Eighteen documentary films from Central and Eastern Europe will take part this week in Between the Seas, a competition section at the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival, including a host of world premieres from emerging and established filmmakers.
“It’s very rare to have this type of program focusing on [Central and] Eastern Europe,” said festival director Marek Hovorka. “We are part of this region, and we want to be able to support professionals in film in this region [to] meet professionals in film from outside this region—not only from Europe, but from the rest of the world.”
Launched in 2001 with a focus on Central European documentaries – and expanded to include Eastern Europe the following year – Between the Seas was the first international competition at Ji.hlava, and it remains an “essential” part of the festival, said Hovorka.
Among the highlights of this year’s competition are the world premiere of “The End and the Means,” by Polish-born video artist and documentarian Pawel Wojtasik, whose last feature, “End of Life,” was nominated for a European Film Award. Lensed in India, his latest is a meditation on people’s devotion to their work as a form of Hindu meditation.
Hilal Baydarov of Azerbaijan, described by the fest director as “a real discovery,” will world premiere two films, “Birthday” and “One Day in Selimpasha,” in Between the Seas. Hovorka first found Baydarov through Docu Talents from the East, a presentation of upcoming docs from the Central and Eastern European region, which was held this year in Sarajevo. The former mathematician had been making films in obscurity for the past 10 years in Azerbaijan. “You could see how differently he thinks about cinema, but also how cinematic he is,” Hovorka said. “We see a good tradition of the old times of Russian cinema.”
Tomáš Krupa’s “The Good Death” continues the strong documentary filmmaking tradition of Slovakia, according to Hovorka. He points to the film, about a terminally ill woman in the U.K. who decides to travel to Switzerland for an assisted suicide, as the latest example of a small country with limited means finding foreign partners to finance production. “For them, international co-productions are the only way to succeed with the films that they want to make,” he said.
Other standouts for Hovorka include “The Winter Garden’s Tale,” by Ukraine’s Simon Mozgovyi, which uses the personal, daily struggles to revive a fading conservatory to shed light on the larger history of the Ukraine; and “My Granny from Mars,” by Alexander Mihalkovich of Belarus, whose visits to his Ukrainian grandmother in Russia-occupied Crimea allow him to depict daily life in the troubled region.
Hovorka pointed to great strides from documentary filmmakers in the region, despite the many challenges they face. “After these 17 years, we can really see how the region is changing, but still it’s very fragile, in terms of institutional support for creative and personal, artistic documentary films,” he said.
In order to try to bolster that framework for young filmmakers, Between the Seas added a student competition this year. Additionally, a market that was first launched by Ji.hlava, and is now organized by Prague’s Institute of Documentary Film, will feature close to 300 productions from around the region.
“What I feel in [Central and] Eastern Europe…is that documentary lay for years in the shadow of fiction films,” said Hovorka. “There was strong pressure on fiction filmmakers to deliver to the industry some kind of films, but documentary filmmakers had and still have more freedom.” However, he added, that freedom “has its limits, for example, in cinema distribution or TV support.”
The fest director is nevertheless encouraged by technological changes ushering in a “new wave” of documentary filmmaking, comparing it to how 16mm paved the way for the cinéma vérité movement of the 1960s.
“The directors…started to make completely different films,” he said. “They completely revived the way the audience was thinking cinema should look.”