“We prioritise both personal perspectives and the unique storytelling approaches of our filmmakers”
– The festival director unpicks the selection process, the thematic focus on global concerns, innovative tools in documentary filmmaking and the transformative impact of AI
(© Radek Lavička)
Marek Hovorka, the director of the largest Czech documentary gathering, the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival (24-30 October), has been helming the festival since its inception. The director discusses the diverse line-up and selection process, emphasising the evolving role of streaming platforms, the festival’s thematic focus on global concerns, innovative tools in documentary filmmaking and the transformative impact of AI in cinema.
Cineuropa: This year, Ji.hlava boasts 357 films, including many premieres. How does the selection process work in order to curate such an extensive line-up?
Marek Hovorka: Looking at our line-up, the filmmaking journey at Ji.hlava is intense, with 357 films showcased, and many of these are short, like the Méliès brothers’ retrospectives, entailing one-minute films. Yet, having nearly 120 world premieres signifies our festival’s importance. Documentaries, an ever-vibrant part of cinema, are witnessing a shift, with many now premiering also directly on streaming platforms. This transition might further extend the documentary genre’s reach, enticing more enthusiasts to festivals worldwide. Its unique distribution landscape, incorporating specialised film-funding challenges and the broad documentary festival network, as well as VoD platforms, underlines documentary cinema’s strength and potential.
Are you in touch with any VoD platforms besides DAFilms?
We have a special focus on reality TV formats while also monitoring traditional documentaries for streaming platforms. Notably, many films that once sought distribution are now integral to streaming services, highlighting the genre’s strength. It’s impressive to see documentaries debuting at major festivals like Cannes and Sundance. We annually assess reality TV, finding gems among the public broadcasters. In the Czech context, we observe both public television and other notable formats. Internationally, our attention ranges from the BBC to Scandinavian broadcasters and North American channels. Ultimately, we’re drawn to shows that go beyond entertainment, offering deeper insights or emotions on often-overlooked subjects.
The Testimony section focuses on current global events. How do you feel this year’s selections reflect the pressing concerns and discussions present in the documentary world today?
At Ji.hlava, we prioritise both personal perspectives and the unique storytelling approaches of our filmmakers. Our Opus Bonum section showcases auteur voices, while the Testimony section is dedicated to global topics, from environmental issues to political situations. We have films that provide insights into both the Ukrainian and Iranian socio-political landscapes. Our final line-up is a careful selection from among nearly 3,000 submissions and hundreds of films we’ve watched at other festivals throughout the year.
You mentioned the films’ diversity in terms of their themes and forms. Can you provide any insights into the festival’s efforts to ensure diversity in terms of formalism?
It’s not just about the changes in storytelling, but also the expansion of the tools used by documentary filmmakers. For instance, the film Normal Love that we’re featuring in the Opus Bonum section narrates the captivating journey of a couple participating in a unique challenge. They decide whether to stay together after a year, all the while documenting their experiences for a potential monetary reward. This film aptly demonstrates how documentaries are adopting tools from television reality-show formats.
On the other hand, we also have docs that employ methods like photo documentation, oral history, film essays, personal narratives and straightforward storytelling. Comparing the diverse tools and methods used in documentary films with scripted content, I’m grateful to be in the documentary realm. The freshness and the authenticity it brings is unparalleled. Knowing that the situations, the people and their stories are real adds a unique strength to these films.
This year’s non-competitive retrospective section, Fascination, focuses on films co-authored by artificial intelligence (AI). How do you see the future of AI in documentary filmmaking, and what inspired this unique thematic choice for the section?
The significance of our current era has driven the focus of our festival towards the transformative role of AI in the film industry. Our Fascination section delves into the past five years, highlighting films autonomously created by neural networks and algorithms. This paradigm shift, not just in independent cinema but also in mainstream Hollywood, reveals a growing reliance on automation, with reports indicating that up to two-thirds of animators on projects in the Netherlands are now being replaced by AI. As AI continues to evolve, we also reflect on historical intersections of cinema and societal change, such as Georges Méliès‘s film on the Dreyfus affair, prompting questions about the future role of AI in shaping political and societal narratives.
The Czech Joy section is dedicated to new Czech documentaries. In your opinion, what unique perspectives do Czech filmmakers bring to the global documentary scene?
Czech documentary cinema has witnessed a significant transformation over the past decade, evolving from a predominantly activistic identity to a tapestry of more empathic, varied narratives. Ji.hlava showcases this diversity, spotlighting films that address both localised and universally relatable themes. While some docs delve into the repercussions of vast Olympic investments [Haruna Honcoop’s Olympic Halftime – see the news], others collaborate across borders, creating topics relatable to global audiences. The festival underscores the potential of Czech cinema to address universal issues while also encouraging filmmakers to craft narratives that resonate beyond local boundaries.