Jihlava Film Festival at 25: A Conversation with Director Marek Hovorka
By Sevara Pan
Conceived by a group of high school students in 1997, the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival (Ji.hlava IDFF) marks its 25th anniversary this year, having emerged as Czech Republic’s most important documentary film festival and one of the largest such events in Central and Eastern Europe. Committed to its motto, "Thinking through Film," Jihlava has been championing creative documentary cinema, bringing to audiences some of the best artistic and socially relevant films that both question and reflect on the current state of the world.
Over the past quarter-century, Ji.hlava IDFF has held fast to the advancement of the documentary genre across the European continent. As one of the instigators of Doc Alliance, a “creative partnership” of seven key European film festivals—DOK Leipzig, CPH:DOX, Doclisboa, Visions du Réel, Millennium Docs Against Gravity FF and FIDMarseille—Ji.hlava IDFF has encouraged and supported the diversity of the documentary film through the network’s main project, DAFilms, an online distribution platform for nonfiction and experimental films. Among its numerous initiatives, Jihlava has also been spearheading efforts to monitor underrepresentation and “regional (dis)proportions” in the programming of European film festivals by means of the annual East West Index. This year, Jihlava is launching a new initiative focusing on US documentaries, as part of the New Visions Forum, which has been added to the festival’s industry strand to connect US and European documentary film professionals and encourage co-productions and cooperation between the two continents.
Prior to launching its 25th jubilee edition, which runs through October 31, Documentary spoke with longtime Festival Director Marek Hovorka about Jihlava’s impact in the documentary space as well as the festival’s role in supporting the works of documentarians in Europe and beyond.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: The Ji.hlava festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Can you speak about the festival’s impact in the documentary space over the past two decades?
MAREK HOVORKA: I have to say it’s a privilege to witness this huge change in documentary cinema in the past 25 years. I am happy that Ji.hlava could be part of this change. When I think about the first years—when we had VHS tapes and fax machines—the change has been huge. In 2000, we hosted Richard Leacock, the pioneer of direct cinema and digital cinema, and it was really interesting to see how his passion for the digital camera, and the possibility of shooting anytime and anywhere, was a very provocative idea for most of the filmmakers at the time. And there were very intense discussions between Leacock and other filmmakers during the festival. His position was that he wanted to have a camera as a tool for everybody, just as a pen is; and that there are no other limits to becoming a Shakespeare. We supported his vision. We couldn't imagine how quickly this would happen. Now it has become natural for us to think and reflect on ourselves through audio-visual traces.
What has also changed is how films are distributed and how diverse documentary cinema has become. In Europe, this is related to the fact there is no Cannes Film Festival for documentary films. If you are a fiction filmmaker, there is one place where you want to bring your film, to have it in the main competition there, but this is not true for documentary; there is a big diversity, even within Doc Alliance. We [at Ji.hlava] are very much focused on experimental cinema and films that are dealing with the diversity of the material; DOK Leipzig is much more connected to the European industry; CPH:DOX, to trends in documentary cinema in terms of new technologies; FIDMarseille crosses the border between documentary and fiction. But all these festivals are equal partners, creating space for different types of filmmakers. Now we can see there is a real infrastructure for documentary films; there are festivals like Jihlava, there are human rights festivals and festivals with special programs. That is something that has created many new ways documentary makers can distribute their films.
D: How has Ji.hlava distinguished itself as a documentary film festival and also as one of the key instigators in forming Doc Alliance?
MH: For us, it has always been important to think about our identity in the international context. And this is also the reason we were one of key co-founders of Doc Alliance: we thought, and still think, that it is important not to compete but to share. When the alliance was created, the mood was much more competitive. It is important to create our own identities but respect others as well. Part of this innovative mindset—Jihlava has this in its DNA—is also the founding of a VOD portal, Doc Alliance Films. Fifteen years ago, it was named DOC-AIR, which was founded the same year as YouTube, when nobody was thinking about distributing documentaries online. But we saw a huge potential. After two years, all of us agreed that it made sense to work on this project together because it would help distribute and promote films worldwide, and program selections from diverse perspectives and regions, thereby enriching the quality of VOD. It is now the key documentary VOD [platform] not only in Europe but also worldwide.
I also think that, thanks to DAFilms and its impact, other services were created and the community of documentary makers became more flexible with having their films on the internet—European documentary film festivals could easily switch last year from physical to online editions; the documentary community had experiences with it before and was more open to doing it. Not only Jihlava, of course, but documentary institutions in general—maybe because they are much younger than fiction film institutions—are more innovative as they need to develop their identity in the film industry and film space.
D: The primary objective of Doc Alliance and DAFilms is to advance the documentary genre and promote its diversity. What steps were you able to take as one of the co-founders of the network to achieve that?
MH: This is a question of regional balance and representation in different types of institutions, for example, film festivals. On this issue, we have been producing our East West Index for three years. We have taken 14 European documentary film festivals: eight are from Western Europe, six are from Eastern Europe. And every year, we collect data [on the regional representation] of films they screen. It was interesting to compare the data between 2019 and 2020, the year before and of the pandemic. In general, we can see that there is a huge imbalance between the representation of Western Europe and Eastern Europe in the programs of Western European film festivals but also even in some programs of Eastern European film festivals. When we compare 2019 and 2020, we also can see that the number of films screened at these festivals was decreasing, and in general, there were 22% fewer films screened at European film festivals. But we also see, for example, IDFA [International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam] cut its program almost by half, the same happened to DokuFest in Kosovo. There were only three film festivals out of these 14 that screened more films [in 2020] than in 2019. If we read these numbers through the perspective of regional balance, we see that, of course, those regions that [generally] have less visibility, had even less visibility in 2020, because when the festivals screened fewer films, the ratio between these regions remained more or less the same.
