The Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia is in its 2nd year, and comes to Sydney for the first time between 4-7 September 2014. I caught up with the Artistic Director, Cerise Howard, to talk about the program, which features retrospectives of the iconic Czech New Wave, the inimitable surrealist Jan Švankmajer and some fascinating new films from the two nations.
First of all, welcome, good to talk to you and congratulations on the film festival coming to Sydney for the first year. What has that experience been like, running them almost concurrently in two cities?
Well, the festival’s only into its second year. Last year it was Melbourne alone, that was quite a handful in its own right. The inaugural edition of any festival is a huge learning curve for all involved, especially for something that’s an entirely volunteer-run passion project, much as it is this year but this year it differs not only in that this is the second city (Sydney), but that another team is involved in running the festival. So there’s a separate team, an organisation called IKSIMA films, running the Sydney leg of the festival, but with a lot of cooperation between the Melbourne and the Sydney teams, to share costs, to acquire the funding together and generally improve the odds of running a successful festival in both cities. That they’re in close proximity does have some challenges, because certainly cinemas like to have their materials on average a week ahead of screening to test them for any possible projection issues. In this brave new digital world we live in there are more issues than ever with projection – there’s more that can go wrong.
Yeah funny – hilarious. But I think everything will run smoothly now, it’s all been tested. It’s all a bit frantic but I’m sure it’s universal for any festival that goes on the road.
How do you find Sydney in terms of its film culture? Do you think it’s quite a receptive city?
I’m not best placed to answer that yet, I’ve not spent much time in Sydney. I’ve especially not spent much time here actively engaged in its film culture. I haven’t been to any of the festivals here in any real participatory way. So it’s difficult for me to judge.
Now, you’ve worked in film for a while in a variety of roles, notably writing for Senses of Cinema and contributing there. Do you see your work at the moment as a sort of a continuation of what you’ve done before, in terms of having a critical engagement with film? Is being the director of a film festival something that carries on from that?
It very much does, I feel. I think a lot of people in similar positions would say much the same, that programming and curating is a critical act, that in selecting particular films and finding contexts to draw them together in ways that they can be in dialogue with one another and the culture around them is very much a critical act, it’s very much consistent with critical practices. And so I do feel it is all consistent with what I personally have been doing for the last 10 to 15 years, where even before I wrote at all regularly for Senses of Cinema I was involved with that journal, sort of as its web admin, and I did that for 8 or 9 years. Way back when I’d been involved with different festivals in Melbourne and overseas, just various sorts of participatory roles from occasionally posting Q&As or doing “jury duties”, a lecture here or there or I’ve even been a foreign correspondent, representing the only Australasian at an animation festival in the Czech Republic.
Myself, I love travel, I love film, I love finding any opportunity to get myself abroad because I suppose one thing I probably could confidently say about Sydney film culture – something that would be common to all film culture in Australia – is that we are an island and we’re not very internationalist. So that while we do have these gargantuan international film festivals, we don’t tend to invite the world to them, we’re quite insular in that respect. And so as a critic, I think one of the best things any of us can do is travel and widen our understanding of the worlds that we don’t normally engage with – only through cinema – but get in there first-hand. And meet people, not only critics, other practitioners, everyday people, because we’ll only understand cinema better that way, anyway. So it’s an ongoing frustration with Australian film culture on a whole. Because we bring so much film product here, so many festivals – distribution isn’t so much an issue. It’s just in terms of bringing the world here is another matter.
And is your particular interest in Czech and Slovak film as a result of your travelling?
It is in some part. It was initially sparked by encountering the films of Jan Švankmajer 20 years ago and just being blown away by them and wondering where on earth they came from. Six years ago I first had an opportunity to find out myself and visit that part of the world and just fell for it in a big way immediately. And one thing with this festival is that it helps me keep in touch with that affinity for that part of the world, just enriches it evermore. And it maintains a dialogue and keeps giving me reasons to go back and forth.
That must be nice! In terms of its status as a sort of “bi-national” film festival, I guess you have some sort of role to play in showing a particular history of that country or engaging with some sort of element of cultural memory or something like that. You’ve said that the theme for this year’s festival is resistance. Can you talk a bit about that and its relationship to the films?
