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Marek Hovorka • Director, Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival

“We are a big festival in a small town”


- We talked to the festival director about the past, present and future of the Czech event, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year

Marek Hovorka  • Director, Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival

The Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, which was started by a group of high-school students in 1997, keeps on growing, presenting its audience with its “Opus Bonum” main competition section, “Fascinations” for the best experimental films, “Testimonies” and the national “Czech Joy” competition, as well as a varied industry programme. We had a chat with its director, Marek Hovorka.

Cineuropa: You showed some footage from the very first edition during the opening ceremony. Does an anniversary like this, the 25th, make you think about how the festival has changed?
Marek Hovorka: Not so much this year, but we really celebrated our 20th edition – we had a special exhibition on the main square here in Jihlava. Now, we have invested our energy in making our archive more precise – although we are a documentary festival, we don’t document our activities [laughs]. We published an anniversary book, which gives you an overview of the programme. I think as a society, we are not in the mood for celebration just yet. We just want to work on bringing culture back.

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Documentary directors often feel like they are getting less attention. Is this something that you wanted, when you started this event? To give them this special space?
I wanted to start this festival because I wanted to study documentary filmmaking. But I couldn’t see these films anywhere! After the first edition, we realised that other people wanted to watch them, too, as well as the filmmakers. This festival became a place where they could meet and discuss what’s new. Even now, documentary is still in the shadows. That’s one of the reasons why we decided to change our awards a little. We have new categories: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Design. It’s important to give some attention to these professionals. They just don’t get the recognition they deserve, and not only in the Czech Republic. It’s important to remember that it’s not only about directors – a film is a work by so many people.

Do you think it’s still a struggle to show the so-called “normal” audience that documentary is so much more than just “talking heads”?
In my experience, it’s mostly a question of opportunity. Can I see these films anywhere? I am happy that our festival is taking place in a small town because we can really see that normal people are going to the screenings and watching demanding, diverse titles. They come back every year. I think that once people get to discover these films, they are in. There is less coverage when it comes to documentaries – that’s just a fact. There is more freedom when making then, but also less money. And less money means less attention.

In the past, we found out that a big chunk of our viewers comes from the region. Also, one-third of our viewers come for the first time – the rest are coming back. It takes time to educate yourself as a viewer, but if you come back, a community is born. It was this community that made it possible for us to have this online festival last year. The festival regulars got a chance to share the films with their families and kids; they still felt like they were a part of something. That’s one of the reasons why we want to keep it.

When it comes to the industry events, you do a lot – the Inspiration Forum alone, your discussion platform, has entire days dedicated to specific subjects.
We are a big festival in a small town. People who come here sleep all over the place – somebody called it a “documentary Woodstock” once, and Manoel de Oliveira said it was the “mecca” of documentary film. It implies that you have to go somewhere, and change your perspective and your daily routine. It helps you concentrate on what we offer.

We have always been challenging ourselves and comparing ourselves to international events – even during the first edition, we were already thinking about Ji.hlava as compared to Karlovy Vary. We want to do something that has actual meaning. We realised that the only way to establish ourselves was to be innovative, to do the things that others are not doing. That’s in our DNA, and that’s the case with the Inspiration Forum. Documentary films are about many interesting aspects, but sometimes you want to talk about more than just the film. Sometimes we bring controversial people along, as we don’t always have to agree. That was the case with Julian Assange, for example, or Philip Zimbardo. We want to go deeper.

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