Shivendra Singh Dungarpur on his 7-hour documentary CzechMate, the longest film to be certified in India
CzechMate has a run time of 7 hours, and it tells the story of 20 Czech New Wave film directors through 85 interviews | #FirstCulture
In times when feature films rarely cross the 140 minute-run, to make a documentary go on for a marathon 420 minutes requires unlimited resources and perseverance. But it also shows panache. On 3 January, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary CzechMate has created history for being the longest Indian production to have been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
Dungarpur, whose interest in the conservation and restoration of cinema led to the creation of Film Heritage Foundation, has not only salvaged rare prints of films, most notable among them Kalpana, made by late modern dancer Pt Uday Shankar, he also made the award-winning documentaries Celluloid Man and The Immortals, that deal with the history of Indian cinema. CzechMate: In Search of Jiri Menzel features 85 interviews which delve into the work of 20 Czech filmmakers, all of whom heralded the subversive and exciting Czech New Wave movement that lasted from the 1950s to the 70s. In this conversation, Dungarpur talks about making this film.
A documentary that runs for 7 hours; in times of shortening attention spans, why did you conceive of a film so long? How did your association with Czech cinema begin?
It’s taken me nearly eight years to complete this documentary. I never knew that it would become a seven hour-long film. I just wanted to meet and spend time with the director Jiri Menzel, who made Closely Watched Trains (1966). I lost sleep over thinking about how he could have made an almost perfect film; so light and beautiful that you keep smiling, yet dealing with the oppression depicted in it.
I had been pursuing him for almost a year before he finally agreed to meet me in a café in Prague in 2010. So two of my cameramen friends, Ranjan Palit and KU Mohanan, came along with me to meet Jiri Menzel. Those conversations lead to the discovery that there was a whole gamut of extraordinary filmmakers of the Czech New Wave, some of whom were truly great visual artists and whose work I had yet to explore. This made me visit Prague almost every year over the last seven years, to discover the fascinating world of the Czech New Wave.
This film has been culled from material that was many hours longer. Tell us about the process of researching and collecting data for the film. How many hours of footage did you edit out?
Editing it down to seven hours was a real challenge, and it took over three years. I think the first cut was 15 hours. As far as research is concerned, I was constantly watching films and was in touch with Peter Hames, an important Czech cinema historian on. My assistant Sunil Jhurani dedicated much of his time to research. We visited museums, archives and libraries, and shortlisted research material from newspapers to television footage and film clips. We have used film clips from the Czech and Slovakian archives and have interviewed 85 people from all over the world in the film. I was trying to find the link to other new wave movements, so I shot with Raoul Coutard in France, Miklos Jansco and Istvan Szabo in Hungary, Andrzej Wajda in Poland and Ken Loach in England.
Are you surprised at the CBFC clearance? Did they demand cuts?
It is the longest film ever certified in India. I was amazed that they sat through seven hours of the film and was touched when a few of them came up to me at the end of the screening to say that they don’t mind watching the film again. That was a great compliment. There were no major cuts except for those related to nudity.
Were you driven by indulgence or need? Do you feel all the talk about its length may take away the focus from its core story?
It is not about indulgence or need. It is just an organic process and I don’t know when to stop. Why should there be an ending? That is something the audience demands and I have never made a film keeping the audience in mind.
Czech poets and writers greatly influenced Indian writers. Could the same be said about films?
Whether it was Czech writers like Bohumil Hrabal and Milan Kundera or their poets or filmmakers, they did have a deep influence on Indian cinema. In fact, Milan Kundera taught a lot of the Czech New Wave filmmakers at FAMU (the film school in Prague). Films of Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova, Jan Nemec and Milos Forman had an impact on the Indian New Wave in the 70s. Not only were they shown in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) thanks to PK Nair, but also as a part of the Film Society movement.
At a time when Indian filmmakers continue to fight against censorship, how significant is the message drawn from Czech filmmakers, who soldiered on even in oppressive censorship regimes?
This is the 50th anniversary of the Russian occupation of Prague. What was extraordinary about these filmmakers is that they made films under an oppressive regime but never gave up even though they lived under the threat of losing their livelihood; their films were banned and heavily censored, or they could only make films that conformed to the narrative of the regime. Yet these filmmakers, each of whom had a unique approach to filmmaking, managed to find the space for artistic expression, often with a subversive message. They stood up to an oppressive regime and ironically, all the films were state-funded.
In India, in the fight against censorship, it is every filmmaker for himself. I don’t see the industry standing together against the government. While making this film, I found a lot of parallels in the current political scenario in India and how it is impacting our film industry and the freedom of artistic expression. I hope people realise that these are important rights that we must fight for.
Tell us about your association with Menzel. How do you respond to his comment that this film is a 'mistake'?
It’s been eight years now since I first came to know Jiri. I cannot forget that he opened the doors to his life to me over the last eight years, even though he hated talking about his work. As someone who had become a part of his life, I saw him become a father at the age of 77 and was privileged to be at his side, travelling on the train to Lodenice station to celebrate 50 years of Closely Watched Trains. I loved the time I spent with him not just for his humour, but his humanity and his intellect. He kept asking me when will the film end and who is going to watch it. I had dinner with him in November and just ten days later, I received the news that he is seriously ill and hospitalised. Now that the film is complete, I just hope he recovers and I am able to show it to him.
Are there other Czech filmmakers who influenced you? Are you in touch with them?
I would say that the entire Czech New Wave was an inspiration – Vera Chytilova, Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Jan Nemec, Ewald Schorm, Pavel Juracek, Juraj Jakubisco, Dusan Hanak, Drahomira Vihanova, Juraj Herz, Jaromil Jires... the list goes on. I am very close to Ivan Passer, whose film Intimate Lighting is still one of the most beautiful Czech New Wave films. I stay in touch with Dusan Hanak and Juraj Herz. Hanak’s work is a fascinating combination of documentary and fiction. But to me, the biggest discovery was Frantisek Vlacil who was a film poet who inspired many of the Czech New Wave directors. I think he is one of the most important filmmakers ever, but sadly forgotten.
Who do you think is the target audience of this documentary? If asked, would you reduce the length of the film to greater viewing?
The film covers the period from the time Czechoslovakian cinema was nationalised in 1948, to the year of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It explores how the socio-political context gave birth to the New Wave movement and how it evolved through the Utopian time of the Prague Spring, the Russian occupation, where the oppression really began, and finally to the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when they finally attained independence, which saw the death of the movement. So it would be impossible to reduce the length of the film without compromising its essence. I think it will find its own audience.
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