Czech Documentary

Witnesses of Intermittent Time

Michal Bregant


The film tradition in the Czech lands is quite old, with the first films dating back to 1898. Systematic documentary activities began in the mid-twenties, when periodical film documents - newsreels - began appearing consistently. As early as the beginning of the 1930s, documentary films bore the specific signatures of their authors and gradually won appreciation as a full-fledged branch of the both the film industry and film art.

After the war, however, the destiny of Czech documentary came under the sway of politics. All professional cinematography was quickly nationalized in 1945 and the communist coup of 1948 was followed by the merciless dictates of communist ideology. The result was a rapid devastation of the values created during the long tradition of the Czech state, especially during the years of the democratic interwar Czechoslovak Republic. The continuity of the development of Czech cinematography was disrupted. Centralized production of documentaries, monopolized by the state, was relegated to the field of political propaganda. Inevitably, feature film also sank into a deep subjective and moral crisis, with its main role becoming that of more or less refined and concealed servility to communist ideology.

During the 1950s, Czech culture was dealt a couple of severe blows which, of course, did not spare cinematography. In later years, the communist regime tried to somewhat improve its badly damaged reputation in the eyes of the world, but evident processes of democratization were not observed until the mid-sixties. This trend culminated at the end of the decade: the Communist Party remained in full power, but cultural and social life was, at the same time, undergoing a remarkable revival.

Despite the brevity of the period of relative freedom, an immediate impact was made in Czechoslovakia by various sectors of the artistic community, such as several generations of graphic artists who until then had experienced no possibility of openly confronting their works, a strong rank of theater artists and writers, and last but not least, the emergence of the New Wave generation of Czech filmmakers. These Prague Film Academy (FAMU) graduates were mostly feature film directors (Vera Chytilova, Jiri Menzel, Evald Schorm, and others) and did not exert much influence on documentary in the 1960s. Nevertheless, New Wave film work was, as a whole, a rare liberated and inspired contribution to film history. It is neither the fault nor the merit of the New Wave that it has often served as a kind of emblem of the so-called "Prague Spring," that short season of "socialism with a human face."


In the Czech environment, 1960s documentary film became a very popular and attractive form with the public. Complying with the general trend towards social criticism, documentarists started embarking on more profound analyses of the state of society, its traumas and concerns. It is mainly in this respect that enhanced social sensitivity, one of the main features of Czech documentary, is so evident. Czech documentarists started being more interested in the life attitudes and views of young people and began availing themselves of the broad opportunities offered by film language.

In 1963, for example, Raduz Cincera, inter alia also the author of several multimedia projects, made the captivating Romeo and Juliet '63 (1963), a concise document of the creative tension accompanying the birth of a modern staging of Shakespeare's classic. In the same emphatic way in which the final production addressed the young generation, Cincera's film became a sensitive recording of the spirit of the time. Cincera's Mist ("Mlha," 1966) is, on the other hand, a purely metaphorical reflection of the contemporary world, where the mediated atmosphere of a small Prague intellectual theater dominates excellently over the existentialist haze of the day (the current Czech President Vaclav Havel may be observed during the rehearsals of a new play).

Jan Spata has been one of the best known documentarists since the sixties. He first made a marked contribution as a cameraman and then soon developed into an artist with a typical style. The Greatest Wish ("Nejvetsi prani," 1964) was a significant feat, a film that used a sociological approach in which the filmmaker did a survey of young people by posing of them a seemingly simple question (which also served as the title of the film). Spata asserted a pure film talent that involved a feeling for economy of expression and details of meaning. He returned to the subject of the young twenty-five years later with The Greatest Wish II. That was in 1989 and thanks to that film, Spata found himself in the role of chronicling the tense, revolutionary atmosphere of that particular year.

