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Peter Hames: Made in Prague - After 20 Years

It is now 20 years since the Czech Centre launched the first ‘Made in Prague’ festival at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. It is fitting that its latest version – the most ambitious yet- extends through both theatre and film with special performances by the Dejvické theatre (Petr Zelenka’s Theremin, the Irvine Welsh adaptation A Blockage in the System, and The Winter’s Tale), and an extensive range of recent film titles based at the Regent Street Cinema and a range of other venues throughout November. The film selection marks one of the most ambitious yet, with a wide range of titles (mostly unseen in this country), including many recent award winners such as Rodinný film (Family Film), Domácí péče (Home Care), Eva Nová, and Kobry a užovky (The Snake Brothers).

One of the most interesting titles now acquired for British release is Já, Olga Hepnarová (I Olga Hepnarova), a debut film directed by Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda.  It’s a reconstruction of the events that led a young girl to drive a lorry into a bus queue in Prague in the early 1970s.  Variously diagnosed as psychopathic and psychotic (but never examined), she was the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.  Based closely on her letters and available evidence, it raises a number of issues around the subject. However, it also identifies closely with the central figure and, rather than give a primarily ‘realist’ portrait, turns her into a virtual Jeanne d’Arc. This is emphasised in the impressive black and white wide screen photography by Polish DoP Adam Sikora. 

I, Olga Hepnarova Family Film

Family Film
, a second film by Slovenian director Olmo Omerzu, who attracted attention with his Příliš mladá noc (A Night Too Young), won the Best Feature Film award at Plzeň, and provides an excellent portrait of teenage behaviour while their parents are away. An impressive mix of black comedy and domestic drama, it provides some perverse combinations  – realist interaction is counter pointed by parents sailing the Pacific with their pet dog - but it’s a challenging work revealing a real film making talent.

Eva Nová is an award winning feature (Critics Award at Toronto) by Slovak documentary director Marko Škop and features an impressive performance by Emilia Vášáryová in the main role  An ageing actress (62!) finds that she is no longer wanted, loses touch with her profession, and is forced to find work as a cleaner and shelf stacker. The film’s main emphasis, however, is on her attempts to re-establish relations with the son she abandoned as a child.  At times it’s a Loachian-style social drama focussing on issuies of employment and family breakdown but it’s also an unusual take on the theatrical profession. A clever performance by Vášáryová effectively confronts the issues of both conscience and ageing.

After his success with Cesta ven (The Way Out), Petr Václav returns with a particularly bleak portrait of contemporary Czech reality in Nikdy nejsme sami (We Are Never Alone).  It’s an examination of the lives of two neighbours, one unemployed, disturbed, and believing that he is suffering from a terminal disease, the other a prison guard who fears retribution from his ex-wards. Aggressive and polemical, with an often black humour, it’s ultimately about wider issues  – globalisation, privatisation, democratic failure – but totally avoids traditional Czech ‘humanism’.

Eva Nová We Are Never Alone

I wrote about both Home Care and The Snake Brothers in my report from Karlovy Vary last year.  Like most of the other titles, they focus on social issues – this time with much of the alleviating humour that we have come to expect.  Slávek Horák’s Home Care was based on his mother’s experience as a home care nurse and filmed largely in his parents’ house near Zlín.  Vlasta works as a home care nurse, discovers she has terminal cancer, and attempts a cure via alternative therapy. Examining her reactions on a number of levels, the film is in no way downbeat, and has plenty of humour and sophisticated characterisation. Jan Prušinovský’s The Snake Brothers is also set far from Prague, where life in a desolate small town offers little hope for Cobra and Viper (the two ‘snake brothers’).  Viper seizes an economic opportunity while Cobra (an unrepentant drug addict and thief) undermines it. Again, humour is a major constituent and the script cleverly develops the relationships between the two brothers (played by Kryštof and Matěj Hádek respectively).  Also receiving a welcome screening is Štěpán Altrichter’s Czech-German production Schmitke, in which an ageing engineer is sent to the former Sudetenland to service ageing wind machines. What begins as social drama turns into a sometimes comic sometimes sinister journey made with a genuine cinematic flair.

The area of genre film is also well represented with Andy Fehu’s commercially successful Nenasytná Tiffany (Greedy Tiffany), with its story of a dangerous treasure yielding plant given added force through Leoš Noha’s clever performance in the central role. The slightly more conventional Polednice (The Noonday Witch) (shown at this year’s London Film Festival) tells the story of Eliška (Aňa Geislerová) and her small daughter as they return to a small and idyllic country village to ‘find peace and quiet’. Sharply directed by Jiří Sádek, it expertly mixes the horrors and tensions of everyday relations with the legend of the noonday witch familiar from Erben’s Kytice.

Home Care The Snake Brothers

The festival offers two documentaries – Zkáza krásou (Doomed Beauty) by Helena Třeštiková and Jakub Hejna and Eva Tomanová’sStále Spolu (Always Together). The first contrasts interview material with Lida Baarová that Třestíková recorded in the 1990s with documentary footage from both Czech and German archives in an ambitious attempt to recall the 1930s ambience of her legendary and controversial career.

Much of the above suggests that Czech and Slovak cinema is beginning to reassert its aesthetic integrity. Given the return of Zelenka with last year’s Ztraceni v Mnichově (Lost in Munich) and Jan Hřebejk’s expert handling of this year’s Učiteľka (The Teacher), there is much promising activity – to say nothing of the already established ‘wave’ of Slovak women directors – Zuzana Liová, Mira Fornay, Iveta Grofová. All of the films in this year’s Made in Prague season are worth the attention of a wider British audience – but, of course, this is difficult to achieve. International competition for a limited ‘foreign language’ market is increasingly cutthroat and all the while film festivals continue to perceive East-Central Europe as a cultural bloc, there is only room for one ‘New Wave’ – and, at the moment, it’s Romanian.

To open the festival, there’s a special screening of Gustav Machatý’s silent classic Erotikon at the Barbican  - with theremin and piano accompaniment by Lydia Kavina and Thomas Ang  - an experience not to be missed.  There’s also a special screening of the Oscar-winning Obchod na korze (The Shop on the High Street) to mark its release on DVD and Blu-ray. (1127)

Peter Hames