Diversity Versus Modesty – The Czech Contemporary Experimental Film Scene (Part One)

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In his 2013 book The Subterranean River of Cinema (Ponorná řeka kinematografie) Martin Čihák experiments with an approach quite unique in Eastern and Central European avant-garde film historiography. He brings Western and Eastern avant-garde traditions into a common framework.  Following in the footsteps of P. Adams Sitney, a leading film theorist of the American avant-garde, he breaks down the individual currents of film avant-garde into six subjects based on their relationship to the cinematic means of expression used: structural film, absolute film, pure film, assemblage film, spontaneous film and (traditional) avant-garde film. In each chapter Čihák introduces the main characteristics and the most well-known international representatives of the chosen trend and complements the description with the Czech perspective. With this methodology Čihák manages to create a bridge between the avant-garde film traditions of East and West and successfully demonstrates an approach that has been missing from avant-garde film theory.

Although Čihák’s book manages to reveal several similarities between the international and the Czech avant-garde film scene, it focuses solely on film, “as the creative consorting with light-craving matter is quite different from that of work with electronic image or digital technologies.”[1] Therefore it fails to cover the contemporary experimental film scene which in the Czech Republic is largely defined by a new generation of filmmakers who choose to cross between the analogue and digital mediums. It’s most characteristic feature is surely its diversity: the coexistence of old and new technologies, the override of the genre’s boundaries, the cooperation of different generations, and the sometimes radical transformations in individual artistic attitudes. There are a few filmmakers of different ages who are still dedicated to photochemical film and insist on showing their films only in their original format (Martin Ježek, František Týmal, Martin Klapper), but most of them either experiment with the combination and the alteration of different production and presentation methods (Martin Blažíček, Alexandra Moralesová, Petr Šprincl, Ondřej Vavrečka, Vít Pancíř, Michal Kindernay) or are committed to the exploration of the possibilities of digital technology (Kryštof Pešek, Vladimir Turner, Jakub Korselt).

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According to Andrew Horton’s summary written in the late nineties “the Czech Republic is still at the cutting edge of new ways of looking at film and what can be done with it. […] These challenging directors are not the “heirs” of Czech avant-garde film. They remain outside the mainstream of cinema because they are faithful to their own creative individuality, and their ideas […] lie beyond marketability.”[2] In his book published over ten years later Peter Hames describes a similar situation reporting on an even more marginalized sector. He claims that Czech independent films only rarely make it to major film festivals and avant-garde ideas are almost absent from films shown in mainstream cinemas.[3]  Despite a large spectrum of local forums (art houses, exhibition spaces, cultural centers), the innovative attitude of several prestigious educational institutions and the specialized programs of a few renowned local film festivals (Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, PAF Olomouc, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival) in the middle 2010s Czech experimental film remains hidden from a larger international public. Even though Czech avant-garde filmmakers and curators managed to establish a viable infrastructure for experimental film quite unique in the Eastern European region, their films only occasionally “leave the country”. While other Eastern European countries, like Poland, Romania, Hungary or Croatia send representatives to international experimental film festivals (KLEX, Ann Arbor Film Fest, EXIS, FLEX Fest etc.), Czech films are almost entirely missing from all these programs.

Although there are several possible explanations for this absence[4], in my opinion the real reason has little to do with any professional aspects of the contemporary Czech avant-garde film. The standoff seems to be a direct result of a particular, modest attitude quite common among Czech experimental filmmakers. According to my personal experience even some of the most established artists tend to be quite shy about their work and sometimes even hide their earlier pieces even though many of those films proved to be outstanding not only on a national, but on an international level. Horton’s 1998 article endnote seems to prove that this attitude is not at all new: “we should meet [these challenging new filmmakers]on their own ground to evaluate them, inevitably something only a brave few will be prepared to do.”[5]

