The Czech Republic’s premier nonfiction fest, the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, launched its 25th edition Tuesday in the historic town’s renovated cultural center, previewing an impressive program that accompanies its first fully live version in two years.
Fest director Marek Hovorka greeted the audience with fond memories of the improvements the event – and the communist-era hall – have seen since the Ji.hlava fest was launched as colleagues recalled it was considered a crazy idea at the time. Noting that not just film festivals but education and culture were largely sidetracked over the past year due to COVID risks, Hovorka said the lesson is that losing these “can have bad consequences for society.”
Following tradition, the prize for the Short Joy competition winner, chosen by a global audience watching the films online on the fest platform DAFilms.cz, was awarded this year to Colombian-Portuguese film “Open Mountain” by Colombian filmmaker Maria Rojas Arias.
The short focuses on “a long-forgotten revolution” when, in July 1929, a group of cobblers organized a one-day revolution in a village in an attempt to improve living and working conditions in the country.
The director appeared remotely, offering thanks and pledging that film must carry on. She has described the film’s message of struggle and vigilance, saying, “The characters in this story live believing that their struggle does not end.”
Diana Tabakov, executive director of DAFilms, said, “This year, Short Joy offered a remarkable representation of the contemporary world. However, the weight of the current problems must not eliminate the lessons of the past.”
Rojas Arias’ work made of found footage pieces “that come together to create an exquisite audiovisual experience,” exemplifies that approach, said Tabakov, who also announced the platform’s launch of DAFilms Junior, which will provides innovative content for children ages 3 to 12.
The Respekt Award for the best TV, video and online investigative reporting, given out by the Czech news magazine Respekt, went to a “reportage collage” that followed the Czech prime minister’s unsuccessful campaign to be re-elected this year, “A Look at Babis and his Rallies, or What his PR Will Never Reveal” by Vaclav Dolejsi.
His footage shows a phalanx of burly bodyguards blocking critics of Babis, a controversial billionaire who controls a media empire, from getting close to him and records a promotional event devolving into fights as authorities tangle with an angry crowd.
The award for outstanding producer, recognized by the Czech Audiovisual Producers Association with its World Excellence Award, was also given out, as Czech documentarian and producer Radim Prochazka honored French colleague Jacques Bidou.
Following its online-only version last year, the Ji.hlava fest’s current edition will offer streaming of live events in Czech and English, including interviews with filmmakers, film recommendations and other tips as well as audience polls. There will also be a regular time slot devoted to Ji.hlava for Kids, the Inspiration Forum of figures who are docu-worthy subjects, and the Industry program, which recognizes the work of upcoming producers and offers looks at new docs in the pipeline from the U.S. and Europe.
Highlights will be two discussions in the Inspiration Forum, one the online appearance of American feminist, philosopher and gender studies authority Judith Butler. Canadian philosopher and writer Nick Srnicek will also appear, talking about developments in digital technologies.
Following the opening gala, the Belarussian doc “When Flowers Are Not Silent” by Andrei Kutsila screened, capturing in detail the brutal suppression of demonstrations against last year’s rigged presidential election in Belarus.
Kutsila introduced the film, saying he hopes it will help “all people to support us in our fight.”
The re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, which saw opposition candidates terrorized, was called fraudulent by the European Union, and has been rejected by a large part of the population. Kutsila’s film shows demonstrators rounded up and recounting imprisonment, abuse and beatings on a scale not seen since the days of the Soviet Union.
“The documentary is a brave testimony of the state’s violent repression against peaceful protests,” Hovorka says. “It shows how brutally this last European dictatorship resists the transformation of Belarus into a freer society. With this special screening, we want to support the Belarusian opposition and all of the country’s citizens who want to live in a free world.”
The film’s director added, “Both in the Czech Republic and in Poland demonstrations and regular manifestations of freedom of speech are organized, but Belarus has nothing like that, except perhaps for some online forums.”
“When Flowers Are Not Silent” is included in the main international competition section, Opus Bonum.
The fest has also announced a new look for its awards, the work of Federico Diaz, a prominent Czech artist with Argentinean roots, who has created digital visualizations of Twitter comments for the event.
The fest, running in live and streaming versions, runs through Oct. 31, after which its films will continue to stream for two weeks.