Czech Mate – In Search of Jiri Menzel #jirimenzel

May 25, 2018 at 6:32 pm (Cinema, Kiran David) (, )

I have to confess there are very few documentaries that really interest me; as for peddling nobility of intent – I give a rat’s arse. For me it almost becomes difficult to see most of them. The documentaries I love manage to pivot on the cusp of reality and fiction. Hence the works of Marker, Godard, Ackerman, Varda, Resnais, Kiarostami, Matsumoto, Ivens and quite often, Herzog, have a special resonance for me. This doesn’t mean I do not see other documentaries. While there are exceptions, most of them are mundane.


Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s (normally known as Shivi) 7 hour-15 minute film, the financially demanding and crippling labour of love made over 8 years “Czech Mate” (In search of Jiri Menzel) is astonishing. Transcending the interview format film besides being a work of heroic endeavour.

What started as maybe a 90-min film on Menzel evolved into a window to the Czech new wave.

Menzel is still the central figure, but a whole era of the New Wave is evoked through the experiences of practitioners and their response to Jiri Menzel’s work. Shivi has managed to interview every living member of the movement and some of their precursors, mentors, current directors, cameramen, film historians and critics. Unfortunately, Otakar Vavra, teacher at FAMU, filmmaker and mentor, passed away (a little over a 100) a few days before he was to be interviewed. In the course of the completion of the film about 10 filmmakers who were interviewed passed away.

Other than the Czech greats we are familiar with, present in the project are the great now 90-plus Vojtěch Jasný whose “Cassandra Cat” I’m desperate to see. Also besides Věra Chytilová, we get to hear the other great woman director, Drahomira Vihanova, whose work I have unfortunately never seen. Alongside Czech and Slovakian film makers also featured are Wajda, Loach, Allen, Holland, Coutard, Kusturica, Zafranovic and Czech/Slovenian cinema authority and author, Peter Hames. The notable absentee among the living is Milan Kundera, who did teach at FAMU. Reticent for years, he generally doesn’t talk to anyone. He did agree this one time thanks to a request on the phone by Menzel, but a bomb blast in Paris drove him back to his shell.

What Shivi does with great intelligence is not impose a forced perspective on the work. He gives enough latitude to the participants and the film form to express ideas and emotion. As the work unfolds we experience the art that emerged and suffered along with its creators under the communist regime. A filmmaker says, “Hitler killed many… Stalin more.”  Telling us that the leftist governments in power also tended toward a tyranny and a kind of fascism. During the less than 8- month Prague Spring where Dubček tried to give a humane face to communism, many films were made but were banned by the time they were ready for release, only to find an audience some 20 years later in the 1990s, thanks to the Russian invasion. Directors who stayed in Czechoslovakia had to face persecution; even those who were not antagonistic openly, like Menzel, had to make compromises, or use codes to express their ideas.  Evald Schorm, often referred to as the saint of the movement, went through great suffering. Some of the directors defected, but only Forman found sucess, though his American works pale in comparison to his works at home. Jan Němec, the great master who made “Diamonds in the Night” and “A Report on the Party and the Guests” too defected to the States, but did not succeed. He jokes that he invented the Wedding Video. But behind the chuckle and bravado lies pain.

Magda Vášáryová, the actress of Menzel’s wonderful satire “Cutting it short” (based on the writings of   Bohumil Hrabal who along with Vladislav Vančura are the greatest Czech writers of the 20th century) was a victim of the so-called free western Europe. She was pelted with eggs by feminists for acting in the film. Hicks rabid with an agenda, however worthwhile, but lacking the intelligence to understand the subtleties and context of a work are no better than Mutalik’s goons beating up young women at pubs in Mangalore. Unlike them, Magda Vášáryová would bravely protest against the ruling dispensation, while government-armed snipers were placed on the rooftops ready to shoot. She did later become a Slovakian minister.