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Platforms and Institutions

Despite Horton’s rather ambiguous suggestion regarding the need for bravery to explore Czech experimental filmmakers, modesty does not result in complete isolation. Several filmmakers of different age put some of their films onto online video sharing sites. Filmmakers who engage in experimental documentaries are often present on more official online distribution platforms, like DAFILMS.com or dokweb.net which is the key online project of the Prague based Institute of Documentary films. Researchers who have the opportunity to travel to Prague can find a large amount of experimental films in the digital archive of FAMU’s Center for Audiovisual Studies (CAS) which – thanks to the helpful work of a few key figures of the scene like Martin Blažíček, Eric Rosenzweig and Tomáš Pospiszyl – is available for international researchers. They also actively participated in the publication of an English language brochure[6] introducing the main theories and practices of CAS, now a key institution for Czech contemporary experimental film.

CAS is an art school sitting inside a film school whose primary concerns are production values and narrative structure. CAS on the other hand is “a space to develop a practice in making moving image work beyond cinema. […] Students use whatever media they require, in combination with any other. [They can express themselves through] a facility with bleaching 35 mm film or writing computer code [or]video installation in the gallery space.”[7] In CAS students are encouraged to transition from making fixed works and to reach beyond traditional filmmaking techniques. As a result most experimental works made in CAS are not traditional films meant to be strictly screened in a darkened cinema hall but independent audio-visual art pieces requiring different modes of presentation.

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Territories – Video and Film

As CAS students are focusing on exploring the possibilities of the new digital media, most of the known avant-garde film practices (especially hand made cinema) are now less used. Several of these audio-visual pieces balance on the verge of video art and experimental film (works of Kryštof Pešek, Michal Kindernay, Vladimir Turner, Dalibor Knapp etc.) Still it has not resulted in video artists connected to fine art and applied art institutions (AVU, UMPRUM) engaging in experimental cinema practices. A few exceptions (most importantly Michal Pěchouček and Zbynek Baladrán) aside, video art and avant-garde film only seem to meet in the works of artists graduating from FAMU or Brno University of Technology. Or in the case of Petr Hátle, Hana Železná and Michal Kindernay graduating from both. Just like in most Eastern European countries in the Czech Republic video art and experimental film seem to keep to their own territories.

Although there are filmmakers who tend to insist on working with a specific medium (Martin Ježek and Martin Klapper solely works with analogue film), in the Czech Republic most filmmakers and audio-visual artists experiment with different media. As for individual oeuvres Martin Blažíček’s is one of the unique ones, as his interests cover a wide range of attitudes from strictly analogue, traditional hand-made film practices to open live coding group experiments. His oeuvre includes several aspects along which contemporary Czech experimental film practices and theories can be analyzed and to some extent categorized. Without a doubt for over fifteen years Blažíček has been one of the most prominent Czech experimental filmmakers and the most well-known internationally even if he does not consider himself a representative of the trend any more and often expresses his concerns about the vagueness of the term itself.[8]

Read part two

Written by: Dorottya Szalay
English proofreader: Johannes Wachs


Note: This article is based mainly on my personal experience and insights gained during my scholarship stay in Prague. It does not aim to give a comprehensive overview of the contemporary Czech experimental film scene, but only to highlight some of it’s most relevant aspects.


[1] Čihák, Martin (2013) Ponorná řeka kinematografie.  Prague: NAMU, p. 268.
[2] Horton, Andrew J. (1998) „KINOEYE: Avant-garde Film and Video in the Czech Republic”, Central Europe Review, 1998. October 5, no. 2.
[3] Hames, Peter (2009) Czech and Slovak Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p. 163.
[4] Language barrier, financial limitations etc.
[5] Horton, 1998
[6] Rosenzveig, Eric and Pospiszyl, Tomas eds. (2013) CAS – Co to je? / What is it? Prague: NAMU
[7] Rosenzveig and Pospiszyl, 2013, pp. 12-14.
[8] Referring to a correspondence between Blažíček and me in the summer of 2015.

 

 

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