Director and producer Miloslav Šmídmajer, whose documentary “Milan Kundera – From Joy to Insignificance” features in the Work in Progress section of the Ji.hlava Film Festival this week, has lined-up multiple new projects, he tells Variety.
Šmídmajer’s upcoming films include Czech-Ukrainian-Slovakian co-production “The Man Who Stood in the Way,” about one man who challenged Leonid Brezhnev when the Soviets occupied Czechoslovakia. It is ready to be shot next year.
Also in the works is an adaptation of Zdeněk Hanka’s “North of 65” (“Severně od 65”), a dramatic story of two medics whose dispute affects a whole mission in the Canadian far north. “We have approached a skilled British screenwriter and we are aiming for an international co-production,” says Šmídmajer.
Šmídmajer is ready to direct “Swan,” about a “guy who has really bad luck and it’s just getting worse,” and will also produce Karel Žalud’s documentary focusing on Czech invention S.A.W.E.R., which can create water even in the driest parts of the world using solar energy.
An adaptation of Viktor Fischl’s (a.k.a. Avigdor Dagan) “The Court Jesters” is planned as well. “I got the rights for this book from Miloš Forman. A large part of the film takes place just after the Second World War. The main character lost faith in God after he lost his loved one, but as he takes justice into his own hands, he realizes he is playing God himself,” he explains.
In the meantime, Šmídmajer will still need to put some finishing touches on “Milan Kundera – From Joy to Insignificance” – already a while in the making, since he first contacted the writer all the way back in the 1990s, right after his debut documentary about Forman. Only to hear a firm “No.”
“It was Forman who gave me Kundera’s address in Paris,” he says. “Kundera wrote back, very politely saying that he doesn’t do interviews anymore and that he cannot make an exception. I found out that he is very strict about this principle and I haven’t had the courage to ask again.”
He started noticing various myths surrounding the writer, claiming that he doesn’t want to appear in the media or have his French books published in his home country. “I was interested whether anything that was said about him was based on the truth. Westerners have no clue about what Kundera wrote before ‘Laughable Loves’ and Czech readers have no clue what he wrote in his French books,” he says, adding that the documentary will focus primarily on Kundera’s work. “When I was editing my last film about Forman [‘What Doesn’t Kill You…’], I found out that my young editor only knew ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ You always have to include even the most basic facts so that the viewer is well-informed.”
Unfolding through the character of a fictional young student, trying to get an interview with the writer, it will then pass the mic to his friends, first in Brno, then Prague and finally in Paris. From Czech playwright Milan Uhde, publisher Antoine Gallimard, Yasmina Reza, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean-Paul Enthoven to Jean-Claude Carrière or actor Nicolas Briançon. As promised by the director, the film will give everyone a chance to understand Kundera’s thoughts and behavior, also by quoting his books. “After all, he keeps arguing that his books have all the answers already,” he says.
Getting access to rare archive interviews with Kundera, Šmídmajer also managed to land an exclusive: audio recording of Milan and Věra Kundera commenting on several parts of the documentary. “The audience will enjoy Kundera’s authentic voice,” says the director. “Unfortunately, they didn’t agree to speak on camera. His wife, Věra, has been saying that they desire to live a normal life. Like bakers, for example.”
After two disastrous interviews in 1985 Kundera vowed never to repeat the experience again. His unwillingness to be photographed, filmed or interviewed posed a serious challenge for Šmídmajer, as archive material was scarce.
“However, it’s not possible to say he is hiding. He has lots of friends and they visit each other all the time. I personally witnessed it at Kundera’s home – the phone rings very often,” he says, also recalling his first conversation with the writer’s wife. “Věra was making lunch, so she asked Milan to stir the pot. It quickly became obvious that he doesn’t do it very often, maybe for the first time in years. The point is, they lost their lunch that day. Milan Kundera was much better at writing than stirring.”
Having visited the couple five times in the last two years, once Kundera’s health deteriorated, Šmídmajer realized he won’t be able to convince him to appear in front of the camera. “He had a bad injury, which needed an operation and a long rehabilitation, and everything changed. I understood that a scene like the one I witnessed over the phone will not be taking place again. Věra told me: ‘You came too late.’ In other words, there would have been a chance to actually shoot with them just a few years ago.”