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Several Different Films

An interview with Czech filmmakers Pavel Abrahám and Tomáš Bojar about unobtrusive cameras, simultaneous stories trapped in a single time line, and conceptual extremism.

 

One evening, one stadium, one match. Two football clubs, two tribes engaged in a 'war'. In their soon-to-be-released film Sparta - Slavia, Pavel Abrahám and Tomáš Bojar, directors of RAPublic - Best Czech documentary film at the 2009 Finále Plzeň - turn their attention to a football stadium. 22 cameras are placed at the stadium and over the course of 2.5 hours before, during and after the game, they film their 22 protagonists. The focus isn't on football which serves only as the catalyst of events unfolding in the stands. 22 simultaneously shot stories - a cross-section of Czech society - captured in this spatial documentary film confined in linear time.

Sparta - Slavia was introduced at the Doc Launch presentation on Friday, March 9 at Archa Theatre. Planned Premiere: June 2012

 

What came first? Did you want to make a portrait of our society and then picked a football match as the backdrop? Or did football games gradually help you to see what was in front of you?

Pavel: Tomáš once took me to a game and we instantly thought it'd be a great setting for a social portrait. You have all levels of society here, all of them drawn for the same reason but each with a completely different sort of behaviour. Our trips to the stadium became more frequent and we started working on our method. The concept was a little loose at first but soon into the project we knew that the film would strictly be defined by a single moment in time and space. This rule was created by the environment itself. It's a lab that's useful to listen to.

 

How did you find the 22 protagonists?

We met most of the people who appear in the film at the stadium, we didn't plant any characters - with the exception of a well-known journalist who replaced Defence Minister Alexandr Vondra at the peak of the cabinet crisis. Looking for protagonists was a lot of fun. When we started our project, we'd always sit or stand somewhere and just observe what was going on around us. It'd usually take only a couple of minutes of listening to decide. Within a few months we had a whole database of characters any casting agency would be proud of. They're mostly extroverted people not afraid to show their emotions and it didn't take much persuading to have them take part in the film. The selection should at least be a cross-section of population and each protagonist should bring a new perspective to the film. It's still a creative film though, not an exact sociological study or a balanced news piece. It wasn't our goal to capture everything or to worry about things we might leave out.

 

Each of the 22 protagonists was followed by a camera and a crew...

The film crews were evenly spread out in the whole stadium so that the film is varied in its environments and moods. The basic imperative for all participants was to blend in with the surroundings and to keep as low profile as possible. Naturally, they also weren't allowed to disturb anyone or be in the way, which was something the club management really thought important. In the end, we looked quite lost in the stadium packed with twenty thousand fans. It was a big help that we used still cameras that don't draw so much attention. They were placed quite far from the protagonists who had no crew around them, only a mini microphone on the lapel of their coats so the authenticity of the material is really not a problem.

 

Did the people forget about the cameras?

That might be the greatest beauty of the film. You get so absorbed by the game and all the commotion at the stadium that you soon forget about them. We did try shooting with several people who have a lot of experience with filmmaking but the the result was far less raw and natural.

 

You did a lot of careful planning for every detail. Was there anything that surprised you in the end?

Tomáš: As far as the shoot itself, the biggest surprise for me was that the cameramen were very disciplined about sticking to the set composition without any sort of panning. The cameraman's ego never once resisted the urge to break the rules, which in itself is a miracle. And as far as the protagonists and the situations we filmed, that's a very long story...But in general I was surprised by the level and intensity of action - it naturally wasn't clear ahead of time that we would be able to capture so many intense, funny and at the same time meaningful situations.

 

You shot everything in a single day. How long did the planning take?

Almost two years. We started with really detailed research, visiting tens of games and meeting a lot of people. Over time we started test shooting with some of them and developed a clearer idea about the directing approach and the resulting film. Sometime in Autumn 2010 we finally decided we'd shoot the whole film during a single night and started intensive planning for that. It was quite a difficult logistic operation that really had no precedent in Czech documentary film. The period of intensive planning stretched to six months and we got a great help from our production manager Kristina Šedivá and assistant director David Jančar. We had to get an immense amount of equipment and train a great number of people so that they would be able to manage shooting in the noise of the stadium. For several months we made detailed manuals and plans, taking directors, cameramen and sound designers to the stadium and planning everything with the stadium employees who were an absolute delight to work with. It was a lot of hard work. Despite some difficulties (e.g., the date of the game kept getting rescheduled), the shoot itself was without any problems, we're really grateful that everybody did their job so well. The entire crew on the crucial day included almost 150 people so had there been some bombing at the stadium, the Czech film industry would've been in serious trouble...

