From its first edition 24 years ago, the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival, running Oct. 27-Nov. 8, has always gone its own way — largely thanks to director Marek Hovorka and his team, who never wanted to run just another venue for screening docs.
The Czech Republic’s prime doc event continues that mission even as it’s been forced by government COVID-19 safety restrictions to go fully online. A digital version will in fact be a permanent Ji.hlava feature going forward, Hovorka says, but after this year it will be balanced with live events to create a hybrid fest format.
For 2020, rather than simply streaming films, he says, Ji.hlava has created a rich experience online and on the ground with top doc makers and leading thinkers visiting the central Bohemian town for talks aired live from the Lighthouse. This glassed-in shipping container converted into a studio is installed on Masarykovo namesti, the historic town’s main square.
“We will stream everything from morning till late night,” Hovorka says. It includes not just film talks and moderators’ commentary but also guests from the fest’s trademark Inspiration Forum, a unique event in the doc fest world focused on people doing things to inspire doc makers.
Past guests have included human-rights crusaders from around the globe, climate activists and civic organizers who have risked their lives for social justice. Inspiring speakers this year include anthropologist Andrej Grubacic, speaking on how to feed the world without destroying it, and Ndoni Mcunu, founder and CEO of Black Women in Science (BWIS), as part of a panel on progressive technology in “Cool Africa.”
“We really want to create a social life, a kind of information stream [to share discussions of issues] that all of us are going through now,” Hovorka says.
Some talks will also cover “this tough time for cinema,” he adds, highlighting the role Ji.hlava has had for years in helping develop doc makers and their colleagues. Emerging Producers, an event that focuses on the work of doc backers from Central and Eastern Europe, again fetes the best work of early career professionals and include talks with mentors on issues they face.
Experimental film is another Ji.hlava forte as seen in the Fascinations section. This edition is built around the theme of gardens with some 15 films ranging from the 1932 short essay “Poem 8” by the artist Emlen Etting, known for illustrating Kafka books, to French think piece “Dendromite,” a 2017 work by Karine Bonneval that uses thermographic imagery to explore “philosophical-ethical questions about the possibilities of man’s intimate relationship to nature.”
The fest sees its mission as expanding horizons for filmmakers and for audiences, Hovorka says, citing the Black Cinema Matters focus as a striking example. Noting that a survey on docus from Africa was already gaining momentum during 2019’s fest, Hovorka says Black Cinema Matters celebrates Afro-American-made docs dating from the late 1960s to the ’90s. In researching and curating the section, he says, the Ji.hlava team was struck by how rarely Black voices have been heard in nonfiction film. “We were really surprised,” he says.
Lineup includes “Black Celebration (A Rebellion Against the Commodity)” by Tony Cokes, an unconventional 1988 look at urban riots of the 1960s; “AKA Mrs. George Gilbert” by Coco Fusco, a 2004 examination of racialized imagery; “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” a 1968 doc about a doc by William Greaves; “An I for an I” by Lawrence Andrews, a 1987 statement on the internalization of racism and violence; and “Tongues Untied,” a 1989 experimental doc by Marlon Riggs that explores the challenges gay Black men face in the U.S.
Another signature Ji.hlava event is the Testimonies sidebar, which focuses on global issues, with films such as Ai Weiwei’s “Vivos,” about the aftermath of the disappearance of scores of students in Mexico in 2014, making for powerful cinema. “Sanctuary” by Spanish actor, director and producer Álvaro Longoria (“Che Guevara”), also in Testimonies, looks at a plan to establish a vast marine nature preserve off Antarctica. An impressive eco-survey of Jordan, meanwhile, “Living Water” by Czech anthropologist Pavel Borecký, examines the desperate search for hydration in one of the driest places on Earth, where the king plans to make Aqaba into “the next Dubai.”