While Menzel, the central figure in the documentary, is admired, he is also criticised. The great documentary filmmaker, Karel Vachek whose films I haven’t yet seen, is particularly critical of his work. At one point criticising Menzel’s “My sweet little village” (written by   Zdeněk Svěrá), he calls it kitsch, and says at least with Hrabal’s work Menzel did not make kitsch. Vachek then begs pardon for being vulgar, and says the difference between him and Menzel is similar to that between Dostoevsky and Turgenev.

More importantly, however, the film is not a banal dispenser of facts; the work treats the audience with respect and allows for a healthy interaction between the viewer and his, her or its intelligence with the film; a tenuous matrix is formed between the perceiver and the perceived. It is one of the rare cases in Indian cinema where the filmmaker dares to use dead time to fine effect. The work, through its very being, evokes heroic endeavour, an artistic quest, a cultural context and the horrors of a terrifying political system.

– Kiran David.


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About Avatar

May 18, 2010 at 2:48 pm (Cinema, Mary McQueary) (, , , )

To say that the movie Avatar is about an alien Jewish American Princess having a hissy fit is actually a fairly accurate assessment. But that wasn’t the only storyline it contained. It was as if the writers’ brainstorming session became the script.  “What if the Indians weren’t decimated by smallpox and they united to fight against us?” suggests one writer.  “I say we pit the military against the scientists”, insists another.  “Don’t forget to plant the plot of boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl in there too, that’ll guarantee it to be a Academy Award nominee”.

That being said, you’d think this movie would be one I’d say pass on. But wait, underneath all the stereotypes and repetitious yawn provoking obvious storylines there truly were some thinking persons’ treasures.

To begin with, the alien planet’s animals are amalgams.  Is that part dinosaur, dragon, hummingbird, dragonfly? Thank goodness for that boring plot line, as your brain is suddenly found busily scanning the creatures, performing a type of IQ test, analyzing and identifying which part of the animal comes from which earth animal.

While your brain is busy analyzing creatures and/or creating its own chimeras and asking questions such as, “how many creatures do we have on Earth that are colorfully feathered?” and your inner child begins shouting, “I want to fly on the back of one of those too!” in slips a current events issue.  The hero of our movie has a spine injury and has lost the use of his legs. Note the subtle atrophy to them through the movie, so the question pops up, if medical technology exists to give a person back the ability to use their legs, should cost prevent them from getting such medical procedures?  While you mull over whether you support healthcare reform in slides a thorn to prick you about your internet usage.  

Today, more and more people are living two lives, one online and one IRL (in real life), and just as in the movie, one of our worlds goes limp and silent when the other is active. How IRL are we?  Have we become slaves to our overactive overfed imaginations? Is it possible to regain a relationship with our planet, to have it as our playground, our kitchen, our medicine cabinet, our protector, our home once again?  Or have we let cyberspace steal us away from our own place and kind? In Avatar choices are made, there is no playing for both teams.  This is this lesson I think merited spending $100 million to make and hopefully will be a couple hours of joyful movie viewing for you.

– Mary McQueary

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Sthaniya Sambaad : Something Bijjare This Way Comes

May 16, 2010 at 9:30 am (Cinema, Kiran David) (, , )

While we live in a country that makes the largest number of films in the world, unfortunately most of them are of the lowest quality. In fact, even the so-called ‘good’ films endorsed by cretins in the media are abominable. Most practitioners of the medium do not know even the basics, and the critics who write about them know even less. One enters halls screening most contemporary Indian [actually also most current Hollywood] films, with a sense of great terror at the idea of wasting a couple of hours of your pre-determined short life. It really curdles your blood when you are subjected to the bovine expressions and simian observations that critics, both in the press and more so on TV, pass off as ‘expert opinion’ on this so-called cinema. There is also a funny bunch of directors who say that if given a good budget they would make world-class films. My response to them has always been, “Bullshit man, learn the language and find your fucking idiom.” Yet another kind of mutt leans towards you and whispers, “I am making a film for the festival circuit.” I am tempted to vomit on this type. One thing our mediocre bunch should learn is to shut the fuck up and try to make films with a modicum of honesty. In the process, they may pick up intelligence and wit which most great filmmakers possess.  

