Insect (Hmyz) – Jan Švankmajer, 2018

Once on a family holiday, we were walking around the side streets of a small Welsh town when we stumbled upon an old bric-a-brac shop that was closed for many years. Among the dusty collection of forlorn objects in the window display sat a vintage doll with braided hair, a straw hat, and a yellowed cotton dress. Her cheeks were webbed with tiny cracks and one of her eyes was missing. With her remaining eye, she gazed out across the universe like a martyr in a medieval painting. A huge dead spider lay curled up in her lap.

That image really troubled my childhood imagination, filled me with a terrible sense of nausea. It is the same feeling I got years later when I first saw Jan Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His use of musty found objects in his animation, including dolls like the one sitting in that shop window years ago, disturbs me to this day.

Strangely I consider this a good thing, and with this in mind, I thought I’d check out Švankmajer’s final film, Insects. The blurb states that it is based on the play Pictures from the Insects’ Life by Karel and Josef Čapek, although that is a little misleading. The film finds Švankmajer in a playful mood, seemingly determined to do everything apart from shoot a straightforward adaptation of the satirical work.

After a cold open where we see a middle-aged man dressed in bug wings and goggles hurrying along the street, Švankmajer appears before the camera himself to provide a foreword for his new feature. The brothers Čapek wrote the play in 1924 while Hitler was sitting in a pub scheming his terrible schemes and Lenin was building his first gulags. Meanwhile, the Czechs and Slovaks were enjoying their newly founded republic, and people found the Čapek’s play a bit too pessimistic for the times. It was sheer youthful misanthropy, he tells us, and only gained greater relevance as the momentous events of the 20th century unfolded. 

All very interesting, you might think, and this foreword certainly whetted my appetite for the adaptation that was to follow. However, that is when Švankmajer goes deliberately off-script, flunking his lines and warning us of the chaos to follow…

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Indie Profiles: Valida Baba

Filmmaker Valida Baba
Photo credit: Jakub Hrab

Valida Baba is an Azeri filmmaker who has called Prague her home for the past eight years. She uses photography, poetry and dance in her short experimental films to explore her ideas about human relationships and existence. I spoke to her about her work, her influences and her experiences so far in the Czech capital.

Hey, so thanks for making time to speak with me! First off, can you tell me about your first impressions of Prague?

Well, when I was first accepted at FAMU to study photography, I didn’t even know that it was so famous for film and photo! But when I first arrived at the airport I got the feeling of coming home. Of course, Azerbaijan is my home too, but even when I travel abroad now I get the sense of coming home when I return to Prague, and it is such a deep feeling for me, you know?

How does Azerbaijan compare to the Czech Republic culturally?

They are not too similar culturally, because Azeri culture is more like Turkish. However, because we were also part of the Soviet Union we have Russian as a second language, so there are some Slavic influences there.

Prague has become almost synonymous with Hollywood blockbusters over the last few decades, but how does the city treat an indie filmmaker working on smaller projects?

When I was studying at FAMU I could see that there are lots of opportunities to make films here. However, there was always some divide between the Czech community and the foreign community, and I was so introverted to begin with that I found it hard to communicate. I love making films but it felt like there was a border I needed to cross before I could start working with people, which is why I originally did it independently. Then I realised that it’s hard to make a film by yourself, and much easier when you have a team of like-minded people all working towards one goal.

Generally, Czech people are open and willing to collaborate if you are willing to open up to them, so it was my problem to solve, how to be more outgoing with them. Now there are many female film producers coming through who are looking to work with female directors, so it’s easier to start working on a project and take it in the direction to want…

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