Certain cinema always seems to get the spotlight in the States, be it French or Polish or whatever is in vogue at the moment. At the same time, a lot of other national cinema gets overlooked.
During this month and in November, Czech cinema will no longer seem overlooked. Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, there are several film programs that highlight Czech cinema.
The New York Czech Center (321 East 73rd St.) held an event in celebration of The Jubilee -- the 50th International Film Festival for Children and Youth in Zlín -- and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Czech director Karel Zeman earlier this month. A photo exhibition entitled Film Magician Karel Zeman is on display until end of October which outlines his productions and includes a film projection of Zeman's film, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. From November 18th-22, BAMcinématek-- the repertory film program at BAM Rose Cinemas -- presents its 10th season of new films from the Czech Republic. The series features seven contemporary Czech films--one North American premiere and three New York premieres.
And one independent programmer, Laura Blum, has not only become quite expert in the Czech cinema, but, in putting together this survey of its directors past and present, The Ironic Curtain, for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, she offers an enlightening look at a country that has taken on a new life in the wake of the Iron Curtain's collapse 20 years ago.
During a relatively peaceful and bloodless six-week period of demonstrations -- between November 17 and December 29, 1989 -- the former Czechoslovakia saw the overthrow of the Soviet regime in what became known as the Velvet Revolution. Explains programmer Blum, "Americans tend to think the Velvet Revolution happened far away, without any connection to us, but its leader, Václav Havel, was in New York on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. He says he was influenced by the non-violent philosophy he heard at the rallies honoring Dr. King at Central Park -- which he would ultimately bring to the Velvet Revolution." In fact, The Ironic Curtain opens with the North American premiere of Pavel Koutecký and Miroslav Janek's intimate documentary, Citizen Havel, about the private and public life of this playwright turned president. The film captures the life of the man emblematic of the Velvet Revolution as well as the individual and collective yearnings of recent Czech history. Czech Consul General Eliška Žigová introduces the film; it's preceded by a special video of the former president, exclusively made for this series as he begins his next career as a filmmaker.
A later tragedy in 1968 inspired The Ferrari Dino Girl (Holka Ferrari Dino) by New Wave enfant terrible Jan Nĕmec. The docudrama recalls the filmmaker's rush across the Czechoslovak-Austrian border to deliver footage of Soviet tanks ramrolling through Prague. Though Soviet propaganda later claimed the Czechs welcomed Warsaw Pact troops, Nĕmec's footage -- which will ring a bell for anyone who saw The Unbearable Lightness of Being -- provided visceral refutation of such a thought.
This deliberately timed 68-minute film shares a double bill with Jiří Střecha and Petr Slavík's The Kind Revolution (Něžná revoluce). Cinema is at its verite best in this chronicle of the Velvet Revolution when riot police quashed a peaceful student rally in Prague, the popular protests that followed sacked Czech Communism.
Czech film history also appears in four classics from the '60s and one from the '30s in this series. Gustav Machatý's Extáse offers the first nude scenes in cinema with a quick glimpse of the young Heddy Lamar skinny dipping; Voyage to the End of the Universe is a sci-fi gem that was an influence on the makers of Star Trek; Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde is an early example of the New Wave as seen through Czech eyes.
The New Wave influenced a younger generation of filmmakers--for instance, director Bohdan Slama -- who made the acclaimed Something Like Happiness (which is also screening during the series) says Forman's Black Peter was among his biggest influences.
Also included in this fest is a 19-minute sneak preview clip of Czech Peace (Český mir), Filip Remunda and Vit Klusák's "pre-war comedy" about recent US plans to install a radar base on Czech soil. These two did a fabulous mockumentary called Czech Dream that debuted at 2005's Tribeca Film Festival.
And there are two Dostoevsky-inspired films, including Saša Gedeon's The Return of the Idiot (Návrat idiota) with top starlet Ana Geislerova, who sadly had to cancel an appearance here to introduce it, as well as her starrer Something Like Happiness. Variety singled out its director Slama as among the top 10 directors to watch in 2009.
The series closes on October 29 with the North American premiere of Petr Zelenka's Karamazovi. The Dostoevsky classic is currently in the news with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's praise, in Moscow, for the book's attack on dogma. Similarly, New York will soon see the Czech attack on certainty in The Ironic Curtain.
For more information on The Ironic Curtain go to: filmlinc.com
For the Czech Center go to: czechcenter.com
For the BAM schedule go to: BAM.org