On the “Eternity” of Short Film

Did you know that the history of short film is inseparably linked to documentary film? Read about the history of cinema, the unique Czech research project Atoms of Eternity and the potential of archive films online in our interview with film historian Lucie Česálková.

Did you know that the history of short film is inseparably linked to documentary film? Read about the history of cinema, the unique Czech research project Atoms of Eternity and the potential of archive films online in our interview with film historian Lucie Česálková.

Dear Lucie, we are very happy that already for the second time, we can welcome archive films presenting a part of the history of Czech cinema to viewers across the world online on our portal’s website. The five films that are available in the course of two weeks from February 23 to March 8 for free are linked to your research project entitled Atoms of Eternity; Czech Short Film of the 1930s–1950s which you finished in the fall of 2014 under the auspices of the Faculty of Arts of Masaryk University and published at the National Film Archive in Prague. Why did you decide to explore this very field of Czech cinema and where does the title of the book come from?

My research of short films was inspired by my long-term research interest in the educational role of the media. In my diploma thesis, I have discussed television broadcasting for schools; in my dissertation thesis, I have dealt with the beginnings of school film in the Czech lands. My long-term interest has also focused on a certain clash between the proclaimed didactic character of audiovisual educational tools and the fact that the resulting films often did not correspond to this ideal at all; they were either playful and entertaining, or common non-fiction and documentary films not primarily designed for schools that were to be subsequently explained by the teachers. This multifunctional and flexible character is typical of the whole field of short films that I came to research due to my previous projects; while I was still interested in how short films were used to form civic awareness, develop curiosity and interest in knowledge, form people’s taste etc.; which still corresponds to the educational role of the media, however, taken out of the school context and employed in a wider social context.

The title is a metaphor I have borrowed from the amateur film by Čeněk Zahradníček and Vladimír Šmejkal from 1934 (Atom of Eternity). They, too, point out the relation between the individuality (of human fate) and the whole of the universe on one level of meaning in their playful film. In my opinion, the title Atoms of Eternity aptly captures the essence of the short film forms I have discussed. Short films are minute forms and the meaning of each of them can seem ungraspable or ephemeral at first glance. These films are based on a current need (usually to exhort, to instruct, to promote ideas, services and products, to develop people’s taste etc.); however, due to their primary educational or cultivating role (whether they were to instruct about the right dental care or shift the possibilities of expression of film art), they strived for a certain change (in behaviour, aesthetics and other fields), thus transcending to the future; to the times when this change would be put into effect. A no less important aspect of the “eternity” of short forms consists in the fact that they were very often used for various purposes in various environments for a relatively long time (moving from cinemas to schools and having a promotional, educational or instructional character according to the context of the screening) and that their footage was used in compilation films or compilation versions of the original films. The metaphor of Atoms of Eternity embraces the double temporality of short forms; their ephemerality as well as their eternal utility.

How many historical films have you researched in your work and what were the criteria for their selection? How difficult was it to access the material and further work with it?

The number of films that represented the basis of my research really amounted to hundreds. I have drawn on period overviews concerning the production and censorship of local short films put together by period documentalist of Czech cinema Jiří Havelka. With the help of my student Eliška Malečková, I have transcribed Havelka’s lists to Excel tables and started confronting almost thousands of items with the collections of the National Film Archive, Prague Short Film and other institutions. A whole range of films I was dealing with were commissioned by various associations, state institutions and private companies and may be stored in the archives of regional or specialized institutions until today (such as the Medical Museum etc.). I tried to watch all the accessible films from the period I was dealing with, although finding them often was an adventurous detective work. Naturally, a whole range of films have not been preserved; on the other hand, due to my research, some of them were removed from non-film memory institutions to the National Film Archive where they will be taken care of in a more professional way. In all cases, they were naturally film copies (of 35mm or 16mm format) and I have viewed all of them on the viewing tables of the NFA.

The book that represents the final output of the project also has an electronic version which offers clips from selected analysed films. This is an original act in case of a scholarly project in the Czech environment. Why did you decide to work on the electronic version of the book and how does it differ from the traditional printed book?

In the electronic version, the text is naturally the same; however, the sections analysing the particular films include clips of the analysed scenes which can be directly watched. The explication is thus immediately illustrated by the corresponding passage of the film. Readers who are not used to reading electronic books and who prefer the printed version, however, are not deprived of the clips either, as they can look them up on the NFA website under a password that requires concrete information from the book.

I was inspired to create this concept by the simple fact that I was not writing about films that belong to the canon of Czech cinema. Whereas the film The Emperor and the Golem, for instance, is familiar to almost everybody, I suppose that this is not the case with, let us say, Boys in Blue. Although it is a remarkable work! The films I am discussing have been screened rather exceptionally at festivals or at the archive Ponrepo Cinema so far; which makes me believe that hardly any reader has a notion of what they were actually like. At the same time, publication projects usually do not have budgets that would cover means for the rights of complete films; which is why I have opted for the method of presenting clips as quotation reference to introduce the films to the readers in the best way possible. At the same time, we at the National Film Archive wanted to respond to the contemporary trends in book publishing; we consider the electronic version with clips a pioneering project within the concept we would like to continue and develop in the future.

DAFilms.com is primarily a documentary portal; which is why I would like to know what links between the short film of the followed period and documentary film you can see?