Certainly, 1989 was the year of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, so a repressive regime was finally overthown, peaceably even, between students and long-standing dissidents. Students and artists and their fellow travellers rose up and people got on board and this sort of thing was going on all over the old Soviet block. So 1989 was a halcyon year for resistance, for overthrowing a peculiar strain of totalitarianism. And this is the 25th anniversary, so we thought that needed to be acknowledged and happily this also coincided with some recent film and TV production in fact that has addressed these things. [They’re] not necessarily related to that particular year or particular events but to acts of resistance within those lands, and especially Agnieszka Holland’s mini-series Burning Bush, which begins with a celebrated act of resistance: a young history student set himself alight at the top end of Prague’s square as a call, not to arms exactly, but to try to snap people out of their apathy, that they were accepting their grim lot in life. Because in Czechoslovakia things had been thawing for some time, the democratic reforms, the golden age of cinema was occurring, and then in 1968 the Soviets rolled the tanks in and there was a new status quo and people seemed to be too readily falling into just accepting that, and so this young man set himself on fire, fatally. So that being a new production, something we wanted to put on the big screen here, that fed into all of that, and being Jan Švankmajer’s 80th birthday this year, well he’s someone that is not exactly apolitical but is certainly very cynical of the entire political realm. He still feeds into our theme because he’s just been resistant to any concerns of fashion or fad-ism or any sort of trends in the art world. He’s just a perfect iconoclast, a perfect surrealist and he’s resistant to almost anything you could say. We thought, “Perfect, this is a perfect storm and there’s so many wonderful films we can bring in for this festival.”
I saw an interview with him [Švankmajer] recently, and he was talking about the element of fantasy in his films which is obviously so pervasive – his films seem to deal more with the unconscious and the surreal and things like that. He said something interesting which was that, because of this fantastic element and it being quite far away from realism, it makes his films more timeless in some way, in that films that are more realistic tend to be in some ways ‘documents’ of an era. Is that the way you felt about them, do you think that they hold up well as a sort of timeless thing now?
They hold up extremely well, because there’s such an imaginative force to them all, but also I think why they’ve held up so well is that his films are still indexed to the real world very much. He’s always animating real objects, there’s reality aplenty in his films but it’s surreality. It’s the real mixed with his own peculiar potent surrealist impulses that animate objects but also bring to life his fantasies and especially his childhood obsessions and you see any number of his films in a short period of time and you can just follow all of these motifs. They’re there in such great abundance and they’re all indexed to real world issues – his own real world issues – but there’s something universalising about that too. Like that old axiom: that the more personal things can become, the more universal they can be as well. So I think his films have a timeless charge because they just span that divide perfectly, the real and the unreal creates something that’s just transcends reality, but is heavily indexed to it as well.
And I think that there is an interesting contrast with the Czech New Wave films in that he was something of a contemporary – or at least he started around the same time – but their films tend to deal with reality but in a quite veiled way. I think one of the things that makes the New Wave films so interesting is that element of repression that is in them, which was very real because we obviously saw what happened in the Prague Spring. I guess the resistance in those films comes through in a repressed way, a lot of the creativeness comes from repression as well.
Yeah, well, he certainly sublimates a lot that I think a lot of other people just let bubble away beneath their surfaces at least. I don’t think he withholds a lot of what actually makes him tick. The more you watch his films, and I’ve already had two Wednesdays in a row in conjunction with the Melbourne Cinematheque, which has been quite immersive. I’ve been bingeing on his films, seeing them on the big screen too, being able to hone in on details, realising I’ve missed things which inevitably happens, and just aware from the very get go to the current day. He is preparing for a new film in the new year – these same motifs, same themes just come up time and time again, and a lot of them do concern individual liberty and freedom of sexual expression and freedom of movement. It’s politicised but its not directly, it’s all allegorical, it’s all dressed up in symbolism and it’s his own vocabulary…
There’s that great Eastern European tradition of allegory –
There’s a lot of that in certain other films from that New Wave. For example we’re screening Jakubisko’s Birds, Orphans and Fools which is a very nihilistic film but also it’s a real Bacchanalia as well. It’s three people united in grim circumstances, shot during a grim time immediately after the invasion and their approach is to just live life in as full and joyous a fashion as possible, even though it’s surely going to end badly. And so that film is so rich in extraordinary imagery, and the soundtrack by Zdeněk Liška who Švankmajer worked with extensively in those earlier films, he just has an amazing flair for marrying music to exuberant, wild surrealistic imagery. The New Wave adopted a number of forms. There were a lot of people whose filmmaking interpenetrated one another, it was all very collaborative. There was still a number of different ways that those films turned out. The Miloš Forman school: more grounded in reality but finding the absurdity in the everyday, and in everyday frustration. But then yes [there were] these people with much more fanciful films, whether its Jakubisko or Juraj Herz with Morgiana or The Cremator… these wonderful films that we’ll screen in a future festival for sure.
