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Some 50 years after the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet forces, tensions in the Czech Republic still remain. Indeed, although she hails from Ukraine, an area whose people have much more in common with the Czechs than they perhaps realize, director Anna Kryvenko, who now lives in Prague, is well aware of anti-immigrant prejudice that Russian-speakers often face on a daily basis there. However, this was not uppermost in her mind when Kryvenko embarked on the film school project that eventually became her feature debut “My Unknown Soldier,” which premieres in the First Light strand of the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival.

Using rare archival footage from the time, the film pivots on a family secret that only came to light as Kryvenko was researching the period: her grand uncle was part of the occupying forces that came to Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a Soviet soldier and had subsequently been banished from the family album. Confronted with this story, Kryvenko was moved to create both a poetic meditation on the Prague Spring and a film that has much to say about today, especially given the proliferation of intolerant far-right sentiment that has spread around the world.

When did you realize you had the material for a feature film?
Oh, a few years ago. It’s already been three years since I started work on this film, so it was maybe four or five years ago. I was at my parents’ home in Ukraine [at the time] – I’m now living in the Czech Republic, in Prague, where I was studying at film school. I was at home with my parents that summer, because for some time I was working with the family archives. I wasn’t only doing films at film school, I was doing Audio-visual Studies, which meant we were working with visual art and sound design and gallery space. This was going to be a small, experimental film about family and home – all these questions – and I thought it would be interesting to look at some family photos and use them somehow.

What did you find?
I was sitting with my mother, I remember, in the kitchen. Our family is not so big, and in one of the pictures there was a hole. I asked my mother who it was [that was missing], and it was really interesting because she didn’t remember. It was like there was a hole in her memory too. But a week or two later, when I was back in Prague, she called me and said it was my grand uncle, who was in Prague in 1968. I thought, ‘Wow, this is great, but I don’t know what to do with it.’

Why not?
Obviously, it’s a great, great subject. But I never wanted to make a documentary film in that kind of investigative style, where I’m trying to find my grand uncle or something like that, because for me, I was more interested in working with a big theme, or a big subject, and doing it more in a non-narrative way. So I didn’t know what to do with this information, because it’s a family story and really personal. And this is one of the reasons why I was working on this film for such a long time, because when I started it I wanted to do a mosaic about the year 1968 and the Russian occupation from a soldier’s point of view. But I also knew that I had this story now, and I needed to use it somehow!

How did you figure out a solution?
For the first year, or maybe two, when I was just going through the archives, I was doing it by myself. But after two years I started to understand that I was dying [laughs] and that I needed someone else to help me, like an editor, because I could not work with this story by myself. And it was my editor Daria Chernak – she’s from Russia, but she studied with me at the film school – who said that I needed to be in the film, perhaps as a kind of narrator. She didn’t know what, just that I need to be there. So for me it was a really big problem, because I’m not one of those directors who needs to be in their own films. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a film about my family, but how can I do it without words and without me?’ It sounds absurd, but somehow, it became about me too.

Did you write a script, or was it just a question of seeing what you had and then putting yourself into the picture?
The second option, actually, because I had some [story] blocks. I never had a ‘script’ script. I had some [story] blocks that I knew that I wanted to use, like scenes of Prague before the invasion, and a big sequence showing the faces of the soldiers. Because when I was researching the archive materials I found some pictures of the Soviet soldiers, who were, like, 18 or 19. They were kids. So after we made these [story] blocks, we understood that we needed to add in my story too, somehow. So it was more like mosaic work. I always say it’s like a dissertation. I have some questions but I don’t have the answers – I have only my grand uncle’s name. It’s like normal life. It’s not a detective story.

What would you like people to take away from the film?
It sounds really naive but, for me, it’s really easy: war is bad! [Laughs] Like, the political situation might change, but the people always suffer just the same – and soldiers are just people. They’re just the tools in the hands of politics, and we need to remember this.