Domestic short films are bending the borders of form, genre, and the medium itself. Beyond the successful showing of mostly animated shorts on the international festival circuit recently, much more has been going on in what is currently the most vibrant and diverse sector of Czech AV production.
by Martin Kudláč for Czech Film Center, magazine CZECH FILM / Spring 2021
From urgent topics in society to abstract experimental visual works, Czech short films encompass the full spectrum. With a multiplicity of forms, techniques, and approaches, short film is the most vibrant and vital feature on the audiovisual landscape. Genre-crossing, convention-bending, and boundary-blurring, the energy of artistic freedom is producing an intriguing variety of cinematic stories as well as conceptual works for big and small screens, sitespecific spaces, and art galleries.
The legacy of animation lives on
Lately, the international spotlight has been pointed at Czech animation, which has an especially strong pedigree in Czech cinema, thanks to world-renowned masters of the craft like visual illusionist Karel Zeman (1910–89), prolific artist Jiří Trnka (1912–69), multitalented and pioneering animator Břetislav Pojar (1923–2012), and the surrealist maestro Jan Švankmajer. Czech animation, especially in the short format, continues to evolve and innovate.
The buzziest animated work on the international circuit to come from the Czech Republic is Daughter (2019), by the up-and-coming Daria Kashcheeva. A stop-motion puppet drama, Daughter combines documentary-style filmmaking, inspired partly by Dogme 95, with techniques from painting, in particular expressionism. After garnering the Student Academy Award, Kashcheeva’s short landed an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Film.
Meanwhile Michaela Mihályi and Dávid Štumpf’s 2D hand-drawn Sh_t Happens (2019), a colorful fable-like tongue-in-cheek cross-over between the story of Noah’s Ark and the Titanic, with an interspecies relationship crisis at its core, got off to a great start, premiering in the Orrizonti Short Competition in Venice. Following Daughter’s lead, Sh_t Happens also qualified for the 2021 Oscar nominations, and as a Czech-Slovak-French coproduction it is one of 12 short animated films nominated for the César Awards (the French Oscars).
Documentary crossings and nonfiction hybrids
The domestic animation scene is especially ripe with fairy-tale shorts for the youngest moviegoers, like Alexandra Májová and Kateřina Karhánková’s Blueberry Hunt! (2017) and Karhánková’s award-winning solo film, Fruits of Clouds (2017). However, one genre of animated shorts in particular has been gaining steam recently: anidocs, that is, animated documentaries, a creative hybrid used to present social or psychological issues with intriguing aesthetics and artistic styles, in defiance of the formalistic conventions of documentary filmmaking.
Vietnamese-born illustrator and filmmaker Diana Cam Van Nguyen is one of the creators who experiments with nonfiction animation to deal with personal topics. Her autobiographical bachelor’s work The Little One (2017) maps her childhood growing up in the Czech Republic, while her short portmanteau film Apart (2018) combines expressive styles to give a visual narrative structure to young people’s experiences of loss and grief. Apart netted the Best Czech Experimental Documentary Film at Ji.hlava IDFF.
Another filmmaker following the same path is Nora Štrbová, who in S p a c e s (2020) employs animation to depict her brother’s life with a brain tumor and the way it distorts his memory and identity.
Other creators have used animation to explore social themes. FAMU student Adela Križovenská looks at the fallout of institutionalization on children growing up in Czechoslovakia in Forget Me Not (2019), which superimposes testimonial voiceovers on metaphoric and symbolic visuals. Michaela Režová examines the history of Czechoslovak ice hockey in Chase (2017), reliving both its glory and its dark moments, including the imprisonment of players in 1950, mapping transformations in society, politics, and culture. Režová employs the testimony of players who suffered persecution under the Communist regime, as well as archival footage and a collage of period animated sequences and graphics.
The boom in shorts expands
The ecosystem of short works in the Czech Republic is evolving and expanding at an incredibly rapid rate, with new offerings always on the horizon. Prokop Wilhelm will soon be contributing his animated short Dagon (2021) to a resurgence of works inspired by the notorious cosmic horror author H. P. Lovecraft, and artist Jan Cechl is writing the story for a puppet animation of “the Moravian Lawrence of Arabia,” Alois Musil, in a Czech-Portugal coproduction, Lawrence of Moravia (2021).
Diana Cam Van Nguyen continues to explore autobiographical topics, namely the relationship with her father, in her upcoming anidoc Love, Dad (2021). Animator Martin Živocký’s auteur project Colours (2022) will be a metaphorical animated short about the human psyche, and finally, in a follow-up to his successful animated black comedy short Happy End (2015), Jan Saska is now at work on Hurikan (2022), a 2D hand-drawn short about “a deep fried romance from Prague” with a pig-headed alcoholic in the lead.
These short films are just the tip of a thriving short-film production iceberg, from amateur to semipro to professional to artistic. The short format offers ideal conditions as a laboratory of motion picture-making, where new challenges can be met, and radical artistic techniques and aesthetic approaches can be tried out. The daring, thought-provoking, and critically acclaimed short works overflowing from the Czech Republic now offer a thrilling glimpse of what we can expect in the upcoming decade above and beyond the frame of short films alone.
The Magazine CZECH FILM / Spring 2021 can be found online under the following link: https://www.calameo.com/read/0063064878d6aacf79be2