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Czech Animation Is Looking for a Common Ground with the Israeli Film Industry

Press releases 2019-02-04

Richard Němec, member of the Board of the Czech Film Fund, describes the emergence of a bilateral treaty with Israel, its potential for Czech cinematography and especially animation. He admits the situation of Czech animation is not ideal, but everything that can be done is being done to improve the conditions and to grant the local authors once again the position they used to enjoy in the past.

What stands in the way of establishing international cooperation?

There is no universal answer to this question. A necessary precondition for cooperation is the existence of an international treaty, because each country has its special rules for entering co-productions.

For example, the terms of the individual funds are connected to the country's minimum shares in funding and budget, the priority being, naturally, the promotion of the country’s own production. The problem therefore occurs when the conditions are mutually exclusive making it impossible to meet the individual criteria. For example, you can’t make 60% of a film in one country and 70% in the other at the same time.

Within the European Union we can co-produce on the basis of the Convention on Cinematographic Co-Production, which has been adopted to addresses these situations. In addition, the Czech Republic has bilateral agreements with several countries concluded in the 1960s, which synchronise conditions as well. With other countries, though, cooperation can be problematic to impossible. It should be added that we are talking about financing films from public funding. Private agreements and finances are nobody’s business.

And that’s why the agreements with Israel are so important.

Yes. The treaty was signed in November 2017 and ratified by the Israeli Parliament in the following summer. This is going to be a basis for possible co-productions.

The Israelis have experience with similar treaties - they are dependent on them as a non-member state of the Union. Currently, they have 23 such agreements. Such a treaty establishes specific conditions for co-producers, according to which both sides formally recognise the film as a national film on their territory, which practically makes the start of a cooperation between the two countries possible. Recognising a film as a national one is also important for production companies to be eligible for financial support from public funds.

Is it easier to reach an agreement in the private sphere, where state money is not in play?

Not necessarily - exactly because there are no clearly defined terms and conditions of cooperation. For example, Václav Marhoul has failed to find the finances for his film The Painted Bird despite a substantial and long-term effort to find a common ground with his Israeli partner. Without public support the financial risk increases for producers, who, of course, try to minimise the risks. This may show for instance in commercial requirements which may not be in line with the other party's artistic intent. Thus it is not that in the case of The Painted Bird one of the parties behaved "badly", but the interests of both sides simply couldn’t be matched.

There is an agreement between the Czech Republic and Israel now - what does it imply? What outcome are you actually aiming at?

At this moment, when the Czech and Israeli cinematography do not have a common history, I feel it is important for artists from both countries to meet, discuss and search for common themes. I’m trying to support this as much as I can. First of all, we organised a presentation of Israeli cinema and its funding opportunities with our Israeli partners at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival last year. There were also four producers presenting the projects on which they were working and for which they were looking for international partners. We prepared a co-production panel for the festival in Haifa, Israel, where we introduced our film industry, the system and funding possibilities. Reciprocally, four Czech producers presented their, mostly live action, projects. Martin Vandas was there to offer his film, which combines live action with animation. While in Haifa, I managed to secure a visit of a prominent Israeli documentary filmmaker Noemi Schora to the Ji.hlava International Documentary Festival, who presented Israeli production to Czech documentary filmmakers there. Finally, we also had a joint presentation and debate with Israeli animation film producer Amit Gilcelter at the ASAF Masters seminar on international co-production organised by the Association of Czech Animated Film (ASAF).

How do the Israelis see the Czech side?

Maybe surprisingly, as very inspiring, especially in terms of the public support for cinema. They see our system of support as an efficient one.

Why did you choose Israel to deal with?

I lived in Israel for a year - and then, six years ago, I realised how beneficial it would be to cooperate with a country that, just like the Czech Republic, is only establishing its position in the world of film. Another thing we have in common is that we are both small countries with limited capacity, our budgets and populations are similar too. Besides, Israel has traditionally had strong relations with the Czech Republic, since Czechoslovakia was the fourth country to recognise the Israeli independence and there are many other links to follow up on.

It's interesting to see that element of chance in it.  If you had lived in another country instead of Israel, another co-operation may be on the table now.

Many things are a matter of chance. But this could hardly be done if Israel was not a natural partner for the Czech Republic. A country in a comparable position, with comparable goals.

Is progress made specifically in animation?

At this point meetings with representatives of the relevant funds are being negotiated. We would like a representative of Israeli animation to come to the Třeboň festival again and present his/her work and relevant opportunities for animators.

So the co-operation has been on the level of introductory encounters so far?

Yes - but it is clear that it cannot go on like this forever and it will be necessary to move on. The situation is partly complicated by the relatively large complexity of the Israeli funds. While the local producers are familiar with it, it is very difficult for foreigners to come to grips with. But in order for the cooperation to happen, we need our producers to find the courage to enter the game. Therefore, mutual understanding is important, and without this prerequisite no productive cooperation can arise.

