Pan-Cultural Film Festival, Part 2
By Flora Moon
For one week in February of this year, nearly 1.700 Houstonians and visitors were treated to the First Houston Pan-Cultural Film Festival. sponsored by Ancestral Films, a nonprofit arts organization whose mission is to increase cross-cultural interaction and social awareness through the medium of film. ID's Flora Moon attended the festival and spoke with several key participants. Following are excerpts from her interviews with Ancestral Films Executive Director Mohammed Kamara and documentary filmmaker Vojtech Jasny (Why Havel?), in the interviewees' own words. Moon's talk with documentary filmmaker Nancy Tong (In the Name of the Emperor) appeared in the June 1996 issue of ID.
Mohammed Kamara, founder and executive director of Ancestral Films, grew up in a small village in West Africa. After studying at Temple University, Kamara joined the Peace Corps, through which he produced educational films in Gambia, West Africa. To find out more about Ancestral Films and the next Pan-Cultural Film Festival which will highlight Latin American cinema, call (713) 527-9548.
I think things went very well. It could have been smoother, but considering this was the first time and that no one on the staff which was an entirely Mohammed Kamara volunteer staff—had any experience with running a festival, I think things went well. [Canadian producer] Rock Demers, who started out with cine clubs and then was the first director of the Montreal Film Festival, said, "For a first timer, this was really excellent."
Our festival is specifically designed for people who want to travel, not by a car, not by a plane, not by a train, but by sound and picture on the screen and see how other people live, how they express themselves, how they feel about themselves. The artists [in the festival] represent voices of their particular communities. Take, for instance, Ousmane Sembene, a revolutionary artist who has been making films since the 1960s. All of his films are about colonialism and neocolonialism. In the the history of Africa, a lot of things have happened that are not in textbooks, and these are the things that Sembene is concentrating on before they fade away. He comes over here and talks about his films among people who have no idea how native Africans live except for the films they've seen from a European point of view. People of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds sitting in a community auditorium shoulder to shoulder—I think there is something special about that. Money can not purchase that experience and exchange.
People who normally would not attend mainstream events, such as the American Indian community—there's an American Indian reservation right outside of Houston, the Alabama-Coushatta—some of those people came. One of the purposes of the festival was to bring people of various communities to sit together and talk and address cultural issues as well as filmmaking techniques. Another purpose was getting to meet the fIlmmakers. One of my volunteers said she always thought film was an elite art, but after this festival she realized that film is accessible to everyone.
Ancestral Films and the Pan Cultural Film Festival have a lot of potential. Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, with the [highest number of] foreign consulates—we have over 50. We can exploit that to our advantage and bring people together. Houston is also one of those cities where we have cultural differences, social differences, but people do not carry those things written on their foreheads. In Houston, I've found, people are real. We can get along here. We have our problems, but we are not like other cities and that is what I like about it. If people can work with us, help us, give us some more ideas about how to make this festival a major event within the city of Houston, that will be more gratifying than anything for me. This organization and the Pan-Cultural Film Festival have a mission: to bring people together and talk about our cultural differences and similarities and make things a lot better for the future of our children. We cannot compromise that.
Vojtech Jasny is compact and intense, looking a great deal younger than his 70 years. He comes equipped with a 35mm camera, ready to capture scenes played out before him in this, his theater of life. When invited to bring films to the First Houston Pan-Cultural Film Festival he chose to screen a feature, All My Good Countrymen, which was strongly influenced by his experience as a documentary filmmaker, and a documentary, Why Havel?, an intimate Look at the dissident playwright who became the first freely elected president of Czechoslovakia. Jasny, who left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968, is a professor at Columbia University in New York City.
I came to filmmaking from photography. During the war [World War II], I played violin as a boy, and then I received a photo camera . As Germans in Auschwitz killed my father, I never touch violins anymore, but cameras stayed with me. I express my silence with my camera. After the war, I studied at the Prague Film Academy. All what I wanted to do first we're documentaries, shoot real life.
"Live with people," I tell my students. "Make stories about them because they are real." I was very influenced by Neorealism in Italy and by Russians like Eisenstein, Bilofsky, and lot of documentary filmmakers. I knew Joris Ivens. My great example whom I studied a lot was Roman Carmen, who shot with Joris Ivens in the Spanish Civil War; he was a Soviet documentary director. He was always with his Bell and Howell, like a child, in his hands. In 1963 I was with my film That Cat at Cannes and on the Croisette I met Luis Bunuel. He had three photo cameras around his neck—he was at this time 63-and he said, "You are a young filmmaker and have no camera on you." Now I've got one always.
