Nudging its way onto a crowded marketplace, the Czech and Slovak Film Festival Australia (CaSSFA) arrives in Canberra for the first time this week, offering a point of difference in its programming that is quite refreshing. Earlier this week I talked to Festival Director Cerise Howard to ask her why on earth someone would start a film festival in this current climate. The answer seems to be simple - it's a passion project.
Howard is a well-known Melbourne cultural critic, building her life around her love of cinema and performance. A co-host of Plato's Cave on Melbourne's Triple R FM, and a regular contributor to various other on and offline cinema journals and magazines, Howard knows her stuff. Interestingly, she is not of Czech stock. Although a good proportion of the festival committee are from Czech and Slovak heritage, Howard nurtures the festival simply because she has a deep love for the two countries' shared culture. I was curious how such a romance began. "Jan Švankmajer," she answered. "He was very much the gateway to all this."
Howard discovered the work of the surrealist animator as a film student in the early '90s, a fascination that drew her to Anifest in Třeboň, "a gorgeous little fairytale town in the Czech Republic. After going a couple of times I just began meeting people in the industry. The more networks that were created, the more a festival in Australia became possible."
These connections are part of what makes the festival stand out, she says. "We're a not-for-profit, entirely volunteer-run festival, which can be restrictive, but in many respects is quite liberating. We're not beholden to show crowd-pleasers or fluff in order to bring in money. We can have a real curated, considered edge to the program."
This year's theme is "Text and Texture", - inspired by Prague's newly awarded status as a UNESCO City of Literature - "encompasses all those points where the cinematic and literary arts collide", says Howard.
"This approach to programming, coupled with partnerships with venues like the National Film and Sound Archive, means we can excavate gems from the National Film Archive in Prague, some utterly extraordinary films that no one would get the chance to see otherwise.
Marketa Lazarova (1967), for example, has long had a huge reputation in Czech circles, but is hardly known in the West.
"It's a hallucinatory mediaeval epic! It's just so immersive and alien. It's ugly, and visceral, hypnotic and also extremely beautiful. This is a 4K restoration from the National Archive which has one of the most extraordinary soundtracks, too - a mix of choral work and intense early electronica. It's just amazing."
From the classic to contemporary, CaSSFA opens with The Noonday Witch, a film which, according to Howard, is the Czech answer to The Babadook, "a dark fairytale but shot in daylight, swapping the Adelaide hills with some truly gorgeous Czech countryside". The film draws on Karel Jaromír Erben's famous folkloric ballad of the same name (in Czech, Polednice). Other highlights Howard points out are the family- friendly The Seven Ravens, a fairytale by popular Czech Alice Nellis, and one of the unsung heroes of the Czechoslovak New Wave, A Dragon Returns (1967), another restoration by the National Archive. Howard notes that the Canberra screening of Dragon will be introduced by director Eduard Grečner's son Samuel who happens to live in Canberra, in yet another example of the connections this little festival has drawn across the world, and back again.
CaFFSA's trailer is fresh, odd, and promises something much more than fluff. It is thankfully far removed from the festival trailer prototype which often resemble life-insurance commercials with all their treacle-laiden montages of Humanity in various states of embrace and lens flare. CaSSFa has grown in Melbourne since 2013, expanded to Sydney where birthed a kind of sister festival, and now hopes to woo Canberrans with a bespoke array culled from its Melbourne parent. Howard and the rest of her dedicated gang are hoping that this is the first, and smallest of many years on the Canberra cine-scene. And with programming as clever as this, I would hope so, too.
The Czech and Slovak Film Festival opens on Friday 7th of October with The Noonday Witch and drinks from 6.30pm at the National Film and Sound Archive, Acton. Bookings: https://www.trybooking.com/MCDO
For more information see http://casffa.com.au/
Dr Louise Sheedy is a screen academic, and the new community engagement officer for the National Film and Sound Archive. She programs the Arc Cinema.