I watched his face carefully. While German boys were shaving the head of a Polish girl somewhere far away, he and his wife walked their dog in Hungary. Despite all the tanks riding through the streets of Budapest, despite all the bombs that had destroyed his house, his face still remains the same. Its features changed only after a new woman entered his life (and the camera objective).
The narrative force of private amateur archives was discovered and utilized already by Hungarian director Péter Forgács who has been systematically constructing an archive of “private film history“ in Budapest since the 1970s, making a whole range of powerful films and visual installations based on the found material. The list of awards received by Forgács’ films proves that both critics and spectators appreciate his effort. Among the awards is also the Erasmus Prize, a medal of honor for a “notable contribution to European culture”. (The prize has been awarded in Amsterdam since 1958 and has had one Czech laureate as well; in 1986, Václav Havel was awarded the medal, then received by Jan Tříska).
It was Forgács who gave Jan Šikl the basic impulse to collect family film archives, thus indirectly initiating the later successful cycle of an untraditional “search for lost (personal) time”, The Private Century.
Unlike the work of his Hungarian colleague, Jan Šikl’s work with the found archives is more historical and narrative. Šikl concentrates rather on individual people’s life stories. Trying to learn as much as he can about the lives of his protagonists, he focuses on the recollections of direct participants in the events. Smaller emphasis is put on the visual material itself, its re-interpretation or re-imagination. Šikl employs it primarily as a telling illustration of the commentary, stylized as a direct account of one of the participants in each scene. Through these “narrators” of the individual stories, be it a grand-daughter of a German landowner from Sudetenland or a granddaughter of a sculptor from Moravia, a wife of a fighter pilot or a son of an owner of a film hire shop, the central theme of the project is gradually outlined: the theme of family. Historical events only appear in the films as part of the family events of the protagonists, never in the forefront of the narrative, which is reserved for individual experience, the concrete memory of the everyday life of husbands, daughters, grandparents, brothers and sisters. On the other axis of the genre spectrum of Czech cinematography, the films by Jan Hřebejk and Petr Jarchovský have also employed the same principle of “evaluating” the history of the 20th century from the positions of the family table. (It is for a reason that the family table has been a frequent subject of Šikl’s private filmmakers). In the Czech environment, further examples of this approach are to be found (such as the popular historical novels by Vladimír Neff), leading to the question whether it is just a coincidence or whether the method of seeking reflection of the “great” historical events through private, family events can be considered a specific Czech phenomenon, enabling such works of art to find an easier way to their audience.