MADE IN PRAGUE: JAN NĚMEC RETROSPECTIVE
10 – 19 November 2017: The 21st Made in Prague Film Festival showcases the first UK retrospective of the classic filmmaker of East European avant-garde cinema and enfant terrible of the Czechoslovak New Wave Jan Nemec (1936 -2016): Featuring two of the best films of the 60s as voted by the New York Times critics, Diamonds of the Night and The Party and the Guests (banned ´forever´ by the Czechoslovak government) and Oratorio for Prague, unique coverage of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, screened in the UK for the first time, 11 features and shorts provide a testimony to Nemec’s work and the constant reinvention of his style. Selected films punctuate different stages of his career and reflect his adventures as he re-enacts them in his work. Never sentimental or nostalgic, endlessly ironic and self-mocking, Nemec´ films radiate his energy and fascination with film.
The retrospective opens with the UK premiere of Jan Nemec’s The Wolf From Royal Vineyard Street (2016), the final film of his career in which he recapitulates and reimagines his life. Beginning at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival when his film, The Party and the Guests was competing for the Palm d’Or the film follows the trajectory of Nemec’s life – filming the Russian invasion, escaping from Czechoslovakia, life in California and his eventual return to Prague after obtaining a visa for ‘the funeral of communism’. Each filmed as a separate section in contrasting style it presents a multi-faceted, complex film which mixes documentary, re-enactments and fiction to create a cinematic collage which received the Jury’s special mention at the 2016 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
The Wolf From Royal Vineyard Street together with Late Night Talks with Mother (2001) made with small personal cameras, present the pinnacle of Nemec’s deeply personal, intimate films which he started to make after his return from political exile. Late Night Talks with Mother, a Golden Leopard Award winner at Locarno 2001, is Nemec’s stylized self-portrait consisting of his imaginary dialogue with his deceased mother, inspired by Kafka’s Letter to his Father. Set in Prague and presented via fish-eye panoramic shots, the film is full of originality and poetry providing an insight into Nemec’s life and the history of the 20th century. The complex relationship between a mother and her son is complemented by the screening of Nemec’s short film Mother and Son (1967), the winner of the Grand Prix at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival.
The core of the retrospective revolves around Nemec’s three classic film features from the 60s. The double bill of A Loaf of Bread (1963) and Diamonds of the Night (1964) represents Nemec’s adaptations of stories by the Holocaust survivor Arnost Lustig. In A Loaf of Bread, Nemec’s graduation short film, the director follows Jewish boys psyching themselves up to steal some bread for their planned escape, while in Diamonds of the Night, Nemec’s feature debut and groundbreaking masterpiece, the audience witnesses their desperate flight. Rated by Agnieszka Holland as the best film made about the Holocaust, the film´s lack of dialogue and minimalist sound provides a universal, immersive experience of the inner world of two fugitives whatever they might be flying from.
The Party and the Guests (1966) is the second instalment of Nemec’s 60s features and another timeless masterpiece. A brilliant, Absurdist parable about a picnic which turns into a nightmare when a group of friends is infiltrated by strangers and survival instincts kick in, was seen as a an attack on the political system and ‘banned forever’ by the Czechoslovak government despite being selected for the main competition at the famously ‘cancelled’ 1968 Cannes Film Festival. The trio of Nemec’s 60s gems is completed by the surreal Martyrs of Love (1967) in which frustration is replaced by daydreaming and music stands in for dialogue.
Nemec´s next film was to be a documentary on the 1968 Prague Spring. While he was shooting peaceful demonstrations Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and Nemec turned his camera on the occupiers filming disbelief, despair and the blood of the people instead. The only filmed footage of the military invasion, it was seen by more than 600 million people when Nemec smuggled it out of the country and it was broadcast on television. Later on, it was released as the documentary essay Oratorio for Prague (1968) and known as the movie without credits to protect Nemec from further repercussions in Communist Czechoslovakia.
Given the change in the political situation JAN NĚMEC was not allowed to work, his films were banned and he was forced into exile in 1974. His experimental short The Czech Connection (1967) shot in Germany as a metaphor for his own death, reflects a growing frustration with the lack of filming opportunity for a foreign filmmaker.
Following in the footsteps of Milos Forman Nemec moved to the USA. Nemec´s American exile is represented in the retrospective by his work on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film set in 1968 Prague, a successful adaptation of Milan Kundera’s tragi-comic novel about successful surgeon Tomas, his wife and his lover whose lives are changed forever by the arrival of Soviet tanks.
With Kundera being persona non grata in Czechoslovakia and Kaufman denied filming access, the authentic-looking locations and atmosphere were down to JAN NĚMEC. He recreated Prague and provided his own footage of the 1968 invasion in his role as a special consultant on this BAFTA-winning film for Best Adapted Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere and Philip Kaufman.
After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc Nemec returned from exile and moved his focus to the individual; apart from his highly autobiographical films (Late Night Talks with Mother and The Wolf Royal Vineyards Street), he specialised in making documentaries portraying great personalities. The highlight of this body of work is Toyen, a portrait of the Czech Surrealist who broke into the male-dominated art world. It reconstructs her life in wartime Prague when she was hiding her Jewish lover, a fellow artist. Nemec mixed documentary, archival footage and fictionalised representations with natural sound creating a collage of multi-layered images evoking the spirit of the avant-garde.
This retrospective testifies to the bravery and originality of the work of an artist who has never stopped developing his non-conformist vision and constantly challenged the boundaries of artistic freedom and the limits of film as a medium.
An accompanying exhibition of digital black & white photographs from his unfinished film essay What is behind that Wall? introduces JAN NĚMEC as a keen and captivating photographer while providing a wider context to his work.
As a contemporary counterpoint to the retrospective, the festival also features Highlights of Czech Cinema including an exclusive premiere of the thrilling HBO series Wasteland by Ivan Zacharias
Bohdan Slama´s Ice Mother (Czech nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Fiction Film)
The Teacher by Jan ‘Divided We Fall’ Hrebejk, nominee for European Film Academy Award.