Austin Film Society hosts Jan Nemec retrospective
In August 1968, filmmaker Jan Nemec was shooting what was supposed to be a bit of hometown boosterism – a tour of Prague filled with convivial scenes of modern life: hippies in the park painting one another's faces, grannies in their head scarves praying in church. This was the height of Prague Spring, a time when Czechoslovakia was undergoing reforms – promoted as "socialism with a human face" – allowing freedoms of speech and travel unseen since the Communist Soviet regime had taken power in 1948. But those freedoms came to an abrupt end on Aug. 20, 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled unannounced into the country. That day would bring an end to the reforms for another two decades and transform Nemec's quaint snapshot of city life into an iconic portrait of unarmed resistance, replayed in newsreels all around the world.
Nemec is no stranger to resistance. As the "enfant terrible" of Czechoslovak New Wave cinema, he's known for the sly sense of humor and subversive social commentary in his films. His 1966 A Report on the Party and Guests had "outraged the authorities, who quickly banned it," writes Irena Kovarova, the curator for a nationally touring retrospective of Nemec's work. Among the few Czechoslovak filmmakers with an international audience, Nemec is part of the "triumvirate" of directors – alongside Jirí Menzel (Closely Watched Trains) and Miloš Forman (Amadeus) – who "became the face of the new cinema rushing out of Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s," writes Kovarova. Film producer Jeffrey Brown – a recent Wimberley transplant who has been making films in the Czech Republic for 20 years – worked with Kovarova to bring the retrospective to Austin and is the series' local curator.
Sponsored by the Austin Film Society, the series – which starts 24 years to the month after the Velvet Revolution led to the liberation of Czechoslovakia – includes recent work (2005's previously unavailable Toyen) as well as classics, notably a newly restored 35mm print of Nemec's 1964 masterpiece Diamonds of the Night (about two concentration camp escapees, based on a story by Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig).
Nemec was a troublemaker in his early years, "getting permits to shoot one type of film," says Brown, "and then shooting something else." This uncompromising spirit is evident in his movies, says AFS Associate Artistic Director Holly Herrick: "He's interested in focusing on entrapment and not resolving what's going to happen to his characters" – a clear reflection of the psyche of the era. The Sixties were heady because they followed a time when Czech filmmaking "was largely about propaganda," says Mark Hopkins of UT's Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, an AFS partner for the retrospective. In reaction to that period, a vibrant generation of artists emerged from the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague to make an indelible mark on the world. It turned out to be only a brief respite from Soviet oppression – but as Nemec's work shows, the spirit of that time still endures.
Jan Nemec: Rediscovered Treasures of the Czechoslovak New WaveAFS at the Marchesa, 6226 Middle Fiskville (near Highland Mall), Nov. 15-Dec. 6
A Report on the Party and Guests Friday, Nov. 15, 8:30pm
Toyen Sunday, Dec. 1, 7pm
Diamonds of the Night (with short film "A Loaf of Bread") Monday, Dec. 2, 8pm; Wednesday, Dec. 4, 7pm
Pearls of the Deep Friday, Dec. 6, 7:30pm*
*This time reflects a change from original publication.