In Respice finem (1967), Spata observed the lives of solitary widows. He let them narrate their story of waiting for death, a tale which for them was not only about resignation but also about hope. Spata sought out strong emotional themes for his later works as well. The ethical tone and emotional charge of his films about ill and disabled people can, however, lead Spata into sentimentality. This is evident in his work in the seventies and eighties, when he became a captive of his own skill.

The films of Karel Vachek are marked by a different style, one less "pretty" than that of Spata. Vachek's Moravian Hellas ("Moravska Hellas," 1963) is at once about the magic of village folklore and at the same time its grotesque commercialization. In 1968, Karel Vachek made a full-length document, Elective Affinities ("Sprizneni volbou," 1968) about the election of the new Czechoslovak president and the ambient political climate. He thus was able to film a unique historical report about the very essence of politics in spite of the communist regime in power at the time, actually recording in film the prelude to the Prague Spring.

This short period of a certain kind of liberalization had a tragic end: the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Soviet Union and other Soviet-bloc European countries. In August 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded Prague and the entire republic, there were several filmmakers who, on their own and under the barrels of tanks and machine guns, managed to shoot film evidence of the tragic impact of this historical paradox and of the human suffering which was to be its consequence. We had to wait another two decades before being able to view this testimony. And yet, after all these years, documents like Evald Schorm's Confusion ("Zmatek," 1968) have not lost their authentic, emotive force. Not only because the country's fatal historical experience could somehow be squeezed into a short film form, but also because the director did not succumb to the pathos of the moment and forget to be a filmmaker, a documentarist. Even at such a moment, the strength of the Czech documentary tradition was manifest in the linking of a powerful ethical theme with professional purity and creative invention.

The years that followed, officially called the period of normalization, brought a new wave of repression, the strengthening of ideological doctrine, and further demoralization of the entire society. The lack of freedom was disguised by an appearance of economic prosperity and social stability. After the upsurge at the end of the sixties, Czech documentary plunged into a deep crisis. As in all other fields, cinematography too experienced widespread purges which affected not only the positions of power and decision-making, but all creative professions.


The continuous development of Czech cinematography was disrupted in all spheres at the beginning of the seventies. Documentary film art, which had until recently touched on the discovery of national roots, its rise and fall, revealing the painful topics of individual and group history, was once again reduced to a servant role. The monopoly of state cinematography, managing relatively large funds, was not to be cast in doubt. These funds were, of course, used to eulogize the regime, as was most apparent in the documentary field in the film newsreels screened in cinemas before the main feature. The aims of propaganda and total ideologization sometimes shifted documentary reporting to unintended, grotesque plains.

Marxist ideology enforced by the state made many topics taboo. It forced artists who did not want to officiate directly in the celebration of the ruling regime and its leaders to pick up escapist themes. For example, director Drahomira Vihanova, who managed to complete her first full-length feature after the Soviet occupation, could return to the filmmaking profession only after many years of enforced silence, and that "only" to make documentaries. Her documentaries were, for instance, about the work of the chief engineer at a coal mine (A Day of the Chief Engineer ("Den hlavniho inzenyra," 1981)), the canteen operations at a nuclear power plant (Dukovany, a Boiling Cauldron ("Dukovany, vrouci kotel," 1987)), or a team of harvester drivers. Vihanova, however, approached these not very attractive assignments with full responsibility and great film talent. She spent a lot of time first with her "protagonists," and then in the editing room later. Whatever the topic, she always devoted all possible effort to her films, and the outcome was a lively testimony, even today, of human striving, obsession with one's job, as well as the fragility of inter-human relations.

Certain documentary elements have been manifest in the films of Vera Chytilova since the beginning of the 1960s. In the seventies, when her activities were greatly restricted, she made the documentary Time is Merciless ("Cas je neuprosny," 1978), in which she portrayed several old people who, in various ways, were trying to come to terms with their fate. The director lets them speak authentically, but at the same time inserts various associative images that proliferate and stratify the film statement.

