Whenever I watch a foreign film, I tend to cling to the familiar— brands I recognize, words spoken in English, or any mention of the United States. Generally, I also know at least a little about the culture that produced the film, so I have some sort of mental context to place it in.
That was not the case at Little Rock’s recent festival, Czech That Film 2019. Knowing almost nothing about Czech culture or history, I was forced to fully surrender myself to the films (and music! and food!) before me. It ended up being a delightful cultural immersion that I can’t wait to revisit when the annual festival returns next year.
What is the Czech That Film festival?
The Czech embassy began this annual tour around the U.S. and boasts that it is the “largest Czech cultural event in the United States”. Each year, they show a handful of the country’s best cinematic selections of recent years, and Little Rock has become one of their regular stops. This year the festival was hosted in partnership with the Arkansas Cinema Society at the beautiful Ron Robinson theater downtown, and the event made for an enjoyable weekend for film novices and cultural sophisticates alike.
Things kicked off Friday evening, June 7th, with a screening of a family drama called Short Cut (Na krátko), followed by a Q&A with director Jakub Šmíd. He explained to the audience that the Czech Republic produces around 40 films a year and a significant portion of each film is funded by the state. In the 1960s, there was a cinematic movement known as the Czech New Wave, and a few of the key directors from this time now teach at Czeck film schools. Jakub Šmíd studied under a few of them.
Friday night after the Q&A, everyone was invited to The Pantry Crest for an afterparty featuring a beautiful spread of specially prepared Czech food and drink (all delicious), and the chance to speak with the visiting film director and representatives from the Czech Embassy. In a single night, the Czech Republic went from barely being on my radar to the top of my list in terms of European travel destinations.
This feeling only intensified on day two. On Saturday, viewers were greeted with Czech pop music as we took our seats, and then we settled in for four additional Czech films. The movies were filled with the Czechia’s beautiful scenery, charming actors and a wealth of fascinating Czech history.
But were the films any good? The short answer is that there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch. The festival brought a diverse selection of movies, all of which were released in 2018. There was a moving family drama, a hilarious mother/daughter indie comedy, a historical sports drama, a coming-of-age road trip movie, and a political biopic with a shocking ending. Here’s a breakdown:
Short Cut / Na krátko, dir. by Jakub Šmíd
Short Cut, based on a popular Czech novel of a few years ago, tells the story of a Jakub, a boy who has never met his father. He is a troubled young man whose relationships with his mother, grandmother and step-sister are quite strained (to put it mildly). The plot really gets going when Jakub’s true parentage is discovered, leading to further familial tension and an identity crisis for our protagonist.
It’s not a cheerful film, but quite emotionally moving, with solid performances across the board—particularly in the case of Jakub, played by child actor Jindrich Skokan. After the film, director Jakub Šmíd told the story of meeting prominent modern Czech novelist Petra Soukupová, who wrote the screenplay for the film as an adaptation of her own award-wining novel, To Disappear / Zmizet.
Patrimony / Tátova volha, dir. by Jiří Vejdělek
This one’s full of charm and laughs, though the plot details wouldn’t make you think so. Tereza, mourning the death of her father amidst her own rocky marriage, convinces her mother Eva to help her go on an investigation after it is discovered she may have an illegitimate brother. They travel the Czech countryside, visiting all of the late patriarch’s mistresses while frequently reflecting on life, love, marriage, and family. The film manages to bring a lot of humor as well as some big surprises as the women work to uncover the central mystery. I highly recommend checking this out if it comes available online.
Golden Sting / Zlatý podraz, dir. by Radim Špaček
Sports movies are not typically my thing, but Golden Sting won me over early because it is much more concerned with the characters and the shifting team dynamics throughout Czechia’s rocky history than it is with basketball. The film follows the Czech national team as they compete internationally and deal with the influence of the Iron Curtain in their national politics and personal relationships. There’s also a central love story that’s quite affecting. A lot is going on in this film, but it all works.
Winter Flies / Všechno bude, dir. by Olmo Omerzu
Two lovable juvenile delinquents travel across the country in a stolen car while learning about friendship, sexuality, and responsibility in coming-of-age comedy/drama Winter Flies. My favorite of the festival, this film features two very strong performances from the young leads and a surprising finale all while serving by far the most laughs of the weekend. Another strong recommendation from Arthouse Garage!
Jan Palach, dir. by Robert Sedláček
The festival ended on a somber note with prestige drama Jan Palach, a biopic about a real-life Czech figure who burned himself alive as protest in connection with the country’s invasion at the end of the Prague Spring. I came to this film hoping for a history lesson and got exactly that, but the film works on a human level as well as it showcases Jan’s life and relationships as he attended school and became more and more politically active. The lead performance is fantastic and paints Jan Palach as charming and thoughtful but leaves room for some mystery around the decision towards his final act. The film does end in Jan’s death, but knowing this about it does not lessen the impact it manages to leave on its viewers.
Czech Beer & Emotional Complexity
Czech That Film 2019 was an engrossing and informative cultural experience for its Little Rock attendees, and one that left me entertained and much better educated about Czechia and it’s unique place in European history and our modern world. The films set in the present-day depicted a culture not so different from our own here in the U.S., but with hints of political divisions unique to Czech culture. The background for these divisions was fleshed out in a fascinating way for festival attendees as the historical dramas that screened showed the background of how many of these political trajectories began.
If there was a single prominent trend across all the films, it would be this: emotional complexity. All of the films depicted human relationships and family dynamics that felt genuine in the many layers they contained. Short Cut’s Jakub loves and idolizes his father figure while learning to recognize his faults. Jan Palach’s relationship with his mother was close and loving even while there was distance between them politically. Relationships are messy, and the Czech films on display at the festival didn’t sugarcoat them but on the contrary presented them with a refreshing realism.
The process of learning about a different culture always serves to broaden a viewer’s worldview and deepen their empathy. Beyond travel, there’s no better way to experience a new place than through film, a fact which the Czech Embassy has obviously figured out. As Czech That Film returns in years to come, I highly recommend any central Arkansans make the effort to attend this weekend filled with thought-provoking, enjoyable and under-seen modern cinema. The film-going experiences are truly unlike any others available in the Little Rock area, plus, when else will you be able to drink a Czech beer?