‘The aesthetic side needs to be connected to the spiritual side’ – thus says the elderly Václav Chochola in Věra Chytilová’s documentary Flights and Falls, an attempt to document a slice of the boho Czech photographic scene from the fifties to the seventies. This 2-part film is rare on so many levels – in the way it attempts to locate the aesthetic source underpinning the work of these remarkable photographers; in its willingness to get technical (we see Zdeněk Tmej explaining at length the intricacies of photographic processes early in his career) and in its elucidation of what drove these artists to take breathtaking pictures in such a myriad of styles, from Pictorialism, to Photo-Realism to Surrealism.
What comes across in this packed documentary is the work ethic of these photographers; quite phenomenal given the stops and starts, the political blips and tragedies (incarceration in one instance) and the limited technology which plagued and slowed down their output. Indeed, it’s fascinating to see a film which not only contextualises the artistic process in the cultural scene of the time, but also examines the technical minutiae which both enabled and limited their work.
The fact that Chytilová knew and loved and worked with these people is all apparent here, especially in the second part of the documentary where she steps in front of the camera, spilling the secrets and lies of this close-knit bohemian community – the scandal and the gossip and the coups de maitre, among which of course were Chocholá’s portraits of Salvador Dali. Presumably the interviews had to be kept simple due to the age of the photographers: they were filmed in very few locations and Tmej’s interview for the most part was kept within the confines of his bedroom. As a result the documentary is claustrophobic at times, with an inexplicably heavy Hollywood soundtrack which jars with the Czech milieu. Yet it must have been difficult to edit this film; it could have been trimmed down here and there, but the project stands so proudly as a labour of love that even these flaws end up as virtues, given the premise of the piece – to preserve the names of the artists.
Chytilová uses reportage, rare film footage, still photographs and video in this documentary to great effect – it’s a fantastic resource for academics as well as fans but also a great testimony of her life under the mentorship of these great photographers. At one point, describing the momentous crossover in her life when she left her provincial beginnings and entered this artists’ commune, she reflects: ‘I no longer wanted to simply subsist, I now wanted to make and be engaged in something’. All the more poetic, considering her tremendous output as a filmmaker, that she shows such humility in acknowledging her mentors here. It makes Flights and Falls a great visual memorial to some unsung Czech photographers, who have left a lasting legacy not only in Czechoslovakia, but internationally too.
Flights and Falls (Vzlety a pády) was part of the Věra Chytilová festival at the BFI Southbank (1st-17th March 2015). The Festival was coorganised by the Czech Centre, London.