That’s where the Israeli respect for our clear and efficient support system comes from, and they would like to arrive at something similar one day. I’m going to have the opportunity to talk to the relevant people and give them some advice to simplify the process.

So are you sure it's worth the effort?

Yes, if for no other reason than that Israel is much more successful in building relationships with the world than we are. When I mentioned similarity, I meant the similarity of capacity, human resources, budgets, but not reputation. Israel has been able to gain access to institutions and people who would probably refuse to collaborate with us, such as the Germans and the French. Thus the cooperation can bring interesting projects and help find common ground with many others. Which is definitely worth a bit of effort.

Speaking specifically about animation, Israel's entered the technology development in a big way, which is what this sector is benefiting from. Israelis only make a few films a year, even fewer than the Czechs, but their prestige and international results are respectable. Many of them are featured at the A class festivals. As for the value for money, the Israelis are miles ahead of us.

Just a few days ago, I heard Václav Marhoul complain about how explicit French producers are in telling him that Czech filmmakers are not interesting for anyone, only bad films can be expected from the Czechs. Is the position of the animation any better maybe? If it was just thanks to the reputation of Švankmajer?

But Švankmajer, though still active, is already seen as the last one of the famous Czech school of animation. There is virtually no connection between him and our current animators. This is even more true of Trnka, whom we idealise as the culmination of traditional animation that the world should be responsive to. But that was a long time ago and there are only a couple of experts who really remember him. We cannot keep referring to half-a-century old memories of the good times when films were made in our country that were worth the world’s attention.

You are talking about Švankmajer - his great admirer Wes Anderson wanted to make his Isle of Dogs in the Czech Republic out of respect for him. In spite of all efforts, sufficient capacities and human resources were not put together. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough professionals with appropriate language skills to implement such a project. To be able to land such projects, there’s still a lot to do in the field of human resources.

That’s a huge shame - it might have been the "foot in the door" we need.

Probably.  And a lot of people invested a lot of energy to make it happen. But in the end, it turned out that even if the whole Czech animation scene musters all its strength, it can’t launch a project of this size. The need for dozens, perhaps hundreds of technically and artistically advanced personalities to be engaged in it could not be met. Producers of foreign live action films know that they can come to the Barrandov Studios or elsewhere and make their film there - Czechs have the knowhow and a good reputation for being able to meet, at a good price, what they are asked for as service providers. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to animation. Anderson made his film in the UK and we can bet he will not ask us again next time. The problem of the Czech animation is that looking from the outside, it is nearly non-existent.

In Třeboň I talked to Ben Adler, one of the Isle of Dogs producers, who was quite positive about Laika.

All respect to Aurel Klimt, we need people like him out of principle. But purely from the production point of view this is not a model on which to build stable international cooperation. His films are made for long years and in a specific way. Aurel is a solitaire, a prominent author we should respect. Yet Harvie and the Magic Museum by Martin Kotík might be a more representative example, it tried to become a standard full-length animation for the whole family - something that could be attractive for the producers. Still, he encountered a lot of problems.

And wasn’t the problem of Harvie in that there was doubt that it could be a good movie?

Let’s not discuss the artistic quality of the film now but solely its production nature - it is a product for a particular audience, with a guaranteed price and deadline. If it’s difficult to scrape the money together for such a commercially predictable project, how to get it for something artistically more ambitious? That’s what brings us back to Israel, which is still in the stage of establishing relations - at such a moment it is easier to communicate than when everything in the given space has already been defined and given. It is very complicated for our producers to directly enter co-production with the Belgians, the French, not to mention Scandinavia. We must look for collaboration where it makes sense.

I still don’t have an exactly clear idea of ​​what to expect.

It will depend on individual projects and producers. We hope to identify the strengths of both sides so that it becomes clear what projects can be implemented on the basis of the Czech-Israeli cooperation. To prevent a situation like the one with Anderson from occurring again where the demands of such a large project were beyond our capabilities.

For example, if we see fairy tales as a traditional and strong point of Czech animation, let’s build the cooperation on them. Let's present Harvie and The Oddsockeaters, which prove that we can make such movies, and let’s look for similar ones.

What about young animators from the Film and TV School (FAMU) of The Academy of Performing Arts? Do you expect them to get involved? I often hear there aren’t enough opportunities for them.

There are not – and precisely because there is no "industry" in our country, there is no international network of contacts, and we don’t have an international presence or identity. In addition, the Czech Republic has a problem with the fact that schools raise independent personalities, who have a rather vague and distorted idea of ​​how to get their bearings on the market - and this is all the more true for animators. An unnecessarily large number of animators graduate from Czech schools where they have been led to realisation of their personal, author projects for which there is neither funding nor space on the Czech market. And a real industry can’t be built upon their expectations – that can only be built on people who are capable of and willing to take up rank and file positions and fulfil the tasks they are given. Of course, it is necessary to communicate with schools and try to get them engaged. However, it is also important for students to understand what to expect.

The interview was conducted by Martin Svoboda.