That is a very interesting and important question which naturally requires a detailed explanation. What makes it even more interesting is the fact that it has been one of the themes discussed at the recent conference Visible Evidence (the only international conference dealing with the questions of documentary film on a long-term basis) which took place at New Delhi, India in December 2014. I hesitated to define the phenomenon I am dealing with for a long time myself to prevent any misunderstanding. Nevertheless, I decided to use the term short film in the end, since I wanted to embrace the complex meaning of the phenomenon which, in its various forms and manifestations, fulfils what I call the educational role of the media (in the broadest sense of the word; in general, I conceive it as the medium of awareness).

Another frequent definition adapted from the German context is that of cultural film, suggesting the cultural (cultivating) relevance of film. At the same time, short films were most frequently documentary or animated films, sometimes even live-action films, however, they often combined reenactment and reconstruction methods with animated charts and authentic scenes. What was important for these films was partly that they were really short (around 10 to 15 minutes) and thus required different presentation standards than feature films; they were screened either before films or in series, often outside cinemas in specialized environments with primarily educational focus. The other important aspect consists in the function they fulfilled; their function was primarily neither entertaining nor aesthetic (although the latter was not to be ignored either as it was to be developed in a complementary way); they rather had a whole variety of non-aesthetic functions, ranging from news covering and informing to instructing and promoting. As captured in period texts, they were supposed to represent socially responsible cinema (a term originally defined by Hans Richter).

However, the period discourse did not mention the term of documentary film much, rather speaking of short film. The latter term had its key promoter in Jiří Jeníček, maker of exceptional military films who wrote a number of articles and books on short film. Nevertheless, when examining his concept of short film in greater detail, we will find that the tasks, functions and creative demands he links to short film are not remote from those promoted by John Grierson in his reflections on documentary film. He, too, was interested primarily in the formative social role of film art, while not avoiding promotional or agitation work himself; for that matter, his entire career is connected with serving various governmental and private institutions, without which he could never financially secure the works of the teams he surrounded himself with.

In the international perspective, as I found out at the above mentioned conference, it is evident that the term short film was not a Czech specialty and was employed abundantly across the world even before Grierson pushed through the term documentary film; one could say that it only represented a more general definition of the same phenomenon. Today’s viewers will probably see the short films we present as rather promotional or educational films. Nevertheless, that is linked primarily to the fact that we approach documentary film from today’s perspective with the experience of the further development of documentary film. In the 1930s and 1940s, the form of the film essay was not that common yet and the approaches of observational documentary, participative documentary and others were still developing. The promotional and educational functions only recede in the 1950s on the global scale as well. In this respect, short film can be considered a category that is superordinate and preceding to the category of documentary film; a category out of which documentary film actually developed by differentiating its functions and methods from promotional, popular-scientific or instructional film.

The portal website currently presents five short films. According to which key did you select the films?

The collection we now present should show the diversity of the phenomenon of short film and the individual titles were selected so as to represent both the period I examined and the variety of functions and forms of short films. I also wanted to present films that are unknown, unique, that could not be watched before. In some cases (Vladimír Čech and Ludvík Toman), I also show that making short films was a starting point for later directors of feature film.

The collection includes the film Attack on Prague where scenes from the air raid drill filmed in Prague in 1936 served as a starting point for the agitation for combat readiness during the threat of the Second World War. Jan Libora’s Health War represents the production of the significant cultural department of AB Company; Jiří Lehovec, who also participated in the making of the film, started his career there. The film documents the situation of the period health system, focusing primarily on the development of medications, explaining the usefulness of this activity for the society, especially for the health of children. Joyful Work by Jiří Lehovec is an early post-war film encouraging people to work in the textile industry. On one hand, it shows the role of film in the period employment policy, as there was a need to fill the vacancies in post-war factories that had employed resettled Germans. On the other hand, it shows the above mentioned use of earlier film material for new purposes; as Lehovec filmed most of the footage already in 1942–43 while making films for the then protectorate textile factory Mautner Textilwerke in Náchod (Smiling Work and Miltex). Paradoxically, footage filmed for Germans thus becomes a basis for the recruitment film for Czechs who are to fill the vacancies in the resettled border area.

Tax Discipline by Vladimír Čech uses a reenactment frame; an Inland Revenue Office is burning and the crowd of onlookers are happy that they will not have to pay the taxes. Nevertheless, the film continues to explain the significance of taxes for the society. In a playful form, it presents the things that are financed by tax money and suggests what would happen if there really were no taxes. Life Crossroads is a film with live-action elements supporting the labour mobility of the population. It thus belongs to the line of films developed on a long-term basis in co-operation with the Institute of Human Labour, showing the importance of career advice centres for making the right choice of one’s profession and job. In general, it supported the notion of work as a cultivating virtue.

You are a researcher of the National Film Archive in Prague which now presents archive films at the DAFilms.com portal for the second time already. How would you evaluate the importance of presenting archive cinema online?

In my opinion, presenting archive films online; especially non-fiction, documentary and in general short films; is actually essential and I would like to give many thanks to the DAFilms.com portal for being able to co-operate in this way. The internet is a perfect environment for many reasons. Unlike feature films, short archive films are not part of the collective visual memory. They are not broadcast on TV; they were not released on DVD. Their theatrical presentation is problematic as well as people do not know the phenomenon and will be hardly lured to come.

Personally, I envisage a more complex virtual gallery in the future, presenting these films along with other materials (period texts, pictures and photographs, other materials), carefully linking them to metadata and other information and providing commentaries. It is only in a complex historical context that many of them make sense. Such a project, however, is financially demanding; unfortunately, the digitization programmes have considerably preferred feature films so far.

We would like to thank you for your answers and wish Atoms of Eternity many readers and viewers!


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