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Festival Focus: Jihlava International Festival of Documentary Films

By Gabriel Paletz

Reports of a film festival can lapse into a list of titles. For the Jihlava (Czech Republic) International Festival of Documentary Films (, which ran from October 24 to 29, 2006, a few snippets may give the flavor of the event:

*A festival press release stating that one screening "was accompanied by a short discussion with the authors, and by a competition for a DVD containing the film, on which [sic] the audience participated much more than on the discussion."

*Mária Ferenčuhová of the Slovak national film school summarizing the prospects for nonfiction movies in her land as "not desperate."

*Paper bags on movable walls functioning as mailboxes for the festival's 300 guests, turning the top floor of the "House of Culture," the main venue, into a conceptual art piece.

* Sari Volanen of the Finland-based television outlet YLE Teema asking the filmmakers pitching Czech RAPublic, a project on Czech rappers, "What is the angle that would get my interest as a Finn?"

*Nonagenarian Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira receiving the festival's Lifetime Achievement Award, and pocketing his bottle of regional plum brandy onstage.

In its tenth year, the festival remains predominantly Czech and notably young in terms of its organizers and audience. Moviegoers of undergraduate age camp out at the festival, live off of food stands and enjoy house beats inside the House of Culture. The ensuing atmosphere is apt for Jihlava, which was founded by local high school students, some of whom went on to attend the national film school FAMU, while expanding their hometown festival in eastern Bohemia.

Like other innovative events, Jihlava grew out of the Velvet Revolution, and the necessity and opportunity to restructure Czech culture. According to director Marek Hovorka, the festival sprang from his and his high school classmates' desire to bring interesting speakers to their provincial city. One of the guests was Czech documentarian Eva Hermanová, whom Hovorka invited, with other directors, to select the best Czech documentary films. Their choices made up the first Jihlava program in 1997.

The festival has since grown into the largest documentary event in Central Europe, showcasing new Czech talent in its Czech Joy section, films from Central Europe in its Between the Seas competition, and both familiar and obscure work in its world documentary category, Opus Bonum.

The festival focuses on the documentary industry and its audience. For the industry, the festival collaborated with the Czech organization the International Documentary Forum to create the East European Forum in 2001. The Forum now includes regional panels, instruction on how to present unfinished movies for co-production funding, and a day of project pitching to commissioning editors from the European Union. The panels brought cautious optimism, from the Slovak "not desperate" to fresh possibilities from the new Polish Film Institute. The pitching session included excerpts of works-in-progress, such as a running marathon for waiters from Czech filmmaker Jana Boková's Waiting in Buenos Aires, made in her adopted homeland of Argentina.

In 2004, Jihlava organizers initiated the East Silver Film Market, a videotheque of Central European films for buyers, distributors and programmers. East Silver, held in the House of Culture, offers guests a DVD library with screening tables. While the East European Forum and East Silver sustain the industry, audience involvement is nourished by having citizens of Jihlava on the Czech Joy jury, and by the support of Czech Television, which has been the main media sponsor of the event from its second year. As with other Czech festivals, Jihlava tries to remedy the isolation of filmmakers and the public's lack of access to new works.

Particular Czech works exemplified successful co-productions in both concept and execution. Martin Ryšavý's Who Will Teach Me the Half of the Character covered the filmmaker's three-month stay in Vietnam, while avoiding the conventions of a first-person travelogue. Ryšavý interviews Vietnamese who studied in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. They speak Czech, drink Czech beer and sing Czech folk songs, giving original luster to the filmmaker's home culture in his foreign travels.

The opposite of a successful encounter between cultures, the short All Day Together won the prize in the Between the Seas competition. The film embodies the obstacles and flexibility of documentary production by portraying a two-man Polish crew who travel to Japan, but get nowhere pursuing the energetic Mrs. Otake. As Mrs. Otake performs her responsibilities outside the house, and her "private time" for filming evaporates, the director and cameraman lapse into Slavic torpor. But in documenting their disappointments, they salvage a droll film from the ashes of their original idea.

Against the general tenor of co-production, certain movies were resolutely national. Just the title of the two-and-a-half hour Czech film Záviš--The Prince of PornMusic under the Influence of Griffith's ‘Intolerance' [sic] gives one pause. The engaging picture continues veteran Czech filmmaker Karel Vachek's epic explorations of national life, as it weighs a conceptual artist's non-stop dialogue with his exhibition pieces and roaming reflections on Czech society.

At Jihlava, The Prince of PornMusic won the same full, rapt audience as Ivana Miloševičová's Never Been Better, with its amateur hallmarks of uncertain hand-held camerawork and automatic exposure. The picture follows the director on a road trip back to her native Serbia to commemorate the massacres of the Balkan War. In a complete contrast of tone, the winning film in the Opus Bonum section, Nedžad Begović's Totally Personal, presented a playful, digressive first-person account of Yugoslav history.

While refreshing the memories of recent bleak times, the festival brought its audiences up to date with world fare through screenings of John and Jane, Thin, Elegy of Life and An Inconvenient Truth, the last of which opened the festival. Jihlava furthered its international connections by inviting Sean Farnel, director of programming for Toronto's Hot Docs, to vet films for his upcoming Spotlight on Central and Eastern Europe program in Toronto.

As Farnel's presence indicated, the festival has increasingly established itself while still seeking stability on native grounds. Jihlava's mayor, Vladimír Hink, writes in the catalogue of how "the path to implementing change" in the city's Dukla Cinema, one of the festival's venues, "is obstructed by an unbelievable number of obstacles." One hopes that the youthful virtues of ambition and energy will help Jihlava maintain a plank on the bridge of documentary across Central Europe.

The festival mixed signs of the past, in simultaneous translations, and redecorations of communist-era buildings, with the palpable desire to keep the Iron Curtain parted through the range and reach of documentary films. Farnel ascribes the current appeal of nonfiction pictures to their ability to generate fresh facts, characters and cinematic styles. The ongoing debate around what makes a nonfiction movie produces "a constant auditing" that renews the movement. The youth tramping to Jihlava reflected the film form most capable of regeneration.


Gabriel M. Paletz is the professor of documentary and screenwriting at the PCFE Film School in Prague.