Artistic Director of the Karlovy Vary film festival (Czech Republic)

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Notes on Humility

The 1960s was arguably the most important decade in the history of Czechoslovak cinema. Prague’s FAMU film school, as the alma mater of Vera Chytilova, Milos Forman, and Pavel Juracek, to name only a few of the many exceptional filmmakers, became the epicenter of the creative process. In addition, it also provided a place for aspiring film theoreticians, historians, and journalists, who were able to engage in a dialogue with future artists and offer an instant reflection on their work.

In 1968 it was decided to transfer the film studies department from FAMU to Charles University’s Faculty of Arts. The separation was fatal, and the move continued to damage film production quality even after censorship was no longer a threat following the fall of communism in 1989. During the 1990s, FAMU filmmaking students considered their former fellow collegians who had moved under a different roof as just a bunch of theoreticians who had no clue how a film was made. As a reaction, those who would soon write about films for a living had a very low opinion of the filmmakers’ knowledge of film history. Dialogue vanished only to be replaced by small-minded hostility. 

Czech film production has struggled to achieve more than random visibility beyond the country’s borders. Filmmakers resemble isolated islands lacking the bridges that would give a sense of community. Communication between those who create and those who analyze still seems paralyzed, perhaps by a lack of courage to risk a heated debate or by the fear of getting lost in the sophisticated territory of the other.

On December 21, 2020 Czech filmmaker and philosopher Karel Vachek passed away. Even though his uncompromising work and opinions did not belong to any particular movement, one could say that on the aforementioned day the last of the great 1960s auteurs disappeared. He was known for the extreme length of his films, which were presented almost exclusively at film festivals and were often rather inaccessible to general audiences. Also a renowned teacher at FAMU, Vachek had a group of devoted followers among his students and a few film critics who constantly championed his work. Thus, the extent to which the official media attended to Karel Vachek’s passing came as quite a surprise. The major media offered celebratory eulogies and an unexpected and rather superficial “pantheonization” highlighting the filmmaker’s importance in the history of Czech cinema and beyond, which created a stark contrast to the unjust disregard of his work and person while he was alive. Vachek remained an island despite the artificial effort to build a bridge at a time when he could no longer argue, so to speak, the choice of construction materials.

The purpose of this article is not to be a polemic on the quality of writing itself; instead it aims to examine how far it can reach. A gloomy example drawn from familiar territory only reinforces my impression that film critics live in a bubble nowadays. At film events in (not only) the Czech Republic you can often see a table in a meeting area with a group of professionals engaged in animated discussion – maybe a producer, a sales agent, a programmer, and a filmmaker. But only rarely will you find a film critic among such a diverse gathering. Was there perhaps another table, not too far away but also not too close, populated exclusively by journalists exchanging opinions on film and about the group sitting over yonder? Why such seclusion? Is it we, the people from the first table, who don’t show enough respect for the film critic’s craft ? Are we not doing enough to help their often incredibly complex writing penetrate the minds and hearts of those whose work they explore ? Or at some point did critics fall into the trap of feeling too important about themselves and forgot that they exist because filmmakers are still making movies?

I used to think that the most difficult task facing a festival programmer with previous journalistic experience was identifying the point at which he or she must stop being the average film critic, the kind who filters the experience of watching a film through his or her own personality and offers a strictly subjective opinion. Instead, being a programmer involves the ability to create, mostly in a collaboration with others, a curated selection of films that audiences will willingly let into their lives regardless of their particular sensitivities. 

But maybe it isn’t necessary to draw such a line. Why not consider a film critic and a festival programmer as close collaborators? After all, beyond co-creating the glamour surrounding arthouse filmmakers, they should first and foremost offer encouragement, helping to build the self-confidence of those who strive toward art while pushing boundaries, thereby coaxing them to “unbutton.” The renewal of the dialogue between creation and analysis must start with the representatives of the latter who realize that artists need their protection and understanding. Caring support rather than strict judgment. Humble and passionate service rather than the alienating commandeering of a film as part of an ego trip for those who would be jobless without the unrelenting creativity of the ones who made us fall for the art of moving images in the first place.

Karel Och