Czech documentary art of the 1970s, and especially that of the 1980s, was marked by a high professional aptitude. Annual short documentary film production climbed into the hundreds and from time to time controversial subjects appeared in this medium, one which had to fight a difficult battle with the "non-existent" censorship of the time. A number of skilled artists who, for political or ideological reasons, could not work in feature film or television, found a vent for expression in the documentary sphere. Documentary films made on 16mm and 35mm stock were a regular supplement to cinema film shows. In those days, television did not yet broadcast film documents to such a large degree.

During the eighties, several extraordinary documentary projects managed to be realized. First of all was a long-term cycle of documentary films by director Helena Trestikova (made in 16mm and later distributed to cinema houses on 35mm) called Marital Studies ("Manzeleske etudy"). The author worked with six young husband and wife pairs for a period of six years. She followed and recorded their destinies until, finally, a multiple testimony of the time, both individual and general, emerged. The director then edited two full-length documentaries from the material, which were shown on television and throughout the cinema network.


The democratic upheaval of 1989 was a special, starry moment not only for the Czechs, but for all of Europe, as one communist regime after another was toppled. Czech documentarists were on the spot. Rare documentary shots exist from the turning-point confrontation between the peaceful student demonstrators and the state police. During the "Velvet Revolution," striking students made numerous copies of video testimonies and distributed them to all parts of the country. Television, indulging in a spasmodic disinformation campaign, remained in the hands of the Communist rulers, so every hour mattered. At that moment, everybody was aware in a very practical way of the psychological power of the media, of the impact of a timely pictorial report.

The revolutionary weeks at the end of 1989 immediately changed the seemingly unchangeable rules. Until then the monopolistic state television never allowed students, who since the very beginning had been the main driving force of the revolution, to attend live broadcasts. The so-called Students Broadcasting, which was set up in mostly non-professional surroundings (actually mostly on the street or at the FAMU studio), was more a form of political reporting than a documentary. The youngest generation of filmmakers, especially those who had earlier made themselves known at university as outstanding individuals, acquired invaluable experience and a special incentive for future professional activity. One of these was the young Igor Chaun, an author capable of quick, yet creative reflection on the political situation. He was, for instance, the creator of a non-traditional, approximately four-hour long portrait of the current Czech prime minister, Vaclav Klaus. Chaun's later activities, however, centered around features.

The only documentary which offers a concise picture of the life of free Czechoslovakia and reflects the full commitment of the author is Karel Vachek's three-and-a-half hour long documentary essay, The New Hyperion ("Novy Hyperion," 1992). In a dynamic arrangement of both key and seemingly marginal aspects of the social and political life of the country, Vachek manages to present a captivating testimony about the people and the times. His film is enriched in an extraordinary way by a sense for film expression and a feeling for the concealed farce of history.

At the end of 1992, the internal political development resulted in the disintegration of the Czechoslovak federation. This political development was captured in an excellent manner by the young documentarist Pavel Koutecky in his film The Demise of Czechoslovakia in Parliament ("Zanik Ceskoslovenska v Parlamentu," 1993).

It is obvious that the genesis of politics as well as the many symptoms of a regular democracy, forgotten by Czechs over the fifty freedom-less years, attracted documentarists enormously. Contemporary circumstances required new forms of documentary. The number of heavy, psychologically probing works declined, whereas partial mosaic views of issues of the moment became more attractive for the audience. These are offered to the public by the very much followed TV political coverage, both on public and independent TV.


Soon after 1989, the agile, independent Febio film and TV studio gained prominence with its production of around eighty documentary and news films annually. Since no documentary film market exists, Febio relies as do other independent producers on public television. Every fortnight viewers watch The Eye ("Oko"), a single theme documentary program produced at Febio independently of the public television order. The authors of the individual, approximately 20 minute long films included in The Eye cycle are mostly renowned film artists who deal with the live issues of the day.

