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Cerise Howard & the Czech & Slovak Film Festival

Mathew Knight
Cerise and the team

Image above: Cerise Howard (third from L) and her festival team

The second annual Czech and Slovak Film Festival kicked off August 21st at the Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI). The opening night went without a hitch, with absinth cocktails flowing, and representation from Melbourne’s Eastern European and cinema-loving public alike.

Artistic Director, and local cinema stalwart Cerise Howard, was understandably pleased with the proceedings. In fact, she only just returned from the Czech Republic, where she was a juror on the critic’s panel of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

The long-running festival is the largest forum for central and Eastern European cinema on the festival circuit. There she was about to network and look at some possible features for next year’s festival.

Cerise has a strong pedigree in the local cinema scene. She’s a long-time film critic on Melbourne’s Triple R, every second Thursday morning on ‘Smart Arts’, and more recently every Monday night on ‘Plato’s Cave’.

She also did layouts for the online cinema journal ‘Senses of Cinema’ for several years, and still is an active contributor to the site.

Ms. Howard’s love of Czech cinema was sparked by the films of Jan Svankmajer, whose surreal works make up a large part of the 2014 festival.

She was introduced to his work 20 years ago as a film student at La Trobe University. “His work made an immediately indelible impression on me,” she says.

Then six years ago Cerise was invited, as a critic, to attend a Czech animation festival. She hadn’t been to Europe at that stage at all, but as she says, “I was immediately gob-smacked by the place.”

The theme for this year’s festival is ‘Resistance’.

2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the ‘Velvet Revolution’, where the Czech and Slovak people stood up against the oppressive Soviet regime and peacefully achieved democracy.

A few films on the festival program are explicitly about the revolution, and a few from earlier times deal with themes of resistance, in what was then known as Czechoslovakia.

“There was a golden period in the ‘60s, they call it ‘Spring’, where policy was introduced by the Government of ‘Socialism with a friendly face’,” says Ms Howard, “There were democratic reforms coming in and a more freedom for artists.”

During this period the state would often subsidise young filmmakers’ education. “An amazing generation of people went to school together and pooled their talents and made some amazing films, many of them subversive,” she says.

“Some [were] explicitly addressing political situations, and others through allegory or fables, then sometimes just plain mischief and surrealism.

“Then in 1968 the tanks rolled in, and it all went to hell in a hand-basket for another 21 years, but for a period these things were very artistically vibrant.

“So we have a few films from that period, which was known as the ‘Czechoslovakian New Wave’. Four digitally restored films, and each in its own way bounced off the theme of resistance,” she says.

The festival is held over two locations both at Federation Square. The films screened at ACMI and the associated exhibitions at the Yarra Gallery.

Svankmajer’s work is also being showcased at the Yarra Gallery in two exhibitions: One a career overview by his Czech and Slovak surrealist colleagues, and the other by local artists that is a dialogue with his work.

Cerise says one of her personal highlights was meeting the now 80 year-old Jan for the first time earlier this year. “He’s still extremely vital and making extraordinary artworks,” and “one of the loveliest human beings I’ve ever met.”

Another exhibition showing is ‘Prague Through the Eyes of the Secret Police’. A collection of photos with text which gives insight into the now primitive methods adopted by the Secret Police to survey the populace.

“On the face of it seems quite banal; people going about their everyday business. [However] it’s quite sinister because you get the sense the person taking them is doing it so furtively. It’s always from strange angles, taken from dark corners,” she says.

Cerise Howard and her team of volunteers will barely take a breath when the Festival ends on August 29, as the Festival then moves to Sydney for it’s debut in the Emerald City from September 2nd – 5th.

Photos by Mathew Knight

1. Marketing Manager Linda Studená (fourth from L) and the team on opening night
2. Linda and guests
3. Cerise and Linda

Linda and the teamLinda and guestsCerise and Linda