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Ji.hlava Documentary Festival Chief on Ramping Up Competition Section, Shifting Focus to Artisans

As the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival’s 25th-anniversary edition launches in the Czech Republic, fest director and founder Marek Hovorka shows no signs of complacency. Reformatted and streamlined this year, with the former regional section Between the Seas folded into the main Opus Bonum competition, and with new prizes awarded for documentary cinematography, editing and sound design, Hovorka is also honoring the work of several veteran filmmakers and is committed to building connections between doc filmmakers worldwide.

With more than 1,000 film professionals expected as usual, Jihlava’s long-established elements, from its Emerging Producers industry program to the East Silver online market, and Conference Fascinations, focused on experimental cinema, make it a major meeting place for the doc sector and a critical regional hub.

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The fest’s opening film, “When Flowers Are Not Silent” by Belarusian director Andrei Kutsila, capturing the brutal suppression of demonstrations against last year’s rigged presidential election in that country, seems quite emblematic. What was the message in selecting this doc?

There was important support for protesters in Czechoslovakia in Western Europe leading up to the Velvet Revolution. Now we are in a position where we can support someone who is in pretty much the same troubles we had. And the things that have happened in Belarus are really something hardly imaginable as possible in Europe – really like a dictatorship. So we want to support the activists.

We are really happy to have the film, which really conveys the atmosphere, which is changing a lot since the election. The people who made the film are really brave because they witness what happens to the protestors and the reaction from the state. If they did this, we want to support them with the director attending the screening of this international premiere.

You’re also honoring Czech maverick documentary writer, director and producer Jana Sevcikova this year (“Gyumri”) for her contribution to world cinema. What is it about her work you most wanted to celebrate?

I remember Ji.hlava screening her films in early editions of the festival so we are very much connected to her work and one of them won the audience award – “Rite of Spring” from 2002 – although it’s not a typical audience film. She is nearly 70 and is now working on her eighth film. She gives everything possible to each of her projects and doesn’t make her living from her films. She’s not making films for TV or some platform – she’s just making her films and doing what it takes. She has a very personal, respectful approach and also her style is to sometimes spend years with her subjects before she starts to shoot.

And for most of her films she works with Jaromir Kacer, the great Czech cinematographer, so her films are very visual. We will also screen “The Old Believers,” her 2001 film about members of an ancient Christian sect forced to leave their native Russia because of their beliefs, which I really think is her masterpiece.

The Oliver Stone virtual master class and the Vladimir Mansky live one should be quite a big draw this year – the two could hardly bring more different perspectives.

We were really touched by Stone’s film “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass,” screening in Cannes this year, shedding new light on the details of the mother of JFK and the whole era of Kennedy, and I think this is a serious issue. Stone is deeply interested in questions of American history.

Mansky’s new film, “Gorbachev. Heaven,” which he will discuss in person, really has a master’s touch. The situation he had was not easy for a filmmaker because he had not much time with an old man, but really showed us what it means to be someone who has changed the history of the world.

There’s also a strong showing of American films in development and production – 18 this year in the Ji.hlava New Visions Forum. How did you discover these?

For us, it’s important to connect all types of filmmaking. We present a lot from Europe but we are also interested in American documentary style and audience-oriented films. For us, it’s crucial to become a bridge between Europe and the U.S. and open this space for projects coming from U.S. directors and producers. The quality of the films in development or in production is very high and very diverse. I think there are many ways for U.S. and European producers to connect and to use the advantages of both sides.

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