Film: Chilling notes from a wintry Prague spring

Written By: Neil Young
Published: March 31, 2018 Last modified: March 31, 2018

Light tributes placed in memory of murdered journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova

Chilling notes from a wintry Prague spring

“One World 2018: International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival” – One World Prague for short, or OWP for even shorter – took place in 37 cities across the Czech Republic from March 5-14, with the main bulk of the screenings in the capital, Prague. But it was an incident across the border in Slovakia two weeks before opening night which cast a shadow over the entire event –  it would ultimately result in the resignation of Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico and his government one day after the festival ended.

At some as-yet-unspecified point between February 22- 25, the freelance investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová (both 27) were shot dead at their home in Ve?ká Ma?a, a small village in the south-west of the country. According to the International Federation of Journalists, Kuciak – who had been probing tax evasion allegations levelled against leading Slovak politicans – was the seventh reporter to be assassinated in 2018, following similar killings in Brazil, Guatemala, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq.

His death, the first murder of a journalist in the 25-year history of independent Slovakia, sent shockwaves through the republic and farther afield. These reverberations were evident on a daily basis throughout OWP, whose opening ceremonies featured photographs of and numerous references to the slain couple.

Among those of us fortunate enough to attend many film festivals as part of our work, it can be all too easy to retreat into a parallel reality upon which events in the wider world only rarely impinge. So, it’s refreshing to find events like OWP, in which direct engagement with current affairs and national/international politics is inescapable. There was of course much discussion of the Academy Awards, presented in Hollywood hours before the festival began – but just as much talk about the results of the Italian general election, announced the same evening.

The latter, featuring major gains by populist/reactionary parties including Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord, were greeted like the proverbial bucket of cold vomit at OWP, where the bulk of the attendees were from the left side of the poltical spectrum. Concerns are manifold: many of the films screened – marginal commercial propositions at best – received significant support from state subsidies. Right-wing governments across Europe have seldom hesitated in trimming or eliminating cultural budgets, especially pots of public cash earmarked for experimental or leftfield work.

Even in culturally vibrant Austria, for example, a major doubt has hung over the future of the film-supporting activities of the BKA (Bundeskanzleramt) – the Federal Chancellor’s Office – since last autumn’s elections saw 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz of the conservative Austrian People’s Party replace Christian Kern as Chancellor. The BKA is particularly prized in Austrian artistic circles for its “Innovative Film” fund, which has helped the country to a pre-eminent position in the field of avant-garde shorts over the last few decades via such names as Peter Tscherkassky, Johann Lurf and Siegfried Fruhauf.

But the BKA also aids productions of a (relatively) more mainstream type, such as 2018 OWP highlight Gwendolyn, the accomplished second documentary feature by Vienna-based director Ruth Kaaserer. Having previously examined female boxers in her 2014 debut Tough Cookies, Kaaserer now segues to the similarly “unladylike” business of weightlifting. She does so via the eponymous sexagenarian who has become a dominant figure – triple world champion, no less – in the section of her chosen amateur sport restricted to senior-citizen females.

An Austrian who has lived for decades in London, Gwendolyn Leick had previously achieved some measure of global renown as an anthropologist and Assyriologist, and as the author of publications on the ancient near East such as Mesopotamia (Penguin, 2001). Kaaserer follows this slight but steely woman as she recovers from a cancer operation on her throat (her third) which has left her with restricted facial movement – smiling is particularly difficult. We see her at engagements both academic and sporting, in between domestic down-time with her genial partner Charlie (from Côte d’Ivoire) and grown-up son Joseph.

But the bulk of the running-time is devoted to her training sessions in her local gym under the supervision of Pat, a cheery Cockney who wouldn’t have been out of place in an early Guy Ritchie enterprise. Gwendolyn thus has at least one foot in the venerable sporting-biopic sub-genre, in which the protagonist is coached towards final-reel participation in a high-profile contest of some kind: here, the European championships in Azerbaijan. Absorbingly low-key and ultimately inspiring as a character-study of a fascinating, uncompromising and fiercely driven individual, Gwendolyn also strikes a subtly timely chord as a tribute to the idea of the United Kingdom – specifically London – as a welcomingly multi-cultural, multi-racial space. The word “Brexit” is never mentioned once, nor does it need to be.

The reality of working life in the 21st century European Union, meanwhile, is laid starkly bare in another OWP standout: Apolena Rychlíková’s The Limits of Work, a 70-minute dispatch made for state broadcaster ?eská televize’s “Czech Journal” strand. At first glance a fairly standard-issue example of undercover investigative reporting, it follows middle-class journalist Saša Uhlová over six months of temporary work in some of the country’s most lowly-paid jobs: hospital laundry, poultry-processing factory, supermarket checkout, waste-sorting facility and so on.
Gaining much from the flintily empathetic, perceptive and characterful voice-over by Uhlová – who shot most of the footage using a tiny camera hidden insider her spectacles – it’s a real eye-opener of cumulatively depressing and rousing impact as itemises the routine manner in which employers flout regulations. Prominent among them: the multi-national conglomerate Agrofert, set up and (until 2014) solely owned by Andrej Babiš, the Slovak-born “Czech Trump” who was sworn in as Prime Minister last December amid a wave of populist, anti-establishment sentiment among the Czech electorate.
Within weeks of taking office, however, Babiš was stripped of immunity from prosecution, allowing police to probe his alleged role in defrauding the European Union of a €2 million subsidy just over a decade ago. At the time of writing he has yet to follow the example of his Slovakian counterpart Fico. That he happens to own the Czech Republic’s two biggest newspapers has perhaps helped to at least partly shield him from the kind of fearless investigative journalism which cost Ján Kuciak his life.

About Neil Young

Neil Young is Tribune's film critic.