Film, News & Commentary, Screen

Rolling out the red carpet for the Velvet Revolution

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The Czech and Slovak Film Festival kicks off in Melbourne on Thursday. Anders Furze spoke with artistic director Eleanor Colla about its connection with the anniversary of a watershed moment in European history.

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In the final weeks of 1989, around 500,000 people took to the streets of Prague to protest 40 years of one-party communist rule. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the so-called Velvet Revolution, which led to the country’s first democratic elections in decades.

The program for the 2019 Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia (CASFFA), held in Melbourne and Canberra, celebrates these events through its theme of “keys to the city”. Protestors at the time jingled keys in support of the movement.

“It still resonates within the Czech and Slovak community,” artistic director Eleanor Colla says of those six weeks in 1989. “Acknowledging that in the cinema that we’re showing this year was quite important to us.”

The events are referenced directly in films such as 2008 documentary Citizen Havel, a decade-spanning portrait of Václav Havel, the dissident playwright who became the first president of the newly formed Czech Republic in 1993.

Elsewhere, the theme is taken up through explorations of place and belonging, as in the 1969 comedy Men About Town. “It’s a really well-known and loved film within our community,” Colla says, “and it showcases Prague – the physical city – very well.”

The comedy follows three plasterers who decide to explore Prague’s nightlife. “It’s set at a time when a lot was going on within the Czechoslovakian state, but it’s also about these three guys just trying to get out of the station they’ve been given in life. They run into three women who they don’t realise are trying to do the exact same thing.”

The film co-stars a then twentysomething Iva Janžurová, who also pops up in the program at 77 years of age anchoring the film Shotgun Justice, a black comedy about a retired teacher who takes revenge against a corrupt local property developer. “It’s an interesting approach to frustrations we all feel,” Colla notes.

Opening proceedings this year is the Australian premiere of actor-turned-director Jiří Mádl’s On the Roof, which comes to Melbourne direct from the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the Czech Republic’s largest film festival.

This is the seventh iteration of CASFFA, with other organisations also running Czech and Slovak film festivals in Sydney and Perth. Colla says that the festival places a high value on engaging with the community.

“We’re a volunteer, not-for-profit festival, and we’re sort of a one-off.”

“We’re a volunteer, not-for-profit festival, and we’re sort of a one-off. Unlike some other festivals that have the same program run throughout every city in Australia, this is us! So being engaged with the Czech and Slovak community is important to us, as is being engaged with the film community in Melbourne, Canberra and more broadly.”

The festival has also partnered with the Melbourne Cinematheque for a three-week program called ‘Prague: a longitudinal docu-fantasia’, curated by co-founder and former artistic director Cerise Howard.

The program is currently underway on consecutive Wednesdays in September, with Colla noting that such partnerships are vital to the festival’s place within the broader local film community, after it was originally founded with the aim of screening films that would otherwise not get a run in Melbourne.

“I think [the festival] also allows our three nations to grow culturally together. We felt it was a voice that was missing in the Melbourne scene, and we’re just hoping to add to it in some small way.”

 

The Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia runs in Melbourne September 19-22 before heading to Canberra October 4-6.

Prague: a longitudinal docu-fantasia concludes in Melbourne on Wednesday September 25.

Feature image: On the Roof.

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