Despite my reservations mentioned above, I do not deny that on very very rare occasions, experiencing movies both within and outside the mainstream has been rewarding. Listing them here is not the intention of this piece, but to talk about one in particular.

I was privileged to see the Bengali film Sthaniya Sambaad [Springtime in the colony], the first feature co-directed by Arjun Gourisaria and Moinak Biswas. The film, besides being a delightful work, is also one of remarkable clarity and musicality. Though the narrative is quite simple and easy to follow, the joy is in the way the filmmakers have structured it.

 Space and time, the two fundamental coordinates, are used with intelligence and grace. The film is set across three spaces. First, Deshbandhu Colony, where the protagonists live, many of them refugees who came from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) over a period of time, beginning with partition. The second is Park Street, referred to in the film as White Town (or Shaheb Para) and the third is New Town where, as the name suggests, new townships are being developed.

What makes the film special is the way the directors have used basic, almost seminal, tools of the medium to navigate between these spaces within the temporal context of the film. The first part of the story takes place in Deshbandhu Colony; it then splits the action between the colony and White Town. The third part fragments what happens between the first two spaces and New Town. After this we observe scenes unfolding between New Town and the colony, and finally, we come back to the colony in the concluding part of the film.

 The film also has a certain musicality – the makers structure the film as variations on a theme. Here every sequence actually works as a minor variation of the major theme, which is never explicitly stated but constantly implied. In point of fact, the almost shocking opening sequence with the braid (or did someone say ‘bride’) works as an evocation, a variation and also a metaphor of the film’s theme. Unlike the ham-fisted Let’s Talk, a film made a few years ago with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, where the filmmaker kept insisting it was structured like a Thumri (hence variations on a theme), Sthaniya Sambaad actually travels this path with incredible sophistication and grace. 

Besides the formal nature of the work, here is a film that states its geography, evokes its histories, exists on the cusp of a world that is changing. A young poet who is floundering, unrequited youthful love, misunderstandings regarding where the ‘nape’ is located, a chorus and life with all its joys, sorrows and endless other quotidian details emerge in this film.

The cast of Sthaniya Sambad seems handpicked for the job. Rarely has one seen such a bunch of talented actors in one film, all of them mercifully non-stars. To name a few – Anirban Dutta, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Anindya Banerjee, Suvankar Mitra, Sanat Sen, Sourya Deb, Thatagata Chowdhury, Shubam Roy Chowdhury, Aranya Chowdhury, Bratya Basu, Nayana Palit, Manali Dey, Kasturi Chatterji and the delightful duo Mrinal Ghosh and Dilip Sarkar. The list could go on but what is most important, more than the performances, is the way they understand and appropriate their roles. Recently, I watched on television an annoying TV-type with the expression of a computer-generated smiley interviewing Aishwariya Rai who actually referred to herself and some of her crones as artists. Talk about delusional. I suggest she watch this film, maybe she would realize that there is a craft in acting that is way beyond her.

One of the things that struck me after watching Sthaniya Sambad was whether this film (which was produced by the recently dissolved Black Magic Motion Pictures of which Goursaria was a partner) would have been given the thumbs-up by other corporatized production companies. I imagine those vacant employees hired by the companies to go through scripts wouldn’t know a good script if it became a projectile and fucked them in the ass. Most of them would not have the imagination or wit to know the poetics that exist beyond the script and within the process. For lovers of cinema who eternally hope that something worthwhile will happen in this part of the world, Sthaniya Sambaad is really a miracle.

While I always believe it’s the films that make the festival and not the other way round, I feel disappointed that Sthaniya Sambaad did not make it to the Cannes film festival. Not so much that it is the place to be, but that it would have given the film the international platform it deserves. I believe a film Udhaan from India has been selected in the Un Certain Regard category. I would not like to comment on it before seeing it. I honestly hope it is a good film and not something catering to the Slumdog Millionaire-type sensibility. I wish it success and if it is achieves 10 % of what Sthaniya Sambaad achieves, I shall consider myself a happy slob.

Finally, I have to say, as an aside to both Arjun and Moinak – “Man, or is it men, or just the usual friendly fuckers, the opening shot works.”

–  Kiran David

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