Prague’s premiere documentary film festival launched the year I left the Czech Republic in a Trabant, the petite paper car made famous in a scene in Emir Kustirica’s Black Cat, White Cat, where a pig snacks on a dilapidated “Trabi” in a dusty field near the Danube. The little affordable auto with the motorcycle-sized engine, known as the “people’s car” of Eastern Europe, had by the early nineties become a symbol of freedom and liberty in the Czech Republic. One can now also place the vehicle as a proto-typical, industrial example of today’s increasingly widespread “slow movement.” That’s something I can testify to, as I recall having to put our Trabant, packed full with three passengers and luggage, into reverse gear in order to make it up and over a precipitous apex in the Slovenian Alps on our way from the Czech Republic to Croatia.
That dogged, unassuming, accessible and low-budgeted symbol of Eastern European perseverance was on my mind as I attended this year’s Jeden (pronounced Yeden) Svet or in English, One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in March. The festival, which was celebrating its 20th year, invited me to participate on the international jury along with Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Director Elizabeth McIntyre and Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, director of the award-winning documentary Sonita. Finer jury company I could not hope to find. My only regret was that we didn’t deliberate while driving along the Vltava in a tiny Trabi.
I didn’t attend the first edition in 1998 of what is now billed as the largest human rights festival in the world. At the time I had been living in Prague for almost two years as a carpenter, English teacher and cliché-addled bar poet, and left to chase other incoherent dreams of discovery in other parts of Europe. But my intimacy with the country from that period helped me instantly recognize iconic features of the place: the luscious Lucerna Kino, the historic Venceslav Square (a place of many demonstrations and revolutions), the tricky Czech language where “yes” sounds like “no” and there are more conjugations than ways to cook cheese, and the undeniable hospitality of the Czechs. In the magical city of Prague, that hospitality was in full force from the moment I arrived at the festival.
Jeden Svet is organized by a sizeable team of youthful folk (well let’s just say they weren’t drinking pivo in Letna Park with me in the nineties). They hail from Prague and beyond, and their attention to detail, sincere concern for doing things right, and intellectual curiosity about the intersection of politics and cinema was truly inspiring and inspired. The festival programmed 128 films from around the world, which together present a nuanced and provocative interpretation of “the human rights film.” In fact, after seeing over twenty of this year’s films, Jeden Svet might be in the business of altogether transcending the category as such.
While the vast majority of screened works remain firmly planted in the documentary tradition, the subtle ways in which “human rights” were expressed or embodied in the program moved refreshingly away from traditional configurations. Instead, they gestured to a society where the interpretation of some rights is culturally contingent (such as the right to die) and their champions are often unsung heroes not employed by the NGO sector. It was also refreshing to see a sectioned off spotlight on the USA in the program (called “Americana”) because here in Canada we are used to popular festivals allowing our muscular media neighbour to the South full program domination.
That said, and speaking of pronounced influence, Jeden Svet had programmed many films in their international competition that also screened and/or competed at IDFA in Amsterdam four months prior. This problem of film plucking is not an easy one to tackle, as the festival circuit works like a universal machine churning out screenings of a small percentage of the year’s cinematic efforts. Each festival is a consecutive gear in that machine, often spinning in harmony or attempting, with great difficulty, to move to its own cadence (and defy the decree of the festival calendar!). I discussed these issues (as did my fellow jury members) with the Jeden Svet programmers, including Ondrej Moravec and Julie Kárová, but so far there isn’t an easy solution.
The Prague team has, however, found solutions to other problems endemic to the festival circuit. With this in mind, I would like to underscore two particularly outstanding aspects of this indefatigable festival. They point to Jeden Svet’s fierce commitment to what I call the public interest documentary (as opposed to creeping commercial interests, which on this side of the pond are transforming documentary culture and events into their own feel-good social change racket). These two festival features also mark the intense intellectual spirit that permeates the programming, social spaces and management of the nine-day event.
The first is discussion. Jeden Svet is as serious about cinema as they are about human rights. At many large commercially-dominated festivals the screening experience is all too often reduced to individuated reception only symbolically punctuated by truncated Q&A sessions–often shorter than a Trabant’s trunk. The Prague folks aim much higher. I learned from the exhausted Debate Coordinator Veronika Klusáková, who was running between screenings, that the festival staged over 250 post-screening discussions. That would be commendable even if they mirrored other large festival conventions and kept the conversations capped at 10-15 minutes. But this festival must be praised for its commitment to that oral relic of the pre-internet era: live discourse. Discussions at Jeden Svet are lengthy, even sprawling affairs – a crucial discursive space created in a social setting where audiences can ruminate, reflect and react slowly, since they aren’t about to be ushered out for the next screening. When compared to the quick, slick Q&As at other festivals, this can indeed feel like a beleaguered Trabant impossibly edging up the proverbial mountain. But an approach of taking our time with something as complicated as film and human rights is a method we might do well to foster (and demand) at more festival spaces – the mode, platform and subject require this of us.