Director Fero Fenic, Febio's founding father, invented the unique Gen project. In regularly broadcast, 15 minute long documentary films, different Czech documentarists present a selected 100 important living personalities of Czech culture, politics, and science. A slightly altered version of the cycle continues to be broadcast and to enjoy incredibly high viewing rates. Jan Spata, who was cited above as one of the outstanding personalities of Czech documentary from the sixties to the eighties, has worked for Febio frequently in recent years. Spata made a number of portraits of renowned personalities for the Gen cycle, often in collaboration with Olga Sommerova.

The living tradition of Czech documentary film, albeit constrained by cash problems, has discovered new opportunities. The Film and Sociology Foundation operates as an independent production center where film documentarists join forces with sociologists to jointly map the transformation of society and its problems. The results are usually middle-length documentaries that are broadcast on television. Individual directors like Petr Slavik, Pavel Koutecky, and others investigate such topics as the transformation of Czech villages by using examples from individual lives, the problem of modern day poverty, violence within the community, the return of business enterprises to Czech lands, local elections, issues of racial coexistence, and the like. These are always serious probes which speak a cultivated film language and are more than just immediate news coverage.

The long-term projects of the Film and Sociology Foundation, such as A Year Later ("Po roce"), A Year and One More Year Later ("Po roce a zase po roce"), and Years Later ("Po letech"), offer a kind of regular annual "summing up" of Czech politics and culture by several well-known personalities who were extraordinarily active during the revolution of 1989 and later. The director and author of these projects, Pavel Koutecky, submits not only a continuous testimony about several human lives, but also an original report about himself.

Director Helena Trestikova had in the past developed her "time-collecting" method, one which she has applied successfully in her cycle about juvenile delinquents. As part of this project, the director meets her protagonists at irregular intervals and observes and records their activities, their changes of attitude, and personality development. This is followed by very demanding work in the editing room. The "story" unfolds in time and the director thus exposes herself to the risk that selected protagonists will not bear the topic eloquently enough in those parts where it should be communicated. But Trestikova has luck with her "time-collecting" films, even though she experienced problems which are not only of a creative nature (while developing an acquaintance with one of her "heroes," a juvenile thief, the latter broke into her flat one day, stole everything, and then wrote a letter of apology (the film René (1992))). Trestikova is now her own independent producer (Man and Time Foundation) and is working on a long-term and demanding project aimed at presenting an image of the end of the millennium as found in both the everyday as well as special life of Prague.


Different personalities belonging to several generations have come to the fore of Czech cinematography, persons who do not seek permanent backing, but are investing their creative forces into ambitious projects that do not promise immediate profit. That is the style of cameraman and director Ivan Vojnar, for example, who in the seventies and eighties acquired an excellent reputation as the co-author of Drahomira Vihanova's documentary films. He is currently active as a documentary director, finishing a documentary essay on the relativity of mental health in the environment of a mental hospital, as well as a film on young actors in the existing avant-garde theaters of Prague. The slightly younger Josef Cisarovsky is, amongst other things, the author of a documentary film in three parts on the postwar history of Czechoslovakia in which he makes a successful attempt to overcome various political taboos and social stereotypes. His other films are mainly devoted to ecology as well as spiritual matters. Other, very individual authors in the documentary field include Angelika Hanaurova and Tomas Skrdlant who, while usually working on their own, have also produced a joint documentary deserving special attention, A Hairy State in a Bald Republic ("Vlasaty stat v holohlave republice," 1994), in which they used a twenty-five year old unfinished "group portrait" of young, non-conforming people and let them comment on their own past attitudes and views.

Some artists develop their own back-up production facilities within small private companies with the aim of achieving the best possible conditions for their own documentary work. Director Pavel Stingl, for instance, whose interest is focused consistently on topics of social and racial coexistence and on the question of the effect of politics on the everyday life of man, founded the K2 private production company. He wants to assist the creation of new documentaries aiming at a deeper comprehension of the social and political aspects of the contemporary world. The span is not limited to the Czech lands or to Central Europe, but also includes the Balkans, South Africa, and other places of conflict in the world. The K2 company is trying to become an organizational mediator in future international documentary projects.

