Posted by Susan Doll on April 27, 2009
My job at Facets Multi-Media in Chicago offers great access to some of the latest foreign films, documentaries, and other alternative movies. Between our theater, rent-by-mail service, and DVD label, I have seen hundreds of films most people don’t even know exist. Some of them are terrific; some enhance my understanding of the possibilities of film as an art form; while others belong to the “watching-paint-dry” school of filmmaking. But, at least none of them are directed by Michael Bay, or include geeky male characters in suspended states of adolescence, or feature major stars wasting their talents jumping around in superhero costumes.
Recently, I have been working with a documentary series from the Czech Republic called Private Century that has become one of my favorite titles. It is not only a moving viewing experience but it really stretches the boundaries of what many think a documentary should be. Private Century is an eight-episode series consisting entirely of home-movie footage from the 1920s through the 1960s.
Czech documentary filmmaker Jan Sikl collected the home movies, selected the footage for the series, and then edited it down into eight 52-minute episodes. Each episode follows the private events of one extended family through the years, and in doing so, chronicles the country’s historical events of the 20th century. In an interview with Radio Praha, Sikl noted:
“Czechoslovakia’s 20th century is a history of constant assault on human identity. Whether we talk about both of the World Wars, and then the communist system-there were many regime changes throughout the century. Even the communist era had different chapters, some harsher than others and people had to adjust to the reality of the time. I think that all of this history is typically viewed only through the lens of power-politics, and the individual histories of people get lost. This series of films gives us the rare chance to enter and perhaps better understand particular moments in history-through the story of someone’s intimate life. So the people are in the foreground, but the events of 20th century Czechoslovak political history enter each and every one of these lives, quite often in a dramatic way, changing them forever.”
I was surprised that Sikl found home movies from as far back as the 1920s. I didn’t realize the phenomenon stretched that far back, or that regular folk could afford it. I have seen the home movies of Alfred Hitchcock and famous movie stars of the period, but these people were in the film industry and were therefore familiar with the equipment. I would never have guessed that gentleman farmers and other common folk were also shooting movies of family gatherings, events, and just plain good times. However, according to Sikl, many people from the Czechoslovak middle class could afford the equipment, and the practice became so common during the First Republic (the era before World War II) that the director refers to it as a “tradition.”
Eight episodes comprise the whole of Private Century. “Daddy and Lili Marlene” and “King of Velichovky” follow the family of Karl Seisser, a gentleman farmer of the German-dominated Sudetenland, before and after World War II. “Statuary of Granddad Vinda” is the story of sculptor Vincenc Havel, a cantankerous artist who struggles for appreciation during the communist era. “See You in Denver” tells of two movie-loving cousins who make their own shoot-em-ups after the communists confiscate their stash of Hollywood westerns. “One Stroke of Butterfly Wings” follows music composer Vaclav Felix who falls for the communists’ ideology and allows it to dictate his life choices. “With Kisses from Your Love” chronicles the destruction of Bohemia’s oldest photography studio after the communists nationalize all businesses. And “Small Russian Clouds of Smoke” and “Low Level of Flight” follow two generations of the Popov family, who immigrated to Czechoslovakia from Russia to escape the Bolsheviks.
My favorite episodes are “See You in Denver” and “With Kisses from Your Love.” In the former, two cousins, Frantisek and Ferdinand,” grow up loving the cinema. Frantisek and Ferdinand’s fathers own a movie distribution company together, and Frantisek’s father owns a chain of theaters in Prague. Frantisek’s father also shoots family movies, and the two boys are featured in most of the footage. At the family-run theater, the boys discover that their favorite movies are Hollywood westerns, especially the B-movies and programmers designed for matinees and weekends. Frantisek and Ferdinand were particularly taken with a movie in which two cowboy buddies on opposite sides of the law part ways with a unique farewell: “See You in Denver.” When one of the cowboys must ride off to certain death, the two solemnly say good-bye with their standard send-off in a scene that touched both boys. After seeing that movie, Frantisek and Ferdinand adopt “See You in Denver” as their own farewell.
Over the years, history takes it toll on the family-run cinema business. In 1938, the Nazis close down the distributorship and confiscate half the films (including Nosferatu and several Chaplin films). Fortunately, Frantisek’s father manages to set aside many of the Hollywood westerns. In the mid-1940s, when the communists nationalize all of Czechoslovakia’s businesses, the family’s only remaining theater is taken by the government. Frantisek’s father now manages the theater that he once owned and operated. But, even that duty is taken from him when he shows a Soviet-made movie with sound problems. After the local Party members accuse him of deliberately lowering the sound on the film, he is demoted to projectionist. The boys begin showing the old Hollywood films in Frantisek’s basement, but someone informs on them, and the movies are confiscated by the secret police. Not to be defeated, the boys begin to make their own westerns, using members of the family and neighborhood friends as actors.