I want to ask you about the more contemporary films you’re playing as well. What seems to be going across a lot of them is an engagement with the past. An engagement, say, with a specific historical era, particularly the communist era. It seems like that was something you were going for in the program…
It was. The more contemporary films that we could find of a certain standard that engaged with the theme the better. Especially because we have a guest here this year Adam Hradilek from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague and he brought an exhibition called “Prague Through the Eyes of the Secret Police.” So we’re very interested in surveillance because in our 21st century western society we are more surveillant than ever before. We seem to accept this daily, that we are giving so much information that you would once have wished to be private, just freely putting it out there, and we’re no longer in control of that information. And we learnt just recently that various agencies – local and abroad – are spying on us routinely. There are irony upon ironies.. an American whistleblower has to seek asylum in Russia of all places…
So a few of these newer films are related to this whole business of privacy and surveillance and how under communist regimes neighbours were spying on one another. No one was immune to it, even people who had a job as an agent to spy were themselves being spied on. There was no safety net from it. So with that sort of paranoid thriller we found a good couple of examples to run with this year: one set in past times which opened in the Sydney leg of the festival last night called Confidant, and also another set in contemporary times looking at a Slovak election and how it might be being corrupted by who’s hired to surveil an ad executive who takes on the job of promoting an unlikely presidential candidate. And from that we can see very much how the past is seeping into the present: it’s not just that surveillance is still such an issue and such a factor in influencing civil life, but also that the same sorts of people that are engineering these scenarios and organising people to be observed and monitored are connected to those people who were doing this 20, 30, 40 years ago or possibly even are those same people. And to overthrow one regime with a whole different other one – one mostly more democratic and more equal and right and proper – you can’t take for granted somehow that the same elites won’t fall because they probably will and they will not conduct themselves with the utmost proprietary.
Is there anything that we haven’t spoken about that you are particularly excited to be putting on?
There are a couple of things that excite me about the state of contemporary cinematography in that part of the world. One is that even though these countries had their so-called Velvet Divorce in 1993, they’re still very tight, and their film industries bear this out. Many of the films we’re screening are co-productions between the nations, some with a 3rd of 4th party involved. A lot of their film productions still feature both cultures very prominently behind and in front of the camera.
Furthermore, there are – I wouldn’t exactly say that there’s a new New Wave coming through – but it doesn’t escape my attention that there are a number of young women filmmakers coming through presently. We’ve been screening a good new contemporary film from Czech director Jitka Rudolfová called Delight. Last year we had two also very strong works by young women directors, both Slovak in that case. I find it very encouraging that there are women able to get films up. They’re not necessarily mainstream films but they’re good films, and [it’s great] that these opportunities exist and they are being celebrated. Mira Fornay had a film we didn’t bring here this year – maybe a little retrospective next time – called My Dog Killer that won a Tiger Award at Rotterdam. It was the first Slovak film to have a major award. It’s a really strong film, extremely grim but wonderfully well made and I just sense that there is something there bubbling away that’s just… We’ll have more films from young and hopefully old women directors.
After all one of the greats from that part of that world, [Věra] Chytilová, died just this year. One of the many paradoxes of the New Wave was that these filmmakers could make these remarkable films outside of concerns to do with the marketplace and so on because the government subsidised all of it. They didn’t have complete freedom of expression but on the other hand they had freedom in other respects and made films that would never get green lit today because they need to be funded. Back then, not just in Czechoslovakia but in Poland and elsewhere, it enabled women filmmakers to make films when in the West they weren’t able to.
The Czech and Slovak republics are adapting interestingly well to this new market-driven industry, for films on a certain level. They’re not going to be making many big budget films outside of the odd time when Hollywood studios drop in and make something in conjunction [with another country]. For example, Korea made Snowpiercer in Prague for example, it was shot in Barrandov studios mostly. But there’s something that seems to be part of a great tradition. Take the film school in Prague – FAMU – where many of the New Wave attended, and people like Chytilová were teaching. Agnieszka Holland who directed Burning Bush – she’s Polish yes, but she studied at FAMU at the time of the events in Burning Bush. There’s something very strong and that tradition is being kept by some of the people from that 60s Wave – Jan Němec is still on the faculty there I believe. There is this continuity and it gives me hope. Not just for the young women directors but for a continuation [of] strong, original and heartfelt auteur films.
And does it tend to be supported by the state or is it mostly private funding for those films?
It’s a combination. Usually with films from the two republics, there’s a principal production company and multiple co-producers. The Czechs have just got a new fund. Under a previous president – Václav Klaus – he was very uninterested in supporting the film industry. He declared it to be a business like any other and so he wasn’t keen on boosting funding. That’s changed since he’s gone. The Slovaks have had an audiovisual fund for a while that’s putting quite a bit of state funding into films. But outside of the direct government influence on funding, the Czech and Slovak television and radio are additional sources. They typically seal a lot of deals such that films that have done a short festival run or in some instances a much longer one, they’ll inevitably get an airing soon after on TV. There’s some good infrastructure there, and there’s probably a few things the Australian industry could learn from too. I think everyone here is sick and tired of hearing how Australian films don’t find an audience. That’s not necessarily because they’re all bad, because they’re not! There’s obviously something rotten in the manner in which they’re promoted. There are lessons here for Australia if Australia would listen!
That sounds like a good place to leave it. Best of luck for the rest of the festival here in Sydney and thanks for sitting down and having a chat.