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Filmmaker Jan Hrebejk on Communist-Era Drama ‘The Teacher’

One of the Czech Republic’s most prolific filmmakers, Jan Hrebejk returns to Karlovy Vary with “The Teacher,“ a social satire set in 1980s Czechoslovakia. The story, based on true events, revolves around an elementary school teacher whose penchant for blackmailing and extorting her pupils and their parents may have gone to far, uniting the parents against her and providing an intense drama that has drawn comparisons to “12 Angry Men.“

Hrebejk spoke to Variety at Karlovy Vary about the inspiration for the story and the Czech Republic’s communist past.

What was it about this particular story that made you want to film it?

Although the story of “The Teacher” is set during the communist era, we didn’t mean to simply reconstruct the atmosphere of the past. The theme of the film is fear and the subsequent willingness of an individual to succumb to corruption — the fact that some people serve those who have power over them, and, hence, get advantages for themselves and their closest ones. Nevertheless, these advantages can turn against them in the long run. The film, therefore, isn’t a historical illustration. It tells a story about general human behavior, of situations that happen regardless of the time period. Nowadays, a quarter of a century after the fall of communism, our country is fighting corruption, which permeates all the layers of society. Our film is not only concerned with the educational system, where today, on the contrary, the more influential parents can often blackmail the teachers, but it acts as a model situation. We are depicting a fragment of society and its behavior in a critical situation. The film is a reflection of the bravery which we have to find within ourselves at current times as well as in the past. The contemporary subject of the theme is what caught my attention in the first place. I took it as a universal metaphor, which stands for the problems that originate from a period in which our story takes place.

Despite the serious subject, your film tells the story with humor. How important was it for you to present the story with a humorous touch?

The presence of humor is a way of resistance in the Czech Republic. It is how we face injustice. Czech cinema, as well as literature, has a long-standing tradition in a form of poetry, where realism is spun by often bitter and ironic humor, which is at the same time very humane. Milos Forman, Ivan Passer or Jiri Menzel were always our great inspiration. They developed this tradition and were able to mediate it to the world. Humor is actually an essence of life experience. By telling serious stories with a pinch of humor, we are trying to approximate the truthful tone in our films. Precisely at the point where the tragic and comical meet, we can discover the truth about our lives.

To what extent was this kind of “blackmail” and “extortion” by teachers in the school system typical in the former Czechoslovakia during the communist regime?

This concrete case of a teacher was inspired by life, but of course this was not the rule as such. It is true, though, that the society based on a system of “services” and “counter services” and on the Orwellian paradox that some animals are more equal than the others, of course encouraged the existence of such behavior. What I find disturbing, however, is the fact that at present when the law is evaded, such behavior once again enables this and it is very difficult to stop it. But it is important to keep trying however different the present conditions within the new society are compared to the time when our film takes place. In the end, these are the basic things of our inner selves: morals, conscience and personal responsibility not only for ourselves but for the society as a whole.

I understand that Petr Jarchovsky’s script is based on a true story. Are the events in the film very close to the actual story?

The film characters have been inspired by real people. Even the rudimentary dramatic situation happened similarly. Petr Jarchovsky was 11 or 12-years-old when he himself was confronted with this blackmailing of a comrade teacher who looked so nice and kind at first sight. His parents were forced by the teacher to get involved in similar things as the film parents. Even the conspiratory meeting of the parents really took place. Petr, when asked, “How long did you write the script?” sometimes answers that it took him 35 years. This experience has formed his personality and it has radically changed his view on reality in which we had to live, especially his view of people’s characters … his personal experience is “deluded” between all three families.

How much interest do you see among modern young Czechs in learning about the country’s communist past?

This is not an easy question to answer. In general, people try to get rid of unpleasant experiences. And of course there is a threat of losing their own collective memory and their own identity. We are neither historians nor teachers but with our stories we use ways of entertainment to keep the public memory alive.

Are you already developing your next project? What will it be about?

I said jokingly many times, that Petr Jarchovsky doesn’t make up anything from scratch, but he can listen. And that he can do extraordinarily well! This trade is the most visible when his ears are closest to his family (“Cosy Dens”), close friends (“Divided We Fall,” “Kawasaki’s Rose,” “Innocence”) or when we are simply talking with each other (“Up and Down”). Currently, I am filming a large project, the family saga “Garden Store.” It is a chronicle of Jarchovsky’s family and how he perceived it during his childhood. We were talking about it since his teenage years and just now he found the strength to patiently question his parents and write three loosely continuous movie scripts, which tell the stories of characters that span over 20 years. This vast and difficult project to produce is one of our most autobiographical ones. We believe that the deeper we go into our own family histories and the more we stay “in our homes,” the more valid and, eventually, more universally comprehensible story we create.

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