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INDUSTRY Central and Eastern Europe

Prague hosts a discussion about the risks of documentary filmmaking and journalism


- A panel during the East Doc Platform discussed the risks of journalism and documentary filmmaking in light of the recent murder of an investigative journalist in Slovakia

Prague hosts a discussion about the risks of documentary filmmaking and journalism
(l-r) Veronika Sedláčková, Max Tuula, Konrad Szołajski, Kenan Aliyev, Vesela Kazakova and Filip Remunda during the panel discussion

The murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, who were investigating the connections between the country's politicians and the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta mafia clan, has been the talk of Central Europe since it occurred on 25 February, igniting protests in the country and even triggering the resignation of prime minister Robert Fico. For better or worse, these events fit in squarely with the East Doc Platform theme for this year, “New Resistance”, and the Prague documentary industry gathering included a very interesting panel on the risks of journalism and documentary filmmaking in the current climate.

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The panel was moderated by Czech journalist Veronika Sedláčková and featured the following speakers: Estonian producer Max Tuula, known for his documentaries about Russian politics, including The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov [+see also:
film profile
; Polish filmmaker Konrad Szołajski (The Battle with Satan); Kenan Aliyev, editor of Current Time TV, an independent channel based in Prague and broadcasting for Russian-speaking audiences; Bulgarian filmmaker Vesela Kazakova (The Beast Is Still Alive [+see also:
film review
film profile
); and Czech producer and filmmaker Filip Remunda (best known for Czech Dream and as the Czech co-producer of films by Vitaly Mansky).

Right from the start, the panel focused on Kuciak's murder and the reactions to it. “The situation in Poland is complex, difficult and not very optimistic,” began Szołajski. “But nobody has been killed so far. People have been beaten up or arrested, or they have gone through difficult court trials, but still, courts in Poland are often fair. Society there is divided, but we haven't slid as far as we’ve seen in Slovakia, so this is a shock.”

Remunda agreed: “I think this event broke a taboo in the region. A journalist and his partner died, and the likely motive for the murder was his work; this hasn't happened before, but it sometimes happens in Russia. And once there are several murdered journalists, you feel like it could easily happen to you, and you also get a lot more self-censorship, fear and cautious approaches from the media.”

Tuula reflected on the situation in Russia, where he makes political films: “Our project The Term included many young documentarians, and the idea was to create an alternative source of news for Russia when the protests against Putin started at the end of 2011. The streets of Moscow were full of protesters, but there was nothing on Russian TV. The people behind the project started a format revolving around documentary news: small reports in a documentary style, which we put online. It was a new source of information, and after four years, we can see there is a new generation of students who took to the streets last spring, and who were brought up in a different way. They use the internet, and there is a way that they can find out about things that are not available via the official channels. I think the government has realised that this is something they cannot control, and it's a big surprise for them.” 

How does censorship in Eastern Europe reflect on documentary filmmaking? The reception of Kazakova and her partner Mina Milevas's 2014 film Uncle Tony, Three Fools and the Secret Service, which was a fiction title about a secret service agent in communist Bulgaria, caused huge problems for them at home, even before they made the documentary The Beast Is Still Alive (2016), about how the structures from the old system still rule the country. 

“The Film Guild told us we wouldn't receive any money for our next film, and we were interrogated for a year-and-a-half by the public prosecutor, who attacked our copyright contracts, as they wanted to put us in jail. We almost closed the company and stopped making films, but this harassment didn't go away without a lot of support from European institutions that stood behind us and appealed to the Bulgarian Minister of Culture and the Film Guild. Without it, we wouldn't have gone on to make The Beast Is Still Alive. It gave us a lot of courage and strength.”

Szołajski recounted a less threatening but, essentially, no less dangerous experience from Poland. “Censorship in Poland does not come direct from state structures, but rather it's financial. Almost all of the sources that are controlled by the state are now not supporting anything that the authorities don't like. This wave of censorship is something that started seven to ten years ago, together with a wave of right-wing thinking that is influencing the public sources of financing. I have been forced to find more and more money abroad for my films. So the film I am making now is not so difficult, because I was helped by Scandinavian, French and Swiss broadcasters.” 

Remunda weighed in with the example of the Czech State Cinematography Fund, the official body in which independent experts grant funding to projects. “This level of autonomy is very important and must be protected because it ensures that one day, you can apply with a film that is critical of the president, for instance,” he said. “There have been calls to bring Czech TV under state control, which would mean the parliament would appoint people who would then make the network's staffing and editorial decisions and so on... This is absolutely unacceptable and dangerous, and it would infringe on our freedom.”

However, Remunda also pointed out how to cleverly use the advantages that documentary cinema offers as a form over journalism. “One has to be careful to shoot a film in a way that doesn't make it look like you're being paid by another party. This is certainly a relevant question, and that's why the creative aspect of the film must be sufficiently amped up for it not to come across as a commissioned piece,” he said. 

The significance of documentaries as a tool in the struggle to get the truth out there was highlighted by Aliyev: “When you look at the ratings for our channel, which is dedicated to news and information, documentaries are beating the news. For me, it's a serious indication that shows that people are more interested in these special projects than they are in the news, which is not censored on our channel. It means we should continue investing in these projects, and we will; that's why we are building relations with events like the East Doc Platform or the Jihlava IDFF, connecting with filmmakers… We have a fund providing some support to films focused on Russia and Ukraine, and the world of documentaries is a wonderful world. They deserve all the support they can get; they are an important tool or a commodity that makes viewers more enlightened and educated, and at the same time, it's a beautiful genre.”

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