Among the youngest generation of filmmakers, FAMU students Tomas Hejtmanek and Martina Kudlacek ought to be mentioned. Hejtmánek has confidently set out on the difficult road of challenging, intricately composed film communication. Be it an imaginary portrait of the remarkable artist Vladimir Boudnik, A Hundredth Part ("Jedna setina," 1993), or a film essay on traveling by train, Report About the Journey ("Zprava o ceste," 1992), his films are powerful because of their earnestness, their endeavor to produce a statement structured in pure film language. The Czech-Austrian director Martina Kudlacek has made an impact so far with her successful film Positivity ("Positivita," 1994), about an outstanding generation of young photographers from Slovakia. It is an original group portrait of creative artists who, while clearly having individual features and differences in poetic quality, have much in common: namely, respect for their own past, respect for their roots, and the will to seek out new roads of classical photography.

Another member of the youngest generation is Petr Vaclav who during his studies at FAMU made a rather extraordinary document, Madame Le Murie ("Pani Le Murie," 1993), a kind of conspicuous epitaph in memory of this civilization. Vaclav presents both the poetic and dramatic fate of an old lady of noble descent who, at a difficult time in history several decades earlier, had decided to live the remaining part of her life in quiet retirement, serving her family. The obligation of family tradition, however, is not a burden but an unquestioned duty. Nevertheless, with her whole being she shares in the experience of the inexorable cycle of nature to arrive at the apprehension of the finiteness of the civilization that managed to liquidate the natural conditions of its existence. At a slow pace, yet with great inner excitement, this fascinating lady describes her observations, relating her story with striking cuts through history. She melds with nature; she is dignified and at the same time grotesque in her role of caretaker for the old garden surrounding the dilapidated property where she lives. Petr Vaclav, in a rare symbiosis with cameraman Stepan Kucera, succeeded in creating a solid, dynamic image with which, using a concrete and completely unique case, they touched the mysterious pages of life and the world. The film narration is refined, yet modest: as if time stands still and through film we are allowed to see a glimpse of our own depths.


Fortunately, the question of the further development of documentary film in the Czech lands remains open. Czech society is managing quite successfully to overcome the stumbling blocks on the road to total political, economic, and social transformation, and it is a good omen that in doing so, it is not neglecting the cultural and spiritual dimension of life. As the gloomy forecasts for economic and political development have not come true, so the dark augury pointing to the demise of documentary film in the Czech lands has been misguided. It is obvious that the future lies mainly in the creative potential of Czech documentarists. That, it seems, is not negligible: members of the new generation are gaining recognition and the long tradition of Czech documentary film seems to be living on.


Important addresses:
The Film and Sociology Foundation
Jindrisska 34
CZ-110 00 Praha 1
Czech Republic
Tel: (42-2) 67091-228; Fax: (42-2) 67091-222

Ruzova 13
CZ-110 00 Praha 1
Czech Republic
Tel: (42-2) 2421-3933; Fax: (42-2) 2421-4254

Man and Time Foundation
Kostelni 14
CZ-170 00 Praha 7
Czech Republic
Tel: (42-2) 375-976

K2, Ltd.
Na Folimance 5
CZ-120 00 Praha 2
Czech Republic
Tel: (42-601) 216-447
Fax & Tel: (42-2) 870-651

FAMU (Film Academy)
Smetanovo nabr. 2
CZ-110 00 Praha 1
Czech Republic
Tel: (42-2) 2422-9468; Fax: (42-2) 2423-0285

Michal Bregant

After graduating from Charles University in Prague, was employed at the National Film Archive, first as curator of the Czech film collection, and then from 1992 as an independent research worker in the department of film theory and history, specializing mainly in the historical development of film language, with a focus on Czech cinematography. Lecturer in film aesthetics at the Film Academy (FAMU).

National Film Archive
Bartolomejska 11
CZ-110 00, Praha 1
Czech Republic