Wednesday 17 June 2015

Interview: Oscar-winning Jiri Menzel

Juri Menzel: Films are a way of speaking to the audience's heart

'The key to a good film is the human heart'

Legendary Czech film director, Jiri Menzel had some advice for this reporter, “spend more time in pubs.” He has a very good reason behind this request as he talked about European cinema and its future.
Menzel is a national treasure in his homeland, where his films, often with a gentle, sometimes sarcastic humour tweaked the noses of the former communist rulers. 
‘Closely Watched Trains’ gained him an Oscar in 1968, ‘Larks on a String’ depicting the re-education of ‘borgouise elements’ was made in 1969, but was not released until 1990.
‘My Sweet Little Village’ was praised by critic, Roger Ebert as Menzel uses “everyday life as an instrument for a subtle attack on bureaucracy and a cheerful assertion of human nature. This movie is joyful from beginning to end - a small treasure, but a real one.”
His latest feature, ‘The Don Juans’ is a comedy on a small town theatre’s production of Don Giovanni, whose director is “a likably sardonic, mockingly modest version of Menzel” according to Variety.
Speaking with New Europe the Oscar winning Czech was concerned about the state of the European film industry, “It is in very bad health because they are scared to make films for the people and they are leaving a gap that is filled with the Hollywood blockbusters. This is making culture more American and less European.”
As a movie director who is interested in people and their stories, he is dismayed by the stream of shoot-em-up films that are dominating the media market and cinema screens.  Although criticising such films is simple for a cinema craftsman like Menzel, he makes a keen observation, “People watch these films like they’re watching an aquarium.”
Noting the passivity and lack of emotional engagement, the Czech director continues, “These films it seems are made for 12 year old boys. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is: The thrill of all the skirmishes, the chases and the battles and murders. It’s the made for 12 year old boys.”
His verdict is damning, “It seems that the Hollywood film make us stop thinking, or want to think.” He warns that the situation is getting even worse.
He’s not too impressed with the internet either, “It’s very easy to watch films now. It’s very easy to watch a lot of crap!”
He continues, “It’s easy to make films compared to the past, but the cinemas are empty.”
Comparing watching an old classic, such as The Third Man, it seems that in 50 years time, people might not find, say, Mission Impossible 3 to be as enriching an experience, Menzel agrees and says he prefers old films.
So, what can be done to improve the cultural health of Europe’s cinema? “If I only knew, I would be so happy!” When it is suggested that asking people to watch a film by a director or from a country they don’t know, might help, he is realistic, “Well, we can ask, but the question is, will they listen to us!”
But as dejected as this may sound, there is a strong spirit in the director. 
“I have my programme, so to speak. I have to make things and have a sense of what is in the minds of the audience and I have to be responsible for what they feel,” he says.
“You need to know your profession, which is not just being an artist, but to know people and to speak to people.” He makes a simple suggestion, “Do you know people? Why don’t you just go to a pub and mingle with people and just watch them, listen to them. You will get to know how people are.”
And, once you know people you can tell them stories, you can engage with their spirit.
Menzel can seem like a disillusioned man, when his comments are taken only at face value, but he says that he is not a gloomy person, “I am a sceptic,” he says, “I don’t want to walk around with rose tinted glasses on.”
Of course not, he prefers reality and honesty… with a fair share of humour thrown in the mix.
That’s how you tell stories; that’s how you make films.

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