Prague Czechs Out New Indies
by Michael Lee
The Lucerna Cinema is surely one of the finest in Europe. Constructed
during World War I by Vaclav Havel, grandfather of the current Czech
president, its ornate mezzanine boxes and reliefs of deities and cherubs
make it look less like a cinema than a decaying opera house. Even while
anticipating the best of films, it's sometimes hard not to be disappointed
when the lights go down.
In the last few years, the Lucerna has been the site of an oddly bitter
fraternal dispute between Czech President Vaclav Havel and his brother
Ivan, who in the early 90's inherited jointly the grand old cinema. Ivan
gave his half to his wife as a gift, and, for some reason, Vaclav sold his
to Chemapol - an enormous chemical conglomerate composed largely of former
Communist bureaucrats. Despite changing their logo last year to a tree and
becoming one of the main sponsors of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival,
Chemapol is not exactly a cultural touchstone, and Vaclav's action seemed
an indelible blot on the center of his own fabled city.
But Chemapol has recently begun selling off its share, and Ivan and Vaclav
have forgiven each other. It was in the glow of this kindrid spiritiness,
of business taking a back seat to brotherly love, that the 2nd Annual
Prague Indies Festival ran Oct 29 to Nov 4.
Prague Indies is a rare breed. A truly friendly festival without
competition or awards, the event is for the filmgoer more than the
filmmaker, designed to showcase low-budget indies and expose Czechs to the
concept of independent film, its history and ethos, and help build an indie
community in the Czech Republic.
A strong indie movement has never existed here. True independence under the
Communist regime was, of course, pretty much impossible, especially in a
resource intensive medium like film. Since '89, as Tomas Vorel whined in
his 1995 film "Stone Bridge", commercial restrictions have replaced
government censors, and Czech filmmakers have failed to break away from
their ingrained dependence on institutions for organization and funding.
One notable exception is the Gamera collective, whose wacky no budget
productions formed one of the four legs of the Festival's popular "Prague
Underground" section, featuring aggressively underground shorts as well as
works from London's Exploding Cinema, France's Off Tracks, and Seattle
Blackchair Productions. Blackchair's Joel Bachar was omnipresent at the
Festival, gathering locally made shorts for his series "Independent
Exposure", a roving curation on display throughout the US.
The festival was actually slightly smaller than last year's inaugural
event, reduced from three cinemas to two (in addition to the Lucerna, the
tiny modern Evald, comfortable but continually sold out). Though overall
attendance was down (from 10,000 to 7,000) per-screening numbers were way
up, and more films showed overall (around 80) with fewer showing twice.
Because of its reduced size perhaps as much as experience, this year's fest
ran smoother, cosier, and more coherent, and with a clearer focus on
providing films nobody here would ever come across otherwise.
No other European festival would have a Gala Opening Night film that was
shot on DV for $10,000 and transferred to 35 mm by being filmed directly
off a high-res monitor hired for two hours. "No Budget Story," the first
film by 28-year-old Greek director Renos Haralabidis, a true film
"outsider," was an overwhelming darling of audiences. Said Renos, in
attendance all week, "It's a great idea for a festival, one where a film
like mine can play opening night. Prague's a wonderful city, much better
than Athens. The secret is out. Next year at this time, this town will be
full of Greeks."
Where this festival really shines is in its collection of Central and East
European shorts, especially in the range of entries from the former USSR.
Though Poland, Hungary, and Bosnia were also well-represented, the most
unusual offerings came from St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kazakhstan and even
I asked Peterburgian director Sasha Bashirov ("The Iron Heel of
Oligarchy"), a constantly bouncing elfin presence in the Lucerna lobby with
his peroxide Marine cut and Woody Woodpecker laugh, why Russian and other
Eastern nations have developed a stronger indie undercurrent than the
Czechs. But Bashirov brushed off the question, prefering to talk about the
"My film was sold out," Bashirov said. "This is wonderful. I already sold
it in Rotterdam. I don't have to do business. I have time to meet people.
Feel Prague. Prague makes my mind spin. Today alone I've thought of a dozen
stories. I'm going to make one with Renos, in Greek and Russian."
At the more businesslike extreme was the "Miramax collection", seven films
provided by Miramax, several of which already have Czech distribution and
will be opening on normal runs soon. It's hard to justify the inclusion of
"Good Will Hunting" and "The Gingerbread Man" in this kind of low-budget
festival, but the publicity is tough to resist and to be fair, they do fall
within the boundaries of "independence" under current American parlance, so
why not? It's all part of the educational process, showing locals here how
far the parameters of independence have stretched, that "independent" films
can win Oscars and have multi-million dollar budgets.
The most definitive bit of business did come (unsurpringly) from among the
Miramax films. Local powerhouse distributor Intersonic, which is already
bringing out most of the group, began negotiations to purchase "Smoke
Signals", a favorite here no less than at Sundance and all of the other
festivals it has played. Other than that, the only confirmed interest was
in the film "Muslim" by Russian director Vladimir Chotinenko, pursued by
Czech TV as well as Intersonic.
Says Festival Program Director Curt Kramer, "We're not trying to be a
'major' festival. We're just trying to bring the community here something
they won't get otherwise, to connect the community to a whole world they'll
otherwise miss. We're encouraged enough by the results this time to start
planning for next year, so that's pretty good."
Plans for next year already include a continuing retrospective of the
history of independent film, as well as a competition for short films in
which 10-20 films will be given awards and screened at the festival. A
formal announcement about this competition will be forthcoming in the next
few weeks, said Kramer.
[For information on Prague Indies, contact email@example.com.]
[Michael Lee is a Prague-based writer and filmmaker, currently preparing a
documentary about squatting Zulu artists in Durban, South Africa. Anyone
who can help with production advice or financing contacts, please contact