Czech director Jindřich Andrš, whose feature debut “A New Shift,” about a miner who decides to become a computer programmer after his mine is shut down, opens the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival. Andrš has started developing his next project, dedicated to “future doctors,” he tells Variety.

“I have been fascinated by medical students. How you change when you study medicine, how your values shift,” says Andrš. “You finish your studies and you immediately have to solve all these difficult issues. But you have no experience! This is how it works, at least in Czech Republic.”

Working on the idea for a few years now, Andrš is casting possible protagonists and talking to hospitals, which could accommodate his crew. “There are some which are open to it, as everyone is frustrated by these medical TV shows, influencing the patients’ ideas about how it all should look like,” he says.

Before that happens, Andrš will celebrate the world premiere of “A New Shift” at the festival, hopefully followed by local theatrical release next spring, if the pandemic allows. Produced by Miloš Lochman and Augustína Micková, and a co-production between Moloko Film, Czech Television, FAMU and Studio Bystrouška, it picks up right when his short “The Last Shift of Thomas Hisem” left off, screened at Ji.hlava two years ago. But Andrš is quick to point out that both were shot at the same time. By accident.

“We weren’t allowed to shoot underground in the mine, so Tomáš said we should give him the camera and he can do it himself – after all, it was his last day anyway, so he wasn’t risking they would kick him out,” he says. “That night, there was an accident – for the first time in years! Tomáš had to solve it and we decided to have a separate film just from this material. In ‘A New Shift,’ this scene lasts maybe for a few minutes.”

Andrš found out about the re-education program for dismissed miners almost four years ago while reading a newspaper. “I thought: ‘Oh my god, that’s not possible, right? These people have been doing something so different their whole lives, how could they manage?’ I contacted the guy who was behind this ‘experiment’ before the mine even closed. They were already having this introductory class. The miners would literally return from the mine, take a shower and sit in front of the computers.”

For one of their first exercises, they had to set up a small personal website, as well as answer some questions, like ‘what is your relationship with computers?’ One of them answered: “Well, it’s quite good, if a person can really be in a relationship with a machine.” That’s how Andrš met his future protagonist, who has since spoken about his experiences at TEDxPrague.

“When I met him, he had long hair and was a bit ‘rough,’ but also very charismatic. I asked him if we could make a film about his life. He said: ‘Yeah, why not?’ He behaves in front of the camera as if it weren’t there,” says Andrš. “In the mine, people are so straightforward. When you are digging coal, it’s dangerous and it’s noisy. You don’t have time to think how you look! Today, the coal industry is seen as something negative, also because of climate change, but I wanted to look at it through his melancholic eyes. There were some beautiful things about it too.”

What started as a student film for FAMU, grew in stature over the years, and after a Melanie Griffith makeover (remembering that when “you want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair”), Tomáš embraced a new challenge. Only to find out that nobody waits for miners-turned-programmers.

“He thought he would complete the course and get a job. He was very optimistic. It was very difficult sometimes – for both of us,” admits the director, even though his protagonist’s transformation immediately generated some media interest. “He was under such pressure and I had to think whether the presence of the camera could hurt him. There was another miner who started working for one company, but they told him he can’t mention their name in the interviews. If they would fire him, it would make them look bad.”

Andrš is adamant that such initiatives can still provide people with some new options, however, with HR representatives often hiring people off such courses. “Afterwards they can educate you for one or two years and it’s still profitable for them,” he points out, explaining perhaps why many feel his is a hopeful film. “I think it comes from Tomáš’ character. Of course, there were times when it was different. He went to work in a factory at one point and lost his hopes. It’s only one scene in the film, but it lasted three months. We thought that this might be the end of the story but for him, it wasn’t a tragedy. ‘I am happy I tried’, he would say. He never gives up.”

Ji.hlava runs online between Oct. 27 and Nov. 8.