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Marek Hovorka, a native of the city of Jihlava in the Czech Republic, founded its biggest cultural event some 22 years ago at a time when films were submitted on VHS cassettes in bubble wrap and invitations sent out via fax machine. Today the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival is a nexus for work from around the globe and a key player in the influential European documentary film ecosystem. He reflects on the fest’s humble start and the unexpected turns it has taken on its road to major player status.

What was the genesis of your idea for Ji.hlava? What convinced you it could work in a town that was then so quiet and fairly remote?

In 1997 the situation for documentary filmmaking and its festival landscape was completely different – and not only in the Czech Republic. Almost all films were screened from film prints and nobody had a website. But me and my friends had the desire to watch docs on the cinema screen; we wanted to meet all those inspiring directors in person and organize discussions with them after the screenings. And after the first edition of the festival we realized that we were not alone. Even for a three-day event in one cinema hundreds of viewers came from all around the country.

What’s been most surprising for you in the expansion and development in the fest? Greatest challenges?

It is the most complex and biggest event of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe and one of key European doc fests, but we did not start with this ambition – it just happened. We only wanted to create a platform for creative, author documentarians and their films. And when we realized the festival can be useful for them in different ways we tried to create tools for them: the very first VOD platform, which is today called DAFilms, we founded in 2006, the same year as YouTube. Or the Emerging Producers project, which focuses on the new generation of European documentary producers. Or Inspiration Forum, a unique platform for sharing reflections and ideas for new films, where filmmakers and festival audiences meet open-minded scientists, writers, philosophers and other opinion makers.

Has the spread of docs to wider audiences and the growing diversity of the genre surprised you? And do you feel an obligation to keep audiences up to speed on all the morphing and evolving of the form?

Absolutely. We are happy we were at the right time and in the right place because the documentary spirit has reached the most creative and inspiring level in the last two decades – and not only in cinema but also in visual art and literature. Almost 20 years ago in Jihlava Richard Leacock told me that digital cameras will change cinema completely. At that time there were few filmmakers who trusted him but he said he was so happy that cameras would soon be as common a tool for self-expression as the pen. He was fascinated by the democratization of cinema. And his trust in diversity and personality is part of Ji.hlava’s spirit, which is very much oriented toward discoveries and supporting new generations of filmmakers.

What development in doc filmmaking or the distrib system has been most influential for your guest artists?

Changing the distribution system for artistic films. Even a few years ago you still needed film prints for proper distribution. You needed equipped cinema screening rooms with all that special technology. Now you can send your files all around the world in a minute and build a proper cinema with great projectors and a Dolby sound system anywhere in few hours as we do at Ji.hlava for most of festival cinemas. You can organize screenings in cafes, squares, galleries – it’s all about context, your idea, your personal visual style. To say nothing of gaming and virtual reality. But it’s important to support events like ours because all these communication tools, social networks and augmented reality push us to some kind of loneliness. And the festival atmosphere gives us good balance.

You’re quite keen on technology and how it shapes story-telling, collaboration and access by audiences – in fact VOD was a major focus last year at Ji.hlava. What’s the most promising technology for doc filmmakers?

Virtual reality has its limits for the human senses – you can hardly be part of these films or installations for more than 30 minutes. The whole VR industry will strongly develop for sure, but I believe in the possibilities of the gaming world – this field will be the most dynamic in the next 20, 30 years. Just as cinema once consisted of short scenes screened at funfairs or in hotels, with jokes and news, images from faraway places. The gaming world has not yet discovered this dimension, which will offer its authors highly artistic and very personal options for creating work that’s easily distributed and accessible.

Many have commented on your boundless energy over the years. What is your secret to running so many things at once and constantly building?

A great team and our shared will not to just repeat the same things every year. We have a passion for risk and add new ideas to our concept every year – and to develop and make them work. For us the festival should be as creative as the films we screen. That is why we build special installations as interventions in the town during the festival.

When did you get the doc bug and which filmmakers inspired you to do all you’ve done with Ji.hlava?

It’s the joy everyday and the surprise of living our lives in a creative way. I hope we all have the opportunity to develop our creativity and have the chance to make it real. I just try to live as I lived as a kid, nothing more.