiencing this fantasy, no matter whether it is Wild West or the Dream America.

“This experience that I found here in the Czech Republic, is something I haven’t experienced at home in Canada and it is something you would never know as a tourist or a visitor, unless you are lucky enough to meet some Czech people who take you into the forest. So this opportunity to dream or to play the game was really what I was looking for.”

How close is this imaginative America to the real America that you live in?

Barbara: “Oh, it’s totally different, of course. It’s really funny for me in the film to watch everybody talking about this America, because for me living in Canada, America and what it represents is actually what I would want to escape, this kind of strong culture that is dominating everywhere else.

“So I would say the only version of America that I really like is this kind of Czech America, or this sort of fantasy of escape, that seems more about Czech forests and Czech people, singing together and having friendships, which is happening here in a really special way.”

“I would say the only version of America that I really like is this kind of Czech America, or this sort of fantasy of escape, that seems more about Czech forests and Czech people, singing together and having friendships.”

One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when the tramps are meeting in the middle of a forest at night, singing a famous tramping song, something like a tramping anthem, and the people all seem to be in their fifties and sixties. Would you say that this phenomenon is still alive or is it gradually dying out?

Jan: “I think it is slowly dying out, definitely. We have been shooting in autumn, so the atmosphere somehow belongs to it. But I think we also tried to find a new point of view, how you can feel the relation to nature in a new way.

Barbara: Could I add to that? Because I agree that maybe tramping is dying out but I think there is and there will always be the same hunger to find escape with your friends and doing it through your imagination is this kind of cheap way that anybody can use.

“When I tell people about the tramping phenomenon in the Czech Republic they are so excited and they instantly understand that it is important to go to into the woods for a weekend and to find some kind of an escape. So I think that even the old ways are dying, maybe something that we found in the film is that there is always a huge potential to find something new.”

I think the theme really resonates with Czech viewers, because people of my generation and older have had some experience with tramping, but have you had any feedback from foreign viewers, because, as you said, for them it’s a completely unknown phenomenon...

Barbara: “There was a woman from the Egyptian press and actually she could relate to this as well because being from Egypt, they have similar experience with an oppressive governmental structure and they are dreaming of somewhere else.

“So she has her own dreams of America that are expressed completely differently than here, but could again relate to that idea of dreaming of somewhere else.

Jan Foukal, photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary
“So I think what is nice about the film is that it’s quite open. That you could take the specific culture of Czech tramping as the material tramping but the idea is much bigger. It’s the bigger idea of finding freedom through these little escapes with your friends.”

How important is it for you to have the film included in the competition of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival?

Jan: “I have enjoyed the whole process, including HBO television production, cooperation with Barbara as an artist, as well as with the rest of the team. I am glad that it is in Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic, because it somehow belongs to this country.

“And I also enjoyed our party yesterday. It was raining and I had a feeling that the film was somehow baptised by the rain, so yes, I like it.”