Later I was making a lot of work for German tv-features, sometimes two films a year. I bought a Bolex and started to shoot a kind of confession or meditation, just silently, about life. I did it about two years. It became the film Trees, Birds, and Humans, about parallel worlds. It has a universal quality.
After making documentaries on conductor Herbert von Karajan, director Milos Forman, and the making of Forman's feature Valmont, then came a very important film nominated for an Oscar. Czech Rhapsody—which I made before I immigrated—was a 20-minute film about the country occupied by the Soviet Army in 1968. It is a poem, and this film I wrote very precisely. It's a mixture of direct cinema and prepared shots with students and farmers.
As Fellini did with Clowns—which I love so much—I come back to this [nonfiction] filmmaking. Any free time in the last four years, because of Hi8, I have been filming Gladys, who's now 101 years old. She's spiritual; she has a connection with her husband, who died in 1955. I've been filming her story and the story of New York. I will mix both into a two-hour film. More and more I feel that the best scenes are in direct cinema. They are given to you.
Now I tried to explain to those kids at Columbia University and at New York University that they have to make documentaries too, parallel to fiction. Only by learning life can you learn [to make] fiction. I don't believe the Hollywood style, in which people invent stories and don 't know. They see sex and violence are selling, so they make it and sell it without thinking. What I am trying to tell kids is that we have to find in ourselves the truth. I am for "from life and for life." I am not a Tarantino fan. Tarantino tarantula.
After the revolution of 1989, I thought, "Good, I will make a film opera about the revol u tion of young people." We came to Prague, and I met Havel and other people. I had a very skilled feature cameraman, young, very good with hand-held camera, but not with documentary. Havel started to go for surprise visits in different offices. The first shooting day, I didn't tell my cameraman what to do really, because I wanted to test him. He ran after Havel, as everybody did, and he came to me and said, "Vojtech, it's humiliating, I will not do it, I refuse to continue, I came here to make a beautiful film with you." I said, "We will make all those beautiful things, Sylvan, now don't be angry. Stop running and climb on this crane"—there was a building crane—"and I have found there a shot. Havel will come in 15 minutes out of the house, you will be here waiting for him like a hunter for the deer, and he will come and you will get him in closeup."
After that, he understood that we have to be there first, and it's easy. One day we were in the theater for the premiere of a [previously banned] play, Beggar's Opera, and Havel came. He likes to surprise people. He disappeared and everybody told me, "Let's go home." I said, "No, we stay here in the hall, he will come back." Then people with glasses for champagne started to come, and those security men of Havel's, and then all the actors, and then there was a party, and Havel came back. We filmed it, it was beautiful. And how did I know? I knew the head man of security for Havel—he was always sitting there. We just looked at each other, smiled, and that was the clue.
I took Milos [Forman] because he was close to Havel. He would only tell things to Milos and nobody else probably. You must have a long connection to somebody [to have intimate access]. And then it's instinct. We were shooting at the White House, and every camera was put behind the fence and there was nothing you could shoot well. I had my Minolta over my neck and I had journalist papers from Czechoslovakia. I saw the head security men of both governments and others in one row before President Bush and Havel came, so I just came there like I would be one of the [reporters] and took the position. Now [my cameraman] Don Lenzer was behind the fence. He's a very sensitive man, so I just looked at him. He caught my face and I showed him that we'd exchange positions. He came with his camera and stood there instead of me, and we came up with the best shot. This is instinct. Always be there before it starts. That's why I like documentaries; it's a challenge.
I have to tell you a sad thing. Why Havel? is not shown in my country. Havel liked this film, but there are things he's uncomfortable with. There are things that are too much truth. And he was not lying. But in the world this film is loved and has humor. It is because of this euphoria they won't show that he's a chain smoker. They won't show that he likes to drink. They won't show that he likes girls. This is the problem. And Havel was not enough strong to say, "Show this film, that's it." He let happen what happened. Then he stopped answering my letters. I stopped writing him. That's it.
It doesn't matter that he did a great job, especially in those years. And what is the great idea of Civic Forum? That people of good spirit are all together, with no party. It was Prague Spring when under the Communist system we stopped the tanks, and Havel did it again with Civic Forum, [with the idea that] people will work together without worrying about who they are politically. It worked for a short time. He could not show this film because the opposition would misuse this film against him. I can not attack Havel that he's guilty or he discriminated. I have to take it as reality.
Flora Moon, a former member of the IDA Board of Directors, is a documentary and new media director; executive producer; and writer based in Houston. She is currently exploring the use of the Internet for Documentary filmmaking.