 

You work with strong concepts in your films, always planning various scripts and drawing structures. Editor Šimon Špidla calls you pinboard freaks. On the other hand though, playfulness is at the heart of your films. You combine strong concept in stylized shots with observational approach and authentic situations. In this regard, you're almost extremists.

We probably are. Art isn't politics so hopefully, extremism isn't an offensive term in this context. But you're right - all of the 'structures' you mention come alive in the end. We always try to design them so that they come alive. We put two photos of Corbusier's Unité d´Habitation into the script - first the outdoor one where you can see the whole beautifully strict concrete wall, and then the indoor one set in a flat with children playing on the floor. This was supposed to be the visual metaphor of our film - while the structure is fairly stern and refined, the content is very unpredictable and full of life.

 

You're in the editing room now, trying to put the captured complexity into a linear time line. Have you run into any problems?

We struggle with a lot of various minor puzzles. It isn't always easy to keep the same film language and at the same time keep a narrative. Luckily, Šimon Špidla is our editor...

 

You were filming 22 people simultaneously. To develop 22 characters, that's quite a task, especially if you want to keep the chronology that's key in this film.

Pavel: Yes, in fact our material would would be much better suited for some spatial medium, an installation that would show the simultaneity of the material. Owing to its linear nature, the film resists this option and you must do everything in the editing room. In order to build the characters without breaking the flow of the football game, we used ellipsis. We'd show a protagonist in a, let's say, ten-minute real-time sequence and then made an elliptic jump forward. All of these jumps and time constrictions are acknowledged.

 

Back to the idea for an installation. You entertained the idea at one point but then you decided to stick to film only...

Pavel: We thought of simultaneous screenings of the different positions and protagonists in the stands. The viewer would move freely from one to the next, opening and playing each scene along the way. It would all be played at the same time within the space of one match. In between the situations, the viewer would move by himself, not through film editing. And if you came to see the installation repeatedly, you'd get several different films out of the single football match, based on your route through the stadium. The material allows all of this. The idea is still luring but we've realized that at least for now, with an already bulky film project, we can't think about any big and expensive installation. We would like to have at least a fragment of the idea on our website which we've been working on. The visitor would see the stadium and would be able to click on different places at the stadium, with scenes playing for each. We'll also use footage that is very strong but didn't make it into the film.

 

How strictly do you want to keep the time line? Will you aid the rhythm of the film by cuts that would connect some situations that actually happened at different times?

Keeping the time line is quite important because it lends the film a certain narrative rigour. It is important to maintain the sense of things happening here and now, that this is a live broadcast turned inside out, with the cameras pointed at the stands instead of the field. You should feel that the cameras were distributed all over the place in some way and that you gradually switch from one to the other. It is possible, though, that time might also hit a certain point when it would stop and become a loop, which also happened to us... But you can't really talk about something like this without seeing it...

 

Football is a marketing paradise. Do you avoid showing advertising in your footage? Or will you make any financial use of it?

We can't very well avoid advertising, it's everywhere at the stadium. And we don't want to avoid it - we're fond of the pop art aesthetic which fits in nicely with the narrative structure. As far as making deals with advertisers, we're not against it per se but we have one nonnegotiable condition - marketing requirements of potential sponsors would have no substantial influence on the final shape of the film. The fact is, we haven't signed any kind of deal yet and, although it may be hard to believe, the film doesn't contain type of product placement.

 

You still need funding to complete the film but as far as Czech documentary films go, you've already secured quite a high budget. Is it sustainable in the Czech context to make such expensive documentaries?

Tomáš: Hard to say. The current situation in the Czech Republic and in Europe certainly doesn't favour films like that. The outlook isn't much brighter either, things will likely get even worse. Europe is still teetering on the edge and so it all depends on whether it can pull itself back up. If not, projects with higher production costs will be out of the question. But we should remember that we're not talking about any huge budgets here but only a fraction of amounts often spent on commercials...

 

Can you imagine making your next film without a set concept? That is, the concept would require that no concepts are allowed...

Tomáš: I can imagine it but my faith in the benefits of rules is fairly strong so it probably won't happen. I like films with a clear structure and shape.


- - -

Sparta - Slavia

Director: Abrahám Pavel
Production company: Cinema Arsenal, i/o post

Czech Republic, 110 min, DCP, Creative

One evening, one stadium, one match. Two football clubs, two tribes engaged in a "war". As the match starts, the players run onto the bright green pitch and in the stands, fans seem to have a free reign over the whole arena. Each hotly contested matchup between the Prague-based rivals provides a unique setting that features people of various backgrounds. In all the noise, hollering and loud debates, each fan becomes absorbed in the match in their own special way. Against the backdrop of a big match, countless minor, yet equally interesting, struggles are about to unfold.