The Czech Film and Television Academy, or FAMU, has been educating filmmakers for over 60 years. Among its students were such personalities of Czech and international cinema as Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Agneiszka Holland and Jan Svěrák. In this edition of One on One we talk to Pavel Jech, the dean of the famed film school. Pavel Jech was born in Prague but grew up in the United States, where his parents moved after 1968, when he was only two months old. After graduating in history at Columbia University in New York, Pavel Jech returned to Prague in 1990 where his life took a different turn.
“1990 was a very special time in Prague, as people who were here remember; it was a very exciting and adventurous time. I was very young at the time, and it was a time in my life when I was also exploring things, the country was exploring, the atmosphere was one of exploration. It was a big adventure at the time; it wasn’t a situation of immigration of someone new coming to a country and having to adapt. Instead, it was part of a larger adventure that young people were part of at the time, or maybe the whole country was part of, and then gradually assimilating to Prague where eventually I stayed.”
”I had to learn a lot of Czech when I came back. I thought I knew Czech but because I grew up mainly in rural Pennsylvania, there wasn’t so much interaction with other Czechs. Also Czechs are not really the type of people that create ghettos, there is no larger Czech communities in the United States, so I didn’t have so much contact with that. It’s very common for second-generation Czech Americans not to speak any Czech at all; I did but it was a mixture of Czech and English.”
You studied filmmaking at Columbia University with one of the most famous Czech directors, Vojtěch Jasný, who’s famous for his poetic and lyrical style. Did he influence you in any way? What did you learn from him?
“It’s true; Vojtěch Jasný is a very lyrical filmmaker and his style was not always so well understood in the United States, not even at a more alternative film school as Columbia University. Some students had difficulties adjusting to that style because American mainstream filmmaking is much more rational and much more narrative-based. So that was a revelation for me too, his approach to filmmaking. Much later I realized how much he influenced me. I consider my primary profession to be screenwriting, but on some independent projects I even do things like camera work, and working in that area, I realized that I was very, very strongly influenced by Vojtěch Jasný, for sure.”
Some FAMU students welcomed you as the dean, saying that you changed the rather conservative filmmaking style that might still be rooted in the famous period in Czech cinema, the 1960s. When you came here, did you find a closed circle of people who were following the same ideas for maybe decades?
“This is a very old film school – it’s 65 years old, and it’s one of the oldest film schools in the world. It also has an obligation to be the national film academy. So by definition, it’s a very traditional place. But that tradition needs to be shaken up every now and then, because creativity needs openness to new ideas. I don’t think any one person can influence the school completely so my working here is just one of many influences on the school. But I do think that because I was perhaps an untraditional choice to be the dean, that kind of shifted the spirit a little bit and helped people reconsider what we’re doing here. We’ll never completely abandon the traditions; a lot of what the traditions are is very important and they are very valuable. There are certain values and traditions of FAMU which we endure that were important in the early 1950s, were important in 1989 and are important today. So I hope that whichever transitions the school goes through, these traditions will always remain.”
At FAMU, you split the international programme into two parts, a practical one and a more academic one. Do you think this should perhaps happen in the main programme for Czechs?
“FAMU has the status of a university, so it has to be academic-orientated as well. We in fact even have PhD studies at FAMU which is not typical for every film school although film school although in Europe that’s a growing trend. But that said, we are still 90 percent practical. Most of the energy the people put into the school, both students and teachers, is on practical work. People here are artists first and foremost. They have to be educated artists, they have to have a broad rage of interests and an understanding of the society, but our students often get that before they come to the school. It’s very typical that students who come to FAMU already have higher education before they come here. So we’ll never be a university on the level of let’s say Charles University but we’ll always be in-the-lead art academy focusing on the practical craft and on artistic development.”
Czechs film gained international recognition and fame in the 1960s, and then again to some extent in the 1990s. What is missing today? It seems that Czech filmmaking is sometimes stuck as far as ideas are concerned and sometimes even skills…
“It’s kind of a popular sport in this country to criticize Czech films, especially among Czech filmmakers. But there is some truth to that for sure. I think that one of the problems here is that maybe it’s little bit too easy to make a film, that people are little bit too satisfied with the projects and don’t push them far enough because the Czech film viewer is quite loyal to Czech film. So when there are Czech actors and when it’s in the Czech language, people will support the film. If the film doesn’t have an outrageous budget and it’s made by confident people, the film usually gets made. So there might not be an urgency to make the film better. That said, this part year I have seen among mainstream filmmakers a willingness to kind of push the content a little bit further. I was pretty happy with films like Protektor for instance, that were attempting to address issues that are important to uncover, and they were also formally trying to make the film fresh, not just speaking through an old style.”
Do you see any specific features of Czech cinema, perhaps looking at other central and eastern European countries? Is there any “Czechness” to filmmaking in the Czech Republic?
“Czechs always say that Czechs don’t make genre films, like thrillers, westerns of course, romantic comedies, things like that. But there is a genre of Czech film. Czech film does have its own characteristics, and it’s not any surprise that when there’s an advertisement for a new Czech film, it’s always advertised as a Czech film – unlike in the US where it would for instance be advertised as a romantic comedy. And Czech film does have certain characteristics – it usually has an anti-hero, the hero is not someone in the mould of Mel Gibson but has more loser aspects to him, more in the Švejk tradition. There will definitely be aspects of comedy, but it won’t be a completely funny film, it will probably have elements of sadness to it as well. And there probably won’t be any larger issues at stake, it will probably be a smaller story. Those are the trends I see within what I would call the Czech film genre. But again, filmmakers are exploring a little bit more these days, so I was happy with the very recent films, like Protektor or Three Seasons in Hell, or series of genre films that are coming out; that’s all healthy because it means that filmmakers are trying to reach out and stake new territory.”
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