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Essay on Jana Bokova by Leslie Megahey

At first sight, Jana Bokova’s prolific and award-laden filmography appears to be that of a documentarist and cinema director drawn to stories of the dispossessed, the marginalised and the misfits. Yet her work is shot through with life-affirming celebrations of the individuality and unquenchable optimism of her subjects, and of their creativity. Gypsy musicians in Andalusia, Candomblé dancers and worshippers in Bahia, Parisian burlesque performers, hustlers in West Hollywood, denizens of the shanty towns of Mexico City. She offers her characters a stage on which to depict their own lives, and they grasp the opportunity with passion and articulacy, becoming actors in their own stories.

Through gentle probing- more conversation than interview- she establishes a rare intimacy with her subjects without appearing intrusive, always mindful of their dignity. She will ask a question off-screen, listen to the answer, then keep her silence, leaving a gap that the subject can choose to fill, sometimes with a startling truth, a raw gem of observation. The film critic and poet Petr Kral has described Jana’s solidarity with her subjects as ‘the capacity to be, at the same time, behind the camera and yet standing side by side with her characters’.   

Hers is the art that conceals art. The visual style and shaping of her films is inimitable and indefinable.  Here, an elegaically shot nightscape, now a comedic background detail, (and in every film, it seems, dogs- running into shot or sunning themselves on a street corner.)  These moments complement her sketches of individuals. The sum total becomes a portrait of their home, street or city- Living Room, Sunset People, Dallas: the Big Store, Tales from Barcelona were all big successes for the two major BBC series Omnibus and Arena. Her editing is intuitive: her narratives are entirely created in the cutting room.

She stores up in her memory little incidents, actions, and overheard dialogues from everyday life that for her have a touch of magic.  She will find a place for them, perhaps years later, in a film.  (She calls these remembered details objets trouvés.)   Real-life events begin to blend into her cinema fiction.  At other times, it seems as if fiction has intruded into a documentary.  

In her big-screen features, she casts the finest professional actors side by side with total amateurs, and allows them to improvise together.  Sometimes the amateurs come off best.  At other times, a great actor makes the most everyday moment seem important, even overwhelming.   Fernando Rey, in Jana’s first feature film Hotel de Paradis (1986), loses a button from his waistcoat and frets quietly about the loss as he is about to perform his one-man theatre show.   She relates how this was Rey’s own idea, (as was his famous ironic wave from the New York subway train in French Connection, when he eludes the clutches of his pursuer, policeman Gene Hackman.)

She will occasionally introduce, without fanfare, celebrities into her documentaries. This could be light relief, but perhaps she’s musing whether, in the end, famous people out of their comfort zone are not so very different from the rest of us.   In her 1983 documentary Sunset People, Mel Brooks tries to make her laugh by cracking Jewish jokes in his Hollywood office, John Hurt tells her an amusing anecdote about his namesake William Hurt, all good clean fun. But the most unforgettable sequence in the film is surely the last one, a captivating and riotous 20 minutes in which three out-of-work Hollywood actors get volubly drunk in a late night bar.  It could be a scene from a John Cassavetes movie, but every second of it is real. When Jana met Cassavetes himself at the London opening of one of his films, he refused to discuss his own work, preferring to enthuse at length about hers- earlier that day he had seen Sunset People.   

The larger than life Anthony Quinn appears in her 1980 documentary Quinn Running, purportedly a portrait of the actor as a ‘real person’ rather than a cinematic icon. But he had expected more questions from his director and less silence to fill (remember those pregnant silences?)  He is reduced to stammering that he really is eager to open up his true self- ‘I’m really not acting...I’m trying to be natural.‘ Then he hurriedly puts down the huge cigar he has been brandishing theatrically:  ‘In fact, this cigar is phoney - I don’t smoke.’ 


Jana Bokova isn’t by nature judgmental.  Critiques of people, socio-political polemics about the more difficult and dangerous places she visits, are absent from her work. Nonetheless, in her 1990 film Havana we understand perfectly well what she feels about the regime of Fidel Castro.  It becomes clear from her choice of characters, her sympathy with Cuban exiles such as Renaldo Arenas, and from the moments she chooses from her arduous shoot in that beautiful, sad city (when, that is, she and her crew could shake off the police escort assigned to ‘assist’ the filming).   She once mischievously described herself in an interview as ‘an intuitive anarchist’. Add to that the heading on the poster for her 2002 retrospective at the Cinémathèque Français- that she casts ‘a poetical eye on reality’ - and you begin to get the drift.

Music and dance have filled her life and work. Early in her career, and already recognised as one of the most individual film-makers of her generation, she fell in love with all things Hispanic, in particular flamenco, cante jondo and tango.   She taught herself Spanish, started to travel extensively, and now, a few decades on, she is surely the leading European documentarist of Latin American culture.  In 1998 she made the award-winning cinema adaptation of Julio Cortazar    ’s Diario para un Cuento. Fittingly, she is well known today in the Buenos Aires dance salons as an expert tango dancer in her own right.


Leslie Megahey, former BBC Head of Music and Arts programmes,  was one of the earliest editors of the Arena series and commissioned several of Jana Bokova's early television films for BBC1's arts series Omnibus.  He made dramas and docu-dramas for television, and directed opera and theatre, working in the West End and on Broadway.  He wrote and directed 'The Hour of the Pig',  a cinema film for BBC/ Miramax and has worked more recently as a writer and screenplay consultant on Hollywood feature films.  He has won the British Academy award, the Prix Italia, BANFF, New York Film and TV festival, and a lifetime achievement award at the Montreal FIFA festival.


In Focus: Jana Bokova
30 January, 27 February, 26 March 2020
Czech Centre at the Czech Embassy Cinema