Philippe Moins finds the Anifest in Trebon in the Czech Republic an opportune time to take a look at the current Czech animation scene and the many influences from its illustrious past.
In international animation film festivals, Czech films have become a rarity. In the past, the Czech Republic used to be considered, along with Canada, as a flagship country for independent animated filmmaking. The artistic quality, the craftsmanship and the uniqueness of these films fascinated western Europeans for decades.
Today, as with other former eastern European countries, the fall of the communist regimes has brought about freedom of speech, but has not favored the national film production, globalization being particularly ruthless to small film countries.
So what about the Czech Republic, which separated from Slovakia just a few months after the Velvet Revolution1. To set things straight, we should recall first that before this revolution and in spite of its poetic quality, Czech animation was far from living a fairy tale. Despite its great international reputation, it was only the shadow of what it used to be before the invasion of Prague by the Soviet army in 1968.
Jan Svankmajer himself contributed to an altered image of reality, not deliberately of course. Audiences who saw his short films in western Europe were given the impression that Czech filmmakers benefited from both creative and non-conformist context, while in reality Svankmajer was forbidden to work for numerous years. And censorship could not only be used as a political tool, but also to favor soothing views.
From 1990, the narrow censors made way for the self-made businessmen who found an easy answer to the expectations of the artists who, for the most part, were paid by the state. They basically had to cope with it and adapt to the laws of the market. But even this market was an illusive one. Animation professionals were laid off from the few studios that remained despite the lack of orders. Exile or cheap and often illusive subcontracting had become the only way out for the Czech animator. In the mid-90s, I visited the Barrandow studios its empty halls exhaled a feeling of infinite sadness.
Is the rise of the liberal economy which has taken over the country 15 years ago responsible for all the plights of the animators? Or did things change since then? One can positively say that there has been an improvement, and the reason is obvious when traveling in the country; even if it does not yet benefit everybody, economic growth is plain to see.
Anifest, the International Festival of Animated Film of the city of Trebon, organized in May in the Czech Republic by a young team working in a close relationship with professionals, hints at how Czech animation could revive its past status.
1 Name given to the pacifist revolution that brought an end to the pro-soviet regime.
Trebon is a picturesque city situated in south Bohemia. Entirely preserved and devotedly looked after, its historical center evokes a cinema set. One could almost expect to bump into Amadeus or Salieri on the street, or perhaps puppet-like versions of them, because the city is so tiny that everything happens at a surprisingly small scale, which gives the festival a decidedly friendly mood. The town is surrounded by beautiful landscapes of woods, ponds and colza fields.
A significant international selection, the massive presence of professionals and students, high profile workshops and conferences (this year the theme was violence in the media), all contribute to make the festival an attractive and interesting event for anyone interested in eastern European animation.
The Anifest section dedicated to contemporary Czech short films also comes as a surprise for the outsider. More than 30 films produced between 2004 and 2005 competed for the Jameson Prize (named after an Irish whisky seeking to enter the Czech market), showing a diversity of inspiration and techniques not yet swept away by the hurricane of 3D. Most of them are, however, student films; but this is the case in most countries where student films account for more than 50% of the short film production.
This Czech section revealed some promising young talent such as Barbora Dlouha (How the Men and Women Get Together) and allowed us to catch up with some established filmmakersÂ such as Aurel Klimt, Pavel Koutsky, Jiri Barta and Michaela Pavlatova. The last three directed together Letters from the Czecho, a short film about Japanese children writing letters from the Czech republic. The film was awarded the Jameson Prize.
The careers of these four directors are however taking very different paths. The prolific Pavel Koutsky produces with great regularity corrosive and politically challenging cartoons.
Michaela Pavlatova, who broke through in 1991 when Words Words Words was selected for an Oscar, traveled from Prague to the United States where she used to teach. She continues to work in animation, but has other interests; she directed an autobiographic portrait of her grandmother and a live-action feature.
Jiri Barta, the elder, also teaches animation. His feature film Krysar and its wooden characters aesthetically inspired by medieval altarpieces has become a milestone for many puppet animators. For years, he has been trying to find producers for his feature project, The Golem, but has been unsuccessful so far, despite contacts with French and Japanese companies. This is a shame, because with Aurel Klimt, he is one of the last representatives of a trend in Czech animation that follows in the footsteps of their glorious predecessors.
The younger Aurel Klimt chose to collaborate with the experienced Vlasta Pospisilova (who worked as an animator for Barta and Svankmajer) to direct a feature film based on the work of a Czech writer, Jan Werichas Fimfarum. The film is puppet-animated; the scenery is very detailed and the paper characters seem related to the film work of cartoonist Peter Pos. One could find the same influence of this eastern European style in another film of the competition, Jan Balejs Ulity.
When you talk to young animators during festival breaks, you realize that the glorious Czech heritage is one that is not easy to live with. Mention Trnka in the conversation, and theyll look at you the way theyll look at an old tourist. Most of them are more drawn toward modernity. Young Czechs have the same tastes as young people from other parts of the world. Among these new talents, Vaclav Svankmajer, fresh out of the famed Famu school in Prague, stands out. While the atmosphere of his short film is purposefully gothic, the script could be that of a videogame. Judging by the applause meter, the son of Jan Svankmajer has a real fan club at Anifest.
It seems that with four schools, including the Famu in Prague (which overall have between 15 and 20 students a year) and almost 15 studios, Czech animation is ready to rise from its ashes. These small studios, all born after 1990 and the fall of the state monopoly, employ about 150 people. Most of them were created by professionals, which was the only way they could continue their trade. But its been an obstacle course for them since investors in the sector are hard to find.
Some feared independent animated films were bound to disappear, but they did survive against all odds, thanks mainly to the support of the Czech TV. Without this support, Czech animation would have met the same fate as in other countries that used to provide quality animation, like Bulgaria or Slovakia.
The national TV channel does without its own animation studio, which means it has to order from independent studios. It funds between two and four series a year, which adds to its vast catalogue of pre-90s productions. Even though this catalogue may now look dated, the re-release of Zdenek Millers The Mole last year shows that it still has potential.
Czech television has, for instance, played a major role in the financing of the aforementioned Jan Werichas Fimfarum. It had to play this role alone because none of the two private channels, Nova and Prima, are investing in production.
It is still difficult to find money to finance an animated series. As for short films, they have an alternative source of financing the State Fund for the Support and Development of the Czech Film Industry donates a modest 2,000,0002 a year to be shared by fiction, documentary and animation projects! Bearing this in mind, it is amazing to see the number of short films produced in the country on such a small budget. It just demonstrates how much the animation virus has taken over the new generation, which, symptomatically, makes up most of the Anifest audience.
However, foreign partnership is still a must and that is probably the area where a lot has to be done. The status of Czech animation is not drawing those who go east to find cheap labor and subcontracting.
The Czech Republic just joined the European Union, and it now must face the same challenges as other member countries if on one hand, they are able to fully benefit from the help of the MEDIA program, or on the other, they have to survive in a highly competitive market. Despite the politicians claims of educational or cultural objectives, market laws and audience polls increasingly rule the audiovisual media, which drags it down toward mediocrity.
When asked about the situation in their country, many Czech animators seem disappointed by the governments lack of interest in culture. Will the recent appointment of former actor and director of the Zlin Youth Film Festival Vitezslav Jandak be enough to restore their confidence? He has already promised to ask for more money for the sector. With the prospect of elections in few months, he has little time to waste.
Thanks to Tomàs Rychecky from Anifest.
Philippe Moins is writer and teacher in Belgium, and also co-director of the Brussels Animation Festival ANIMA.
2 No more than US$2 million.