As an adult, Frantisek runs afoul of the communists. While in the army, he is imprisoned for two years for making a joke that was misconstrued as an anti-communist remark. After that, the Party has it in for him and his family, and he cannot get decent housing or a decent job. Finally, he and his family immigrate to Canada during the 1960s, leaving his best friend/cousin behind. Like a modern-day movie tourist, Frantisek visits America’s famous Wild West towns that he and Ferdinand knew from the movies, prompting him to send a postcard to his cousin, whom he will never see again, with this poignant message: “See You in Denver.”
“With Kisses from Your Love” tells the story of Josef and Marie Slechtl (in color photo at top of post), who were childhood sweethearts. When Marie marries Josef, she begins working in the family’s photography studio, which dates back to 1886. Their archives of glass plates, negatives, and prints documented the country’s history for half the 20th century. Not long after Josef takes charge of the studio from his father, the communists nationalize all businesses. Like Frantisek’s father in “See You in Denver,” the Slechtls now work for the business they once owned. Josef is then sent to prison for taking money for photographing a wedding, leaving Marie alone in the studio. One day, Party members sweep in and confiscate the family archives, sending the glass plates to the local mirror factory where they are broken and used in mirrors. Many prints and negatives of WWII are thrown in the river, presumably because they documented local Party members collaborating with the Nazis or perhaps because men who were heady with power needed to dominate a lone woman in a vulnerable situation.
All of the episodes are fascinating stories of people caught up in the ebb and flow of history in different ways. The episodes are organized in a very loose chronology beginning with the era between the World Wars and ending with the 1960s, though one episode references the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The films really stress the idea that history is not cold hard facts and dates as set forth in dusty tomes in the library; it is the triumphs and tragedies of flesh-and-blood people forced to survive political upheavals they did not foresee.
Sikl began collecting home movies in the early 1990s, inspired by Hungarian director Peter Forgacs who was using family films in his own work. In 1992, Sikl established the Private Film History Archive featuring a growing collection of amateur family films. Over the years, he amassed a great amount of archive material, dating back to the 1920s and including about 600 stories. However, the films by themselves were no more interesting than the home movies of my family, or that two-hour wedding video that a relative forces you to watch. As director Jan Sikl noted, “On their own the silent films were lifeless-they showed streets, people, and a time about which nobody knew anything.”
Sikl tracked down the families in the footage and interviewed surviving members. He selected the families he wanted to showcase, and then figured out the narrative arcs based on their stories and memories. All of the footage is authentic: None of it was manufactured, altered, or restored no matter what condition it was found in. Those annoying DVD geeks and fanatics who speculate endlessly (and needlessly) on PAL to NTSC transfers, flaws in the original source material, glitches, correct screen ratios, etc. will probably feint at the scratches, faded footage, out-of-focus shots, and other flaws in these films. But, the beauty is in the flaws, which signal the authenticity of the material.
Sikl’s artistry as a director comes through in the editing process during which he shaped the material. Sometimes he had to wrangle up to 10 to 15 hours worth of footage, 80% of which was worthless from the stand point of the story he wanted to tell. His presence is also evident in the voice-over commentaries, which he wrote and sometimes spoke. To write the commentary, he would spend 20 to 30 hours talking to the relatives. According to Sikl, “I had to concentrate their testimony into an hour long commentary and I always used their own words. But I could not use their authentic voice, because they are too involved in the story. I decided to read the commentary myself, because I felt I had become a part of this story, as if I was bringing the testimony.” The voice-over commentary adds layers of meaning to the episodes. They not only tie the family to important historical events but they also add a melancholic mood and an undercurrent of political criticism. For example, in “With Kisses from Your Love,” the film footage is cut together chronologically, but the commentary features excerpts from love letters sent from Josef to Maria when he was in prison. As the viewer catches on to the idea that the voice-over is from the future, it creates tension and a feeling of futility because we know something bad is going to happen to the couple who are so in love. When the Communist Party sends Josef to prison, we see the Party as the clear villain of the story. We are critical of the Party’s actions against Josef and Maria and by extension the policies that led to them.
I think the average understanding of what constitutes documentary has become narrow in the age of the History Channel and PBS documentaries. While I like their programming, nonfiction film is so much more than what you find on those channels. Unfortunately, most documentary viewers are unaware of this, primarily because the critical discourse available on documentaries is so poor. I have read many reviews of documentaries that criticize them for not being objective, for not presenting both sides to an issue, or for being too poetic. I don’t know where the idea began that documentaries were supposed to be objective, straightforward truth-telling. But, John Grierson, the person who coined the term “documentary” back in the early 1930s, defined this mode of filmmaking as the “creative treatment of actuality.” In other words, the subject matter of documentary is nonfiction, aka “the real world,” but it is driven by point of view (not objective truth) and open to creative manipulation by the filmmaker. With its purposeful editing and subjective commentary, Private Century fits Grierson’s definition of documentary while still offering an informed look at a time and place not our own.
Facets Multi-Media (www.facets.org/cinematheque) will be showing Private Century on the weekends of May 2 to 3 and May 9 to 10. Half of the series is offered on the two Saturdays, and the other half on Sundays. Anyone in the Chicago area interested in documentary will not be disappointed in this remarkable series and may even be inspired to dig out their own home movies.
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