We think that these discussions are crucial. There is no more East and West; there is one Europe, and we need to connect European countries as much as possible to make a step outside of the regions. Through these statistics, we can see that many festivals are locked in their regional borders. And of course, the pandemic has influenced it in a way that regions became more important as festivals went online, which meant they had different types of audiences [to cater to]: not only audiences that attend screenings in cinemas but also audiences nationwide. And bringing films to audiences nationwide means you need films that are close to the viewers. So the regional aspect was growing. And that is something to think about because festivals should not be regional gatekeepers.
Coming back to your question, I think this is something DAFilms is doing. It brings films from different parts of Europe and of the world and are not limited by the number of cinemas or screenings. So during the year, you can see different types of retrospectives, fresh programs representing the variety.
D: Let’s turn back to Ji.hlava. This year, the festival returns to cinemas after the pandemic hiatus. However, Ji.hlava is not giving up the “online potential,” as the festival’s press release says. Can you comment on your decision to keep the online part of the festival? What does a post-pandemic Jihlava look like, going forward?
MH: We definitely want to develop the hybrid identity of the festival in terms of the distribution of films but also in terms of the industry program. Our experience in the 2020 edition showed that there are different audiences out there: there is an audience that wants to attend the festival, it is usually a younger audience in our case; most of the visitors are around 25 to 30 years old. Since we are not located in [Prague], our visitors travel to Jihlava to attend the festival, sleep in hotel rooms, cheap hostels or gyms. They want to spend a couple of days in Jihlava to concentrate on cinema. And it is a really different experience, compared to festivals in capitals, because these festivals are for locals who go watch films after work or school. Our audience is very different. That’s why some call it “the Woodstock of Documentary.”
But through the pandemic and our online edition, we have discovered a new audience, which is an older audience that, due to some work or family commitments, cannot travel to the festival but are interested in watching films that we select. This is why we decided to split the festival. After six days of the physical event, we will have two weeks of an online event. It will play a selection of the festival films and won’t just mirror the festival selection. We have decided to choose, let’s say, one third of the films that we are screening during the physical event and make them accessible to viewers online. We will see how it works this year, but we believe there is a new community that we want to work with. We definitely see this online space as a new territory that has the potential to connect filmmakers and their films with different, new audiences.
According to René Kubášek, Ji.hlava’s international communication specialist, we have had around 40-45,000 viewers at the physical editions, and during the online [edition] we had almost 80,000 viewers.
D: So the online space is not just something you resort to because of the pandemic situation, but you see a lot of potential and opportunity there to expand and find new audiences. And I guess it can also be beneficial to filmmakers who cannot travel to Europe due to various reasons, for example, visa denials or an inability to leave their country of origin, to still connect with their audiences and be part of the industry.
MH: Definitely, you are right. For those filmmakers who cannot attend screenings of their films [in person], we organize live Q&A sessions, which will be streamed in the cinema. For film professionals who cannot attend Ji.hlava industry events, the Pitching Forum or Market, we create a digital bridge that will connect them with those who are at the festival, also for matchmaking. We want to be inclusive and work with all filmmakers and other professionals; that’s the spirit of Ji.hlava and the spirit of documentary filmmaking in general—to be inclusive. That is also the reason we have decided to keep Ji.hlava Academy, our workshop for emerging nonfiction filmmakers, online [this year]. Our main tutor, Khavn, a filmmaker from the Philippines, will hold it for participants coming from different parts of the world. They cannot travel to Jihlava but they can meet in this online space and create films together during the workshop.
D: What role has Ji.hlava played in nurturing the careers of documentary filmmakers?
MH: We see our position as something that creates a safe space for debut directors. Some years ago, I got a survey that showed a very depressing number: up to 70 percent of European directors do not pursue filmmaking after their debut film. This is something we really should work with. We focus on those filmmakers who, from our perspective, are more experimental, risky, trying to discover something new. Sometimes it may be the wrong way, but it is important that they discover it. We never know what their second or third films will be. We really want to create a safe space for these kinds of filmmakers and support them in their vision. In this year’s main competition Opus Bonum [for documentaries from all around the world], half of the films are debuts and one third are directors’ second films.
[Our mission has also been reflected] in the changes we have made in the competition sections and award categories. We have decided, from this year onwards, to not only award films but draw attention to film professionals. In fiction, editors, DPs, sound designers are nominated for national film awards or they receive recognition at fiction film festivals. But usually, this is not the case in the documentary world. So we decided to create one competition out of three and award film professionals for best cinematography, best editing, best sound design, best form. And it is one of Jihlava's missions this year to support these film professionals.
D: This year, you are introducing a new initiative: putting a spotlight on US documentaries. Could you elaborate on the initiative and its goals?
MH: We have been thinking about the initiative for a couple of years. I am happy that it is happening this year for the first time because I really feel the European and US documentary communities are disconnected. We could see it in the number of admissions but also in the quality of projects that were submitted to the program. There is a huge potential for cooperation between US and European directors, producers and other film professionals. There are documentary films coming from the US that are made for the US market, and these films are also usually distributed internationally. However, there are also many films that are more fragile; they don't have a space to be linked to. We want to create a working platform to bring film professionals together. And I really see a huge potential in it because I think it is very tough for US filmmakers to create something that is not related to the US market. This might be a way to support them. Also, if they secure European financing for their films, they would be considered European films. It would be much easier for these films to be part of European festival programs.
Sevara Pan is a Berlin-based journalist and film critic.