Unique film project based on private archives

Jan Šikl with the Kristian Award, photo: CTK

“Each of our lives can be unique, if we decide to live it in a unique way. Private films testify to the unique intensity of every moment of our lives. They capture private stories from our shared history.” This is the motto of an acclaimed cycle of documentaries by Jan Šikl entitled Soukromé století or Private century. The eight films in the series are based solely on private family archives, and their stories draw upon the memories of contemporaries and relatives.

Jan Šikl with the Kristian Award,  photo: CTK
Private century was made between 2002 and 2006, and garnered numerous prizes at film festivals here and abroad, including two Best Czech Film Awards. I met Jan Šikl in his edit suite in Prague’s Vinohrady district to talk about his unique project and its beginnings.

“It all started at the close of the 1980s, when my friend, documentary filmmaker Peter Forgacs asked me to find some archive footage from Czechoslovakia that he needed for his film. He told me I should start collecting archive material, because no one else did it in this country. At that time I thought collecting archive footage was not the right way to make documentaries.”

Nevertheless, in 1992 Jan Šikl established a Private Film History Archive featuring a growing collection of amateur family films. Over the years, he managed to amass a great amount of archive material, dating back to the 1920s.

“Czechoslovakia was a rich country between the wars, and there were many people from the middle classes who could afford to make films. There was a tradition dating back to the First Republic, which continued even after the war. So amateur filmmakers managed to map the history of this country from the 1920s until the end of the 1980s, when video appeared.”

This period was a time of historical upheaval that inevitably affected people's private lives, creating stories that often seem like a script for a Hollywood movie. The Second World War, the expulsion of Sudeten Germans, communist prisons, all that is somehow reflected in the stories of the Private Century cycle.

Private century
“Karel Seisser spent a good part of his life at Velichovky. But in the end his wife proved right when she said: None can escape their fate…”

The clash between great historical events and personal histories is most apparent in the very first film of the cycle, King of Velichovky. It is the story of Karel Seisser, a farmer living a happy and relatively problem-free life with his wife and three daughters on the Czech-German border. After the end of the war, however, most of the family, including Karel Seisser and his wife, are expelled, disappearing forever from the picture.

Unlike official films, private archives feel much more authentic, providing a unique chance to see what people really lived like. This was the reason why Jan Šikl eventually agreed to make the documentaries, when he was approached by Czech Television a few years ago:

“Private films are very authentic, because they were not commissioned. They are absolutely spontaneous. Those who made the films didn’t know that they might be released one day. There are moments, that don’t seem important, but they are charged with emotions. For example when someone who is filmed looks into the camera, but he is in fact looking at the person who is behind the camera, and you can see there is a bond between the two people.”

Private century
To maintain the authenticity of the private footage, Šikl approached the material with great respect, trying to suppress his presence in the film as much as possible. The only exception is the commentary, where you can actually hear his own voice or the voice of his editor, whenever he needed a female narrator. To write the commentary, he would spend 20 to 30 hours talking to the relatives of the “actors”:

“I have to concentrate their testimony into an hour long commentary and I always use their own words. But I cannot use their authentic voice, because they are too involved in the story. I decided to read the commentary myself, because I felt I had become a part of this story, as if I was bringing the testimony. I think the tutored voice of a professional actor would destroy this authenticity.”

My dear sweat Májenka, I am so immensely proud of you, you are a wonderful woman, my ideal. You are sweet, magical, and beloved. I think our love must begin with a big L. It is so amazing. With this feeling in our souls, we’ll always be the wealthiest couple in the world. I love you so much, Your Pupa.

One of the most powerful stories is called “With love and kisses”, a story of a young couple from South Bohemia, who owned a private photography studio. Their fate was also affected by political change, when the communists nationalized their studio and the man was sent to jail. Much of the commentary consists of love letters he sent to his wife from prison.

The individual films in the series are 52 minutes long. To make the film, Jan Šikl needs at least two or three hours of unedited material:

Private century
“Sometimes we had up to ten or fifteen hours of footage, which was amazing, because we could actually approach the footage as if it was a feature film. You could see how the different takes were connected. When someone looks somewhere, you can also see what he sees. If it was made by someone who knew how to work with a camera, it was amazing material to work with.”

Around 80 percent of all the archive material is useless from a filmmaker’s point of view, as people tend to shoot the same things, such as little children, birthday celebrations or family trips, says Šikl. This, however, is not what he is looking for:

“What I am looking for is a rich description of the family life: the place where they lived and worked, their friends or the city. Only then can you get a full picture of the era. Rarely, people would capture big historical events, such as the arrival of the German Army in Czechoslovakia, capturing the tension between people’s private life and history. That, I think, is one of the most powerful moments of these films.”

To this day, Jan Šikl has gathered about 600 stories in his archive. Most of them are not sufficient to make a feature-length documentary, but there are still a few that could be used for a future episode of the series Private Century.