This June, in partnership with the Czech Centre London and the National Film Archive, Prague, we present works by one of the few women filmmakers in Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, Drahomíra Vihanová. A student at the legendary FAMU (Film and TV School of The Academy of Performing Arts) in Prague, Vihanová was banned from filmmaking by the Czech authorities after the release of her debut feature film A Squandered Sunday. Returning to filmmaking in the late 1970’s, she was only permitted to make documentaries.
Author Peter Hames reveals the struggle of the political filmmaker…
‘The names of two women are normally mentioned in connection with the Czech New Wave of the 1960s – director Věra Chytilová, arguably the most inventive of the many directors who made their debuts at the time, and the screenwriter and designer Ester Krumbachová, who worked with Chytilová on Daisies, and also with many other directors including Jan Němec (The Party and the Guests) and Jaromil Jireš (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders). A third name should be added – that of Drahomíra Vihanová, who would have been as well known as colleagues such as Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel had the times been different.
Her graduation film Fugue on the Black Keys (1964) won four international awards and, after working as an assistant director, she made her feature debut A Squandered Sunday (1969) in the year following the Soviet invasion of her country. The studio head, aware of the cultural repression that was to come, advised her to complete post production by the end of the year. She completed the film and it was immediately banned, receiving its public debut 19 years later at the 1988 Karlovy Vary festival, when a semi-official screening was organised under the auspices of Věra Chytilová and the International Women’s Group. The wider public had to wait a further year and the film could only be generally seen after the fall of the Communist government.
Both A Squandered Sunday and her subsequent feature The Fortress (1994) were filmed in black and white and have strong Kafkaesque overtones. Drawing on a story centred on experiences in the army, A Squandered Sunday focuses on the central character’s mental state. It opens with images of closed windows, a watch tower, and of a dog burrowing in a street. Banality, repetition, and emptiness characterise his existence in a “restricted area” that also provides a closed world of the absurd. It possessed all those so-called ‘negative’ qualities that the authorities set about eliminating from the sanitised cinema that was to prevail in the next 20 years.
Vihanová was unable to work for a further seven years – when she was given the chance to work in documentary – a career she had never considered. In the following years, she was to become one of Czechoslovakia’s most accomplished documentary directors, winning awards for such films as Metamorphosis of My Friend Eva (1991), Behind the Window (1989), and Questions for Two Women (1983).
She finally got her chance to make a second feature, The Fortress, after the fall of Communism. In taking the theme of an intellectual unable to work in his profession, she deliberately provided a reflection on the 20 years of ‘normalisation’ that had followed the suppression of the Prague Spring. The story of a man who arrives in a village to measure the water supply and his relationship with the authorities in the fortress provided deliberate echoes of Kafka.
Vihanová, who was originally a music graduate, pays particular attention to her soundtracks – adopting a symphonic approach to the use of sound. Both A Squandered Sunday and The Fortress touch on the universal themes of alienation, solitude, and dream. While not a commercial success, The Fortress attracted attention at Cannes and won the critics award at San Sebastian. She also edited a number of her films, including The Fortress, and subsequently taught editing at the Prague Film School. Her third feature film, The Pilgrimage of Students Petr and Jakub (2000), is a controversial account of the conflicts within Czech, Slovak and Roma culture.
A Squandered Sunday + ScreenTalk with Drahomíra Vihanová takes place in Cinema 2 on Thursday 2 June.
Drahomíra Vihanová Documentary Programme takes place in Cinema 2 on Monday 4 June.
Photos: Stills from A Squandered Sunday (1969), courtesy of Czech National Film Archive