My ethnographic estimation here would suggest that the ample space the festival opens up for discussion, dialogue and debate isn’t only reflective of Jeden Svet, but might signal wider currents. During the week I spent in Prague I witnessed, as one does in any large city, many folks waiting. And while the Czechs waited for trams, for Svíčková, and for movies (including at Jeden Svet, where screenings were usually packed), I was taken aback by the sheer lack of heads buried in smartphones and other devices. And it’s not that they don’t have smartphones (seven out of 10.5 million Czechs do, and the number is growing), but people are spending idle time thinking or talking to each other. This may be an outsider’s rose-coloured view of Czech culture, but the historic attitudes toward intellectual pursuit and public debate appears to be not just the stuff of fiction.
The festival not only stages many post-screening discussions that are bucking the stilted Q&A trend but they put great effort into having representative local speakers in place of or even alongside international filmmaker guests. For example, take the screening of the plucky Finish film Activistka/Activist (Petteri Saario), which is about a fifteen-year-old villager who enters politics in order to protect her beloved Lapland from mining companies (one of which is of course Canadian–our proud international legacy!). The festival invited a Czech activist guest speaker, who like the film’s protagonist also joined the Green Party and was engaged in fighting to protect the natural environment from encroaching extraction industries. I couldn’t follow most of the one-hour discussion, which was in Czech (most debates have simultaneous translation, but not that one) but two helpful audience members summarized the discussion for me. As someone interested in the power of documentary to activate audiences, it was encouraging to hear that much of the debate centred on how to take action locally.
The festival is so committed to creating critical collective spaces for voicing reactions, reflections and ideas that they made the rather unorthodox move to show their VR films as scheduled clusters, with time slotted for the audience to discuss, post private headset experiences (instead of the usual drop-in arrangement). I unfortunately couldn’t stay for the discussion after my Virtual Reality program, but Gina Kim’s 12’ VR film Bloodless stands out as one of the few works in this emerging genre to circumvent voyeurism and implicate the audience in disturbing, deeply moving ways. The Korea Herald recounts that the director was concerned with creating the conditions of “empathy without exploitation,” an edict that we as a film community would do well to adopt across our productions, platforms and institutions.
The second stand out feature of Jeden Svet is access. Almost all screenings at the festival have separate projected Czech subtitles, many with closed captioning as well. The festival has a Coordinator for Accessibility (Eva Hrabalová), and dedicated coordinators for deaf and hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired, physically disabled and mentally disabled audience members. Ticket prices are affordable; many events are free. Social events, which are organized around the city in various venues (including one amazing rooftop visit) are structured in a very open and friendly manner, making the festival not only accessible to the public, but to industry and civil society members as well.
I appreciated these intimate, friendly social spaces tremendously, and can’t think of another festival space that simultaneously modulates professionalism while maintaining a determined focus on diverse, relationship-building encounters. With inimitable guests like Mai Khoi, Lina Ben Mheni, Leszek Jazdzewski and Aizat Shakieva in attendance (all on the Václav Havel jury), such spaces become intellectual, artistic and political infused spaces of transformation, collaboration and imagination. The thoughtful creation of these approachable, accessible and open fora where the discussion and debate can continue, sans badge police, is an exceptional aspect of this uniquely intimate and globally convened festival.
On a last note about access, Jeden Svet has also organized a circuit of screening locations throughout the Czech Republic, where “projectionists” screen the festival’s films throughout the year in their own communities. I was invited to talk about Cinema Politica with a room full of these local political film enthusiasts. They came from all walks of life, and hearing about their commitment and passion outside of the metropole of Prague was emboldening for me (thanks to Michaela Weingartová for organizing and inviting me). As those of us working in community distribution/exhibition like to say, there is no shortage of social issue films people are ready to see and no shortage of audiences–only a lack of screening spaces outside of commercial venues. As Jeden Svet shares their knowledge and content into the farthest corners of the country, that paucity of possibility presented by political film diminishes, screening by screening.
And so, as I bid ahoj to this exceptional festival with tremendous reach and impact on a shoestring budget, I feel compelled to give thanks to the passionate, dedicated and intellectually curious who keep Jeden Svet’s engine fired as it moves slowly but assuredly toward the next summit of social change.